Turrets and Tears

Spooky stuff at Craigdarroch Castle.

Illustrated by Kim Smith; written by Allyson Gulliver

Posted September 1, 2019

“But Italian marble and tile from California will be terribly expensive!” Warren Heywood Williams couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Perhaps we can save a bit by using local wood inside the house. Mahogany from Spain and koa from Hawaii will cost a fortune.”

Robert Dunsmuir shot the architect his famous icy glare. “Well, then, it’s a good thing I have a fortune, isn’t it?” He looked out over the busy Victoria harbour.

“Williams, I came to this island as a coal miner for the Hudson’s Bay Company 36 years ago. I started my own coal-mining business and built my own railway. It’s 1887 and I’m one of the richest men in British Columbia, and I want my house to show it.”

“The men you paid so poorly won’t have anywhere so fine to live, if they even made it out of your mines alive,” Williams muttered.

Dunsmuir wasn’t listening as he shaped the air with his hands. “I want towers and stained glass and a huge verandah. It must be more splendid than the great castles of Scotland. I even have a name for it: Craigdarroch Castle.” He turned to the architect. “See to it that the house lives up to its name.”

Williams shook his head as Dunsmuir strode off to inspect the foundation. “What a hard man,” Williams thought. “Working for him will mean years of stress and striving for perfection. I don’t know if I can —” The architect clutched his heart and dropped to his knees.

“Craigdarroch . . .” he whispered as everything went dark.

“. . .beautiful floor is made of wood from the koa tree, all the way from Hawaii.” Ava and the rest of her class looked down. The drawing room at Craigdarroch Castle was as opulent as the rest of the mansion, but something about the place gave her a funny feeling.

“Let’s head upstairs,” said the guide, leading the kids up the gleaming oak staircase. Ava stopped on the first landing, marvelling at the way the purple thistles and green leaves in the stained glass window glowed from the daylight outside.

“Stunning, aren’t they?” The voice came out of nowhere. Ava whirled around to see an old lady dressed in a long satin gown decorated with lace and pearls. She’d never seen such a beautiful costume for a guide. “You scared me!” said Ava. “The whole house is amazing. I would love to live here.”

“Be careful what you wish for, young lady,” the woman said. “My husband Robert — I’m Joan Dunsmuir — wanted Craigdarroch so badly. He directed every little detail of its construction. But he died in 1889, before it was even finished.” “That’s so sad!” said Ava.

“It got worse,” the woman said. “He’d promised to leave everything — the house, his business empire — to the boys, James and Alex. But he actually left it all to me.”

Ava knew she should catch up with her group but she couldn’t stop listening to the woman’s story.

“They were furious, but I was not about to go against Robert’s wishes. Oh, I eventually let them have the San Francisco branch of the business after seven years or so.”

“Seven years?!” exclaimed Ava. “And in another three, I allowed them to buy the original coal

company. But it didn’t bring them happiness. Alex finally felt he had enough money to get married, but he died on his honeymoon.” She sighed.

“And then we had another fight on our hands. After all, the girls and I needed something to live on, and it just wasn’t right that James should get everything.”

Ava couldn’t believe it. “You took your own son to court?”

The woman smiled. “He was premier of British Columbia by then. The newspaper headline read ‘Premier sued by his mother.’”

She went quiet and stared at the window.

“He never spoke to me again, even when he became lieutenant-governor of the province. In the end, though, he decided to go to my funeral. Apparently he wept and wept.”

She turned back to Ava. “After I died, the girls sold Craigdarroch. It became a military hospital, then a school, then a music academy. But I’m so happy now that it’s been made beautiful again, and that people like you come to enjoy it. There has been too much sadness here.”

The spell was broken by the teacher’s voice. “Ava! Please stay with the group!” The rest of the class filed by in a noisy bustle, sweeping Ava along with them.

The guide was the last of the group to come down the stairs.

“I’m sorry I missed the rest of the tour,” said Ava, “but I learned a lot from the other guide — the dressed-up lady.”

The guide’s face went white.

“The other... but I’m the only guide working today.”

It’s had a troubled past, but Craigdarroch Castle was restored in the 1980s and is open to visitors. It’s an example of what are known as “bonanza castles” — huge, showy mansions built by wealthy businessmen in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Robert Dunsmuir is not a popular figure in B.C.’s history. He and his son James were both very hard on workers, paying them as little as possible — especially those they brought in from Asia, despite saying they were in favour of limiting immigration — and skimping on safety.

Robert and Joan had two sons and eight daughters, plus another child who died as a baby. James continued the family tradition, building Hatley Castle (featured in our story “Canada’s Castles” in May 2014) not far away. And yes — some people say Joan’s ghost still haunts Craigdarroch.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue (and reprinted in the September 2019 issue) of Kayak: Canada’s History for Kids.

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