When you step through the palisade gates, you really are in another world, 180 years ago. You meet characters from another age, who are friendly and informative. You are invited to approach anyone.
Welcome to Fort William, magnificent inland headquarters of the North West Company of Montreal, just as it was in 1815, the site of the legendary Great Rendezvous. Here, a colourful era of Canada's past comes to life.
The North West Company, originated in 1784 by a coalition of Montreal fur traders, has become a global enterprise, challenging the Hudson's Bay Company for domination of the North American fur trade. Since 1803, Fort William has served as a handy cross-country "midway" point, allowing for the transhipment of trade goods from the east and furs from the west in a single season. Grand Portage, in what is now Minnesota, was their first inland base. But with the establishment of the American border and potential customs duties imposed on fur, the Nor'Westers decided to re-locate to Lake Superior in 1801, where they built Fort Kaministiquia. The Fort was re-named in 1807 in honour of William McGillivray, chief director of the North West Company.
Fort William is no mere post. As a support base, the Fort has many functions and components, including warehouses, stores and summer residences for employees, a working farm with livestock and a tradesmen's area for small-scale manufacturing and repair. Few posts can match Fort William in terms of size and scope.
Fort William Historical Park is an authentic duplicate of its namesake operated by the Nor'Westers from 1803 to 1821. Open since 1973, the fur trade complex has been meticulously re-built by the Ontario government, nine miles upstream from the original site by the Kaministiquia River on Lake Superior.
The fort is something to behold and it's easy to see why. The place is huge. There are over 42 outfitted historic buildings standing on the sprawling 25-acre site. Ensconced in a peaceful, natural environment, it's a massive complex, a world unto itself. There's so much to see, you need a few hours to explore it all. Your explorations take you through a unique cultural community. As you pass through various areas and buildings, you meet an assortment of Ojibwa and Metis Natives, Scottish gentlemen and French Canadian voyageurs, craftsmen and farm labourers. It's a fascinating cultural mosaic, frozen in time.
Just outside the fort's palisade, the Ojibwa work among the wigwams in the Native encampment. Skinning, tanning and stretching hides, stitching birch bark baskets called "mukuks" and sifting wild rice are among many duties they perform. Native creations such as the birch bark canoe and snowshoe, enabled the Europeans to reap tremendous success from the fur trade. Explore the Learning Wigwam, a specially enlarged structure to encourage groups to experience aboriginal culture.
Inside the fort, a friendly guide points the way. There are dozens of buildings to explore.
In the vast Main Square, you may run across the Company gentlemen, resplendent in their top hats, long coats and cravats. They often huddle in the Council House, squabbling over Company business or you may even find them arresting a lowly blacksmith, who's been trading with the hated Hudson's Bay Company. However, the ‘gents' are pleased to show off the grand environs of the Great Hall, their dining and social centre. Impressive portraits, fine china dinnerware and crystal glasses underline the vast wealth of these men. The huge map on the east wall reveals how the North West Company was truly a worldwide enterprise and how the explorations of Nor'Westers Simon Fraser, Sir Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson play a key role in the development of Canada.
The voyageurs, though, are not so 'high and mighty.' You can easily spot them--they're the ones in the bright shirts and wide, colourful sashes. Most are required to camp outside the palisade, except for the guides who actually have a bunkhouse within the Fort. However carefree they may appear, they are truly the human packhorses of the Company, paddling canoes and carrying heavy packs hundreds of miles.
Intriguing aromas draw you to the Kitchen and Bakery, where the cooks and assistants prepare meals for the gentlemen. The bakery in particular is filled with the smell of delicious, freshly-baked bread--which formed part of the treat called a "regale," issued to each voyageur upon arrival at Fort William.
As you saunter into the Trades Area, you find historic artisans performing original crafts. The armourer repairs trade guns while the cooper "fires" a keg. The blacksmith may be repairing an iron hinge while the tinsmith is completing a lantern. The carpenter/joiner may be found finishing a table leg on the foot-powered lathe while the canoe builder is splitting cedar to make gunnels for a birchbark canoe. In fact, on-water vessels were quite abundant at Fort William. The Canoe Shed features bark vessels of various sizes, from the huge 36-foot Montreal canoes to the smaller "North" canoes while the Naval Shed produced row boats called "bateaux" to 20-ton schooners.
The Farm is one of most popular places for kids. It's not everyday where children get to touch a newborn lamb or hear the squeals of piglets. Chickens, cattle and draft horses round out the rest of the menagerie. Aside from caring for the animals, the farm labourers are also busy with growing crops to help feed the gentlemen.
Everyone is working in anticipation of the Great Rendezvous, the annual gathering of North West Company employees.
It's a time of much activity, as canoe brigades converge on Fort William. For a few hectic weeks in the middle of summer, the fort's population would explode from a mere handful to more than 1,000 people. Today, this occasion is re-created as a colourful festival beginning in the second week of July, which brings together fur trade re-enactors from across Canada and the U.S.
There is also ample opportunity for visitors to get involved in daily activities. Families can paddle canoes on the Kam river, under the guidance of experienced costumed personnel. And if you REALLY wish to re-live the voyageur experience, there are new overnight programs and facilities for families and groups. Paddle a canoe, play games of chance, learn a period craft, do a little dancing and sleep in rustic quarters--either in tents, the Guides House, Bell House or ‘Haybarn'--just you would in 1815. It's fun for adventurers of all ages.
Fort William Historical Park is open year-round.
For more information, call (807) 473-2344.