"The men who took part, sometimes in ruthless and bloody roles, could not know what they were doing. Yet they were founding Canada geographically, even as they were beginning to live our country's characteristic life. Their immediate aim was only to get out the furs, but their great outpost became the hinge of a nation."
Fort William was an economic and political powerhouse that played a pivotal role in Canada's history. As the inland headquarters of the North West Company, Fort William was able to challenge the supremacy of the Hudson's Bay Company and in the process it helped shape our nation. In the late 1960s, recognition of the Fort's national and regional significance prompted local citizens and leaders in the city of Fort William to lobby for its reconstruction. A total reconstruction of the Fort was necessary because after it closed for good 1883, as result of the declining demand for fur, its buildings had been gradually torn down. In 1902 the Canadian Pacific Railway demolished the last surviving building, the Stone Store, at the original site of Fort William. However the Thunder Bay Historical Society commissioned a monument at the original site depicting the history of Fort William. This monument was unveiled in 1914 by the Thunder Bay Historical Society at the foot of McTavish Street.
A reconstructed Fort William was seen as an opportunity to celebrate our cultural heritage. It was also envisioned as the cornerstone of a burgeoning regional tourism industry and a stimulus for economic growth in Northwestern Ontario.
The first step on the road to reconstruction began in1968 with an archaeological dig led by Lakehead University Professor Kenneth Dawson. His team of university students was able to locate palisade posts and the foundations of the Great Hall as well as unearth other remnants of the Fort. Their discoveries prompted the Westfort Kiwanis, at the suggestion of M.P.P. Jim Jessiman, to begin organizing the reconstruction of Fort William in earnest the following year. Their hard work resulted in the founding of an archaeological project to obtain further data. Funding for the excavations was obtained from the Ontario Government and administered through Lakehead University.
These early efforts came to fruition in January 1971 when Premier John Robarts announced that the Ontario Government would rebuild Fort William at Pointe de Meuron near the mouth of the Kaministiquia River. This location was nine miles up from the Fort's original site in Thunder Bay's "East End." The original site had been rejected because it had become a hub of industrial activity and a CP rail yard now crisscrossed Fort William's foundations.
The proposed relocation of the Fort created some controversy but the plan later won acceptance when it was realized that industrial development had made the East End location unfeasible and too costly. Moreover, the new site had the advantage of being set away from intrusive modernisms in a pristine natural setting. Point de Meuron also had historic links to the original Fort William - the area was used as an encampment by de Meuron mercenaries who helped Lord Selkirk of the Hudson Bay Company take over Fort William in August of 1816. The De Meurons camped at this point before rowing boats to the North West Company post.
Northwestern Ontario's Fur Trade Heritage Comes Alive
New premier William Davis kicked off the reconstruction project when he turned the sod in June 1971. The Ministry of Natural Resources assumed responsibility for the building and operation of this heritage complex which had been designated Old Fort William Historical Park. In subsequent years, the Fort would fall under the direction of a number of provincial ministries before becoming part of its current ministry - Tourism, Culture and Sport.
On July 3, 1973 Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip officially opened the Fort to a large and enthusiastic crowd. Only three buildings were open for interpretation to visitors at that time: the Naval Shed, Taitt's House, and Boucher's House. Despite this, more than 43,000 people visited the Fort during its inaugural year. The next few years were marked by the rapid construction of other heritage buildings. In 1974, ten new buildings were opened: the Guide's House, Hospital, Council House, Tradesmen's House, Carpenter's Shop, Gaol, Blacksmith's and Tinsmith's Shops, South Canoe Shed, Cooper's, Armourer's, and Tailor's Shops.
Fourteen more buildings were constructed between 1975 and 1976 helping recreate the atmosphere of the original Fort William. The Agret Store, Indian Shop, Cantine, Corn and Fur Stores, Counting House, Indian and Voyageur Encampments, Kitchen, and five farm buildings helped transform Fort William into an exciting and bustling place. Other important milestones from this period include the launching of the "Kaministikwia," the first batteau constructed in the Historic Naval Shed.
Between 1979 and 1984, the Fort's eight remaining buildings were completed: the Wintering House, Dry Goods Store, Northwest House, Fur Stores, Provision Stores, Stone Store, Dr. McLoughlin's House and Apothecary, and the Great Hall. Marjorie W. Campbell author of "The Northwest Company," opened the Great Hall in 1981. This impressive white-painted building occupying the centre of the Main Square soon became the showpiece of the Fort. North West Company partners and clerks had dined in this elegantly furnished banqueting hall during the annual Great Rendezvous held every summer.
Developments and improvements to the historic site continued throughout the 1980s and into the present as part of the Fort's period maintenance and renovation operations. The Fort has also had to cope with effects of two floods that occurred in 1977 and 2003. In both cases, repairs to the heritage buildings and the grounds were necessary to restore them to their original condition.
Today, the historic site with its 46 reconstructed buildings on our pristine 225 acre site, allows visitors to step into the past and watch the unfolding of events that changed the course of our nation's history. It represents a significant capital investment by the Province of Ontario and is one of the largest living history sites on the continent. Since opening, Fort William Historical Park has attracted millions people and employs full-time, contract and seasonal staff, making it one of Northwestern Ontario's primary engines for economic growth and development.