Craigdarroch Castle stands as symbol of coal baron?s success

Robert Dunsmuir was not the king of the castle. Instead, he was almost king of the castle, or king of the almost-completed castle.

Best known for making a fortune from mining coal on Vancouver Island, Dunsmuir used his wealth to construct his dream home in Victoria. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see Craigdarroch Castle completed.

Dunsmuir, who was born in Scotland in 1825, developed his affinity for coal quite naturally. As the son of a coal master, he found himself working in the mines at a young age.

At the urging of his uncle, Dunsmuir and his family headed overseas to work at the Hudson Bay Company?s coal mine near Fort Rupert, B.C. in 1851. When operations were transferred to Nanaimo a few years later, Dunsmuir and his family followed.

Earning the respect and loyalty of Hudson?s Bay Company management, Dunsmuir eventually earned a licence to prospect and mine coal independently in one of the company?s abandoned shafts. As his experience and reputation grew, his services were in demand with other companies in the area.

In 1869 Dunsmuir discovered a rich seam of coal near Nanaimo ? the Wellington seam. It was reportedly the thickest and richest coal seam discovered on Vancouver Island, and he took immediate steps to develop it. Within 10 years its output exceeded that of its largest competitor.

Continuing to expand his coal business, Dunsmuir diversified his holdings into many other areas on Vancouver Island.

Reluctantly, he also got into the railway business. At the urging of businessmen and politicians, he submitted a proposal to build a rail line between Victoria and Nanaimo, which was accepted. Shrewd bargaining on Dunsmuir?s behalf led to an agreement to build the railway for $750,000 plus two million acres of land ? one-fifth of Vancouver Island. He was also briefly involved in provincial politics in the 1880s.

Despite his success, Dunsmuir?s legacy was not without its controversy. In addition to his contributions as a builder, research over the years has attributed some of his success to the exploitation of the men who worked for him. He reportedly resisted demands for safety improvements at his mines, paid lower wages than his competitors and preferred to hire immigrant workers who were willing to work for less money.

Leaving the family business to others, Dunsmuir turned from business to building upon the completion of the railway. Although he had a mansion in Nanaimo, he started construction of his castle in Victoria in 1887.

Craigdarroch Castle was built on a hill overlooking the city of Victoria. Like some of his business associates, the massive house signaled his place as British Columbia?s leading industrialist of the time.

Designed by American architect Warren Heywood Williams, the 20,000-square foot castle featured 39 rooms. The interior oak paneling was fabricated in Chicago and transported to Victoria in five railcars. It also featured one of the finest collections of residential stained glass windows in North America.

The 28-acre estate had a huge lawn on the south side of the castle, which was surrounded on three sides by a 20-foot high stone wall. Today the castle grounds have been reduced to 1.75 acres, but still feature the south lawn.

Before the castle could be completed in 1890, Dunsmuir died in April 1889. His wife moved into the castle upon its completion and lived there until her death in 1908.

Following her death the castle served as a military hospital, college, school board office and music conservatory. Since 1979 it has operated as a historic house museum.

(Paul Spasoff is a freelance writer with an interest in Western Canadian history. backtothepast@sasktel.net)