Treason, hidden tunnels, and a lost fortune, the life of Nelson Gilbert “Iron” Reynolds is just as fascinating as the grand estate he built in the middle of Whitby. Here’s what happened….
The son of British immigrants, Nelson G. Reynolds was born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1814. He attended the prestigious Upper Canada College in Toronto, before joining the army at the tender age of 15. He served four years in the army before he was elected to parliament, but was too young to take his seat.
Successful business ventures followed that saw Reynolds as president of the Marmora Foundry and a steamboat company. His interests were spread wide, and included banking, the mercantile business, railroads, and, as local legend recalls, less genteel enterprises. In 1834 he married Hannah M. Eyre, with whom he had 12 children before her death in 1850.
During the Rebellion of 1837-8, Reynolds was accused of conspiracy and treason, but was acquitted after speaking in his own defense at his trial. Reynolds then turned his hand to municipal government and held nearly every municipal office in Belleville and Hastings County. In March of 1852, Reynolds married his second wife, Frances Eliza Armstrong. Two years later, Reynolds became Sheriff of Ontario County at Whitby, a position he would hold until 1881.
Now a wealthy man in a position of power, Reynolds wanted a home that reflected his status and net worth. So, in 1859, construction began on Reynold’s massive new home in Whitby. Dubbed “Trafalgar Castle” in honour of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson and his leadership in the Battle of Trafalgar, the estate was the largest private residence in North America at the time, with plenty of room for the 12 additional children born to Reynolds and his new wife. Three years and $70,000 later, the sprawling, Elizabethan-style home was ready for occupancy.
However, the family would only live in their grand castle for a little more than a decade. While Reynolds was a shrewd and charming businessman, he was also a gambler, and in 1874 his finances were so dire he sold his estate to the Methodist Church of Canada for a mere $35,000. The Methodist Church quickly established Trafalgar Castle as the Ontario Ladies’ College, which was renamed Trafalgar Castle School in the 1970s.
After spending his last years ill and housebound at 301 Byron Street South in Whitby – which, like Trafalgar Castle, still stands today – Reynolds died in 1881, and is buried in St. John’s Anglican Cemetery. His wife Frances eventually left Whitby to live in Montreal with one of her sons, and died in 1921.
But while “Iron Reynolds” – as he was dubbed due to his athletic stamina as well as his financial and political success – may not have lived out his days in the splendour of his castle, many of the original details remain unchanged. A massive carved oak staircase is the showcase in the main hall, prominent stained glass windows that include the coats of arms of England, Scotland, Canada, and those of Reynolds and his second wife Frances, continue to glow in the sunshine.
And then there’s the really interesting legacy: a secret, wine cellar-sized room discovered after a miniature door was found behind a classroom wall. According to local lore, Sheriff Reynolds’ side-hustle was alcohol smuggling through tunnels running from the castle to local streams headed for Lake Ontario, and parts of the tunnel were used when the Town of Whitby was laying modern pipes and sewer infrastructure. Today, the secret passageway from the castle has disappeared, along with the tunnels that would ferry the Sheriff’s contraband booze from the darkness of Lake Ontario’s shores to his grand home. Or have they?