A replica Upper Fort Garry? — forlorn gateway may soon have company

by Bruce Cherney

George VI and Queen Elizabeth in May 1939 journeyed to Winnipeg to accept “rental payment” of beaver skins and an elk head for the occupancy of Rupert’s Land.

This unusual ceremony occurred at the Upper Fort Garry north gate, the only remnant of the earlier fort along Main Street that had served as the centre of commercial activities for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Red River Settlement. It was the Royal Charter signed on May 2, 1670, that granted to the “Company of Adventurers of England Trading into the Hudson’s Bay” a fur trade monopoly for an annual rent to be paid to the reigning monarch, who at the time was Charles II.

The 1939 rent payment was a symbolic gesture, since the power of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the West had long been surpassed by civil authority. In 1870, the vast territorial holdings of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the West had been purchased for £300,000 ($1.5 million) by the Canadian government.

Even before the purchase, the authority of the HBC had been challenged by Metis fur traders, culminating in  the trial of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer in 1849. Although Sayer was found guilty by a jury in the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia for trading furs in violation of the HBC’s monopoly, the jury recommended mercy. 

The call for mercy was dictated by a mob of 300 angry well-armed men outside the Upper Fort Garry courthouse. Adam Thom,  the Recorder of Rupert’s land who presided over the hearing, recognized the threat to his personal safety and ruled that a fine was inappropriate despite the guilty verdict. 

Upon completion of trial, Louis Riel Sr. cried out to the crowd, “le commerce is libre! (It’s free trade). Vive la liberte.” With this declaration, the monopoly the HBC had held since 1670 was effectively broken.

“Free trade could mean only the development of general commerce and the coming of the agricultural frontier and civilization,” said Manitoba historian W.L. Morton.

The power of the HBC was further eroded when it could do nothing to stop the formation  of a provisional government under the leadership of Louis Riel, the son of the previously mentioned Riel, in 1869-70. Riel used the upper fort as his seat of government which he only abandoned when troops sent west by the Canadian government arrived in August 1870.

Although the HBC still would have a strong presence in the community after its incorporated as the city of Winnipeg in 1873, Upper Fort Garry’s days as the Company’s commercial centre were numbered. To the HBC, the 500 acres of land, granted under the terms of surrender to Canada, had become more important than the fort, especially since these lands were of great speculative value in the fledgling city.

After 1877, the HBC had sold a significant number of lots which by 1883 reaped a profit of over $2 million. “This area quickly developed and became the most desirable residential district in the city,” wrote local historian Alan Artibise in Winnipeg: An Illustrated History.

The only sign that the glory days of the fort had not quite ended was when Manitoba Lieutenant-governor Adams Archibald moved his official residence from Silver Heights to Upper Fort Garry in 1872. The move became necessary when the HBC’s chief officer at Upper Fort Garry, J.H. McTavish, purchased Silver Heights. In effect, McTavish had evicted Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor who had been renting Silver Heights. McTavish then promptly resold the property to Donald Smith, the HBC’s chief commissioner and a Member of Parliament.

The Manitoba lieutenant-general’s residence at the fort remained in effect until 1883 when Government House was built on Kennedy Street. During these years, the fort’s stone walls were being continually dismantled. By 1880, all the stone walls were gone, providing rubble from a number of building foundations in downtown Winnipeg. With the relocation of the lieutenant-governor’s residence in July 1883, the last wooden wall was gone and all that remained of the historically significant fort was its north gate.

The last of the buildings and rubble had been allowed to further deteriorate and in the fall of 1886, four of the largest remaining structures were sold by auction for $292. The former Government House netted just $100 and was slated to become firewood. By 1888, all the buildings had been removed from the site.

According to reports, the gateway (referred to as the Governor’s Gateway during this period)  had attracted little interest — at least until 1888 — and it was allowed to exist as a ignored and isolated reminder of the fort’s past glory.

It is this gate at 130 Main St. which is being promoted as the centrepiece of a recreated Upper Fort Garry by a consortium of business and non-profit groups, including The Forks North Portage Partnership, Heritage Winnipeg, the Manitoba Club and the Downtown Business Improvement Zone. Former Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Peter Liba started the process by recently approaching city hall with the $5-million redevelopment proposal.

Advocates of the proposed new tourism attraction said the creation of a scaled-down replica fort and accompanying park is only possible if adjacent city-owned property, where a three-storey public works building is now located, can be acquired. The city has declared this property surplus and is for sale. The proposal from the group is that the existing building on the property be torn down and the site be declared a park. 

If given the go-ahead, the group will start a fund-raising campaign, according to a Winnipeg Sun report.

The recent proposal is one of many that have been promoted over the years to save the forlorn gateway for posterity.

The first occasion was in 1888 when the HBC’s Land Commissioner, C.J. Brydges, offered the gateway to the provincial government at no charge. His only provision was that the gateway be dismantled and re-erected at another location. This provision enraged local residents who demanded that the gateway remain in its existing location. 

The Manitoba Free Press of April 4, 1888, contained an article that included a proposal that the gateway be the centrepiece of a local park. The MHS took this proposal to city council while the Free Press promoted its merits.

While the fate of the north gate was being debated, it remained “solitary and alone, inviting the intervention of some kindly soul to save it from destruction,” according to an April 9, 1888, Free Press article.

The deterioration of the gateway is shown by a 1888 photo (Manitoba Archives) taken during the winter that shows a large crack running from its top to the upper portion of its  arch. The crack actually forks off in two directions near the top of the gateway.

A special committee of city council did act on the recommendation and proposed the retention of the gateway where it was and the purchase of 10 additional lots from the HBC for the creation of a park. This proposal was accepted by the MHS, but the transaction was not approved by the full council as some of the councillors believed the $8,000 cost of the land was too high.

The MHS then asked the HBC headquarters in London, England, to consider donating the site — at the minimum, the historical society wanted it to be sold at a reduced price — but this proposal was not accepted.

The issue was again in the news in 1893 when there was a proposal to create an athletic park near the gateway. The project went ahead as Fort Garry Park, a three-block tract of land on the southeast corner of Main Street and Broadway. The HBC participated in this redevelopment.

With the establishment of a new park opposition the gateway, the historical society again took up the cause of its preservation. The Manitoba Free Press once again reported on the renewed effort, which included a debate between local historians George Bryce and Archer Martin, who claimed that historical knowledge of the fort had lapsed into the realm of legend. It was felt that few knew or really cared about the history of the fort that had been such a dominant feature of the community for decades.

When Alexander Ross, an HBC fur trader and historian, arrived in 1825 at the Red River Settlement, he expected to find a strongly fortified position because of the former attacks upon it by fur traders from the North West Company. (Just four years before his arrival, the former antagonists had merged in 1821 under the banner of the HBC). But, instead Ross saw Fort Garry (originally called Fort Gibraltar and had been a North West Company establishment) as little more than “a few wooden houses huddled together without palisades or any regard to taste and comfort. To this cluster of huts were, however, appended two long bastions in the same style as the other buildings. These buildings according to the custom of the country, were used as dwellings and warehouses for carrying on the trade of the place.”

He further remarked that the governor’s house was like the cottage of a humble farmer.

Fort Garry was named after Nicholas Garry, the president of the HBC’s Council of the Northern Department in 1821, who in 1822 became the deputy governor of the HBC, a position  he held until 1835. He had travelled from London, England, to the Red River Settlement in 1821 to facilitate the merger of the Nor’westers into the HBC. It was Garry who named Simpson the head of the HBC’s Northern Department in Rupert’s Land. Presumably, Simpson was so grateful to his benefactor that he renamed Fort Gibraltar in his honour.

In a 1831 report, Simpson  proposed that Upper Fort Garry (Gibraltar) at The Forks be abandoned “instead of wasting time, labour and money in temporary repairs of tottering wooden buildings, to set about erecting a good, solid, comfortable establishment at once of stone and lime.”

Simpson selected as the new location of the fort a site 32 kilometres north of the existing Fort Garry  — the present Lower Fort Garry is situated along Hwy. 9 near Selkirk. Construction of the new fort started in 1835. The fort was designed by Alexander Hunter Murray and built by day labourers, who are believed to have been the Chelsea Pensioners brought over from England to defend the Red River Settlement.

The Council of Assiniboine’s minutes for February 12, 1835, referred to the erection of a new fort at “the Fork of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.”

By this time, the construction of a new  fort in the community was actually well underway on higher ground than the first Fort Garry and facing the Assiniboine River. Construction started under the direction of Alexander Christie, the new governor of the Red River Settlement.

Ross wrote in his book, The Red River Settlement, that the new fort had a frontage of 280 feet (85.34 metres) at the Assiniboine River and a depth of 240 feet (73.15 metres). “It is surrounded by a stone wall of 15 feet (4.57 metres) high, and of considerable thickness; having two large gates on the north and south side; and four round towers or blockhouses at each corner, with port and loop holes for cannon and musketry.”

Ross described the Governor’s House as “a large and commodious building” in the centre of the fort.

“There are also houses within the walls, for the accommodation of officers and men attached to the fort; together with stores and granaries and — would it were not necessary to add — a jail and court-house for the colony. It is a neat and compact establishment, and reflects great credit on Mr. Governor Christie, under whose eye the work was accomplished ...

“Upper Fort Garry, the seat of the colony Governor, is a lively and attractive station, full of business and bustle. here all the affairs of the colony are chiefly transacted, and here ladies wear their silken gowns, and gentlemen their beaver hats. Its gay and imposing appearance makes it the delight of every visitor; the rendez-vous of all comers and goers.”

The fort’s importance as a place of “business and bustle” was challenged by Henry McKenney. In 1859, McKenney opened the first hotel and licenced bar in the West to the north of Fort Garry. McKenney had noticed an unusual phenomena. The bar’s regulars didn’t follow the winding route along the Portage Trail directly to Fort Garry and then head north to his bar, but instead cut across the bald prairie directly to his establishment to slake their thirst.

With the knowledge that people will follow wherever there is something they want, McKenney built a large store at the present site of Portage and Main in 1862. There were soon 30 other buildings surrounding his store. It was where McKenney set up shop that the commercial centre of Winnipeg was established, not the HBC fort as desired by the HBC. Actually, the Winnipeg that McKenney created would spread outward to swallow up Upper Fort Garry.

It has been argued that as the city grew, the fort’s walls had to be removed because they jutted directly into Main Street, causing a difficult bend in the road. But, later writers, especially John Selwood of the University of Winnipeg in a 1982 Manitoba History article, effectively argued that this was not the case. He said, the removal of the walls and buildings was simply the result of years of neglect. The fort was in such a sorry state of disrepair that it had become an eyesore.

“Furthermore, the quarters were cramped and unsuited to the Company’s rapidly growing trade and land business, and the fort’s location was too peripheral to the village of Winnipeg to compete effectively with other enterprises. Had the fort been in better condition and more adaptable to the company’s changing needs it might have survived,” Selwood wrote.

The HBC was also more content to reap tremendous profits from the sale of lots in the immediate vicinity of the fort.

The final blow to the fort’s future came in 1881, when the HBC built a retail store at the corner of Main and York. The front portion was used for retail business, while the back and upper floors were used for the storage of furs and general merchandise. 

In 1911, a large fire-proof building was erected across the street where the wholesale, land, fur trade and offices of the HBC were established. The new building became known as Hudson’s Bay House.

According to the HBC’s website,  its retail strategy by the early 1900s was to invest in the development of large modern department stores to service the growing population of the West. “In the case of Winnipeg this strategy would mean building a brand-new store in a brand-new location.

“The location of the new store site was extremely fortunate. Not only was it directly on Portage Avenue but sat at the corner of Portage and the access road leading to the new provincial legislature. The legislature itself opened in 1920. That same year the Company decided to sit tight and defer building until the city's plans concerning the road access were final. On September 25, 1925, work commenced at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard (the site of the existing HBC retail store).”

In 1882, the MacDougall’s Illustrated Guide, referred to the fort as dishevelled, but “still the object of much curiosity to tourists and others visiting the city.”

The curiosity factor intensified to the point that the Manitoba Historical Society was pressing a campaign to preserve the north gateway, especially when its future was imperilled by a proposal by the Winnipeg Athletic Association to build a clubhouse and gym on the east side of Fort Street south of Broadway in close proximity to Fort Garry Park.

In response to the threat, city council on June 21, 1897 petitioned the HBC for a gift of the gateway lots. On August 19, the HBC agreed to the donation “as a public park forever.”

The gateway at this time was described as a tottering wreck and work began to stabilize it. The Free Press said that by October the gateway had “been restored from its tumbled-down condition to its former noble and war-like aspect.”

A total of $500 was spent on the creation of a park and restoration of the gateway.

A year later, it was proposed that the new park be named Strathcona Square after Donald Smith, who later became the Canadian high commissioner in London and became Lord Strathcona. (Winnipeg streets Donald, Smith and Strathcona are named after him.) It was Smith who became the ultimate donor of the gates. The proposed new name for the park created controversy and city council decided to name it Fort Garry Gateway Park.

On August 27, 1909, a commemorative plaque sponsored by the Canadian Club was unveiled by Smith, who obviously harboured no ill feelings that the park was not named in his honour. Another plaque was erected in 1926 by the Dominion Historic Sites and Monuments Board.

Over the years, numerous improvements, or suggestions to improve, have been made to the park. In 1902, there was even a call to build a small-scale replica of the original fort — like today’s proposal from Liba. This proposal was not acted upon.

The gateway for decades was really a sad cousin in city’s park system. By the mid-1940s it had lapsed into disrepair, sandwiched between a gas station and an empty lot covered in billboards.

In 1949, it was found that one of the outer gates and two of the inner gates had disappeared. Surprisingly, no one in authority had even realized the theft had occurred and that it dated back to the 1930s. City council promptly allocated funds for repairs.

In 1953, the Fort Garry Chamber of Commerce proposed that the gate be moved from its existing location to the chamber’s property along Pembina Highway. Of course, this was rejected, although the chamber argued that Winnipeg had forfeited its right to the gate since the citizens had rejected the name Fort Garry when the city was incorporated in 1873.

Over the years, the site of the gateway has been in the shadow of more substantial buildings such as the Imperial Oil Building (1948; 1956), the Grain  Exchange Curling Club (1948-49), the Fort Garry Filling Station (1924; 1954) as well as the Manitoba Club (1903-05) and the Hotel Fort Garry (1913).

The last major renovation was in 1983 under a provincial-federal conservation agreement when $160,000 was spent for a face-lift of the gate, the removal of fill around the structure and the erection of a 165-foot wooden replica fence which was meant to simulate the 1850s north wall. A mural was also erected to the south of the gate to approximate the view around 1881.

(Information also obtained from 1991: The Year Past, a report of the City of Winnipeg Historical Building Committee.)