I bet when you think of Canadian built heritage and industrial history, a castle is not the first thing to come to mind. However, Canada does have a number of “castles” that acted as stately homes. These castles, as with many nineteenth century stately homes built across Canada, were built by industrialists as a testament to their power and wealth during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. For many, when that power and wealth faded, the families were forced to sell these homes. Fortunately, many of these buildings have been saved and are now spectacular public institutions which have earned Canadian National Historic Site status. In the first part of our series on “Canadian Castles”, we’ll go out west to Victoria, British Columbia and feature the first of two castles built by the Dunsmuir family: Craigdarroch Castle.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Canada was experiencing a boom in technological advances as well as the discovery and exploitation of its natural resources. These advances and discoveries would make a number of lucky men across the land very wealthy and powerful individuals politically. In the United States, industrialists such as Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Astor, Carnegie, and Getty were also building their “bonanza castles” as a symbol of their new found wealth and power. These castles were the most elegant examples of high Victorian and Edwardian architecture available and their Canadian counterparts were not to be excluded in this era of personal castles. However, the story of these grand castles and stately homes is not just a story about the architectural style or furnishings that dwelled inside. It is also the story of the men who built them and their families that inhabited them. Some of these stories are tragic and controversial, while some stories were inspiring. The story of the Dunsmuirs of Vancouver Island would fall into the tragic and controversial.
Craigdarroch is a modified Scottish Gaelic term from the word “craigendarroch” meaning “hill of oaks”. The Castle, when it was completed in 1890, dominated the Victoria skyline as this archival photo suggests. Vancouver Island in the nineteenth century was teeming with majestic Garry Oak trees. Several acres of these trees had been cleared in order for Craigdarroch to be built and since the Castle sits on a hill overlooking downtown Victoria, this is possibly how the name was chosen. It took three years from 1887 to 1890 for Craigdarroch Castle to be built. Tragically, Robert Dunsmuir died in 1889 before Craigdarroch’s completion. His death would spark a decades long battle that pitted the Dunsmuir sons against their mother over control of the Dunsmuir empire. At the time Robert Dunsmuir died, he was the wealthiest man in British Columbia worth an estimated $20 million at that time. However, he had very humble beginnings.
Robert Dunsmuir was born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire Scotland in 1825. His family, for a number of generations, had been coal masters, meaning they rented the coal mines they worked from the aristocratic owners. From the time Dunsmuir could walk, he was helping out in the mines and was pretty much expected to follow the family tradition of becoming a coal master himself. In 1847, at the age of 22, he married his childhood sweetheart, 19 year old Joan Olive White, amid a flurry of scandal and shame. Eight days after the wedding, the Dunsmuir’s first child, Elizabeth, was born. Though the scandal was to affect them both, it was Joan who bore the brunt of the shame for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. She had been shunned, excluded by women in her social circle and refused friendship by other young mothers in the community for fear that her “un-Christian morals” would rub off onto their own children. Isolated and alone, Joan did her best to make a good home for her family, which would include the birth of another daughter, Agnes, in 1849. In 1850, a chance to start fresh somewhere else was presented to Robert Dunsmuir by his coal miner uncle, Boyd Gilmour.
The Hudson’s Bay Company had expanded into the coal mining business in British Columbia and was in desperate need for experienced miners. Recruiters from the HBC came to Kilmarnock seeking these miners. Boyd Gilmour signed up for a 3 year contract to work the mines in Fort Rupert, near present day Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. He was able to convince his nephew to also sign up. Dunsmuir is believed to have promised Joan that he would one day built her a grand castle if she agreed to relocate half a world away with him. Within a few short weeks, the young Dunsmuir family found themselves boarding a sailing ship for Vancouver Island.
The journey took six months from Scotland, round the tip of South America, then up to Vancouver Island. The ship had to stop in Fort Vancouver, Washington so that Joan could give birth to their third child, James. From there, they sailed to Fort Rupert. For 3 years Dunsmuir toiled in the mines with disappointing results. The HBC decided that Fort Rupert was not a profitable venture, so they decided to pack up and head to their mining operations in Nanaimo, where they had been yielding good results. By 1854, the 3 year contract was up and Boyd Gilmour decided to return to Scotland while the Dunsmuirs stayed. Dunsmuir proved himself to be an able and loyal worker so the HBC rewarded him with the right to work an abandoned mine plus conduct independent prospecting for new mine sites. When the HBC land lease ran out and the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company took over full mining operations in 1859, Dunsmuir secretly continued his prospecting for the next 10 years. In 1869, he discovered the Wellington coal seam, the richest seam ever found on Vancouver Island, and quickly set out to stake his claim as well as develop a business strategy for creating his own mining company. Dunsmuir sought financing for his venture from 3 Royal Navy officers: Lieutenant Wadham Diggle, Rear-Admiral Arthur Farquar and Captain Frederick Egerton and thus the Dunsmuir and Diggle Mining Company came into being with $32,000 of capital. By 1883, Dunsmuir had made enough in profits to buy out all his partners and formed the Dunsmuir and Sons Mining Company. Eldest son James ran the Departure Bay office in Nanaimo while youngest son Alexander controlled the San Francisco office. Dunsmuir’s next task was to buy up as many independent Island mining operations as possible to create a virtual monopoly on Vancouver Island coal. However, Dunsmuir’s biggest deal would come courtesy of Sir John A. Macdonald and catapult him into the stratosphere of financial wealth.
The building of the CPR was pushing west to the coast as promised by the Federal government for British Columbia’s entry into Confederation. In exchange for building a railway on Vancouver Island, the Canadian government would give Dunsmuir $750,000 cash and over 2 million acres of land, timber, coal, ore and shore rights to build coal shipping terminals. Dunsmuir, with this deal, was virtually in control of most of Vancouver Island’s coal operations from the Comox Valley to Victoria. The E&N Railway (Esquimalt and Nanaimo) was completed in 1886 when Sir John A. Macdonald drove the last golden spike at Shawnigan Lake, just south of Duncan.
Robert Dunsmuir was a shrewd and capable businessman and he was willing to do anything necessary to further his empire including expropriating First Nations lands and hiring Chinese labourers, who were willing to work for less than half of what European men earned. He also was vehemently opposed to the formation of workers unions. In 1877, a long and bitter strike over low wages saw Dunsmuir winning the battle. Ruthless and cold in his victory, the miners who returned to work for him were paid $2.50 less a day than before the strike had occurred as a lasting punishment for their actions. And this was quite a blow considering Dunsmuir already had one of the lowest rates of pay throughout the provincial mining industry. Dunsmuir was never quick to heed the warnings of provincial mining safety inspectors. A number of explosions happened in his Island mines over the years, including the 1888 explosion at the Number 5 Shaft in Wellington, just north of Nanaimo, which killed 68 men. He quite often attributed these accidents as a result of “worker error” and never shouldered any blame for faulty or old equipment.
By 1884, Dunsmuir had moved to Victoria to represent Nanaimo in the provincial Legislative Assembly. He was now rubbing shoulders daily with the province’s financial and political elite and was in a position to marry his youngest daughters off to well-bred, wealthy young men. He bought 28 acres of land in 1885 on the hill in Rockland overlooking Fort Street and began working with American architects and designers to build Joan her castle. At a cost of nearly $500,000, Craigdarroch Castle was to become one of the finest architectural achievements of its time throughout western Canada. Architecturally, there are differing opinions as to the style. Some have labelled the Castle “Scottish Baronial” with it turrets and towers while others have called it Richardson Romanesque. Dunsmuir spared no expense in building his dream home. Robert Dunsmuir was truly a Victorian upper class gentleman: he was paternalistic to his workers, he ruled his household, and money was no object if it kept him at the top of the social ladder. Unlike other industrialists, who were building their castles in Canada, Dunsmuir used very little in the way of Canadian materials. Exotic woods were imported from Brazil, Spain and Hawaii while furnishings were brought in from New York, England, and Italy. Craigdarroch has over 30 original stained glass windows and panels, making it one of the finest private home collections of stained glass in North America. The red slate roof was manufactured and shipped in from Vermont and dozens of paintings by nineteenth century American landscape artist, Frederick Schafer, adorned the many rooms. Even the Arkansas white oak panelling in the Main Hall was shipped from the United States to be assembled like a pre-fabricated package you would get today from Rona or Home Depot. In all, it took over 5 box car loads of fine materials to assemble the interior of Craigdarroch Castle. Just the shipping alone of those box cars to Victoria cost Dunsmuir a little over $32,000, an astronomical sum at the time.
Robert Dunsmuir died in 1889 before the Castle’s completion. In breaking with traditional Victorian values, he left his entire estate not to his two sons but to Joan. James was outraged and, along with his younger brother Alex, battled his mother for several years to negotiate regaining control of the mining operations. In the end, James and his mother didn’t speak for years and when Joan died in 1908, she left Craigdarroch and her share of the estate to her remaining unwed daughters and three orphaned grandchildren. To divide up the estate, the Castle and all its contents were sold through auctions and estate sales. Craigdarroch Castle ceased to be a family home and spent the next few decades bouncing from owner to owner until 1979 when the present day Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society painstakingly restored the Castle to the time when Joan and her daughters lived there. During the latter half of World War One, Craigdarroch was a military hospital. Then in 1921 it became Victoria College, who boasted artist Bill Reid, and popular historian Pierre Berton, as just two of its better known students.
Craigdarroch Castle is a testament to Canadian industrialist power and wealth in the nineteenth century. The Craigdarroch Castle Museum is open every day and if you happen to be in Victoria, it is a must-see attraction. You can take a personal tour or take the self guided tour through a portable audio devise offered in several different languages. If you can handle the over 80 steps up to the lookout tower, you will get an impressive view of Victoria, the provincial government’s Mansion House and the Straight of Juan de Fuca overlooking the coastal mountains toward Vancouver. Christmas is also a great time to visit as the Castle is decorated with many traditional Victorian Christmas decorations. Please visit the Craigdarroch Castle website for more information and of times of operation. It is a visit that will forever remain with you. My thanks to the Craigdarroch Castle Museum and the BC Provincial Archives for the information provided for this segment.
The next installment of “Canadian Castles” will feature Hatley Castle in Victoria BC, built by Robert Dunsmuir’s son James. Hatley Castle is now the home of Royal Roads University. If you thought Craigdarroch was grand, wait until you read about Hatley Castle! There is something to be said about father/son rivalry!