By Ted Ross


We think of Craigdarroch Castle as Robert Dunsmuir's home, but he never did live there. In fact he lived at Fairview, on the southwest corner of Menzies and Quebec, during his Victoria years from 1884 until his death in April 1889.

Fairview was no bungalow. The Victoria Times of April 18, 1948 recalls, "The old house, of 15 rooms, still has traces of its original grandeur - a statue alcove in the wall at the upper turn of the graceful staircase - a skylight in the ceiling, giving light to the hall below, a once splendid conservatory, looking into the garden, fireplaces in every room, an arched double front door and enormous bay windows that at one time looked to the bird cages where the Legislative Buildings are today."

The mansion had been built in 1881 for Captain Lewis Manville Starr. Dunsmuir added a stable and a stone and iron fence while he lived in the house.

Robert Dunsmuir came from working in the family coal business in Ayreshire, Scotland. Aged 25, he had sailed, with his wife, his uncle, three year old daughter and two year old son, 191 days around Cape Horn to the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River.

Robert and Uncle Boyd Gilmour were contracted to develop an HBC coal mine in the coal seam discovered at Fort Rupert on Vancouver Island (near Port Hardy). They arrived on Vancouver Island at Fort Rupert on August 9, 1851. Things did not go well. They were unsuccessful in developing a mine.

On August 24, 1852 Governor Douglas instructed them to move on to Nanaimo to develop a mine in a seam of coal which had been discovered there. They were successful in this venture, although Uncle Boyd returned to Scotland in 1854 due to a pay dispute with Douglas. Robert continued to work for Douglas until late 1869. On a fishing trip in October of that year he had discovered a coal outcrop. Then he had formed a company to stake a 1600 acre claim along the lakeshore where the outcrop was located.

Victoria Old Homes and Families relates, "Roaming the woods one day he found a new seam of coal. He sank a shaft. It was long and tedious work but at last he located the full seam beneath the roots of an upturned tree, in dense forest. And so it was that almost overnight he found himself a millionaire."

By 1881 this wealthy man and his family began planning a move to Victoria. What held them up was locating a suitable home in that city. Robert and his wife wished to introduce their three daughters to Victoria society with the chance of good marriage. In 1883 Dunsmuir was able to close a deal to purchase Fairview. This was the type of dwelling he wished to have to enter Victoria society.

The Dunsmuir Saga states, "Soon after moving to Fairview, the Dunsmuirs began to entertain with a vengeance, and Victorians who counted themselves members of the city's upper classes pondered the problem of just how to deal with a family whose claim to status was based on wealth alone. Victoria's society was led by the lieutenant-governor who as the queen's representative produced the most important guest list. The Admiral of the Fleet and the officers of the Royal Navy enjoyed pride of place at any Government House function. Also included were the mixed-blood children of the fur traders who had become the city's largest landholders and were recognized as being it's founding families."

"Peter O'Reilly...magistrate and assistant gold commissioner in the Cariboo,...invited to attend the Dunsmuir's first party at Fairview, was intrigued. He had heard that it was to be 'a party, a grand affair,' he confided to his daughter Kathleen."

" 'I suppose some of us will go,' his wife Caroline sniffed. Like the other members of her set, she had to admit that while the Dunsmuirs might not be worth knowing, they were now too rich to ignore.... And so, for a time, Victoria's society ladies treated the Dunsmuir girls with an odd mixture of deferential awe based on their wealth and vague contempt for their humble beginnings and their tendency to overspend and overdress."

The double parlours of Fairview made a lovely ballroom. Its floor was wonderfully slick for dancing, and many a party was held there. Two of the Dunsmuir daughters were married in the mansion, in 1885 and 1886.

Victoria Old Homes and Gardens reports, "It was at Fairview that the elder daughters were married. Victoria had never before seen quite such elegance  and fashion. Victoria, at last, was as brilliant as San Francisco - her nearest rival. Vancouver and Seattle were mere villages!"

The Dunsmuirs became very much a part of Victoria Society.

It was at Fairview that Dunsmuir arranged for and saw the beginning of construction of Craigdarroch Castle, the palace he had promised his wife years before. Robert would never live in his castle. Before its completion, when it was just a shell of the finished structure, Robert passed away at Fairview, in April 1889, aged 64.

The Dunsmuir Saga tells us, "In the drawing room of Fairview, Robert Dunsmuir lay in a metal coffin, his head resting on a pillow of white roses. Mourners, peering through the coffin's plate-glass lid, saw a man who appeared to be at peace."

"Twelve thousand people lined the route as the procession moved to St. Andrew's Church and then on to Ross Bay Cemetery. So many men marched that it took half an hour for them to pass."

Following her husband's death, his widow Joan stayed on at Fairview until 1890, when she moved to Craigdarroch Castle. Son James Dunsmuir and his family occupied Fairview for a time. In 1905 Joan Dunsmuir sold the place to Pemberton Trust.

When Victoria City Directories are consulted, this is the course the mansion followed after the sale to Pemberton. In 1908 it was vacant, but in 1909 it was in the hands of Finlay, William R., Real Estate. In 1912 Mrs. Mary J. Bell was the main resident operating a rooming house. She did this until 1919 but in 1920 the building was vacant.

In 1921 Agnes Holman was resident, but beginning in 1922 J. Mullen appeared, and stayed until 1927. In 1928 H. Collett arrived and stayed up to 1929. In 1930 the edifice became the Lethbridge Apartments & Rooms, and remained such until 1952.

In the late 1940s and the 1950s ferries arriving in Victoria from Seattle, Vancouver and Port Angeles, their car decks loaded, brought more and more motor vehicles to Victoria. To service this auto influx, motels were built close to the ships' terminals. In 1953 Fairview came down for a 24 room building to accomodate tourists. It was called the Embassy Court Motel. Its picture may be found online on a 1956 postcard.


Today the occupant of the property across from the Legislature is the Embassy Inn. This high-end hotel opened in 1982 on the Embassy Court property, just south of the motel. The auto-court still exists, but is part of the Embassy Inn property today.

The hotel, with its 70 air-conditioned rooms and one bedroom suites, provides luxury accommodation in James Bay. It is a favourite spot for snow-birds who come to Victoria to escape the cold winters of the rest of Canada. Everything they need is in-house. And guests are within walking distance of many of the favourite attractions in Victoria, including the Royal BC Museum and the Parliament Buildings.

We are told the Embassy's breakfasts are second to none! And that wall Robert Dunsmuir had built back in 1883 - part of it still stands today, on the edge of the hotel's property.


Wikipedia, "Robert Dunsmuir," 2016; "Victoria's Old Homes and Families, Craigdarroch Castle," pp 14-15, Victoria, 1949; Native Sons of BC, Post #1, "George Gardner Scrapbooks," Vol 12, p367; Castle Quarterly, "Homes of the Dunsmuir's - Fairview," 1999; "The Dunsmuir Saga," Terry Redsten, Vancouver BC, 1991; tripadvisorCanada, "Emabassy Inn," Victoria, 2016;  BC Archives, "Item C-09707 - Fairview, at the southwest corner of Menzies and Quebec," photograph, 1885; Vancouver Public Library, "City Directories," 1908-1955, digitalized