Just off Route 239, overlooking the south arm of Sydney Harbour, you can pull off the road and enjoy and picnic and a hike in Petersfield Provincial Park. The park gets its name from the Petersfield estate, the grand home built by industrialist and historian J.S. McLennan in 1902. Though the estate no longer stands, its foundations serve as a reminder of the rich and storied history of the McLennan family of Petersfield.
J.S. McLennan (1853-1939), born in Montreal, first came to Cape Breton to manage the early coal and steel industries in the area. He, along with his wife Louise Ruggles Bradley from Chicago and their growing family that eventually included children Isabel, Hugh, Margaret, and Katharine (their eldest daughter, Frances died at a young age), lived at various places around the Island including Louisbourg and South Bar. As J.S. prepared to retire from industrial life, the McLennans purchased a large parcel of land at Amelia Point and began to plan for the estate that would eventually become known as Petersfield.
The estate was completed in 1901. Petersfield featured magnificent grounds and gardens, often the subject of Louise's paintings, as well as tennis courts, stables, a tower, a boathouse, and a caretaker's cottage. The home itself was of the Italianate style, and was designed to be "elegantly comfortable." It offered quiet spaces for J.S. to write and Louise to paint, as well plenty of space for entertaining. And they certainly did entertain: the McLennans were host to many tea parties, boat races, skating parties, and horse-drawn sleigh rides, and guests to the estate over the years included Prime Ministers, Governors-General, Lords and Ladies, and a long list of poets, artists, musicians, and writers. As a friend of the McLennans recalled, "Whenever anyone interesting came to the area, they went to Petersfield."
The various members of the McLennan family loom large in the social, cultural, and political history of Cape Breton. J.S., after settling at Petersfield, embarked on a lifelong journey uncovering the history of the Fortress of Louisbourg, and in 1918 he published the well-regarded book Louisbourg: From Its Foundation to Its Fall, 1713-1758. He was also the owner-published of the Sydney Post. Louise was an accomplished artist and one of the founding members of the Sydney Painters' Club. Isabel married John Wells Farley, a member of a wealthy Boston family, in a grand wedding at the Petersfield estate in 1911. Two years later, Margaret wed Dr. Ernest Kendall, who would go on to become Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia. The family was also no stranger to tragedy, however. Louise died suddenly of appendicitis in February 1912, at the age of 51. Hugh, the McLennans' only son, enlisted in the Canadian Field Artillery during the First World War and was killed at Ypres.
Katharine McLennan, the youngest daughter, worked closely and travelled frequently with her father, and in many respects followed in his footsteps. Despite J.S.'s misgivings, she served overseas as a nurse's aid in military hospitals during WWI, in part to honour the memory of her brother Hugh. When she returned from the war and settled at Petersfield, she continued to develop and nurture interests and causes that would occupy her throughout her lifetime. She helped J.S. with his Louisbourg research and served as a volunteer curator at the Louisbourg Museum for twenty years. She was also involved with the Cape Breton Regional Library Board, the Victorian Order of Nurses, and the Red Cross, and was an ardent supporter of many museums and cultural sites. She was eventually invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada and received an honorary doctorate from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. Katharine was an avid diarist, writer, photographer, and artist, and her papers, held at various archives and libraries, provide historians with an invaluable portrait of life in Cape Breton and beyond.
After J.S. died in 1939, Katharine was left to manage Petersfield on her own and often struggled to maintain it. During the Second World War, she learned that the federal government expropriated Petersfield for use as a naval base, and, unable to stop the government's plans, she was forced to abandon the estate. Katharine spent the rest of her life at 49 Whitney Avenue in Sydney. After the war, the Petersfield buildings were allowed to deteriorate to the point where they had to be destroyed. Reconstruction of the former site was debated for a number of years but the cost of such a project was too high. The beauty of the Petersfield site, however, is maintained in the provincial park.