Fort Smith, the lost capital

(continuer en français) – Published: December 5, 2020

Leaving Hay River, it is necessary to take Route 5 and drive 170 miles, 270 kilometres, without seeing any buildings to get to Fort Smith. A long, monotonous road guarded by two rows of fir trees like the north produces a lot. There is, however, the fun of driving through the Wood Bison National Park, sometimes some of these big beasts can be seen between the trees.

Fort Smith was ideally located on the bank of the Slave River at rapids that could not be passed by boats. Even the First Nations used a portage trail around the rapids to the present day location of Fort Smith to bypass the rapids. In 1874, the Hudson’s Bay Company built a fur trading outpost at Fort Smith.

Soon after the fur trade came the missionaries. From 1876 a Catholic mission developed its activities. St. Joseph’s, the Catholic cathedral of the region dates from 1960. Following the model of the Catholics, the Anglican Church established a mission in 1934 and built the present church in 1936.

Fort Fitzgerald

Beyond Fort Smith, the road gives the illusion of continuing, however the pavement soon gives way to gravel and after 10 miles, 15 kilometres, it ends in a large meadow on the Slave River, the site of Fort Fitzgerald. In the past, this was where boats used to unload their cargo before the impassable rapids. From here the portage to Fort Smith began, where goods were loaded onto another boat and the journey continued through Great Slave Lake and the MacKenzie River.

By this waterway, one could reach many native villages, then the trading posts and missions scattered over an immense territory. The pair Fort Fitzgerald and Fort Smith therefore had a prominent place in this organization.

Slave River at the landing site and portage trail :

This lasted until the arrival of the railway at Hay River in 1964, when Fort Smith’s role declined rapidly. As for Fort Fitzgerald, nothing remains except a few activities organized by the First Nations.

Fort Smith Mission

In 1876, the Catholic Church established a mission at Fort Smith. Taking advantage of its convenient location on the route of communities further north into the Arctic regions. The mission grew so much that the bishop established his residence there in 1926. The modest Church of St. Isidore, built in 1923, became a cathedral. From his residence, the bishop administered missions throughout the western Arctic.

Several buildings show the diversity of the activities of the Fort Smith Mission in support of the Catholic missions in the Arctic villages. The Fort Smith Mission had a hospital, a school, fields for crops and livestock, workshops, warehouses and even an airfield. Food was then packaged and distributed to the missions that needed it.

For years the Oblate Brothers and the Grey Nuns who came to the missions in the North considered Fort Smith to be a support base. Once they became too old or sick to continue living in the precarious conditions of the isolated villages, those who wished to remain in the North were welcomed at Fort Smith for the rest of their lives. This cave was built especially for the use of retired people.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Catholic mission occupied 160 acres, 60 hectares, for its various activities. The same facilities existed for the Hudson’s Bay Company and for the federal administration. These three complementary, sometimes rival institutions had made Fort Smith their main base for the region, as the beginnings of a capital city in the making. But in 1967, Yellowknife was chosen instead.

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  1. Fort Smith looks to be quite an attractive place and I’d love to take a drive to see the wood buffalo. Are those teepees occupied or are they merely a “Welcome to …” notice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Small towns like Fort Smith, lost in the Canadian immensity, are a good reminder of the history of pioneers in Canada. The teepees are uninhabited, I have seen many of them, either as a reminder of ancient identity or to participate in First Nations celebrations. As for the wood bison, they are very shy.


    • Travelling through the three territories brings another dimension to the knowledge of Canada. What also pleases me is that they are still in a state quite close to what the rest of Canada was like before the transformations of industrialization.

      Liked by 1 person

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