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The call of the castle

Victoria's Craigdarroch Castle sits atop Rockland, a tony neighborhood dating 865312-1034635-thumbnail.jpg
Craigdarroch's roof line on top of Rockland
from the late 19th century that looks out over the city and the Inner Harbour.

The red granite, four-storey mansion, all peaked roofs and chimney stacks, is a monument to the money and ego of 19th Century coal and railroad baron Robert Dunsmuir. Dunsmuir is a bonafide Canadian "robber baron." Born in Scotland in 1825, he came to Victoria with his wife Joan and three children in 1851  as an indentured Hudson's Bay Company coalminer, earning $5 a week. When he crossed a picket line a few years later he caught the eye of his bosses who began to promote him up through the ranks. By his death, 38 years later, he had amassed a fortune of more than $15 million and was the richest man in BC. 

For some, he is an admired pioneer of both Victoria and the young province and its most successful self-made industrialist. For others he is a ruthless exploiter, who built his fortune on the backs of impoverished miners and immigrant Chinese workers. He was known for his brutal strike breaking, his unsafe mining conditions that led to many deaths, and for cutting wages to less than half the going rate to punish any workers who tried to form a union. He built his mansion for his wife and 11 kids, but he himself never lived in it, dying in 1889, a year before it was finished.

When we moved to Victoria in 1991,  my BC-born husband, of blue-collar lineage, refused to tour the castle, sitting outside on the wall as I, very pregnant with our first child, waddled through. "I won't support any of the Dunsmuir legacy," he said, showing how feelings about the man run deep even 100 years after his death. When my young kids were growing up whenever we passed by the mansion or saw its jagged roof line rising over the tree tops they would parrot their father: "That's a monument to a man with lots of money but no heart."

Monument to money
Dunsmuir's son James became Premier of BC, but many of his other children and grandchildren had lives of unrestrained excess and tragedy.  Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves, it seems, in three generations. 

But Craigdarroch is certainly a popular Victoria tourist attraction. Tour buses go hourly from the Inner Harbour. Vistors line up to walk through the 39 rooms furnished in opulent Victorian-era design, a window on a long-ago, rarefied world. Our pedicab signs say: "Tour the Castle!"  -- but I always tried to cover that part over. For the last three months, I have been unsure of whether I could do the 15 block almost steady climb with two passengers. I refered all enquiries about the trip to the veteran guys, but even some of them were cool on the junket. "Unless they want a full 90 minute tour, the money for a taxi ride to the top is kinda not worth the effort," said Jeeves.

All summer, Craigdarroch has been my mini-Everest. Having struggled taking passengers up much smaller hills like Government St and the entrance to Beacon Hill Park, I could not fathom succeeding on the 40 minute climb to Craigdarroch. But how could I end the season without at least attempting a summit? I knew I must try, even if I had to bail.

For the last four days I have asked around: who will be my Sandy Pittman to come along for the ride? (As you may recall, Ms. Pittman was the wealthy New York socialite who paid her way to the top of Everest on the doomed May 1996 ascent, chronicled so brilliantly bv Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air.")

Not surprisingly, my husband passed (he is too big anyway -- I wanted lighter fare.) I tried convincing my skinny 14 year old daughter Maddy and her even skinnier friend Dylan to be my cargo, but they, too, declined. But my girlfriend Jennifer, who I haven't had a good visit with all summer, happily agreed.865312-1031494-thumbnail.jpg
Jennifer game for the ride

"Fun for Jennifer; Toil for Anne" was the subject line of her email saying yes. We were to meet at the barn on Herald St. around noon and I would take out a cab for one last time. Jennifer's only obligations were to record the event on my digital camera, keep talking if I was too winded to keep up my end of the conversation and happily get out and walk a few steps if needed. "It's a deal," she said.

Randy knew I was coming for this final trip but forgot I had a superstitious fixation with Cab #1. He let my trusty mount go out with a rookie that morning. "How could you?" I scolded him.  What cab would I ride? What if I picked a dud?

Randy, obviously guilt-ridden,  searched around the barn, hopped on #5 and rode it out into the parking lot, testing it.

"This one will be great. You will like this one. It's really reliable and light," he said, pointing out that its stripped down design, with less fibreglass, would be at a at least 10 pounds less than #1.

I wasn't sure. It didn't feel the same. The gear lever was on the opposite side and reversed from high to low, the power bar of turn lights and hazards completely different. And the sweat of umpteen rider's hands had eroded the rubber around the handlebars.

"What's wrong with it?" he said. 

"The handle bar grips are scuzzy," I pouted.

"Get over it," said Randy.

I did the cab run down, fixed my blanket for the final time, loaded in my water, snack and comment book and rode off the lot, picking up Jennifer at the corner of Herald St. We rode south from the barn down Government St. stopping so she could get lox and cream cheese on a bagel to eat in the cab as I struggled away for the next 40 minutes.  We rode past Bastion Square along Langley Street. I turned east onto Brougton and the steady climb began.

With Jennifer happily munching and lounging in the back I felt no pressure to go fast. We caught up on each other's lives while I moseyed slowly along, me in the lightest gears. Pedestrians on the side walk were walking faster than I was moving.

Steep pitch to Government House
Soon we were on Rockland St., with its canopy of arching trees providing cool shade on this Indian Summer day. Crossing Cook St, the real climb began. I alternated standing and sitting.

"You are really working hard there Anne," said Jennifer. 

At times I would bend very low over the handle bars, like a racing cyclist with dropped, curled handle bars because this position seemed to engage my abdomenal muscles and give me more power and stamina.  At one point near the beginning of the climb, zooming down from the top came a pedicab with an empty bucket driven by Ian of Victoria Pedicab Tours. "Hey Anne's doing the castle!" he yelled in encouragement.

Three blocks up, by Linden, my heart rate was racing well over my 80 per cent maximum and the steepest part was still to come. I pulled onto the sidewalk in the shade for a drink of water and to get my heart rate down.

After a few minutes we got back in and tackled the next section, two very steep blocks passing over Moss St. In all, the climb from sea level is probably less than 500 feet, but it comes in a series of sharp inclines.

"Man, you are getting a good workout," marvelled Jennifer as she leisurely munched her sandwich in the back.865312-1031490-thumbnail.jpg
Hill #1 conquered!

Again, about 100 metres past Moss, I had to pull over to rest my legs and get my heart rate down to a more comfortable pace. I took a minute or so rest and set off on the next steep stretch to Government House, the official Lieutenant Governor of BC mansion, with its beautiful public gardens. When I reached that summit, still able to talk, I felt elated. I honestly didn't think I would make it this far without having to get Jennifer to walk or push. She snapped my picture at the Government House gates just before we rolled through the manicured gardens.

I exited on to Joan Crescent and the last four blocks remained of the final stretch. Here the pictures tell the story.


The last few feet, I couldn't help but grin. I knew my legs would be sore the next day, but I did it! It seemed the perfect way to end my summer of pedicabbing.  While Jennifer is lighter than most typical fares, and had no problems with my two stops to catch my breath, I could even imagine doing it again with real tourists, rather than a sympathetic girlfriend.

In all it took at least 40 minutes to make the climb, and less than 15 minutes to come down. If I were charging it would be a $60 trip. The descent was beautiful, breezy, refreshing and fast.  Wheee! The zippy ride back down was almost worth the struggle going up.

What did Jennifer think? Did my struggle make her feel uncomfortable lounging behind? 

"Nope, it was great," said Jennifer.

As I rolled back into the barn I was glowing with satisfaction (and exertion). But I couldn't help but feel some sadness and nostalgia that is was my last, victorious, pedicab ride.  


Posted on Friday, September 14, 2007 at 12:58AM by Registered CommenterAnne | Comments2 Comments

Reader Comments (2)

My hero! I knew you could do it!
September 16, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterherotherhalf
I been following you pedi-cabbing exploits all summer and want to thank you so very much for affording me a glimpse into the world of the hardest-working souls in the tourist industry. I admire them even more, now!

Congratulations on your truimphant conquoring of Craigdarroch! Brava!

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie

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