Perched on a birch clad hill overlooking the Exploits River stands a structure that has been described as a “magnificently appointed Tudor mansion.” This is the Grand Falls house soon to be one of the few remaining vestiges of Lord Northcliffes development at Grand Falls and its future remains in question. Once upon a time there were two unique houses on that hill: the Grand Falls House and the “Log House.”
In 1906 preliminary construction was ongoing at the Grand Falls town and mill site. Houses and other buildings were being built and the site of the paper mill was being cleared out. Amidst all of this activity Lord Northcliffe was planning to visit the site of his new investment that June.
Now, Lord Northcliffe was an English Lord and one of the richest men in the world. It was safe to say that the likelihood of him bunking it down in one of the tar paper shacks or boarding houses was pretty slim. He had the money and he had the resources, so he decided that he needed a log mansion to stay in while he visited his latest project.
Mayson Beeton, Northcliffes right hand man at Grand Falls was tasked with finding somebody that could build a large log mansion. That he found in the town of New Harbour, Trinity Bay in the person of Mr. Tom Brown. It turned out that Brown had built a large log hotel at Spruce Brook on the West Coast for the Reid Newfoundland Company a few years before.[i]
It was the spring of 1906. Northcliffe was going to visit Grand Falls and he needed his log mansion done fast. No expensive was going to be spared in getting the log hose done. Brown engaged between two and three hundred men to work on the log house. They were able to complete the structure in two months.[ii]
To put things into perspective, there were usually between 800 and 1000 men working on construction of the MILL while it was being built.
Most every part of the log house was built locally on site including: doors, windows, railings and stairs. I have seen a couple of interior photos of the Log House and it appears that un-cut logs were used inside of the structure. This was in keeping with the rustic intention of the structure and necessitated by the fact that a sawmill had not yet come into operation at the site. It has also been said that Beeton and Harmsworth wanted to highlight the ingenuity of the Newfoundlanders.
In June of 1906 Lord Northcliffe arrived at Grand Falls. By most accounts he was quite impressed with the Log Cabin. It appears that he was quite content with Grand Falls with his main complaint being the swarms of blackflies. The main living room sported on the walls prints, including prints and caricatures that had appeared in various publications in England. The room also sported the head of a Caribou and an old Newfoundland musket.
As the mill was nearing completion and a permanent settlement grew around it Northcliffe decided that he needed a more permanent and more English house for himself and visiting dignitaries. Once again Beeton turned to Tom Brown, who had become established as the town carpenter and “architect” by the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company. The Grand Falls house as it would be known was commissioned to be completed in time for the opening of the mill in October of 1909. It was designed on the lines of Tutor style English Manor House. The actual architect who designed the mansion was British Architect Robert Douglas Wells. (http://dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/341)
The stories of how the Grand Falls house and the Log house were built are either very similar or mixed up, since it was reported that Tom Brown employed 2-300 men and built the Grand Falls house in about 9 weeks.[iii]
When it was finished there must have been a ship load of fittings brought over for the interior including antique furniture and carpets. It was said that there was an oriental carpet in the Grand Falls house that was worth $80,000!
After all the money that was spent legend and various sources say that Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe did not spend a night in the Grand Falls House. He and his wife were estranged and keeping up appeances, probably on account of the Lord having a mistress. She stayed in the Grand Falls house while Lord Northcliffe slept in the Log House. Both took their meals in the Grand Falls house. This may or not be true.[iv]
Northcliffe visited Grand Falls a number of times. 1906 after the log house was built to inspect the site and check on the progress. In 1908 where there is photographic evidence of him standing next to the dam which was under construction, 1909 when he presided over the opening of the mill, 1910 he returned to celebrate the first anniversary of the mill opening. The last trip I can identify was in 1913. After that the war and ill health prevented any further trips to the paper town in the wilderness.
But Northcliffe was not the only person of note to stay at the Grand Falls House. In July of 1914 the Duke of Connaught-Son of Queen Victoria and Uncle of the King at the time-who was visiting Newfoundland, stayed there. Other members of the Harmsworth family stayed there over the years, Lord Baden Powell stayed there in 1940. Joey Smallwood stayed there dozens of times (I bet if somebody asked him he would have rhymed them off). They would be joined by other premiers and prime ministers. One of the strangest visitors was the leader[v] of the Soviet Union.
In 1967 Alexai Kosygin visited Newfoundland. If memory serves me correct it was due to his plane having to refuel in Gander after he had addressed the UN in New York. Kosygin had a couple of choices of that to see in Newfoundland and like a good proletarian communist he naturally wanted to see Newfoundland’s centerpiece of industry-the pulp and paper complex at Grand Falls.
For a period of time the Grand Falls House served as a residence for the general managers of the mill. The last of whom was Phillip Gruchy. The longest resident of the Grand Falls House was Sir Vincent Jones and his wife Lady Jones. The Jones raised a family at the Grand Falls House. During Sir Vincent’s tenure he had tennis courts installed on the grounds. Shortly after Gruchy took over in the late 1940’s a separate mill manager’s residence was commissioned and built near the Grand Falls House.
The space for the mill manager’s house was made available because of the demolition of the log cabin. Unfortunately the log cabin began to deteriorate in the 1930’s, perhaps due to rot and insects that have a tendency to attack log structures. It was demolished in the 1930’s the date that comes up most often is 1938. This was very unfortunate because it was such a unique structure.
Hopefully with the release of a recent report on the building and grounds a plan for the future can be determined and the Grand Falls House and grounds preserved for future generations.
Note: Around the time of the Grand Falls-Windsor Centennial there were plans in place to recreate the Log House as as a heritage center and land had been donated by Abitibi.
[i] Initial research has suggested that the Spruce Brook Hotel was not built until 1913 thus negating this. It was later found that the Log Cabin Hotel in Spruce Brook had been built as far back as 1900.
[ii] George Hicks
[iii] John Brown-Hiram Silk Collection.
[v] Kosygin was very high up in the leadership of the USSR sharing responsibility with Leonid Brezhnev for a number of years.