Ever since a brief evening stop in Victoria on the way back to Seattle from an Alaskan cruise on Holland America’s Westerdam, my sister, Aunt, and I wanted to go back for a longer visit. We decided to set up a day trip, sailing across the Straight of Juan de Fuca on the Black Ball Ferry, MV Coho from Port Angeles. It’s pretty pricey to bring a car on that ferry, and we didn’t need one in Victoria anyway, so we parked in one of the lots near the terminal. The closest one costs $8 per day, but we went to the next one over where it is just $6. Very low-tech though, you have to have cash.
Unlike the state ferries, in over 50 years the MV Coho has never broken down or missed a sailing. They probably haven’t changed the music in all that time either, but it only plays before the announcements at the beginning and end of each sailing.
We decided to visit Craigdarroch Castle, not far outside the main touristy area of Victoria. The city bus stops near the castle. Other than foot power the bus is the least expensive way to get there. The bus driver pronounced the castle Craig-derrek.
It’s a short walk from the bus stop to the castle, past a number of interesting old houses. One had three dogs on the porch. The approach to the castle offers several options for photos, including framing the castle in trees.
Once inside the castle we bought our tickets and wiped the soles of our shoes on the brush-filled shoe wiping stand as required. A sign proclaimed backpacks must either be checked in at the front desk for pick-up after the tour or worn on the front. After buying our tickets we stepped through the doorway where a lady explained how the self-guided tour worked. She pronounced the castle Craig-duh-rock.
The first half the tour winds up one side of the house. Many lavishly-appointed rooms have been restored to what likely was their original use. The top room in the tower has its original patterned tile floor and excellent views of the surrounding area. Much of the castle is still original, but some rooms got remodeled over the years for different uses.
The second half of the tour winds down the opposite side of the castle. Servants lived in some rooms on that side, which look quite plain compared to those used by the family. Most of the rooms have coal-burning fireplaces, fitting for a coal baron who made his fortune with a coal mine.
Throughout the castle, signs give the historical use of various rooms, as well as one room which has panels giving the history of both the family and the castle in small segments one sign at a time. Craigdarroch means rocky oak place in Gaelic. The family’s name was Dunsmuir.
Born in 1825, the founder of the castle, Robert Dunsmuir came from a coal mining family in Scotland. Orphaned at age 7, he worked for an uncle. He married wife Joanna (Joan) and started a family while still in Scotland, coming to Vancouver Island in 1850 with a small group of coal miners led by his uncle and bound for the Hudson Bay Company’s mines. After working for others for a time, he took a chance on investing in his own mine near Victoria where he struck it rich. A villain to some due to his handling of a miner’s strike by replacing strikers with picket-line crossers from another area and eventually winning out by cutting their wages. A hero to others because after signing a contract to build 75 miles of railroad track (for which he was paid handsomely in cash and acres of land) he continued the line to Victoria. He also spent some years in politics, which kept the local government out of his coal mining business.
The family lived in increasingly more lavish homes around Victoria. Over the years they had 11 children, of which 10 lived to adulthood, 8 girls and 2 boys. As the family’s wealth increased and they climbed higher up the social ladder, the younger girls married into increasingly wealthier and socially higher ranked families. The oldest married local men, later girls found military husbands, and the younger ones married into European nobility. Not all married happily ever after, some faced death or divorce and one spent a good deal of her life in an insane asylum.
Robert Dunsmuir’s castle began construction in 1887, but he never got to live there since he died before its completion in 1890. Joan and her three youngest daughters moved into the castle along with her two orphaned grandchildren and some servants. Robert had promised his sons they would inherit his businesses when he died, but left everything to his wife instead.
Upon her death in 1908 she left the castle to the 5 of her daughters still living at that time. Unable to buy each other out and apparently unwilling to share, they divided the land around the castle into parcels to sell, auctioned off the furnishings, and in 1910 sold the castle and surrounding subdivision in a lottery won by Solomon Cameron who owned the castle until 1919 when it became a military hospital.
In 1921 Victoria College moved into the castle, remaining there until 1946 when the Victoria School Board took up residence, staying in the castle until 1968. From 1969 until 1979 it became the Victoria Conservatory of Music. By then people were interested in preserving the castle and restoring it to its former glory. Their presence more or less pushed the music conservatory out, making way for the castle to become the Historic House Museum it is today. Room by room they have restored much of the castle to what it most likely looked like in the Dunsmuir’s time, sometimes even finding original furnishings or artwork at auction.