Legislature and Fort Edmonton, 1915. Photo supplied by the City of Edmonton Archives, EA-10-3245|
Just a few centimetres below the turf at the Alberta Legislature grounds, vestiges of history hundreds of years old resides. Remnants include parts of the palisade walls of the last Fort Edmonton, built in the early 1830s and deconstructed in 1915.
Archaeological digs at the site coordinated by the University of Alberta and the Royal Alberta Museum have uncovered bottles, beads, ceramics, dishes, clay pipe bowls, gun cartridges, gun machinery and animal bones. Careful excavation has also revealed evidence of prehistoric habitation – arrowheads and fragments of stone tools.
The discovery of prehistoric artifacts proves that the site, on a promontory overlooking the North Saskatchewan River, has long been a preferred place of camping or settlement. When you stand there and look at the view, it makes sense. It is, in the parlance of today’s real estate industry, a “view lot.”
Even the white newcomers thought it was a good place to call home, and in 1830 the promontory became the home of Fort Edmonton, the fifth incarnation of the settlement. The fort was moved to higher ground from its fourth site just west of today’s Rossdale Power Plant after one flood too many in 1829.
Situated on the intercontinental “highway” of the 19th century, the North Saskatchewan River, Fort Edmonton was well placed to play an important role in western Canadian history. From 1795 to 1915, it was a physical place, a community and a touchstone of history that gave birth to the strong, prosperous city we know today.
The fort was headquarters of the fur trade for the district, a provisioning point for travellers and explorers, a posting of isolation and loneliness and a gathering place. “It was,” as Brock Silversides writes in his book Fort de Prairies, “a centre of lawlessness and a beacon of civilization, an outpost of the British Empire, the gateway to the north and, towards its final years, a slightly shabby tourist site.”
The palisade, which is replicated at Fort Edmonton Park, was dismantled in 1915, three years after the Alberta Legislature Building was completed. There are a number of fascinating photos at the City of Edmonton Archives and the Provincial Archives of Alberta showing the two landmarks sharing the same few acres of real estate, as they did for a few short years.
But until archeological digs began at the site in 1992, its exact location was a riddle because of discrepancies in surveyor’s certificates, Hudson’s Bay Company records and other government papers. When I visited the dig in 1993, the team was ecstatic about the discoveries they were making.
As the hand-dug excavation proceeded, centimetre by painstaking centimetre, anticipation floated in the air. Finding the palisade walls and plotting the location was the first goal of the survey, and the discovery of other artifacts also sweetened the deal.
Royal Alberta Museum archaeologist Dr. Heinz Pyszczyk explained that the walls were made of vertical pickets, eight to ten inches in diameter, dug into a footing trench three feet deep and two feet wide. Historical documents indicate the walls of the fort were 20 feet high and contained five bastions (or blockhouses) that housed brass cannons, used for ceremonial purposes. A walkway ran the full length of the palisade.
Structures inside the fort included the three-storey log Big House of Chief Factor John Rowand, a married men’s quarters, an icehouse (used mostly to store buffalo meat) and the Indian House, where trading occurred. To conform to the angular lay of the land, the palisade was built in a trapezoidal shape, roughly 90 by 63 metres.
At its heyday, the palisades and buildings of Fort Edmonton covered all the current lawn bowling green and most of the skating rink area. During its lifetime, structures fell and rose in a sort of perpetual motion.
For the archaeologist, the site is a treasure trove of historical metamorphosis. As the survey crews worked, the public was offered a chance to view the progress.
“It’s important that people feel a part of history and make a connection,” Pyszczyk told me at the time. “Often, digs are cordoned off and people don’t get a chance to come up and peer into the ground.”
In the end, Fort Edmonton was, as Silversides writes, “a rotting, bug-infested group of buildings in the middle of a modern city. It required either extensive refurbishment or demolition. Its final owner, the Alberta government, chose the latter, and in the span of three days, 120 important years of the region’s history were obliterated.”
Fort Edmonton was dismantled in 1915 from its site just below the Alberta Legislature to put up, as Silversides calls it, “a bloody bowling green.” He notes that if the fort had been saved, today the two buildings would provide a continuum of history that would be make the site world class.
“If they had really wanted to, the provincial government could have saved Fort Edmonton,” Silversides concludes. “They said they were ‘temporarily taking it down, we’re saving all the logs,’ and of course they did nothing of the sort. They demolished it and tried never to think about it again, and ultimately the provincial government never did think about it again and it was the city that took up the reconstruction.”
That replica of Fort Edmonton, constructed just off Fox Drive beginning in 1969, is, in Silversides’ estimation, an “excellent interpretation of the look and atmosphere of the 1860 incarnation of the fort.” But there’s no replacing the original, of course.
Now, only echoes from the past remain, just below the surface and out of sight.
Tell your friends and visitors about them the next time somebody says Edmonton has no history.