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Demolition for rebirth
Nov 20, 2009

A demolition is making way for a dream that was nearly destroyed for all time by the wrecker’s ball over 100 years ago. The Friends of Upper Fort Garry applauded last week as the jaws of an Ultra High Demolition crane used its enormous jaws to take massive bites out of the brick building at 100 Main St. 

Jerry Gray, the chairman of the group redeveloping the Upper Fort Garry site, said it was a “great day.” He told the media, the Friends of Upper Fort Garry had been fighting for close to seven years to have the building demolished. While the friends persisted in the face of adversity, over 130 years ago, the Hudson’s Bay Company considered Upper Fort Garry a lost cause. Their Winnipeg fort was not destined to become the centre of the embryonic city, as powerful forces were aligned against them — predominately politicians and business leaders with little sense of the Company’s and the fort’s contribution to the history of the community.

By 1862 and the founding of Henry McKenny’s store at the corner of Portage and Main, the HBC knew it was fighting a losing battle. Winnipeggers had won their fight for incorporation in 1873. All future attempts by the HBC to have federal government buildings located on its 500-acres of land surrounding the fort had been thwarted — this through the “indignation” expressed by Winnipeggers bent upon making their community the commercial centre of the newly-created city.

The triumph of Winnipeg was completed when the federal government announced it would be building a new post office, land office and customs house in central Winnipeg instead of on land it had earlier set aside on the HBC reserve at Fort Garry. In the1860s, the HBC began to recognize the futility of its cause and allowed the historic fort to deteriorate through neglect.

“Fort Garry in Ruins,” announced a headline in the Manitoban, dated May 27, 1871. “Not exactly the entire Fort, reader, but a considerable portion of the stone wall fronting on the Red River. It has been threatening a tumble down for a long time, and lest it might fall into the Fort, some men were employed by the Company to throw it down so that it would fall outside. The bastions and a portion of the wall immediately adjoining them, still stand, but in decidedly bad condition. The side gate entrance to the Fort, fell among the ruins.”

Thirty-two years later, an English writer for the London Daily Bulletin toured the city and stumbled upon what remained of the historic landmark. He wrote: “Then you stroll out to this very everyday twentieth century place and follow the street a little further, till you observe something standing alone on your right — a tiny building of rough stone. It is not twelve feet high, and you have seen bigger and better buildings put up to stable two or three horses.”

The English writer was able to encapsulate the significance of what he saw and place the fort into an historical context, more so than local residents, who allowed the “tiny building” to diminish in importance through indifference.

“Yet the photos of it have met you at every corner of the town, and you stand and gaze at this old relic — this one bit of history in this world of newness — Fort Garry, the nucleus from which Manitoba’s metropolis roaring around you has sprung; Fort Garry, the old headquarters of the great Hudson’s Bay Company you have just left; Fort Garry, the destination and crown of Lord Wolseley’s famous three months’ march through the terrible forest, when, as Colonel Wolseley, he put down the Red River rebellion under Louis Riel in 1870.”

It was the English traveller who wistfully gazed upon what had been and commented: “Modern commercialism and the Philistine allurements of land-gambling, have, alas! caused the pulling down of the greater  part of the old fort, so that all one sees is little beyond the gateway. Sentiment woke when it was too late, and now Winnipeg mourns forever the act of vandalism she permitted in her midst.”

Most of the rubble from the fort’s stone walls had by 1880 been used for building foundations to create the “modern commercialism” decried by the English writer. Showing its own attraction to “the Philistine allurements of land-gambling,” the HBC by 1877 sold off most of its 500-acre reserve as lots around the fort to reap a $2-million profit.

In 1883, the east wall was demolished to straighten out Main Street. By the fall of 1886, four of the largest structures still standing on the old fort site were sold at auction by HBC for just $292. The former Governors House,  home to Manitoba’s first lieutenant-governor, netted a paltry $100 as firewood.

What remained — the gate and the land it stood on — was given as a gift to the city by the HBC in 1897 “as a public park forever.” But more years of neglect followed, and the gate became an isolated and forlorn reminder that the fort had once been the focal point of the Red River Settlement founded by Lord Selkirk; the site of Louis Riel’s provisional government during 1869-70; as well as where the founding of a new province within Canada was first envisioned.

The Friends of Upper Fort Garry have raised over $10 million for the creation of the interpretive centre and heritage park in a stretch of land along Main Street from Broadway to Assiniboine Avenue.

In the meantime, the demolition of the 100 Main Street building will help archaeologists trace the former walls of the old fort. Using ground-penetrating radar, archaeologist Terry Gibson told Free Press reporter Carol Sanders they had found some “treasures” under the parking lot pavement, including what is thought to be the remains of the Governors House sold for $100 as firewood in 1886. Other remains are believed to be bastion footings and a stone-lined well.

There were times when the Friends of Upper Fort Garry appeared to be thwarted in their plans by stringent conditions set by the city, but they overcame the hurdles. They received an additional boost when the provincial government signed a letter of intent with Petro-Canada for the land where a Main Street gas station once stood which will become part of the heritage site, and then announced that it plans to designate the site as a provincial park.

It is ironic that a demolition is now setting the stage for a dream that was nearly destroyed for all time by an “act of vandalism she (the city) permitted in her midst.”