By Danda Humphreys
The Nanaimo coal baron, Robert Dunsmuir, dreamt of a castle on a hill. Though he built it, he never got to live in it.
Craigdarroch Castle in 2008
There’s something magical about castles, even if their purpose seems a little obscure. Modern-day castles are really opulent homes, designed to defend nothing more dangerous than the reputation of the erstwhile “knights” who nestle within. Toronto has Casa Loma. California has Hearst Castle. Victoria has Craigdarroch.
Growing up in Ayrshire, Scotland, in a middle-class family, Robert Dunsmuir could not have imagined that he would one day live in such a place. But he was a hard worker, and ambitious. When opportunity knocked, in the fall of 1850, he opened the door and let it in.
Dunsmuir was a coal-mine manager in a small Scottish town when the London-based Hudson’s Bay Company offered him a job. With little ado, he packed his family and belongings aboard the Pekin and set sail for Vancouver’s Island. It was a smart move. Free to work for himself once his three-year contract expired, he was able to start his own coal-mining operation near Nanaimo in 1869.
With hard work, hundreds of labourers, and many willing investors, Dunsmuir’s empire steadily grew until it included coal mines, sawmills, railways, ironworks and property investments. By the mid-1880s, he was the wealthiest man in British Columbia, and ready to celebrate his success with a long-overdue move to the province’s capital.
Over the years, he had managed to acquire a total of 28 moss-and-wildflower-covered acres at the top of the Fort Street hill. He wanted to build a baronial mansion befitting his station in life, and looked for a designer who could turn his dreams into reality. Feeling little loyalty to local architects, Dunsmuir approached Warren Heywood Williams, an Oregon architect whose work he had admired.
Williams was no newcomer to Victoria, having already designed the imposing new Bank of British Columbia building (now The Bard and Banker pub) on Government Street. He had likely never seen a Scottish baronial home, but he did his best to draw what he thought one would look like. Dunsmuir was impressed. The structure promised to reflect his status in a most satisfying way. Incorporating a mix of architectural styles, it looked more like a fairy-tale castle than a real one, with its tall, narrow outline, steep-pitched roof and rounded entranceway, but its design was real enough, and Dunsmuir gave Williams permission to proceed.
Construction began in the fall of 1887. When Williams unexpectedly died a few months later, Arthur Smith, a colleague in his office, took over. Gradually Williams’s vision took shape. Solid sandstone walls rose skywards. The red slate roof and tall iron-braced chimneys could be seen from just about anywhere in the city. The tip of the round, high-pointed tower pierced the rarefied Rockland air.
Inside, an oak-panelled hall complete with massive fireplace and mounted stags’ heads drew the eye toward the wide staircase leading up to the fourth-floor ballroom. Frescoes graced the main-floor ceilings, mahogany gleamed in the library, and stained-glass windows added an elegant touch. There were sumptuous furnishings, ample space for Robert, his wife Joan and their three unmarried daughters, and no fewer than 17 fireplaces to help keep the family warm. Building costs—a secret closely guarded by the family—were estimated at somewhere between $100,000 and $500,000.
With three-storey, full-size family dwellings averaging only $25,000 at that time, Dunsmuir’s castle was over-the-top in every sense of the word. It was exactly what he wanted. Unfortunately he did not live to enjoy it. Taking to his bed in April 1889 with what seemed like a simple chill, Dunsmuir baffled his physicians by lapsing into a coma and dying in less than a week. He was 63 years old.
Joan Dunsmuir lived at Craigdarroch until her own death, in 1908. Robert’s money had not brought her happiness. She was estranged from her only surviving son James, even while he lived—as the Queen’s representative in British Columbia—at the foot of her garden, in Government House.
None of the Dunsmuir children wanted Craigdarroch. Eventually the property was sold and subdivided. Since then it has served, in turn, as a World War I soldiers’ convalescent home, Victoria College, Victoria School Board headquarters, and the Victoria Conservatory of Music.
In 1959, the castle was threatened with demolition. It was saved by a group of concerned citizens and preserved as an historic landmark. Today, it’s a firm favourite with locals and visitors alike, a lasting legacy to the coal baron who built a castle atop the Fort Street Hill.
Being a good Scotsman, Robert Dunsmuir would have favoured Hogmanay (New Year’s) over Christmas. For the rest of us, his home is a magical place to enjoy the holidays. Call 250-592-5323 or go to www.craigdarrochcastle.com for news of Craigdarroch’s Christmas events.
Danda Humphreys has written several books about the early history of the Victoria area. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the December 2008 edition of Focus Magazine.