The dark money that built Victoria's Craigdarroch Castle

The Dunsmuir fortune was built on deadly mine conditions, strike-breaking, racist fearmongering, and stolen land

By Ann Edelstein
December 6, 2020

The dark money that built Victoria's Craigdarroch Castle

The Dunsmuir fortune was built on deadly mine conditions, strike-breaking, racist fearmongering, and stolen land

By Ann Edelstein
Dec 6, 2020
Graphic: Tristan Pratt / Capital Daily
Graphic: Tristan Pratt / Capital Daily

The dark money that built Victoria's Craigdarroch Castle

The Dunsmuir fortune was built on deadly mine conditions, strike-breaking, racist fearmongering, and stolen land

By Ann Edelstein
December 6, 2020
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The dark money that built Victoria's Craigdarroch Castle
Graphic: Tristan Pratt / Capital Daily

It happened in an instant, the mass loss of life in the coal mines. At least, that was the case for those lucky enough to die immediately. 

Those who fought for survival in the dim, smoky underground maze had an unfortunate few seconds, minutes, or even hours to process the horrific experience. Some suffocated and perished in clouds of smoke and gravel. Some endured the hellish sensation of being roasted alive. Some managed to catch a glimpse of the outside, just as the ceilings gave way and collapsed on top of their fleeing bodies. 

Sixty workers succumbed to such conditions in the Wellington coal mine in Nanaimo on  January 24, 1888, leaving the rest of Nanaimo to literally clean up the ashes. 

This mine belonged to Robert Dunsmuir, the wealthy capitalist of late 19th century Vancouver Island, mostly known today as the creator of Victoria’s Craigdarroch Castle. 

At age 26, Dunsmuir moved from Scotland to Fort Rupert on the north side of Vancouver Island in 1851. At the time, he was a miner himself. He didn’t come from a wealthy family and wasn’t blessed by any particularly valuable connections. But right around the time that BC entered Confederation, Dunsmuir, reportedly staggering drunkenly across land he would later buy for next to nothing, got a lucky break: he found a coal seam poking out of the rock.

That luck would make him fabulously wealthy, transforming Dunsmuir into the legendary figure he is known as today—a man whose family name is memorialized in streets in BC cities including Vancouver, Esquimalt, Richmond, Ladysmith, and Nanaimo; a pair of islands across the bay from Ladysmith; and a school in Colwood. Robert Dunsmuir built a literal castle with the highest viewpoint of the city at the time, and—though he died before it was complete—his family threw luxurious parties there with the money he had earned from sending his employees into Wellington’s dusty, sweltering inferno.

The robber baron

That land Dunsmuir bought became the Wellington mine, and in the beginning, Dunsmuir was reportedly admired as a generous boss. This reputation would fray as his empire expanded. 

In 1876, Robert Dunsmuir decided to reduce his miners’ wages and passed his management duties onto his son James. As a manager, James was inexperienced and did not seem to care about the miners’ well-being. He had a tendency to ignore employees’ concerns and often refused to acknowledge when anything was amiss in the mines. The wage reduction and James’ harsh management eventually led the miners to strike. 

Robert, now away from the mine and perhaps less empathetic to his employees as a result, denied their demands, recruited strikebreakers, and cut off their resources. Not all of the Wellington miners could afford to strike, however. Many of Dunsmuir’s employees were Chinese men who received only half the amount European miners earned. Dunsmuir made a point to threaten his white miners with the possibility that Chinese workers could easily replace them. 

Still, the striking miners stood their ground. Having spent hours of treacherous digging underground with burning lungs and strained backs under the scrutiny of a jumped-up manager who didn’t seem to care about their plight, they felt their wage should match the efforts of their labour, wrote the late historian Terry Reksten in 1991 book, The Dunsmuir Saga.

Yet, Robert, the man they once trusted and admired, fired back with a police force that was “dispatched to evict the striking miners from their homes at Wellington on Dunsmuir's property,” Reksten wrote. “Order was restored and the strike was broken, but this event left a lasting bitter legacy and would set a pattern: every future attempt to unionize would be crushed. Now the miners called him a robber baron.”

The returning miners, defeated and with no other options, saw their pay slashed by the victorious Dunsmuir.

Workers’ safety was an afterthought, and the price was horrifyingly high.

The Nanaimo Archives contains a database detailing the accidents in the Wellington mines. One section alone, Wellington Colliery #5, contains accounts of 171 injuries and deaths. On February 4, 1887, a man referred to only by his Chinese nationality in the records was run over by a coal car. On December 7, 1887, just weeks before the explosion that would kill 60 people, another Chinese labourer suffered a severe head injury from explosives. A few months after the explosion, another man, Gustave Nelson, died from a rock fall. The explosions didn't discriminate by ethnicity, but some men were more likely than others to end up with a name on their headstone.

It’s not as though the Dunsmuirs weren’t aware that there were safety problems by the late 1880s; they had even seen the consequences firsthand. In 1879, James and Robert Dunsmuir, along with the Government Inspector of Mines, Edward Prior, rushed into the mines themselves after an explosion in an attempt to rescue survivors. According to Lynne Bowen’s 1987 book, Three Dollar Dreams, Prior reported that he discovered at the ninth level of the mine “an overcast blown to pieces and the roof had caved in badly. At the mouth of Number Ten level... I found a lot of coal waggons piled up in a heap, all the stoppings blown out, roof blown down, and rails torn up and twisted; in fact a perfect chaos and shewing every sign of there having been a large body of gas ignited.” 

The explosion took several lives, including that of a fourteen year-old boy named Reuben. Child labour was not uncommon, as coal mining was a dangerous profession and fathers who died at work left their wives and children to fend for themselves. Often, the children of the deceased were left with no other choice but to venture down into the mines that had swallowed their fathers. 

'Corners were cut, and lives were lost'

Prior insisted in his report that naked flames were likely the cause of the disaster, but both the miners and managers would not exchange naked flame lamps for safety lamps because the miners did not like the dimness and the managers did not like the cost. Inevitably, more disasters occured, most due to a lack of safety measures and poor management. 

Many at the time liked to accuse the miners of ignoring safety protocol, but even setting aside today’s conceptions of workplace safety, the company was as much to blame because “both company and miner wanted to get out as much coal as possible,” Bowen wrote of the event. “In the rush to do that chances were taken, corners were cut, and lives were lost.” 

Safety precautions took time and that time was not paid for by employers, so miners often ignored them in order to spend that time making enough money to feed their families. 

Rather than improving safety, the preferred strategy was to blame the Chinese miners; they quickly became the scapegoats for mine accidents. 

There is no doubt that Robert Dunsmuir risked his life in his attempts to rescue miners after tragedies in the mines, but with the exception of making some adjustments to airflow and caving into racist requests that he stop employing Chinese miners, he made little effort to change the working conditions for his employees. In fact, he had moved on to new goals such as politics and his dream of building a railway that connected Esquimalt to Nanaimo. 

Because Dunsmuir made very few changes to ensure his workers’ safety after the 1879 explosion, the tragedy in 1888 was inevitable. He could have paid his employees for the time required to implement personal safety measures so they did not have to rush into the mines unprepared. Most times when a miner was crushed, it was because the roof wasn’t adequately supported—something that should have been ensured by building supports as the miners dug. But that, writes Bowen, “took time away from digging more coal, and coal was the only thing a man got paid for.”

Ultimately, it seemed Dunsmuir’s concern for his workers’ well-being ceased to exist if it required any monetary sacrifice on his part.

A railway through Hul’qumi’num land

The officials in charge of building the railway bludgeoned their way into First Nations land, as so many before them had mercilessly done in the past. Whether they believed in the appropriative delusions that accompanied Colonial-era nation-building or simply did not care how many lives they needed to trample over to achieve wealth, the hardship they brought upon their victims has impacted generations. 

The Great Land Grab describes how,“for the Hul’qumi’num peoples, the [railway] deal marked the beginning of a gradual, unremitting decline in our economic, cultural and social well-being, in which we witnessed the loss of most of our land and resources—almost 85 percent.” Meanwhile, Dunsmuir was celebrated for his achievement and used his wealth to begin work on his legendary castle. 

Visitors to Craigdarroch Castle today will be treated to stunning Romanesque architecture and fine finishings, plus a view over much of Victoria—a city Dunsmuir and his family would have dominated in the late 1880s. What visitors don’t see is the crushed bodies and stolen fortunes the castle was built on, every stone laid in the glory of the ostensibly self-made man paid for with the misery of those who truly made him. 

Correction made at 9:15am on Dec. 7: The article originally stated that Robert Dunsmuir threw lavish parties at Craigdarroch Castle. Dunsmuir died before its completion and the castle remained in his family's possession until the death of his widow. It was during that period that the family threw parties at the castle.

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