The creation of Victoria’s castles
Craigdarroch and Hatley Park both trace their origins to the Dunsmuir family’s coal-mining dynasty
G reater Victoria’s two famous castles came to be because of the grand ideas of members of the Dunsmuir family.
Craigdarroch, known in the early days as Dunsmuir’s Castle, has become a museum, thanks largely to the efforts of journalist James K. Nesbitt.
Hatley Park, a baronial castle with a fairytale setting of ocean, forest and gardens, is now the centrepiece of Royal Roads University.
Two generations of Dunsmuirs, Robert and James, built an empire, the like of which may never be seen again. Their grandiose schemes led them to build the only real castles this province has seen.
Craigdarroch, Robert’s castle, is the subject for a storybook romance. More than a century and a half ago, he promised his sweetheart Joan that if she would move to Vancouver Island with him, he would build her a castle.
Joan and Robert were married and left Scotland on Dec. 10, 1850, aboard the sailing ship Pekin for the six-month voyage around Cape Horn to Victoria.
When nearing Victoria, the Pekin put into the Columbia River and ran aground, whereupon Joan Dunsmuir was delivered of her first-born child, James, on July 8, 1851.
Robert, Joan and James went to Fort Rupert on northern Vancouver Island, where the first deposit of coal had been discovered. After working there for some time they moved to Nanaimo, where more coal had been uncovered.
Robert did some prospecting on his own and in 1869 discovered a fabulous seam of coal at Wellington, a former mining community near Nanaimo. It was to be the foundation of his immense fortune. He opened mines in Nanaimo and Comox and set up a large coal-selling agency. His second son, Alexander, was installed in the company’s branch office in San Francisco. A tremendous trade in coal developed with the Golden Gate, and a fleet of colliers kept busy hauling the fuel south.
Robert then was selected to build the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, which was to be the Dominion government’s sop to Vancouver Island for the failure to establish the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway on the Island.
When Robert completed the E&N he was the toast of the Island. However, he was not always popular and ran afoul of public opinion because of his firm labour relations at the mines. His life was threatened many times.
Still, in 1882 Nanaimo elected him to the B.C. legislature. It took two days to make the trip from Nanaimo by boat so he decided to move his family to Victoria. He erected a large home at the corner of Quebec and Menzies streets, opposite the “Birdcages” where he served as a member of the legislature.
By this time Joan and Robert had two sons and 10 daughters. Joan often questioned him about the castle he had promised to build for her.
In the late 1880s he bought 20 acres on Fort Street running back to Rockland Avenue. He engaged an eminent architect in San Francisco to draw plans for the castle. Money was no object, because Robert had many millions of dollars by this time.
Workmen completed a stone wall around the entire 20 acres and heavy iron gates were installed at the entrance.
Stone was brought from Scotland for the castle, plumbing fixtures from Great Britain and delicate leaded glass from Italy; the world was combed for the best of hardwoods.
By 1889 the tile roof was on and the stately oak staircase, which had been built in Chicago, was in place. The numerous chimneys that served the 35 fireplaces were braced against the roof. On the fourth floor was the huge ballroom. The billiard room was on the third. The living room, 63 feet long, looked out over a large verandah, the roof of which was supported by marble columns. The dining room was 21 by 33 feet.
The beautiful library carried the quote from Bacon’s Essays, “Reading maketh a full man,” over the beautiful fireplace.
No one knows how much money Robert poured into his castle for Joan, but it is reported to have been $500,000, which was a good fortune in that day.
On April 13, 1889, Robert died from pneumonia, with the castle still not completed.
One year later, Joan and her daughters took up residence in the castle. It was to be the scene of much entertainment, and the marriages of the Dunsmuir girls were highlights.
Joan, however, was to suffer much sadness. She was at odds with her son, James, suspecting him of unfair dealings when her other son, Alex, died in San Francisco, in 1900.
Joan joined forces with other parties and for five years the legal battle was waged in courts in both Canada and the United States. The case was finally dismissed.
In 1906, James and his mother were still at odds with each other. James, after having served as premier and having owned the Daily Colonist for several years, was appointed lieutenant-governor of B.C. He moved into Government House, which was across Rockland Avenue from his mother’s home.
Joan died at the age of 80 and the castle remained empty until the land boom in 1910, when the acreage was subdivided and each purchaser of a lot got a ticket on a raffle for the castle. It was won by Solomon Cameron, a contractor. In 1921 he settled with the Bank of Montreal for an account of $90,000 with the castle as payment. It later passed into the hands of the city, and has never since been owned by an individual.
The other castle, Hatley Park, was built by James Dunsmuir after he left Government House. He had previously had a large home in
as Victoria Burleith.
On the death of his brother, James became the greatest individual land owner in Canada and one of its richest men. He devoted himself to the development of the collieries. The presidency of the E&N Railway was an inherited obligation and one for which he had no taste. He developed the Comox mines, laid out the townsite of Ladysmith, and initiated a Ladysmith-Vancouver ferry service.
He sold the E&N Railway to Canadian Pacific, retaining the coal rights.
It was during these years that he bought the Hatley Park estate. The original Hatley Park mansion had stood on the site that is now the parade ground. This house had burned to the ground while its owner was in England.
James turned his attention to the building and planning of the new estate, to which he intended to retire.
He commissioned Samuel Maclure, the famed Victoria architect, to design the castle. Landscape artists from Boston, Mass., were hired to plan the gardens and surroundings.
Its impressive exterior was matched only by the lavishness of its interior appointments — its oak and rosewood panelled rooms, baronial fireplaces, teak floors and specially made lighting fixtures.
James is quoted as saying: “Money doesn’t matter — just build what I want.”
The building is 200 feet long and 86 feet wide, the turret is 82 feet high. The wall surrounding the estate, built of local stone, cost over $75,000. The conservatory, which cost about the same, was at one time filled with white orchids imported from India. A large banana tree grew in the centre under the dome.
The rooms of the house were filled with flowers from the conservatory throughout the year.
Six miles of road interlaced the estate. One hundred men were employed in the gardens. There were a number of other buildings to service the needs of the household, including the vast refrigeration plant, the cow stables, the slaughterhouse and smokehouse, the three silos — each capable of holding 100 tons — the reserve water tank, the stable near the bridge to the east of the present playing fields, to say nothing of the miniature Chinatown to accommodate up to 120 working men. The model dairy and the stables were of solid brick and concrete construction.
The castle was complete in 1908 and the Dunsmuir family took up residence in that year.
Early in 1910 James sold his collieries, his coal rights in the E&N belt and all his business connections for $11 million, thus separating himself from all former business with which the name of Dunsmuir had been associated.
He then retired to enjoy his beautiful home, his yacht Dolaura, his shooting, fishing and golf. He died in May 1930, at the age of 69. His wife, formerly Laura Surles of Georgia, lived on in Hatley with her daughter Eleanor until she died in August 1937. Her daughter died six months later.
For the next three years the estate was left in the hands of a caretaker, and in November 1940, was purchased by the dominion government for $75,000. There was some talk of the castle being used by members of the English royal family, but soon it was decided to make it a naval training establishment.
More than a half-century later, the military left the castle, and a university was born.