Thursday, February 29, 2024

Throwback Thursday - Craigdorroch Castle

September 2017 - Victoria BC

While in Victoria we decided to walk to Craigdorroch Castle, don't let anyone tell you that it is a lovely walk from downtown, it is uphill and a long walk.

Craigdarroch Castle is a definitively Victorian experience. It is a shining example of a “bonanza castle” — massive houses built for entrepreneurs who became wealthy during the industrial age. In this case, the industrialist was Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish immigrant who made his fortune from Vancouver Island coal.

This legendary Victorian mansion, built between 1887 and 1890 on a hill overlooking the City of Victoria, announced to the world that Robert Dunsmuir was the richest and most important man in Western Canada.

Robert and Joan had two sons and eight daughters plus one child who died in infancy. As the Dunsmuir fortune grew, the family eventually moved from Nanaimo to Victoria and took up residence in 1885 in a house named Fairview situated near the Legislative Buildings. Robert at this point had been elected and was serving as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Nanaimo.

Thirty two of the forty-seven original art glass windows are still in place. The studio responsible for them remains a mystery. An 1890 newspaper account states that the order for interior woodwork from A.H. Andrews & Co. of Chicago included “windows.”

Sometime after Joan Dunsmuir’s death, several art windows disappeared from the Castle. The largest of these windows were removed from the dining room, the sitting room, as well as a bathroom. The Castle Society plans to install reproductions of all the missing stained and art glass windows at Craigdarroch, which will involve careful study of historic photographs.

James, the elder son, took charge of the mining operations in Nanaimo, and Alexander, the younger son, lived in San Francisco and managed the sales and shipping office. Dunsmuir coal now moved to market on Dunsmuir rail and in Dunsmuir ships and the business empire also included: collieries; an iron works; a saw mill; a quarry (the source of the sandstone for the exterior of Craigdarroch); a dyking company; a theatre; and extensive real estate.

In 1887, two years after the last spike had been driven on the E&N railway, and five years after he started accumulating 28 acres of property, Robert Dunsmuir gave the orders to start building Craigdarroch. There were still three Dunsmuir daughters who were not married and the mansion would be the perfect venue to launch them into married life.

Unfortunately, he died in April 1889 before the house was completed. After Robert’s death, Joan spent some time travelling in Europe. Her sons oversaw the completion of the construction while she was in Europe and Joan, with her three unmarried daughters and two orphaned grandchildren, took up residence in 1890.

Robert’s death brought strife to the family. Contrary to oral promises made to his sons, he left his entire Estate and business holdings to his wife, Joan. This was a blow to both James and Alex (then in their thirties) who had worked in the family business all their lives. It took seven years of negotiations with Joan before she would give her sons title to the San Francisco company. It took another three years before she agreed to their terms to purchase the Wellington Colliery. With this settlement, Alex Dunsmuir felt secure enough in his financial future to marry Josephine, a divorced woman that he had been living with as man and wife for close to twenty years. Their married life only lasted six weeks; Alex passed away on January 31, 1900 while they were in New York on their honeymoon.

After the death of Alex, a costly quarrel over his Will again divided the family, setting Joan and her daughters against James. This quarrel triggered a lawsuit that went all the way to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London (in those days equivalent to the Supreme Court of Canada). James, who was Premier of British Columbia at the time the action was announced, was very much in the public eye. A story in the New York Times announced: “Premier sued by his Mother”. As a result of the legal action, Joan and James did not speak for years. When she died in 1908 having lived in Craigdarroch for 18 years, the local newspaper reported that James (then serving as Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia) was not expected to attend her funeral. At the last minute he changed his mind and did attend. During the service, he broke down and wept.


  1. It is a beautiful place, with quite a rich history!

  2. In many ways, a sad story. Money doesn’t always equate to happiness.

  3. Thanks for the tour of this very very Victorian “castle.” Those industrialists really knew what they wanted.

    On a comment elsewhere, you noted that Mexican coca-cola tastes different — I assume you realize that it IS different!! In the US and Canada, the sweetener in Coke is High Fructose Corn Syrup. This substance is banned in Mexico, where the formula uses actual sugar, which is not the same despite the manufacturers trying to make us think so. Mexican Coke is imported to the US — for example, at a barbecue restaurant where I ate lunch yesterday, they sell bottles of it. In fact, GLASS bottles. It’s so retro! (Full disclosure: I drink Diet Coke. Judge me if you like.)

    best, mae at

  4. No judgement here! Yes, I know it is different, and think I'd rather drink real sugar as opposed to sweeteners. I don't drink much soda at all. And I love the glass bottles, so much better than cans.


This blog does not allow anonymous comments.