Northern Wilds Magazine
The gunsmiths at the armourer shop like teasing each other. | CHRIS PASCONE

Fort William Historical Park: Bringing Life to History for 50 Years

“Bonjour, my name is Louis Felix, I’m a Montreal Voyageur with the North West Company. Mr. Taitt has asked me to take you around the Fort, and see if I have the making of a wintering voyageur,” our intrepid historical interpreter tells me and my daughters as we begin our tour of Fort William Historical Park, a sprawling “living” park in Thunder Bay.

Louis Felix has an incredible talent for making you feel like you’re right there on the bank of Kaministiquia River in 1815, even though it’s currently 2023. He mocks me as I take photos left and right with my cell phone. “We don’t know what those picture boxes are that you all carry around,” he says.

He goes deep into the lifestyle of the Montrealers and the winterers. “The winterers like to consider themselves a cut above us Montrealers. And although I’m a Montreal voyageur, I do have to give it to the wintering voyageurs. The winterers have a three-to-seven-year contract with the company. And during that time, they will only be living in the interior of British North America, which is a brutal frozen wasteland at this point.”

This interpretive play of the guides at Fort William is just one of the many ways the historical park delivers you 200 years back in time. Another way is the striking period dress worn by all staff at Fort William: it’s colorful, flamboyant, and amazingly detailed. The fort itself, with dozens of period buildings reconstructed within its palisades, is a stunner as well. So how did this living history museum re-enacting the rich legacy of the voyageurs and their Anishinaabe allies in our region come to be?

The tour begins at the Ojibwe encampment. We got to
experience their traditional craft of building wigwams. | CHRIS PASCONE

Fort William Historical Park is celebrating its 50-year anniversary this year. The original fort was built at the mouth of the Kaministiquia River on Lake Superior. This original site is now in the CP rail yard in modern day Thunder Bay’s east end. The plan to rebuild Fort William gained momentum in 1967 as part of Canada’s Centennial. Early excavations by a team of archaeologists from Lakehead University in the 1960s uncovered the foundations of the Great Hall, palisade posts, and other North West Company remnants. That discovery launched a process of reconstructing the fort, but at the new location of Pointe du Meuron, 14 kilometers upriver on the Kam. On July 3, 1973, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip officially opened Old Fort William (named Fort William Historical Park today).

The new historical park was moved from the original fort’s site in Thunder Bay’s east end because Pointe du Meuron’s location and natural landscape offered a break from modern distractions and noise, allowing visitors to feel as though they’ve been transported back in time. Construction began with the Naval Shed, Taitt’s House, and Boucher’s House, which were completed for the park’s official opening in 1973. The final historic site building to be opened was the Great Hall in 1981.

As we begin our tour, my daughters and I need a few minutes to adjust to Louis Felix’s incredibly real character role play. Fort William’s historical interpreters get an intensive initial orientation where they get specific training in their role, whether it be in the Indigenous camp, or bourgeois/voyageurs trades. “The interpreters get character booklets which teach them about the real lives of their character. Did they live at the fort? Were they travelling? All the interpreters research and learn a way of life from the 1800s,” explains Emily Carr, Communications Officer at Fort William. “We have the original journals of people who lived during the fur trade era, which our interpreters can base their own interpretations on. It’s fun.”

The role playing by Fort William interpreters everyday compliments the incredible work done over the years to reconstruct the extensive fort. Today, Fort William features 46 buildings, all furnished with historic details representative of the years around 1815. For example, Louis Felix took our family into the fort’s operating open-hearth bakery, run by his good friend Paul Marseillais. We sampled the steaming hot, delicious bread baked with the same techniques that were used 200 years ago.

Our voyageur interpreter Louis Felix takes us back in time to the
days when canoes were the preferred method of travel in the Northern

Plan a whole day when you go to Fort William—there’s that much to see and do there. Besides tours, during summer hours guests are welcome to simply wander the park and sample activities that interest them. If you’re over 13, you can even fire a period musket using real gunpowder.

And then there’s the park’s 50th anniversary bash this summer—the party of the year in Thunder Bay. The Great Rendezvous Celebration will take place July 8-16, and will feature guest speakers, art and music, and heritage farming and foodways. The celebration will culminate in the Great Rendezvous Historic Re-enactment from July 13-16.

Here, re-enactors from the general public will be living the true lives of the voyageurs. People taking part are responsible for supplying and maintaining their own historic costumes, which must be worn at all times while camping on the historic site or participating in re-enactment activities. The period depicted in the dress of rendezvous participants must fall within 1650 to 1840 and portray the North American fur trade. Get your souliers de boeuf (oxhide shoes) and your ceinture fléchée (woven wool sash) ready!

So, what is a voyageurs rendezvous, exactly? According to the park’s website, “Rendezvous is a re-creation of the annual summer gathering held at Fort William over 200 years ago when it was the inland headquarters of the North West Company, which, at the time was the world’s largest fur trading enterprise with posts stretching across North America. During Rendezvous, French-Canadian voyageurs, Scottish businessmen, Indigenous peoples, and others from various places around the world would gather at Fort William to discuss business, share news, and renew friendships.”

Interpreters within Fort William seem to break out in song and
dance at random. | CHRIS PASCONE

Carr says it’s been many years since the last Great Rendezvous was held at Fort William, and describes the event as “huge.” Carr highlights the community partners who will be coming to Fort William, including musical performers, climatologists, and special guest speakers on farming in the 1800s. Fort William has a farm on site outside the palisades, with breeds of sheep and chickens that were common during the original fort’s time.

For another immersive experience, get your groove on at the Beaver Ball, to be held at Fort William Historical Park at McGillivray’s Landing on Thursday, July 13. The Beaver Ball is being presented by the Victoria Inn Hotel & Convention Centre “on behalf” of William McGillivray, Chief Director of the North West Company, in celebration of Fort William Historical Park’s 50th anniversary. Tickets are $100 CDN per person, and include a symposium and dinner. Historic attire is optional.

In today’s society, with our hyper focus on what’s new and modern, Fort William is a healing place. According to Carr, “We’re encouraging people to put their phones down and live in the moment.” Dive in! You can also bring your tent or RV and camp out at the park to extend your visit. There are portable bathrooms and showers at the campground, and the campground is not far from other amenities like grocery stores and restaurants.

Fort William is a branch of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, and park guests are treated like royalty at this incredible historical facility. So, whether or not you trap beaver, wear a bright red sash around your waist, or eat lard and lye corn every day, get ready to be transported back to the authentic fur trade era at one of Canada’s premier historical destinations.

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