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The Far Flung Corners of the Empire

The Far Flung Corners of the Empire

Relics of the Hudson's Bay Company still stand across the North, though many buildings that were once havens are being retaken by the wilderness
By Up Here
Jul 03
2015
From the July 2015 Issue

The Hudson’s Bay Company’s significance lingered a little longer in the North than it did below the 60th parallel. Historians speak in lofty terms of the grand old company’s early days—no mere mortal men, the fur traders and explorers were titans, kings, caesers in birchbark canoes. Through cunning, ambition, skirmish and diplomacy, the HBC gained sovereignty over a third of what is now Canada. It was a trade monopoly, selling furs and other resources back to Mother Britain, but to those living and working under the company’s lordship, there was no greater authority, at least on this side of the ocean. “We know only two powers—God and the Company,” an old HBC chief factor is quoted as saying by journalist Peter C. Newman in his accounts of the company. At the height of its power, some would flippantly say its iconic initials stood for “Here Before Christ.”

But as all haughty empires do, the Hudson’s Bay Company fell from the high point it had been climbing to, for 200 years. It surrendered control of its territory, Rupert’s Land, to Canada in 1870 for 300,000 pounds. It was at this late stage in the company’s life that it began opening retail stores and trading posts throughout Canada’s North.

In 1909, employee Ralph Parsons opened the company’s first Arctic post, Cape Wolstenholme, at the northernmost tip of Quebec (in what’s now Nunavik). He had been sent up north to make contact with the Inuit and set up trading posts to exchange goods for Arctic fox furs. Decades later, there were dozens more set up across the Arctic, and their posts paved the way for many of the communities that now exist in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Centres of commerce became centres of governance.

While in the south the HBC became the Bay, a high-end department store, it kept its bravado in the North, where those old initials were sometimes explained, with a wink, as the Horny Boys Club. Writes employee George Cleveland in 1924, who is said to have had nine wives and 14 children, “The sounds that float from my kitchen, or out of the fur house on the three nights a week we hold our barn dances, tell the sky and stars that I am the most popular entertainer as well as the leading business man of Repulse Bay.” 

But these days too came to an end, and the company sold off its Northern Stores Division (including its fur trading operations) in 1987. Many of the old Hudson’s Bay buildings still scatter the far reaches of the once-great empire.

Some are still in use as warehouses, and some are decrepit shelters in the vast wilderness—a very Canadian equivalent to Britain’s old Roman roads. 

FORT SELKIRK 

Yukon

Photo: Yukon Government

We arrived in Fort Selkirk the way people have for centuries: by river. Our two canoes burst out of the mouth of the Pelly River into the main flow of the Yukon, and we had to put our heads down and paddle, ferrying across the river’s whole width, to reach the far shore before the current swept us past. 

We dragged our boats up above the waterline and climbed a set of stairs up to the top of the bluff on a sunny afternoon in mid-summer. We’d arrived at a pocket of human-maintained order in an endless forested wilderness: a wide grassy lawn, tidy log buildings with neatly painted trim, a couple flagpoles. I had known we were coming to a place like this, but still, the contrast was jarring.

At the confluence of the Pelly and Yukon rivers, the Fort Selkirk area has been a gathering place for Yukon First Nations—in particular, the Northern Tutchone, in whose traditional territory it lies—for millennia. But it’s best known for the role it played more recently, in the last century and a half, as a trading post and important waypoint along the river route to the Klondike. 

The Northern Tutchone and the coastal Chilkat Tlingit had been using the site to trade together for years when Robert Campbell and the Hudson’s Bay Company showed up in the mid-19th century and established Fort Selkirk. The Chilkat, so the story goes, weren’t thrilled about the competition—and in the summer of 1852 they sacked the HBC outpost.
[Editor’s note: oral tradition states that the Chilkat forced Campbell into a boat—naked, some say—and sent him down the Pelly River to die. The chief of Fort Selkirk, Hanan, rescued him. Campbell gave the chief his family name as thanks and in the 1950s, Fort Selkirk still had a Campbell chief: Big Jonathon Campbell.] The company retreated, and the next white trader to make use of the site was Arthur Harper, who came down the river to set up shop in 1889. Soon after that, the Klondike Gold Rush got rolling, and by the turn of the century the Yukon River was booming—and Fort Selkirk with it. Bars and hotels went up to serve the crowds, the Hudson’s Bay Company returned in the 1930s to get in on the action, and there was even a time when the community was a candidate to become the territorial capital.

The building of the Alaska Highway in the early 1940s, and the all-weather road from Mayo to Dawson a decade later, put an end to all that. Traffic moved off the Yukon River, and by the end of the 1950s Fort Selkirk was a ghost town. 

Today, its grassy site above the river and its 37 extant buildings—a general store, a church, log houses, and two cemeteries—are maintained jointly as a territorial historic site by the Yukon government and the Selkirk First Nation. It’s a tiny human footprint in the wilderness; a place that keeps saying “We were here” while the uncaring river flows on by. – EH

RAMPART HOUSE

Yukon

Photo: Yukon Government/Historic Sites Unit

The fourth outpost along the Porcupine River built in the 1840s, HBC actually abandoned Rampart House in 1894. The company beat a hasty retreat to Fort McPherson after trade became too plugged up with whalers to the North and Alaskans to the west.

A man named Dan Cadzow started up his own independent trading post in 1904, which is why the Yukon Government refers to the buildings here as Cadzow’s House.

His post was successful until smallpox struck in 1911 (which meant many contaminated buildings had to be destroyed, and First Nation families were quarantined on an island opposite the settlement). Soon after, legal complications arose once the U.S. border was finalized less than a kilometre away. 

The store still stands, as does the warehouse and his old home, which he built be-cause the HBC buildings were crumbling.

Cadzow’s home was elegant and advanced, complete with a gramophone and kerosene lanterns (the only building not lit by candle.) A dresser he built still stands in the building. 

Cadzow died in 1929 and his second wife moved to Old Crow. The last people who lived at Rampart House were Gwich’in, but they also relocated to Old Crow by 1940.

The First Nation, which co-owns the site with the Yukon Government, has been restoring it since 2005. – KW

COWARD GARAGE

Yukon

Photo: Yukon Government/Historic Sites Unit

Right at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly Rivers lies a house surrounded by spruce, moss, fireweed and rosebushes. It’s 77 metres west of the Hudson’s Bay Company foundation, and two cemeteries just south of the house. 

The floor and foundation are rotting and a wall is gone but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t once built for a purpose; the building has been dismantled and changed three times, but it began as six jail cells, although there are no records if it kept prisoners. 

In the early 1900s, HBC bought the building. Soon after, a man named Alex Coward dug a basement for HBC and this building was his payment. -KW

FORT RELIANCE

NWT

Photo: Tom Andrews/GNWT

Chimneys poke out of the bush just past the edge of Great Slave Lake’s East Arm, at the mouth of the Lockhart River. Along with cabin foundations and piles of rubble, they’re all that are left of old Fort Reliance.

This is where Captain George Back was based as he launched expeditions to search for the lost Captain John Ross and exploring Arctic rivers in the 1830s. 

In 1855, Chief Factor James Anderson of HBC rebuilt the fort and used it as a winter camp during his search for Sir John Franklin in the Northwest Passage. Fort Reliance continued on as a trading post.

It was also the site where five muskox lived and died. In 1897, Buffalo Jones was here collecting animals for the Bronx Zoo. He built a cabin around one of the remaining chimneys and lived here while he hunted. He did not get along with the Chipewyan—in fact, he even set booby traps in his cabin to make sure nobody stepped foot inside: a loaded gun pointed at the door, with a string set to fire should the door open. The  locals disagreed with Jones capturing muskox for his American zoo. Five of the “black monsters,” as Jones called them, were captured by lasso and kept captive at the old fort. Under cover of night, a group of men who Buffalo Jones believed to be local Dene and Metis killed all the muskox in the night, believing what Buffalo Jones was doing to be immoral. So the story goes, they left the knife they used on the snow near the animals to send a message to Jones. Jones returned south to become Yellowstone National Park’s first game warden.

Parks Canada and the territory are working together to preserve what remains of the storied fort. – KW

YELLOWKNIFE

NWT

When prospector Cyril John “Yellowknife Johnny” Baker found a quartz vein “lousy with visible gold” on the east shore of Yellowknife Bay in the fall of 1934, he set off a rush. Soon, those looking to escape the clutches of the Great Depression and change their fortunes populated a haphazard village of tents and shacks along the west side of the bay.

By 1938, with two gold mines in production (Burwash and Con) Yellowknife was a bonafide settlement. Bush planes made the wilderness around Yellowknife more accessible than ever and much of the business at the post in the early days was filling bush orders. Back then, your standard supply list from a prospector staking out in the bush might include the same things the city's oldest store, Weaver and Devore’s, sends out today: bulk dry goods and enough fresh produce to last until it starts going bad.

The original warehouse burned down in January 1945 and a new one opened a short distance away within the year and was used until 1960, when all HBC business moved to the new retail store up the hill in the city’s New Town.  The warehouse still stands, empty and boarded up, though the retail store in what’s now the city’s urban centre is long gone. – LB

PANGNIRTUNG

Nunavut

Photo courtesy Nunavut Territorial Parks and Special Places

Although Cumberland Sound had been a prime whaling area since the 1800s, by the time the Hudson’s Bay Company set up a post at Pangnirtung in 1921 their interest had shifted to white fox furs. They went as far as establishing an experimental fox farm there in 1928. But local Inuit, who traditionally hunted whales and seals, were not as interested in trapping. The company relented, and the post’s main focus shifted to whaling.

There were at least four buildings at the whaling station, including a blubber rendering plant, blacksmith shop and a fat grinding shed. In its heyday, whales would be hauled out of the water by hand, cut up and rendered in the various buildings. All four buildings have been renovated in recent years, with funding from the Nunavut government. The 70-square metre blubber rendering building is now home to replicas of whaling boats. – DC

FORT ROSS

Nunavut

Photo: Dennis Minty

The last trading post established by the Hudson’s Bay Company had an inauspicious start, a short life and a tumultuous end. It all started in 1937 when its first manager, Lorenz Learmonth, broke three or four ribs on the deck of the icebreaker Nascopie trying to make a grand entrance into his new post. The carpenter who built the first buildings of the post, Don Goodyear, agreed to stay on and act as his caretaker so Learmonth could keep with his dream of running the post, situated at the southeastern tip of Somerset Island. 

It was built in five days with lumber, insulation, bricks and kegs of nails brought aboard the Nascopie. Though it was one of the most northern the HBC had established, the house was modern and not lacking in beauty—which can still be seen today. 

The post traded in seal and fox furs and consisted of four buildings—the manager’s house, a power house, warehouse and store. Bill Lyall, a former MLA and current president of the Ikaluktutiak Co-op in Cambridge Bay, was born at Fort Ross in 1941. He only spent the first seven years of his life at the fort, before it closed down and his family moved to Taloyoak, but Lyall remembers living traditionally in tents and snow houses with other Inuit families near the trading post. 

“I remember going in just about all those buildings,” Lyall says. “There was a lot of times when people were trading they all went to the Hudson’s Bay manager’s house for tea and biscuits. That’s just the way they socialized in those days.”

But in 1942 things got desperate, and the tea and biscuits stopped coming in. The harbour was iced over, and the Nascopie couldn’t get in. Bill Heslop, the post manager at the time (whom Lyall is named after) and his wife Barbara had to ration supplies. The company employees began hunting seal and other wild game to supplement their diet—although Barbara admitted the seal meat was “too strong for our tastes.” In August 1943 they finally spotted the Nascopie about 15 miles off shore, but it couldn’t get through the ice pack. The Hudson’s Bay Company would need to find another way to evacuate the stranded post. They appealed to the Royal Canadian Air Force, but Canada’s long-range planes were tied up in the Second World War. The United States Army Air Force stepped in, and agreed to supply a Douglas C-47 Skytrain to help get them out. But there was a hitch: Fort Ross didn’t have a suitable runway. 

A crew was put together of “Arctic specialists,” including a man named Captain Fletcher who would parachute from the plane into Fort Ross and direct the construction of a makeshift runway for the plane. He had one day of jump training before the operation, yet he successfully landed near Fort Ross on November 4, 1943, in what was probably the first ever parachute jump north of the Arctic Circle. He quickly set to work directing local Inuit to mark off a runway for the plane on a nearby lake—which only had 15-inch-thick ice. 

The plane landed shortly afterwards and had to taxi the entire time to avoid getting stuck in the snow and ice. The Heslops jumped aboard but had to abandon most of their supplies. Fort Ross was shut down. 

But it reopened the next year under a new post manager, albeit still plagued by problematic pack ice. In 1947 the Nascopie was wrecked near Cape Dorset, and the post could no longer be supplied. Other ships were too small or weak to make the run and the company decided to close the post in 1948. 

“Only the strong and the useful survive in the North so today time is running out for Fort Ross, hamlet-trading post beyond the Arctic’s rim,” ran a May, 1948 story in the Montreal Gazette. “Soon the company will abandon it officially, supply it no more, and the elements of the North can start their work of obliteration.”

The North surely has started its work on the remaining buildings, although they still stand. Lyall took only one trip back to the place of his birth, in the mid-1970s while an MLA.

“The thing is, it was a place that I never really knew, but going back there, it did seem kind of gloomy when there was nobody else around.” -- DC

APEX

Nunavut

The Hudson’s Bay Company post that eventually settled in what would become Nunavut’s capital city took a while to get there. It travelled around several inlets within Frobisher Bay, following the Inuit: Charles Francis Hall Bay (1914), to Hamelin Bay (1920), to Ward Inlet (1922), to its final destination in Apex (1943). The new site had the added bonus of being next to a major U.S. Air Force base, where Iqaluit would eventually come to be, complete with communications infrastructure and an airstrip.

The buildings are now privately owned, and you can drive from Iqaluit to Apex to see the aging white buildings on Apex Beach. – KW

CHARLTON ISLAND

Nunavut

Situated in the southeast side of James Bay, near the mouth of the Rupert River, Charlton Island was once a warzone. 

Captain Thomas James, the buccaneer for whom the bay was named, was likely the first European to overwinter here in 1631-32. A depot built on the island around 1679 served the company’s earliest posts.

By 1686, the success of the Baymen was too much for the French, who saw the Englishmen as corrupt colonists who were undercutting their fur supply. To retaliate, Pierre Chevalier de Troyes led an expedition of 70 voyageurs, along with 30 other Frenchman, to capture all the fur posts on James Bay. After travelling more than 1,300 km by canoe from Montreal, the Frenchmen took Moose Factory in late June. Pierre d’Iberville made quite a name for himself in that fight. After the gate closed behind him while the French were storming the fort, Iberville fought off all 17 Baymen inside until his allies could break through the gate. Next, the French took Charles Fort on July 3 along with the HBC ship Craven. Meanwhile, Jacques Le Moyne attacked and destroyed the Charlton Island depot, leaving Fort Albany—the best defended of the posts—as the last English stronghold in James Bay. The French laid siege to Fort Albany. On July 25, the English surrendered and were sent to Charlton Island to await the next ship bound for England. 

This was in the early days of what would become a bloody and longstanding war between England and France for control over pieces of the New World. While many James Bay posts changed hands more than once before the Treaty of Utrecht transferred all posts in the region back to the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1713, European interest in Charlton Island waned for much of the next century. 

In 1803, three North West Company expeditions met at and laid claim to the island. They built Fort St. Andrews on the island, as well as two forts at the mouths of the Rupert and Moose Rivers, in open defiance of the HBC’s monopoly over Hudson Bay. However, shipping goods overland to Quebec was not a profitable enterprise and the Nor’westers abandoned the post, as early as 1806. 

Once again, the island fell into obscurity for the better part of a century. It most recently returned to the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which documents an active depot on the island from 1903 to 1931. 

Today, Charlton Island is uninhabited but for migrating wildlife. The last sighting we could find was by a birder blogger, who noted several buildings deep into disrepair there in the 1990s. – LB

BATHURST INLET

Nunavut

Photo: Page Burt

When the Hudson’s Bay Company, along with the Roman Catholic Church, arrived in Bathurst Inlet in 1936, the locals had little use for currency. 

Still, even at a trading post, you have to keep track of your profits and expenses somehow, so traders and customers used metal tokens known as “made beavers,” a variety of which were used throughout HBC trade routes for centuries. While there were no beavers to trap near Bathurst Inlet, the “made beaver” value (the worth of one beaver pelt) was by then long established. 

The unheated trading post was set up with all the goods behind the counter, where the Factor would ply his trade. When a customer brought furs to the post to trade, they would first be valued and exchanged for tokens. Then, the furs would be taken away to the warehouse and stored for the rest of the winter. Next, trading began for items on the shelves such as guns, ammunition, muzzleloaders, flour, sugar, tea, tobacco, dishware, fabric, steel needles, blankets and more. As the hunter added more items to his pile on the counter, the Factor would take away tokens, until none were left. 

Today, staff at the Bathurst Inlet Lodge tell these stories of the Bathurst Inlet trading post. Glenn and Trish Warner, who purchased the trading post, along with the Catholic mission buildings, when they were being decommissioned, opened the lodge in 1969. Glenn had spent the 1960s patrolling the area by dogteam as a staff sergeant for the RCMP and was struck by its natural beauty and the kindness of its people. While Trish and Glenn have both passed on, their legacy lives on in the outpost. “The Warners were of incredible influence to all of the people in Bathurst, deeply loved, deeply respected,” says Page Burt, naturalist and program director at the lodge. – LB

CHESTERFIELD INLET

Nunavut

Photo: Marion Lavigne/Outcrop

You don’t have to stray far off the gravel roads of Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, to step back in time. Not far from town on the rock-strewn tundra sit tent rings and other artifacts left behind by the ancient Thule. Pop into the Northern store—one of two grocery outlets in the community—for the manager’s permission to enter what could be the “longest operating building, probably, in the North,” says David Kattegatsiak, the hamlet’s economic development officer. 

Originally built in 1911, when the decline of the whaling industry moved most commerce to the current town site from Cape Fullerton farther north, the original Bay building has been added onto several times over the years, but still serves the same function for which it was originally intended. It’s a warehouse.

On the second floor, where Bay managers lived in the early days of the post, exposed beams bear the signatures of both travellers who passed through this way and of locals. – LB