Castle of the Week 99 – Craigdarroch Castle

Beautiful Craigdarroch Castle is located on a hill in the Rockland District of Victoria, B.C. Scottish immigrant Robert Dunsmuir made his fortune from Nanaimo coal on Vancouver Island, and together with his son James built the Nanaimo and Esquimault Railway to export it. In 1883 he was elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly representing Nanaimo. He and his family moved to Victoria so that he could begin his work as representative.

Craigdarroch Castle, circa 1921, Ref # 008.0624, University of Victoria Archives Historical Photograph Collection

Having promised to build a new home for his wife Joan, Robert Dunsmuir commissioned Warren H. Williams and Arthur L. Smith of Portland, Oregon to design the castle in 1887. Williams died four months into the project, but Smith carried on and finished the castle. Robert Dunsmuir died in 1889, one year before the castle’s completion. The cost of the Victorian mansion is estimated to have been close to $500,000. The interior woodwork alone filled 5 railway cars from Chicago and cost $32,000.

View of Craigdarroch Castle, circa 1939, Ref # 008.0605, W.C. Mainwaring (photographer), University of Victoria Archives Historical Photograph Collection

The original grounds of the castle encompassed 28 acres. It takes 87 steps to reach the tower on the top level, but once you’ve reached it, the view is impressive: Victoria Harbour to the west, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south, the Olympic Mountains and the San Juan Islands to the east, as well as the city of Victoria itself. The castle is over 20,000 square feet, spread throughout 39 rooms on 4 ½ floors. It has 17 fireplaces. The exterior is constructed of marble, granite, sandstone, terra cotta, and Vermont slate in the Romanesque/Chateauesque style.

The castle underwent numerous renovations throughout its history, depending upon the needs of the current occupants. Among the original rooms were a library, a double drawing room, a billiard room, and a smoking room. The fourth floor ballroom is still in existence. The inside is exquisitely furnished in the Victorian style, with lead and stained glass. The woodwork includes paneling and flooring of mahogany, cedar, spruce and oak. One of the unique features of the castle today is a D.W. Karn Style 74 reed organ on the first floor landing of the grand staircase.

Robert built the castle for his wife Joan, who lived in it and owned it until her death in 1908. Her daughters subdivided most of the acreage into 144 residential lots which sold for $2750 each, keeping a large part of the land for the castle and grounds. The contents of the castle were sold in a three-day auction. The castle itself was then raffled off to the purchasers of the lots. Solomon Cameron won the castle, but lost it to the Bank of Montreal in 1919 after using it as security on a failed bank loan. The City of Victoria purchased the property, and it underwent many renovations: steam heat was installed, walls were torn down, and a dumbwaiter and fire escape were added. From 1919-1921 it was used as a military hospital.

In 1921 Victoria College began its 25-year residency in the building, and further changes were made, such as the drawing room being divided into two classrooms. When the college outgrew the property, it moved out and from 1946-1968 the Greater Victoria School Board housed its offices there. In 1969 the Victoria Conservatory of Music moved in and stayed until 1979, when it too needed more space.

Around that time there was growing interest in the castle as a historical site. After the Conservatory moved out, the City of Victoria and Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society turned the castle into a museum. A restoration is currently underway to return the castle to its pre-1900 condition. It now receives 150,000 visitors annually and is a National Historic Site.

Black and white photographs courtesy of the University of Victoria Archives Historical Photograph Collection.
Write-up and color photographs provided by Kester.

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