The Dunsmuir's house

Timeless tales: Dunsmuir’s Nanaimo house a symbol of increasing wealth

NANAIMO – Coal baron Robert Dunsmuir lived in three houses in the Harbour City.

It was 1873 and a big, new house had just been constructed in Nanaimo near what is now the corner of Wallace and Albert streets.

The large wooden two-story house sat perched on top of a hill in what is now the city’s downtown core and came complete with big windows, high-pitched roofs, a stunning porch as well as stables for horses and buggies.

At the time, the owner of the property was none other than Robert Dunsmuir, who was just starting to amass a great deal of wealth as coal baron and had no desire to live anywhere near those whom he employed.

Lynne Bowen, a local author who has written numerous books on the Dunsmuirs, said when the house was built it was the nicest residential property in Nanaimo.

When the Dunsmuirs first moved to Nanaimo in 1853, they were by no means wealthy. In fact, the family’s first home was a tiny square-hewn log cabin located on Front Street. In 1858, the Dunsmuirs moved to a log house near Wallace and Albert street. Although the modest house wasn’t anything special for its time, the Dunsmuirs named it Ardoon.

By the early 1870s, Dunsmuir had found coal seams and was becoming incredibly wealthy, something that Bowen said happened as a result of smarts and timing.

“The thing that I always caution people is that there weren’t a lot of people here back then. The guys that were really smart rose to the top fast. They would have several important jobs. They would be inspectors of mines and in legislature,” Bowen said. “Dunsmuir was a man for his time. He was self-made and he was really smart. He was the right man in the right place at the right time.”

In 1872, Ardoon was destroyed and the two-story wood house, also named Ardoon, was constructed and completed in 1873. Little is known about the building, other than that it played host to important people such as the Marquis of Lorne, Canada’s governor general.

Christine Meutzner, archivist at the Nanaimo Community Archives, said the Ardoon house would have been a significant building in Nanaimo but because Dunsmuir wasn’t super wealthy at the time of its construction the house wasn’t made from stone, adding that Dunsmuir likely had no experience with designing buildings and lacked a local architect.

“He is essentially a miner and a businessman,” she said. “He wouldn’t have had that kind of background to get an architect and there wouldn’t have been one here anyway.”

In 1883, the Dunsmuir family moved from Nanaimo to Victoria and into Craigdarroch Castle. Robert Dunsmuir died before its completion.

Ardoon was eventually sold to Nanaimo’s first mayor, Mark Bate. In 1912 the house was destroyed.

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