This Week in History


A Great Entrepreneur and his Mansion

For the week of Monday 9 April, 2012

O n April 12, 1889, the great industrialist Robert Dunsmuir died in Victoria, British Columbia. From humble beginnings, he became one of the richest men in Canada thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit.

Born in Scotland, on August 31, 1825, into a family of miners, Dunsmuir moved to Canada with his wife and children after signing a contract with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1851. The company was looking for experienced miners to work in newly opened mines in British Columbia.

The Craigdarroch Castle
© Parks Canada / J. Butterill / 1994

Due to his strong loyalty to the company, Dunsmuir gained rapid promotion and attracted the attention of entrepreneurs who asked him to work for their company as a foreman. Then he discovered a large coal deposit in Nanaimo, British Columbia, and purchased the land. He and his associates founded a company that would grow into the largest coal producing company in British Columbia, in less than 10 years.

Dunsmuir also secured a contract to build a railway between Victoria and Nanaimo. This earned him $750,000, lands spanning more than one-fifth of Vancouver Island from which he expropriated many Aboriginal people, and the right to extract all the natural resources found on these lands. He became one of the richest entrepreneurs in the country, who invested in various industries such as, maritime trade, real estate, agricultural property, and the steel industry. Known as a ruthless businessman, he strongly opposed strikes, provided poor working conditions for his employees and employed Chinese workers whom he paid less than the other workers, allowing him to reduce labour costs. He branched out into politics and was elected as a member of the provincial legislature for the county of Nanaimo in 1882 and 1886, but he did not have a lot of influence as a politician.

View of the interior of the Craigdarroch Castle
© Courtesy of the Craigdarroch Castle.

In 1887, Dunsmuir had a mansion built in Victoria as a symbol of his power and great wealth. He named the building, which was worth half a million dollars, Craigdarroch*. This opulent residence was built with expensive and exotic materials and was exquisitely decorated. It contains many paintings and over thirty stained glass windows. However, Robert Dunsmuir died in 1889, a year before his mansion was finished.

Robert Dunsmuir was designated a national historic person in 1971, and the Craigdarroch mansion was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1992.

To find out more about the history of entrepreneurs in Canada, read the following This Week in History articles: Charles Fox Bennett: A Figure of Controversy, Enos Collins, Halifax Entrepreneur, John Neilson: A Pre-Confederation Entrepreneur and Leader, Honest John Carling – Brewer and Politician and The Whiskey Baron.

For more information about Robert Dunsmuir, and the Craigdarroch Castle, please visit The Craigdarroch Castle website.

*Craidarroch means "rocky, oak place" in Gaelic

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