Sitting atop one of the highest look-out points in the city of Victoria, the strikingly beautiful Craigdarroch Castle is easy to spot from miles away. Its soaring cone topped tower, majestic roof line and beautiful natural rock walls make this Victorian mansion a gem in the world of architecture.
If you take the pedestrian route, be forewarned: it’s a fairly steep uphill climb. You can also drive or take public transportation. There’s a bus stop conveniently located nearby.
However you get there, this Canadian National Historic Site is a must-see in Victoria, British Columbia.
Exotic Wood and Stained Glass – A Home of Contrasts
Simply put, the architecture of the Castle is amazing. It’s a study in contrasts.
Built during the Victorian era, this enormous 20,000 square foot landmark was the Dunsmuir family’s personal residence. When it was completed, it was one of the finest architectural achievements of its day.
Although the exterior resembles a fortress made of light-colored brick, the storybook conical towers, expansive balconies, and stained glass windows give the Castle an almost whimsical effect.
One of the first things you notice about the interior is the massive amounts of wood inside the home! There’s beautiful, rich, dark wood — everywhere!
The spectacular wood staircase, the wood paneled walls, huge wood doors, wood window frames, arches, cornices, and pillars. Even the ceilings are dark wood.
True, the craftsmanship is phenomenal. It must have taken the best carpenters and wood finishers in the world to do such tremendous work, especially with so many corners and angles in each room.
However, if it weren’t for the more than 30 stained glass windows and panels throughout the home, the enormous Castle would be dark and dreary inside.
But instead of dark and dreary, the natural light streaming in the stained glass weaves a pastel rainbow of sunlight in every room. It’s a striking contrast of muted softness against exotic hardwood that is as appealing as it is charming.
Furnishings for the Craigdarroch came from New York, England, and Italy. Custom upholstery, hand-crafted pieces, and regal lighting are all tailored specifically for each room.
Dunsmuir spared no expense because he wanted to showcase his success through the grandeur of the Craigdarroch Castle.
The History of the Castle
What makes this castle so famous, you ask?
As with most castles and stately homes, the architectural design, the tapestries, furnishings, and artifacts are all very interesting. But, and this is more important, it’s also learning about the people who built them.
The original owners of the Craigdarroch Castle were Robert and Joan Dunsmuir. Theirs is a story of heartache and tragedy, and exceptional resourcefulness and achievement.
Mr. Dunsmuir died before the construction of the Castle was completed. When he died, he was a self-made millionaire many times over and the richest man in British Columbia. His estimated worth when he died was at least $15 million, which is, according to Wikipedia, about $395 million in todays’ dollars.
But it was his perseverance that sets Robert Dunsmuir apart from so many others. And it was his death that initiated the unraveling of the Dunsmuir empire.
Meet the Dunsmuirs
Robert Dunsmuir came from humble beginnings. He became an orphan when he was 7 years old because both of his parents, his grandmother, and two of his three sisters all died of a cholera epidemic in their Scottish community. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the sense of hopelessness that he must have felt when these family members all died within a few days of one another.
Robert’s grandfather took care of him for three years, but then the grandfather died. Although an uncle took him under his wings for a short time, Robert supported himself by working in the mines.
When he was 22 years old, he married Joan, his childhood sweetheart. Joan gave birth to their first daughter within a few days of the wedding, which started a scandal in their Scottish community. After three years of being isolated and being treated like outcasts, Robert and Joan decided to leave the only home they’d ever known.
They’d heard about a coal mining opportunity in a far – away place. They decided to sail to the much-undiscovered and under-manned coal mines of British Columbia, Canada.
They knew the journey would be exceedingly long and treacherous. Only a few people, except for the most desperate, would even attempt the perilous nature of sailing such a long distance to an unfamiliar destination.
But in less than two days’ time they’d packed up their few belongings. Robert, Joan, and their two young daughters were on their way.
The voyage took more almost seven months to sail across the Atlantic, around the most southern tip of South America, then all the way north to British Columbia. It was a grueling trip even for the strongest men, let alone for women and children.
To complicate matters, Joan was expecting their third child. The couple had to disembark from their ship when they reached Fort Vancouver, Washington because she was having labor pains. She gave birth after only a few days of their arrival at the Fort. After she delivered, the family once again boarded the ship and set off for Canada.
Their lives in Canada were difficult, at best.
Robert worked for different mining companies but with limited success. The mines didn’t produce large enough amounts of coal, or the search turned up nothing at all. When the company he worked for decided to return to Scotland, Robert stayed in British Columbia. He knew it would be too difficult for his wife and family. He also knew he had to find some way to find a mine on his own.
One day when Robert was fishing for his family’s dinner, his eyes were drawn to an area by the bank of the river. He had worked in the coal industry for long enough that he recognized that he was looking at a coal vein.
He staked a small claim and launched his own coal mining operation. Working by himself, he was able to mine only a small output. However, he kept working and was able to purchase more land and expand production. As his company expanded, investors took note. Two such investors became Robert’s partners. It was the financial assistance he needed to substantially increase production.
Robert bought out both investors and his company became the largest coal mining operation on Victoria Island.
As Robert’s mining company grew, so did his expertise and business sense. He knew he needed efficient ways of doing business. He eventually purchased railroads, stone quarries, shipping companies, and real estate holdings. His holdings were some of the largest in the country.
Robert Dunsmuir had become the richest man in British Columbia.
The Unraveling of an Empire
As with many family businesses, the Dunsmuir’s two sons were managing large companies in their father’s corporate empire. Discussions between Robert and his sons verbally guaranteed that the sons would maintain the companies and inherit the family estate after their father’s demise.
However, contrary to Robert’s handling of financial matters, he did not follow through as discussed. In addition, he went against traditional Victorian rules by not making his sons the official recipients of his estate.
Robert’s only beneficiary was his beloved wife, Joan.
One can only guess whether it was an oversight or an intentional omission. For whatever reason, Mr. Dunsmuir did not grant his sons ownership to any part of the estate.
The sons were more than a little annoyed. They were outraged. They battled with their mother for decades, even breaking off communication with her and their own siblings.
As the family struggle continued, the Dunsmuir empire began to fall apart.
After Joan died in 1908, the Castle and its exquisite furnishings were sold at auctions and estate sales. The proceeds from these sales were divided among her remaining unwed daughters and her orphaned grandchildren.
From Prestige to Multi-Purpose
After the mansion was no longer a private residence, it has continued to serve visitors as well as the local community.
It was used as a military hospital for wounded veterans and was once used to house the Victoria College. It was also home to the Victoria Conservatory of Music.
However, the City of Victoria has transferred ownership of the Castle to the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society.
This Museum Society has painstakingly restored the Castle back to the time when Joan and her daughters lived there.
When You Go
Don’t forget your camera, photos are allowed throughout the castle. If you have large bags or backpacks, be prepared to check them at the front counter.
Audio tours are available and for the kids enjoyment the castle offers the I-SPY guide to the castle treasures.
Address: 1050 Joan Crescent Victoria BC
Hours: Open daily 10:00am – 4:30pm, Extended hours from June 15th to Labor Day: 9:00am – 7:00pm
Admission: CA$13.75 for adults, discounted fares for seniors, students and children.
Your comments are always appreciated.
All photographs by Ron Elledge