In August, I went to Victoria, British Columbia for a long weekend with my husband and his parents, who were visiting from South Carolina. We visited three major sites while we were in Victoria, and this post features one of them: Craigdarroch Castle.
My inner history nerd loves castles (hence why I love traveling in Europe). There’s just something romantic about them, despite the fact that they are much less comfortable than the fairy tales would have us believe. But European castles were built for the nobility to defend their land. North American castles, like Craigdarroch, were built much later by wealthy businessmen who wanted to show off. Hey, it worked. Craigdarroch isn’t exactly Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, which I’ve also toured with my in-laws, but it’s pretty swanky. Four floors of fine art, antique furniture, ornate trimwork, and excellent craftsmanship are inside the imposing stone exterior. The house even had indoor plumbing, a novelty in the 1890s. All four of us found something to appreciate as we looked into the rooms and read signs about the family who built it.
But even as I enjoyed our few hours of living it up, something bothered me. In a few places in the house, asides were made that Robert Dunsmuir, the coal-mining baron who built the house for his family, gained much of his wealth through less-than-honorable business practices. He had a reputation for being hard on his workers. Details weren’t given, but in the days before labor unions, one can guess that working conditions in his mines weren’t the safest and the wages paid weren’t a fast track to the sort of wealth Dunsmuir eventually possessed. He also formed something of a monopoly on Vancouver Island, even receiving a government contract to build a railroad that just happened to connect his coal mines to the nearest shipping center. All of this gave him the money to construct this glorious castle. And of course, Craigdarroch isn’t the only place where this is true. Far too many lovely monuments have a dark side.
I’m not going to get on a soapbox and preach about the evils of the past that can’t be adequately rectified today. All I’m saying is that reading those snippits of information made me stop and think about what I was seeing in a different way. Yes, it’s beautiful. The artists and craftsmen who worked on the house made beautiful things, which didn’t directly exploit miners. But it is a shame that those signs couldn’t read “This castle and all you see in it was built by a man of compassion and integrity with money he received through honest hard work.”