Craigdarroch Castle – Canada’s Castle

Craigdarroch (means “rocky oak place” in Gaelic) Castle is a historic mansion built by the wealthy 19th century coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1992 and is a landmark of Victoria, fondly dubbed “Canada’s Castle.”

Robert Dunsmuir and his wife Joan started building Craigdarroch as the family residence in 1887. Robert died in April 1889, 17 months before construction of the castle was completed. His sons Alexander and James took over the role of finishing the home after his death. James also commissioned the construction of Hatley Castle located further outside of Victoria which I was unable to visit.

Craigdarroch Castle is over 25,500 square feet in size, has 39 rooms, 17 fireplaces, 7 chimney stacks, 2100 oak wall panels and sits on a 28-acre estate and is believed to have cost as much as $500,000 when it was built (over $14M today). Building components for Craigdarroch came from near and far, including granite from British Columbia, tile from England and woodwork from Chicago. The four-story Craigdarroch Castle still has lavish furnishings from the 1890s and is known for its stained-glass and intricate woodwork. It also has original stylish radiators that work to this day that fascinated the engineer in me! The initial architect of the castle, Warren Heywood Williams, also died before completion of the home. His work was taken over by his associate, Arthur L. Smith, in 1890.

Upon the death of Robert Dunsmuir’s widow, Joan, the Craigdarroch estate was sold to land speculator Griffith Hughes for $38,000. In an effort to stimulate sales during a slow real estate market, Griffith announced that the home would be the subject of a raffle, to be won by one of the purchasers of the residential parcels carved from the estate. The winner, Solomon Cameron, mortgaged the home to finance other speculative ventures which failed, leaving him broke, and the Ownership of Craigdarroch passed on to the Bank of Montreal.

The building later served as a military hospital following World War I, as a college from 1920 to 1946, a conservatory of music from 1968 to 1979 among other functions, before it was repurposed as a historical museum in 1979. The museum is currently owned by the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society which hosts around 150,000 visitors a year.

A Victorian Era Drama

For those of you that are interested, here’s a quick “Meet the Dunsmuirs” section……

Robert and Joan had two sons and eight daughters that lived to be adults. Their first child was born eight days after their marriage in Scotland and the second came on their voyage to Canada. Robert was a self-made coal and rail tycoon that had barely a penny to his name in the beginning. As the Dunsmuir fortune grew, the family eventually moved from Nanaimo where they first lived, to Victoria in 1885 at a house named Fairview. Robert by this point, had made his foray into politics and was serving as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Nanaimo. 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 sawmill, a quarry, a theatre along with extensive real estate. In 1887, two years after the completion of 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, Robert 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 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 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 31st, 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.

And that dear readers, is the soap-opera style preview on the castle’s official website! If you chose to visit, you will find an exhibit within the castle that explains the life of the Dunsmuirs in much greater detail; it truly is a fascinating read!

Plan your visit

Craigdarroch is open year-round with the exception of December 25th and 26th and January 1st. From June15th to September 6th, the hours are 9am-7pm. On other days, it is open 10am-4.30pm. The tour of the castle is self-guided, and I would recommend allotting 1.5 hours for your visit.  

The castle is located about 2km outside of Downtown Victoria atop a hill in the suburbs of Rockland. You can walk there in about 25 minutes or take a cab or drive in less than 10. Several bus routes can also get you there from downtown.

As of September 2019, here are the ticket prices (in Canadian Dollars):

  • Adults – $14.60
  • Seniors – $13.60
  • Students – $9.50 (13+ with Valid ID)
  • Children – $5.10 (6-12)
  • Family – $36.00 (2 Adults/Seniors and 2 Students/Children)

Private group tours are also available for groups of 15 or more. Call 250.592.5323 for more information.

It should be noted that Craigdarroch does not have any ramps or elevators to assist guests with mobility challenges.

Craigdarroch Castle definitely made a statement when it was built a 130 years ago and it still remains a definitively Victorian experience, a must see for anyone visiting the region!

Here’s who helped

Here’s who helped

While I ONLY write about places that I have visited, I get more information on these places from others, both for my edification and yours. Here are the online resources I used to write this post.

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