What Happened to Old Fort Edmonton?

The afternoon of October 11th, 1915 saw removal operations commence. At the time, the buildings associated with Fort Edmonton V (the last incarnation of the fur-trading fort) were seen as an eye-sore next to the newly completed Legislature building and grounds. Newspapers of the day reported that the fort was taken down quickly as some citizens were outraged at its demolition. To quell the panic, the government assured the people that the old fort was being dismantled and would be moved to new quarters, repurposing the buildings as a museum. That never happened and the timbers associated with dismantled Fort Edmonton seemingly disappeared from the public eye. So, what really happened to the old fort? Stories about what happened to the timbers spread like local urban legends, most of them with no apparent basis in fact. There were rumours: that the timbers were reused in the construction of various structures and buildings in and around the Edmonton area; that the timbers sat for years in several piles both outside the Legislature and on the south side of the river; that beams were stored in the basement of the Legislature, before being used as firewood by an uninformed custodian; or that at least some of the historic timbers met their end in a nine-metre high Boy Scout bonfire lit May 12, 1937 to celebrate the coronation of King George VI. While some of these stories have some factual basis, others have not been fully confirmed or discounted.

Demolition of Fort Edmonton (1915), City of Edmonton Archives EA-10-79.

Demolition of Fort Edmonton (1915), City of Edmonton Archives EA-10-79.

In 1958, fur trade pioneer, R.W.P. Jones told Ted Bower of the Edmonton Journal that he discovered about a dozen fort timbers stored beneath a tree at the oldest house in Edmonton at what is now the John Walter Historic Area at 10627 93 Ave (known then as Walter’s House and later as Walter’s bunkhouse for its association with John Walter, prominent Edmonton pioneer, lumberman and boat builder).  No doubt that a lumberman such as John (or one of his employees) would have seen value in salvaging these large historic timbers. In fact, this is not the first Walter property rumoured to be associated with salvaged fort timbers. Historic timbers were also seen piled in Walterdale (John Walter’s land, now occupied by Kinsmen Park and the John Walter Historic Area). These piles were known to be in existence up until 1958.

“Historic Landmark Built in 18th Century is Being Torn Down.” Edmonton Journal, 13 October 1915, vol. 12, no. 78.

“Historic Landmark Built in 18th Century is Being Torn Down.” Edmonton Journal, 13 October 1915, vol. 12, no. 78.

In the early 1980’s, an old barn located on an historic farmstead in the Ellerslie area garnered interest for its possible links to the historic beams. The building was rumoured to have been built using wood from the old fort. The barn (and farm) belonged to John William Walter (Willie), a son of pioneer lumberman John Walter. The family maintained that Willie had built the barn in the 1920’s and incorporated roughly 30 hand-hewn timbers he had scavenged from the fort’s demolition.  After newspaper reports of the barn’s heritage surfaced in 1983, the Department of Culture undertook some preliminary investigations on the barn’s timbers in an effort to determine if they may have been associated with the fort.  In 2009, the results of a second round of research prompted  the Historic Places Stewardship Section of the Historic Resources Management Branch to issue a statement deeming the fort timbers in this barn significant for the following reasons: their association with the Walter family, their association with Fort Edmonton, their association with salvaging efforts alluded to in newspaper articles and other publications and finally because of the timbers themselves. Their size, tool marks, nails, joinery, and decorative hand-planed bead/quirk details were consistent with fur trade structures in the 1800’s. For these reasons, the Branch made recommendations to the current land owners (the City of Edmonton and their Heritage Planners) to salvage the timbers from the barn upon demolition so that they would be available for future examination and study. The recommendations included:

  1. Identifying each timber in the barn with a number (on gasket paper which is then stapled to the corresponding timber);
  2. Photographing and drawing all of the timbers showcasing their context within the barn;
  3. Salvaging all timbers from the barn and transporting them to the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) collections.
Walter Barn (taken by author, January 2009).

Walter Barn (taken by author, January 2009).

Left - Walter Barn (main floor), historic timber used as a structural loft support beam for the 2nd floor – note the decorative bead moulding and quirk detail that runs the full length of the timber (taken by author, February 2009); Right - Cross section of the Walter Barn timber demonstrating decorative bead moulding and quirk detail (taken by author Jan 2017).

Left – Walter Barn (main floor), historic timber used as a structural loft support beam for the 2nd floor – note the decorative bead moulding and quirk detail that runs the full length of the timber (taken by author, February 2009); Right – Cross section of the Walter Barn timber demonstrating decorative bead moulding and quirk detail (taken by author, Jan 2017).

Full length of the Walter Barn timber (taken by author Jan 2017, Royal Alberta Museum).

Full length of the Walter Barn timber (taken by author Jan 2017, Royal Alberta Museum).

Although the barn has since been dismantled, its historic timbers have been saved for posterity and housed within the RAM collections. And, good news! For curious Edmontonians and history buffs alike, two Fort Edmonton timbers, including one salvaged Walter Barn timber and one Fort Edmonton timber from the Ernest Brown collection, will be available for public viewing when they are displayed in the Worlds Meet gallery at the new Royal Alberta Museum, slated to open, late 2017/early 2018.

Written By: Marsha Mickalyk, Archaeological Permits and Digital Information Coordinator

Further Reading:

Beal, Bob. “Timbers in Ellerslie barn part of old Fort Edmonton.” Edmonton Journal, 17 January 1983.

Beal, Bob. “Relics from fur trade days bolster barn.” Edmonton Journal, 17 January 1983.

Bower, Tom. “Pioneer Finds Timbers From Fort: Reveals Site of Indian Cemetery.” Edmonton Journal, 13 May 1958.

Historic Landmark Built in 18th Century is Being Torn Down.” Edmonton Journal, 13 October 1915, vol. 12, no. 78.

South Edmonton, Papaschase Historical Society. “Walter, John William Jr. and Victoria” and “Walter, Stanley and Elizabeth” Family Entries. Edmonton: South Edmonton, Papaschase Historical Society, 1984, p.1138-1140; 1143.

“Taking Down Historic Old Buildings: Old Hudson’s Bay Fort Being Taken Down to Prevent it Collapsing.” Edmonton Daily Bulletin, 14 October 1915.

“The Removal of Old Fort Edmonton.” Edmonton Journal, 14 October 1915.

2 comments

  1. Very timely and interesting story. I’ve often wondered what happened to the fort’s timbers but surely there is much more yet still unaccounted for.

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