After more than a year of pulling up the drawbridge, what better time to lower our metaphorical defences, lift our heads above the parapets, open the stable door … and storm a few made-in-Canada castles?
We’ll never match Europe for grandiose piles piled high on mountaintops or commanding an empire’s white cliffs, but we can more than hold our own — albeit on a smaller scale — in the realm of ramparts, follies and crenellated towers.
Where defence of king and country was often the motivating factor in castle construction overseas, Canada’s builders were more prosaic in their intentions: elaborate private homes, courthouses and inns were the favoured palettes for this fanciful, fortified style of architecture.
Driven perhaps by a homesickness borne of mass emigration, or a simple desire for showing off, “the many examples of castles found in Canada show that Canadians truly love a good castle,” the national Historic Places website states.
Railway barons were particularly beguiled by the moats-and-maidens motif. From the Banff Springs in Alberta to the Château Frontenac in Quebec City to the Empress in Victoria, the Canadian Pacific Railway hotels built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are some of the finest examples of the castle form and just as impressive today.
Built in the image of a French château, they conveyed a sense of elegance that would spur passenger service on the country’s expanding railway network. Fewer now travel by train, but the hotels remain bywords for luxury and postcard icons.
Here are three castles that make today’s bling culture look positively peasant-like.
On British Columbia’s west coast, coal lit the fire underneath Robert Dunsmuir’s look-at-me showcase, Craigdarroch Castle. Located in Victoria, with sweeping views of the B.C. capital, the 39-room mansion with 17 fireplaces is a shining example of a “bonanza castle” — spectacular houses erected for industrial-age entrepreneurs keen to flaunt their wealth and prestige.
Born in Scotland, Dunsmuir came to Vancouver Island in 1851, rising quickly through the mining ranks to earn a place as the province’s undisputed king of coal. In the late 1800s, he and his wife, Joan, began building their dream home, Craigdarroch. But Dunsmuir died a year-and-a-half before it was completed.
After serving variously as a music conservatory, military hospital and a college, the National Historic Site is now a meticulously restored museum of what life was like for the Victorian elite. The family’s vast fortune is reflected in four floors of stained glass windows and furnishings. Oddities include a boxed-frame wreath made of human hair, common at the time; a “magic lantern,” or early slide projector; and a “literary machine” designed to hold a book for hands-free reading.
The spectral is as much a part of castle lore as sculleries and Craigdarroch has its share of ghostly tales. A woman in white standing in the ballroom, a little girl running alongside a maid, and piano music echoing down empty hallways have all been recorded.
Another big shot with big plans was Sir Allan Napier MacNab, a politician and businessman whose legacy is Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, Ont. Described as a “forceful though enigmatic personality,” MacNab was influential in pre-Confederation history, serving as leader of the United Provinces of Canada between 1854 and 1856.
His 1,700-square-metre neoclassical home, named after his Scottish ancestral seat and completed in 1835, captivates day-trippers just as it did in the 1850s when famous guests including King Edward VII and Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, were entertained in the Italianate villa perched on the Burlington Heights, site of a War of 1812 encampment.
Re-branding it as “Hamilton’s own Downton Abbey,” the city has restored the interior to its 1855 heyday and deploys costumed interpreters to lead guided tours of its 40 rooms, servants quarters and two-acre kitchen garden.
With its dark history, including plague sheds for cholera victims and the hanging of 11 traitors during the “Bloody Assize,” Dundurn is not short on ghoulish accents, with stories of unexplained breezes blowing out candles, objects moving of their own free will, and beyond-the-grave bursts of song.
Our next fat cat was propelled by romance as much as hubris. Hotel magnate George Boldt built his castle as a tribute to his beloved wife, Louise. Yet in a tragic twist lifted from a Hallmark film script, he halted all construction of the estate in the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River when Louise died suddenly at the age of 42, before it was fully completed.
Located on Heart Island, in U.S. waters, Boldt Castle is a full-sized six-storey replica of the Rhineland fortifications of Boldt’s German homeland and features its own powerhouse and tunnels, as well as a drawbridge, alster tower (children’s playhouse), and 120 rooms.
Described in his New York Times obituary of 1916, as more than any other man “responsible for the modern American hotel,” Boldt began construction around 1900, intending to present the castle to his wife on Valentine’s Day of 1905, as a monument to his devotion.
After she died in January 1904, a crestfallen Boldt never again stepped foot on the island. His castle lay forlorn, picked over by vandals and the ravages of time for nearly 75 years until U.S. authorities intervened in 1977 to purchase and restore it. Today it showers love on the Thousand Islands economy, injecting $45 million a year into regional coffers and drawing thousands of awestruck visitors.
Though the Boldts never resided on the island, the spirit of Louise has been spotted as a “lady in white” walking along the water’s edge, and reports have surfaced of strange lights and phantom footsteps.
Ghosts or no ghosts, the love story endures.
— Andre Ramshaw
Editor’s note: While we have missed the opportunity to travel, being vaccinated may not be your ticket to ride. There are still risks associated with it. Consult federal and provincial websites for safety info before planning your trip.