When I worked in the 1846-era at Fort Edmonton Park, there were quite a few questions I would get asked more or less dozens of times a day. One, if the visitors didn’t get the introductory tour from the train platform, was a variation on the theme of: “Where did the soldiers sleep?” This question would prompt us costumed interpreters to patiently explain that this wasn’t a military fort, but a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, and generally having soldiers on site threatening to shoot your customers (the local Cree and other First Nations from further afield) was bad for business. However, just as often we got this question: “Is this the original fort?”
It’s a fair question. The wood of the fort looks quite old. The park also has numerous other original historical buildings on site which have been moved there over the past decades. Unfortunately, the answer is no, it a reconstruction of Fort Edmonton as it stood in 1846.
“Where is/was the original fort?” is often the follow up question.
The answer? It’s complicated.
Fort Edmonton was nominally founded in 1795, but no fort by that name stood for more than a decade or so in the same location until the fifth and final fort was constructed in 1840. They were built either too far away for local customers to conveniently visit (e.g., the location that was way down near modern Fort Saskatchewan) or in a location prone to flooding (a really relevant topic this year) like the two times it was placed near the Rossdale Flats. They were also never meant to be permanent structures and were not designed to stand the test of time.
You can still see faint evidence of the fourth fort now: right next to the old fort cemetery, on the North side of the Walterdale Bridge, where they have graves, a figure of eight or stylized tipi statue, and interpretive signs. I have been told that the fort stood on the big flat square that is now the intersection of 95 Ave and 105 street NW. I would highly recommend visiting the site – uh, the graveyard, not the intersection, that’s suicide, please don’t stop in the middle of the road to admire the asphalt – because according to our records and archaeological digs, numerous individuals from the early history of the Fort are buried there… including a woman I portrayed for one season, Nancy Harriott, daughter of Chief Factor John Rowand. That intersection has a lot of history underneath it.
Anyway, that still hasn’t answered your original question: where is the original fort, the one represented at Fort Edmonton? The fifth and final one? Well, they had trouble with flooding in earlier iterations, so they moved the location of the fort up the hill… to a very familiar hill, in fact, if you live in Edmonton today. Let’s go to Google Maps:
This is a map showing the grounds of the Legislature building in Edmonton, which houses the provincial government of Alberta. In behind the Legislature is a set of stairs: go down them. At the bottom, you’ll find a lovely flat area where they do lawn bowling today: a square of cleared land. (Zoom in on this map; the salmon-pink “A” pin points the way.) That green square is where the original fort stood.
If you visit the site, you will see little obelisks set up where some of the old bastions used to be. Hence, too, “Fortway drive”, the name of the road that runs parallel to the river below that site. There’s also the photographic record, because Edmontonians and tourists to the city loved seeing the contrast between old (the fort) and new (the construction of the high level bridge and the Legislature) on postcards of the era. The Legislature shared the grounds with the fort for nearly a decade in the early twentieth century.
The old fort wasn’t torn down entirely until 1915, though previously the tall walls had been removed and the wooden buildings whitewashed. It had looked more or less like it was portrayed on this postcard for over a generation.
Why was it torn down, if it is such an important part of Edmonton’s history? Well, by the first decade of the twentieth century, it wasn’t in the best of shape. The fur trade had been in decline in the area since the 1860s and 1870s – curse Prince Albert and his trend-setting silk top hats! – and the fort’s buildings had been mostly abandoned for several decades after being used as a warehouse for the HBC. Photographs of the era show the buildings to be listing rather severely to one side, necessitating crossbeams to be added to prop them up. The company no longer owned the land, and in all honesty, the buildings were probably spoiling the view of the grounds from the legislature building. It was rotting and full of vermin. So they took it down.
(As an interpreter who shall remain nameless told me in my first year at the fort: “then they put the rot and the vermin in the new Legislature building instead! Haha?” I loved that joke, but I was always afraid to tell it too often lest an actual politician, such as an MLA, was in the audience.)
There are several unverified theories as to what happened to the actual wood of the Fort Edmonton buildings. People did object to the demolition of the structure, and so the city(?) promised to save the wood and reconstruct the fort at a later date. Apparently the wood was stored down by the river for a long while before going missing. Perhaps it rotted away. Others say that the Boy Scouts burned it in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, as the city did apparently donate a bunch of old, dry wood for their bonfires. One man claims that his barn is made up in part of the wood from the fort, and the wood is certainly old enough, but there’s no obvious “made in Fort Edmonton” stamp on it, so who can tell at such a late date? A mystery for the ages.
And anyway, you don’t really want the park’s fort built of the same wood as before. I mean, if it was in rough shape in 1915, how much worse would it have been in the late 1960s when the fort was reconstructed, let alone today in 2013? No visitor would be allowed inside the fort because of safety concerns.
But fear not! You can still see some original pieces of Fort Edmonton at the park. Go into Rowand House, behind the stairs on the main floor. Ask an interpreter about the big metal box you see there. (It may be the subject of a future blog post.) I have also heard rumours that the top of the fort’s flag pole may also be original to the old fort, but this historical tidbit has yet to be verified.
Oh, and one more thing: the reconstruction of the fort at the park, while made to the exact measurements of the Palliser plan from 1846, is different in a handful of ways, but most significantly is this: it is a mirror image of the original fort. Why? The old one was on the North side of the North Saskatchewan River. The park stands on the South side. The gates had to face in the correct direction: the river.
- Brock Silversides. Fort de Prairies. Edmonton, AB: Heritage House Publishing Co. Ltd, 2005. Aside from a detailed history of the forts in the Edmonton area, drawing liberally from primary sources, it also reprints what may be all known depictions of Fort Edmonton since the early 1800s. If you would like to consult one of the photographs or maps that I mention, it is in all likelihood reproduced in this book.
- A photograph (which also appears in Silversides’ book) of the old fort being demolished in 1915.
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