Sometimes you end up visiting sites you never thought you would – sites that are off of the beaten track. It might be that you see a road sign that grabs your attention and you make a detour, you happen upon a site when you are in an area for another purpose, or that a trip is arranged for you to a place you had never thought of visiting. Last autumn I was lucky enough to make such a trip to Fort St. James National Historic Site in the heart of the province of British Columbia.
Fort St. James NHS is on the edge of the small town of Fort Saint James where the southern shore of Stuart Lake meets the Stuart River. When Simon Fraser and John Stuart established the fort in 1806 for the North West Company the surrounding area was known as New Caledonia. The view over the lake from the fort is stunning and there are extensive forested hiking trails in the surrounding area to explore. From the site’s Visitor’s Centre you can walk through the wooden palisade wall and into the fort or you can walk outside the palisade along the lake’s edge. Once inside the walls there is a lot to do: investigate the historic objects on display in the buildings, listen to the costumed interpreters, see the baby goats and bunnies, or take your chances at the Chicken Races.
The site boasts the largest Canadian collection of restored original wooden buildings from the height of the fur trade. The Fish Cache and Fur Warehouse are particularly significant examples of 19th century buildings typical of the fur industry in the region. Also within the palisade walls are the Hide Tanning Shed, Dairy, Murray House, Men’s House, Trade Store and General Warehouse. Not to be overlooked is the Commemoration Café – where you are guaranteed a delicious lunch (I recommend the ribs – but have a small breakfast). The five historic buildings and other reconstructed building are under regular monitoring and maintenance to combat the effects of time and conserve them for future generations to enjoy.
In 1948 the fort was declared a National Historic Site – even though it was still in operation as a trading post until 1952! A large Hudson’s Bay Company flag flies above the site reminding you of the economic impetus that fueled its’ foundation and longevity. Restoration based on historical and archaeological research began in earnest in the 1970’s and presents the site as a snapshot in time of what it would have been like at the end of the 1800’s. The current Parks Canada Site Manager, Bob Grill, has been working at Fort St. James since 1975 and has literally helped to reconstruct the site to what we see today. When you visit you are surrounded by the physical record of the fur trade of the Pacific Slope of Canada – a historically significant centre of trade, transportation and cultural interaction.
Fort St. James exhibits the historic activities and objects of the fur traders as well as the Indigenous groups who have ties to the location and region. Indigenous partners provide advice on site management and Indigenous Interpreters interact with site visitors in the Hide Tanning Shed in the fort itself. In addition to touring the historic structures of the fort, visitors can explore the exhibits in the Visitor Centre to get more detailed information about the site and the historically significant people who have a page in the story of the region. If you are looking for a truly immersive experience you can stay in the officer’s dwelling (Murray House) or the Men’s House – among the historic artefacts and alone in the 19th century fort all night!
There was something very special about being able to stand at the edge of the palisade and look out over Stuart Lake to take in the same view the Hudson’s Bay Company trappers and traders. Walking through the site I imagined it as a gathering place – somewhere people returned to after long journeys and time spent in the wilderness. The fur trade was a major influence in pushing European explorers west across the continent along the network of lakes, rivers and mountain passes. The fort is an important reminder of this specific period in Canada’s development.
The rabbits, goats and chickens (did I mention the Chicken Races? Chicken Racing Video) definitely add to the site’s activities on offer, but they also remind us that those who established and used the fort had to be self sufficient. The historic inhabitants were a long way from any other centres of trade. If the town of Fort Saint James seems remote today it must have seemed ten times more so in 1896. I felt like a child when I was exploring the site – it was difficult to keep myself from running from building to building to see what treasures were inside each one. One visit certainly wasn’t enough for me!
If you are interested in learning more click on the links above and here for a Parks Canada video title The Metis of Fort St. James NHS.