|Wandering around the vintage buildings and grand old trees of historic Victoria Settlement, you can almost hear sounds of life a century ago: The jangle of horse harnesses, chug of the ferry across the North Saskatchewan; clatter of boots on wooden floors. Inside the Clerks Quarters, the oldest building in the province still on its original site (lifted but not moved for 130 years), theres a stirring poignancy to the recollections.|
In just 55 years, this settlement, some 140 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, went from mission to trading post to agricultural settlement. Then, as quickly as it prospered, it vanished.
The railway bypassed the community and so it moved (literally) north some 15 kilometres to the fledgling settlement of Smoky Lake. Townsfolk moved whatever they could - including the hospital - and the world moved on.
Tucked away off Secondary Highway 855 on the broad flats of the North Saskatchewan, the solitude that now permeates this provincial historic site kindles the sense of pioneer adventure. Wind rustles through the poplars and, as if time stands still, one almost expects to see a voyageur paddling down the river.
The place that came to be known as Victoria Settlement was popular with Natives for centuries before Rev. George McDougall founded a Methodist mission and trading post here in 1862. McDougall, his wife and five of seven children lived their first year here in a buffalo skinned tent.
By September 1863, a crude one-room log cabin had been completed. McDougall, an able axeman in his own right, supervised the cutting and lumbering of the logs.
The following year, the Hudsons Bay Company established Fort Victoria, building a palisade measuring 220 feet by 134 feet and the Clerks Quarters. Building took months; all the logs were cut by hand and there was no Canadian Tire nearby to purchase nails and so the structure was erected using tongue and groove techniques to provide stability and resistance to the howling winter winds.
In its day, the Clerks Quarters was one of the very first buildings west of Winnipeg to boast glass windows. The glass was likely transported from Montreal and any open windows covered with animal skins oiled with bear grease.
The mission and the fort became a nucleus for a community whose 27 river lots extended several kilometres along the bank of the river. Natives came to trade pelts, hides and buffalo meat for axes and staple goods.
In those days, it took four-and-a-half months to make the 1,600 kilometre trip from Fort Garry in Winnipeg. The Overland Route linked Fort Victoria to Fort Edmonton.
Smallpox roared through the community in 1870, taking the lives of 55 residents, including McDougalls wife and a daughter. (Three members of the family are buried a short distance west of the Clerks Quarters; watch for signs along the road or ask an interpreter for directions).
The fort ceased operations in 1897 and by early this century the town of Pakan - named for the Cree chief Pakannuk - boasted a hospital, store, hotel and grist mill. Population was more than 100. But then, in 1918, the railway came to Smoky Lake and soon Pakan was no more.
As Alberta moved through the 20th century, the buildings gradually decayed and were very nearly lost until 30 years ago, when the Peter Lougheed government of the day realized the bounty that was slipping away. A program was put in place to save the remaining architectural fragments, including restoration of the Clerks Quarters and the Pakan Church a structure without support beams that has stood for a lifetime on little more than faith.
Archeological excavations the last dozen years have uncovered a wealth of artifacts including including ceramics, bullets, buckles, hinges, pipes, glass bottles and coins. This is a place where time is literally underfoot.
The Alberta government recently declared a fur traders house on River Lot 3 a Provincial Historic Resource the highest level of historic designation. The lot was settled by Andrew Spence and his brother Joseph Favell, who was a Hudsons Bay Company paddleboat captain on the North Saskatchewan River.
To get to Victoria Settlement, take Secondary Highway 855 16 kilometres north from Highway 45 or 16 kilometres south of Highway 28 at Smoky Lake and then turn east onto the river flats. The site is open daily 10 to 6, until Labour Day. Theres a small admission charge. Phone 645-6256 for more information.