Lavish lives and the odd scandal

Robert and Joan had two sons and eight daughters plus one child who died in infancy. As the Dunsmuir fortune grew, the family eventually moved from Nanaimo to Victoria and took up residence in 1885 in a house named Fairview situated near the Legislative Buildings. Robert at this point had been elected and was serving as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Nanaimo. James, the elder son, took charge of the mining operations in Nanaimo, and Alexander, the younger son, lived in San Francisco and managed the sales and shipping office. Dunsmuir coal now moved to market on Dunsmuir rail and in Dunsmuir ships and the business empire also included: collieries; an iron works; a saw mill; a quarry (the source of the sandstone for the exterior of Craigdarroch); a dyking company; a theatre; and extensive real estate.

In 1887, two years after the last spike had been driven on the E&N railway, and five years after he started accumulating 28 acres of property, Robert Dunsmuir gave the orders to start building Craigdarroch. There were still three Dunsmuir daughters who were not married and the mansion would be the perfect venue to launch them into married life. Unfortunately, he died in April 1889 before the house was completed. After Robert’s death, Joan spent some time travelling in Europe. Her sons oversaw the completion of the construction while she was in Europe and Joan, with her three unmarried daughters and two orphaned grandchildren, took up residence in 1890.

Robert’s death brought strife to the family. Contrary to oral promises made to his sons, he left his entire Estate and business holdings to his wife, Joan. This was a blow to both James and Alex (then in their thirties) who had worked in the family business all their lives. It took seven years of negotiations with Joan before she would give her sons title to the San Francisco company. It took another three years before she agreed to their terms to purchase the Wellington Colliery. With this settlement, Alex Dunsmuir felt secure enough in his financial future to marry Josephine, a divorced woman that he had been living with as man and wife for close to twenty years. Their married life only lasted six weeks; Alex passed away on January 31, 1900 while they were in New York on their honeymoon.

After the death of Alex, a costly quarrel over his Will again divided the family, setting Joan and her daughters against James. This quarrel triggered a lawsuit that went all the way to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London (in those days equivalent to the Supreme Court of Canada). James, who was Premier of British Columbia at the time the action was announced, was very much in the public eye. A story in the New York Times announced: “Premier sued by his Mother”. As a result of the legal action, Joan and James did not speak for years. When she died in 1908 having lived in Craigdarroch for 18 years, the local newspaper reported that James (then serving as Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia) was not expected to attend her funeral. At the last minute he changed his mind and did attend. During the service, he broke down and wept.

If you would like more information on the family you can find copy of The Dunsmuir Saga in our Museum Gift Shop.

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Dunsmuirs

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Robert and Joan Dunsmuir had two sons, eight daughters and plenty of exploits. The Castle weaves a fascinating tale of this intriguing family – their achievements, their relationships and even their quirks.

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Built by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir during the reign of Queen Victoria and now a National Historic Site, Craigdarroch Castle has been meticulously restored, giving visitors a glimpse of privileged life in the 1890s.

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