Craigdarroch, in Gaelic, means "rocky oak place". Coal baron Robert Dunsmuir began building this turreted Victorian castle of brick and locally quarried sandstone in 1887, on his 28-acre estate. From Ayrshire, Scotland, he and his wife Joan had voyaged to the Americas in 1850, under contract with Hudson Bay Company. Dunsmuir worked for HBC first in remote Fort Rupert, then in Nanaimo. Near Nanaimo in 1869 Dunsmuir, now prospecting and mining independently, found the richest seam of coal on Vancouver Island. His considerable wealth grew further when he was awarded the contract to build Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway in 1883.
We viewed Craigdarroch on a volatile Victoria morning, brilliant sun and piercing blue sky vying with white billowy clouds. It’s well worth the $11.50CD admission for self-guided tour. Its 29 rooms on four floors contain 17 fireplaces, extensive wood paneling, a profusion of fine stained glass windows, and period furnishings. Craigdarroch encompasses 25,572 square feet.
We learn from one of the circulating docents that the majority of paneling in the castle is actually pre-fab! More than 2000 white oak panels manufactured in Chicago, were shipped by railroad to the estate. The massive white Main Hall fireplace sports a Shakespeare quote from the tragedy Troilus and Cressida: Welcome ever smiles and farewell goes out sighing.
Indeed, elements of tragedy reoccur frequently in the Dunsmuir family of Craigdarroch. Robert died in 1889, before the castle was completed. Contrary to what he’d promised prior to his death, he left nothing to his two grown sons, who’d been managing much of the family business on the island and in San Francisco. Instead, he left his entire estate to his wife. It took ten years of negotiations between Joan and sons before she gave them title to the San Francisco business, and allowed them to purchase the family coalmines on Vancouver Island.
Wherever you wander in Craigdarroch, you’ll encounter exquisite stained glass windows. All but one is original, considered among the finest collections of Victorian residential stained glass on the West Coast. Curiously, the pamphlet states they "are believed to be" produced by an American studio.
Craigdarroch today is an ongoing labor of love, adopted by Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society. Following Joan’s death in 1909, it was sold and served sequentially as a military hospital, college classrooms, offices for Victoria School Board, and home for Victoria Conservatory of Music. Over time, students carved their initials into the woodwork, rooms were divided up as seen fit, floors linoleumed over, and coat after coat of paint applied.
Since 1969, the Museum Society’s mission has been to restore and conserve the castle as an historic house, to its 1890 condition. A fine art conservator is restoring the hand-painted drawing room ceiling. It’s painstaking work using solvent applied with q-tips and cotton balls. Elaborate fleur-de-lis and lion head designs are once more seeing the light of day after being liberated from underneath five coats of latex paint.
Continue tour and history in Craigdarroch II.