Brenda is a freelance writer from Canada. While she has a strong interest in many subjects, the paranormal is her favorite.
On the west coast of Canada, a mysterious Edwardian castle watches over the oceanside city of Victoria, British Columbia. Once home to one of the province's most influential and wealthy men, James Dunsmuir, Hatley Castle is now home to Royal Roads University. Dunsmuir commissioned Samuel Maclure to design the castle, telling the Victorian architect, "Money doesn't matter. Just build what I want."
What he wanted was a refuge from corporate and political life, a place where he could retire and enjoy the activities he loved—fishing, hunting, and golfing. Unlike James, his wife, Laura, loved the spotlight. She wanted the interior to be a place where she could entertain her powerful friends that included local celebrities and British nobility. Laura loved these parties so much that she often sang to her delighted guests.
Samuel Maclure built the castle in only 18 months! The construction ended up costing more than $4 million; however, it granted both James and Laura their wishes. With a medieval castle exterior, Norman tower, and two Tudor revival wings on either side, the building is 200 feet long, 86 feet wide, and contains 50 rooms. An impressive 10 kilometers of winding road meanders throughout the 640-acre property. The lovely rose, Japanese, and Italian gardens once demanded 100 men to care for them.
James and Laura Dunsmuir
James Dunsmuir started life the son of successful coal mine owner Robert Dunsmuir. Wanting to follow in his father's footsteps, James studied mining engineering in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he met and married Laura Surles, the daughter of a prominent farmer. The couple returned to Nanaimo, British Columbia, where James became mine manager for his father, and Laura became a socialite. James proved himself a powerful manager—under his direction, production rose nearly 350%. He was also instrumental in increasing the number of shipping wharves and rail locomotives. Eventually, expansion of the company made it necessary to build the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway.
In 1883, Robert became a provincial cabinet minister, handing James a stronger rein in the company. After James opened a coalfield in the Comax area, he became the true force behind the expansion and rising profits. By its third year of operation, 1890, the mine had produced an amount of coal that had taken his father's mine north of Nanaimo twice that time to make.
After Robert died in 1889, James fought for and won total control of the mining empire. He continued to expand and improve both mining and transportation. The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway saw profits for the first time. The Dunsmuirs were now British Columbia's richest family.
James naturally went into politics, being elected as MLA (member of the legislative assembly) for Comox in 1898. Following that, he became premier in 1900 and lieutenant governor in 1906. During his political reign, James started selling off his corporate empire. In 1905, he sold the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway and its land grant to the Canadian Pacific Railway for $2.3 million. In 1910, he sold his mining empire to the Canadian Northern Railway for $11 million.
At age 61, James Dunsmuir retired from politics, hoping to live the life of an English gentleman at Hatley Castle. While this "common working man," as he described himself as, deserved a happy retirement, he didn't get it. He was disheartened watching his oldest son and daughters frivolously wasting away their lives. He must have held great hope that James Jr., also known as "Boy," would carry on the proud work ethic that both he and his father had lived by.
That hope wasn't to be: On May 1, 1915, James Jr. boarded the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania for England to go to war. Sadly, the ill-fated ship was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland. The boy's body, like his father's hopes, was never recovered.
Laura never got over her son's death and had nightmares for the rest of her life; she never felt sure that her son was really dead. James Dunsmuir also suffered. Perhaps as a way to find solace, he played the song "Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?" over and over.
At age 69, James Dunsmuir died at his fishing lodge. Laura lived on at the castle with her daughter Eleanor. Laura died in 1937, and Eleanor died six months later. Shortly after Laura's death, a maid complained of having strong feelings of being watched when no one was around. Her feelings were so overwhelming that she refused to go into some of the rooms in the castle alone.
Three years after Laura's death, the Defense Department purchased the castle for $75,000, intending to turn it into a naval training base. Royal Roads Military College used the castle for a dormitory and mess hall for cadets and staff officers. It was during this time that Laura really made her presence known.
Almost as soon as the boys settled in, they started reporting strange events. While studying late at night on the second or third floor, the cadets sometimes felt like they were being wrapped in a mass of freezing cobwebs. An apparition of a small old woman often appeared by their beds. Sometimes the specter pulled at their blankets as they tried to sleep. Many believed it was Laura Dunsmuir's spirit.
A cadet acting as a senior officer had an especially unnerving experience with the female phantom. He woke up early one morning because someone was tugging on his legs. To his horror, he discovered it was the female ghost. He tried hard to break free, but she held on tight. When he finally managed to get away, the woman disappeared.
Laura didn't seem to like having the young boys in her home. However, she may have been trying to protect them. With her antics, maybe she was trying to force them out of the school, hoping to save them from a fate like her son's.
Laura Caught on Film?
In 2012, a woman on a ghost tour at Hatley Castle took a picture of what appears to be a female apparition. The ethereal woman is seen standing on the stairs, wearing an old-fashioned hat. Is it a trick of the light or is it the spirit of Laura Dunsmuir, checking to see who is wandering through her home? Or could it be one of the other female spirits that haunt the castle?
During its years as a naval training academy, the cadets sometimes saw a young woman walking the castle halls before disappearing through a door or window. Occasionally, they would see her crying in one certain room; then she would float out the window toward the sea. Over the years, people have seen this window opening and closing on its own. Many believe the distraught spirit is Annabelle, a young parlor maid who had won the affections of Laura Dunsmuir.
When Annabelle wanted to marry, Laura offered to pay for everything. Tragically, the groom left the young woman at the altar. Annabelle learned that her fiancee was already married and had children. Devastated, she went back to Hatley Castle and jumped to her death from one of the upper windows.
Some think the ghostly figure in the picture is holding a baby. According to a vancitybuzz.com article, a visitor to the castle brought home more than just memories. In 2013, a young woman toured Hatley Castle with her husband and daughter. They saw nothing out of the ordinary, but when they got home, they encountered bizarre happenings.
Very early the following morning, a baby's crying woke up the tourist and her husband. Panicking, they fled to their daughter's room only to find her sleeping peacefully. Then it happened a second time. The woman quickly checked on her daughter, who was safe and quiet. After she returned to her room, she still heard the crying and discovered it was coming from the baby monitor. To her horror, she discovered the monitor was unplugged and had no batteries! She ended up putting it in another room, so she could get some sleep.
More strange things happened where she worked—boxes falling for no reason and other troubles. Eventually, the couple contacted a psychic who told them that the ghost of a nanny who once worked at the castle had followed them home. Thankfully, the restless spirit eventually left them alone. Could this previous caregiver be the ghost in the picture?
Ghostly Mysterious Woman
Over time, castle visitors have reported seeing the coal baron's ghost. Perhaps even in death, he is still looking for his beloved son since some have heard the song "Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?" playing eerily throughout the castle. The haunting melody comes from the commandant's office—what used to be James' study.
James Dunsmuir Junior
A 2003 Creepy Canada episode tells the story of the Dunsmuir's youngest daughter, Dola, seeing James Junior's ghost wandering around the castle grounds. He is wearing his military uniform and watching his sister intently as if to say, "Everything is all right, Dola." Whenever she runs to him, he disappears. People are still shocked to see the apparition of a young man wearing a WWI military uniform wandering the gardens or walking up from the lagoon.
The Castle Today
The movie The Changeling is another ghost story associated with Hatley Castle. It has the honor of being the first of many films with scenes shot at this haunted location. Since then, parts of many movies and TV shows have been made at the castle, including MacGyver, Ploltergeist: The Legacy, Masterminds, The Mole, and The X-Men.
Laura Dunsmuir must love the visits from all the stars. What a great excuse to entertain in her beloved castle once again! If the visitors listen closely, perhaps they'll hear Laura call on a maid to offer them champagne. However, if they're really lucky, maybe Laura will entertain them with a song, a merry one she had sung so long ago.
Brenda Robson (author) from Alliston, Ontario on January 15, 2018:
Brianna W from East Coast on January 15, 2018:
Excellent article! I caught this on a google search so way to go!!