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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

A Brief History of Lower Fort Garry

by Dale Miquelon

Countess of Dufferin and Descendants

The reader will remember that by 1875, the traditional trunk route from York Factory to Norway House had been superceded by the St. Paul trail, and that this greatly enhanced the position of Lower Fort Garry in the freighting system of the Hudson's Bay Company. A second transportation revolution beginning in 1877 and completed by 1893 changed both the routes and technology of transport in the Northwest. This period of startling transformation was the railway age, and its advent brought the steady decline and obsolescence of Lower Fort Garry. The technological demands of the paddle-wheeler gave way to those of the locomotive; and, once it was decided that the transcontinental line would pass through Winnipeg rather than Selkirk, it was clear that primacy in the fur trade belonged to the old seat of the Company at the forks.

In Minnesota, the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, chartered in 1857, had by 1870 laid rail from St. Paul on the Mississippi to Breckenridge on the Red.1 In the financial panic of 1873, the badly run firm went bankrupt.2 But its 217 miles of rusty track which held the promise of a 2,500,000 acre land grant in Minnesota were to be the foundation of railroading in western Canada. At that time, all freighting for the Hudson's Bay Company between St. Paul and Winnipeg was carried on by the steamboats of the Red River Transportation Line, a company owned by two former Canadians living in St. Paul, Norman W. Kittson, the Hudson's Bay Company's old rival, and James J. Hill.3 Kittson, Hill and the Hudson's Bay Company's chief commissioner, Donald Smith, foresaw that they could themselves establish the first rail connection between Winnipeg and St. Paul if they could buy the St. Paul and Pacific at a good price and make it the nucleus of a new system of north-south orientation.4

Smith interested his cousin, George Stephen, president of the Bank of Montreal, in the scheme with the result that he, together with Stephen, R.B. Angus, general manager of the bank, Kittson and Hill formed a group which, with the financial backing of the bank, took an option to purchase the line from the Dutch bondholders. By adding a loan from the bank to what they could raise from their own capital, the group was able to complete the line to the Canadian border before the end of December, 1878, thus securing the land grant. They then formed a new company, the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railroad, which paid for the bonds and took over the St. Paul and Pacific together with its land grant.5

At the same time the Mackenzie government, which had succeeded the Macdonald administration in 1873, was building a transcontinental in its own way — by "bits and pieces." Smith, now M.P. for Selkirk, was instrumental in assuring that one of these bits and pieces was a branch line from Selkirk to the American border via Winnipeg, through which it was proposed the transcontinental would run. It was for this line that the first locomotive in the Canadian West, the Countess of Dufferin, arrived at Winnipeg on a barge pushed by the Red River Transportation Line's steamer Selkirk on 9 October 1877.6 The "branch line" was completed and joined to the St. Paul and Pacific in 1878 before the main line was even begun. The new St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba obtained running rights on its track, although the Macdonald government cancelled this arrangement when it returned to office.7

4 Transportation routes of the fur trade, 1890-93, by steamboat, Red River cart, York boat, and railway. (click on image for a PDF version)

Smith, Stephen and their friends made a great deal of money, and it was J.H. Pope's advice to John A. Macdonald to interest them in building the transcontinental main line before they invested their profits elsewhere. Macdonald succeeded. On 21 October 1880, the Stephen group together with Duncan McIntyre of the Central Canada Railway and a number of European banking houses contracted to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. The efforts of financiers, contractors, engineers, railroaders and navvies brought the venture to a successful conclusion, and the last spike was driven at Craigellachie Pass on 7 November 1885.8

The railroad from St. Paul to Winnipeg had replaced the steamboats on Red River, which were subsequently warped over Grand Rapids and used on the Saskatchewan where the Northcote was already in use.9 The Lily was added to the fleet for use on the South Saskatchewan. Accordingly changes occurred in the pattern of transport into the northern fur regions. After 1880, goods were no longer shipped over the Methey Portage. Cumberland House, Fort Carlton, and Edmonton were all on the new Saskatchewan River trunk line and it was from these three posts that goods were shipped into the north.10 The railroad to Regina rendered the steamboats on the Assiniboine obsolete, and the same thing would happen again when railways secured the northern hinterland by means of branch lines. On 10 October 1890, a line was completed from Regina to Prince Albert, thus eclipsing Fort Carlton. Subsequently a line was extended from Calgary to Edmonton. Edmonton proved to be a more suitable depot than Prince Albert because of easy access to the northern river system from Athabaska Landing which was reached by a wagon road. From Athabaska Landing, goods could be shipped north to Fort Chipewyan and thence still further north via the Slave River or west on the Peace. By 1893, steamboat service on the Saskatchewan River had ended. The paddle-wheelers retreated before the advance of the locomotive as they had done twice before and as the cart trains had done before them, finding a last refuge on the Athabaska and the Mackenzie.11

Confederation, the railroad and immigration combined to change the character of the West and the conditions of the Hudson's Bay Company's trade. The development of a stable agricultural economy relieved the Company of the old problem of provisioning. Except in the northernmost regions, merchandise was shipped in freight cars owned and operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway instead of river steamers maintained by the Company. The speed and certainty of communications made it unnecessary to keep large inventories of goods on hand. In the south, the merchandising methods required to serve a settled population rendered trading forts obsolete. Upper Fort Garry was sold and demolished in 1882. The warehouses, the sales shop, the farm and the shipbuilding yard of the lower fort had become a liability.

In 1911 a "northern dog team driver cracked his whip and with a loud 'marche', swung his huskies proudly and for the last time round the crescent inside the fort to the sales shop. There, meeting a Company trader, he reenacted a scene which had taken place in the fort for 80 years and so trading ended at Lower Fort Garry."12 Clerk John Stanger closed and locked the old Stone Fort. Conscious of the fort's historic character, the Company offered it to the governments of both Manitoba and Canada, but neither would at that time accept the responsibility of custodianship. Nonetheless, Lower Fort Garry was destined for the most gracious retirement ever accorded a trading post.

5 Transportation routes of the fur trade, 1894-1913, by steamboat, Red River cart, or railway. (click on image for a PDF version)

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