High atop a rocky hill in the Rockland neighbourhood, Craigdarroch Castle is one of Victoria’s landmarks since its construction began in the late 1880s.
Emblematic of the nouveau riche mansions across North America at the time, no expense was spared in its completion — one reliable estimate of the castle’s final cost was almost $500,000, an astronomical
sum for the time.
Despite its fairy-tale overtones, however, Craigdarroch Castle has witnessed more than its share of setbacks. In fact, it’s a miracle it was built at all, let alone that it has survived for almost 125 years to become British Columbia’s most successful heritage house museum.
The story begins with Robert and Joan Dunsmuir, who arrived on Vancouver Island in 1850 from their native Scotland.
Initially, Robert was employed in the coal mining operations of the Hudson’s Bay Company, but he soon had the good fortune to discover a seam of coal near Nanaimo, and quickly started his own mining company, eventually becoming the richest man in the province. He designed the castle to show his new status to the world.
One of the castle’s first setbacks came with the sudden death of Warren Williams, the project architect. His less experienced assistant took over, which may explain some of the Craigdarroch’s odd features, such as a doorway leading from the dining room to nowhere. Then, just before the castle was finished, Dunsmuir himself died unexpectedly (though a fortune teller had predicted his death not long before). As a grieving widow, Joan Dunsmuir went on an extended holiday in Europe with two of her daughters, leaving completion of the castle in the hands of her two sons, who were less than enthusiastic about the project.
One of the castle’s first setbacks came with the sudden death of Warren Williams, the project
architect. His less experienced assistant took over, which may explain some of the Craigdarroch’s odd features, such as a doorway leading room to nowhere.
Joan moved in upon her return,but local rumour held that she was never happy there. Her declining years were marred by the death of her youngest son, Alexander, then by a legal dispute with her eldest son, James, over the terms of Alexander’s will.
At the time, James was Premier of British Columbia, a coincidence that pleased the province’s scandal-mongers. When Joan died in 1908, she and James had not spoken to each other for years.
The castle proved to be a white elephant to Joan’s daughters, who inherited it. They entered into a scheme with a land promoter to allow him to subdivide the twenty-eight acre estate into 144 lots and to sell them.
Each purchaser was given the chance to win the castle in a draw. But the winner, Solomon Cameron, was dogged by bad luck and lost the property in 1919 to the Bank of Montreal in a foreclosure. By then, the castle was beginning to look shabby, and the surrounding subdivision was still largely empty and wild-looking.
The building served briefly as a convalescent hospital after World War I, then as a campus for Victoria College from 1921 to 1946. During this interval, the VictoriaSchool Board had acquired it from the bank, so when the college moved out, school board staff moved in. Interior details such as frescoed ceilings were painted over, preparing the site for its new institutional use.
Then James K. Nesbitt came to the rescue. Newspaper reporter and descendant of a pioneer family, he saw the value in preserving Craigdarroch as a showplace. In 1959, he founded the Craigdarroch Castle Preservation Society and gradually mounted a campaign to save the landmark. When the school board
moved out in 1968, the City of Victoria leased the building to the Victoria School of Music. In the meantime, Nesbitt brought in some antiques and set up a few exhibit rooms and began to collect donations from visitors. It was an uneasy arrangement, but eventually Nesbitt won and the musicians departed in 1979.
The Castle Preservation Society now owns the building, and under the careful curatorship of Bruce Davies, has gradually restored the place room by room. Once a derelict embarrassment, the castle is now a national historic site and one of the most successful heritage museums in western Canada. Its survival is an amazing example of the resilience achieved by a small group of dedicated visionaries and hard-working staff and volunteers.
See Craigdarroch: The Story of Dunsmuir Castle by Terry Reksten for a more complete account of the castle’s story.
Words by John Adams
Every year, thousands of Victoria residents enjoy a historical walking tour with John Adams and the other guides of Discover the Past Tours. John, founder and owner of the company, will be leading a tour through the Rockland neighbourhood and past Craigdarroch Castle from June 1 to September 4, every Tuesday and Friday. This is one of the eight history tours presented by Discover the Past during the summer of 2015. For details, go to discoverthepast.com or call 250-384-6698.
Originally published in analogue magazine’s April/May 2015 issue