The David Thompson Memorial Fort: An Early Attempt to Make a Tourist Attraction Out of Western Canadian History

By: Ben Bradley

Stroll along the shore of Windermere Lake just south of Invermere, British Columbia today, and the building most likely to catch your eye is what appears to be a very old bastion or blockhouse made from hand-hewn logs. Many people mistake this forlorn, weathered structure for a relic of BC’s fur trade days. In fact, it is the last remnant of the David Thompson Memorial Fort, a pioneering attempt to develop a historically-themed tourist attraction in western Canada. Built in 1922, the “fort” was intended to draw wealthy auto tourists who visited the national parks in the Canadian Rockies into the village of Invermere. It was built on a grand scale and given a great burst of publicity when it was completed. But the “fort” failed as a tourist attraction, largely because “history” had yet to be developed into a useful device for luring tourists in a region where natural scenery had long been the staple attraction.

Boosters and landowners in BC’s Windermere Lake district pinned high hopes on tourism during the 1910s. Two key players were the Columbia Valley Irrigated Fruitlands Company (CVIF), which owned 200,000 acres of land in the district, and Robert Randolph Bruce, the company’s vice-president and senior local representative. After Banff opened to automobiles in 1910, Bruce came to believe that a parkway through the Canadian Rockies would draw wealthy tourist-investors to Windermere. His lobbying helped convince the federal and provincial governments to build the Banff-Windermere Highway and establish Kootenay National Park.

The new park and highway would bring auto tourists to the region but not necessarily to Invermere, the CVIF’s townsite. Although Invermere was the largest community in the region, it was off the beaten path for the motoring public, being 15 kilometers south of Kootenay Park’s western gate and on the opposite side of Windermere Lake from the main road through the upper Columbia valley. Local boosters recognized that Invermere needed some kind of special attraction in order to become the region’s premier tourist destination. Searching for such an attraction, they latched onto the explorer David Thompson, who had “discovered” the upper Columbia valley in 1807 and established a trading post called Kootenae House near Windermere Lake.

Thompson had been an object of interest for North American historians since the late 1880s. In 1910 amateur historians from Invermere had identified the location of Kootenae House, finding collapsed stone chimneys two kilometres north of town. Their proposals to commemorate David Thompson locally were supported by the growing number of publications about his western travels, including J.B. Tyrrell’s edited version of his journals, published in 1916. Thompson’s narrative was the Champlain Society’s most popular volume, familiarizing Canadian readers with western exploration.[1] By late 1920 Robert Randolph Bruce was proposing to develop a historically-themed tourist attraction in Invermere in the form of a life-size model of a nineteenth-century fur trade post.

The site selected for the “fort” was a grassy, elevated point that jutted out into Windermere Lake. Called Canterbury Point by British settlers, the site was three kilometres from the remnants of Kootenae House. What it lacked in historical accuracy was made up for by its proximity to important tourist amenities, such as the local golf course and a bungalow camp owned by the CPR. The point offered superb views up and down the lake, and was owned by the CVIF.

Robert Randolph Bruce drummed up financial support for the new tourist attraction. “What we want to erect,” he explained to the HBC’s deputy chairman, “is a miniature Hudson Bay Fort.”

The central building will be used for relics of the early history of the country, all of which will be very valuable one hundred years from now. Such a typical model Hudson Bay Fort will be of great interest historically. […] We would want to get the Hudson Bay Coat of Arms over the gateway. […] It will have Hudson Bay all over it [and] will be visited by many people, as it is on the main highway of the Banff-Windermere motor road now nearly completed.[2]

The “typical model Hudson Bay fort” that Bruce proposed to build was to be a simulation, rather than a replica, an amalgam of surviving western Canadian fur trade posts that incorporated features which would lend it an air of verisimilitude.

Bruce coaxed $10,000 from the HBC and CPR, and construction began during the winter of 1921-1922. The main building measured 40 by 60 feet and had a stone base like Fort Resolution. Its walls were 16 feet tall beneath the eaves of the split-log roof, and a gallery ran around three sides of the interior. The vaulted ceiling gave an impressive sense of spaciousness.

a1182 2 large
Figure 1: The David Thompson Memorial Fort, 1922. Photo courtesy of Windermere Historical Society, A1182.

The main building was enclosed by a timber palisade and pair of bastions, and reached through an arched gateway similar to one at Fort Chipewyan. The historical accuracy of the “fort” was questionable but there was no denying that it had an impressive effect on visitors. It was imposingly large, had a scenic setting, and instantaneously evoked a pleasant and convincing sense of past-ness.

The Windermere Board of Trade and CPR publicity department organized an elaborate opening ceremony for the 1922 Labour Day weekend. They invited senior managers from the CPR, HBC, and CVIF to attend, as well as politicians, journalists, historians, and Canadian writers. The railway loaned a collection of “Indian exhibits” to decorate the interior of the fort, and the HBC loaned old company flags and stuffed fur-bearing animals. A large Union Jack hung from the rafters inside the “fort,” and an HBC crest was placed over the main entrance. But the real show went on outside the main building. The “Pioneers’ Day” event combined commemorative pageantry and carnivalesque exoticism, with photographers and a movie crew recording the action.

a802 2 largeFigure 2: Interior of the David Thompson Memorial Fort, 1922. Courtesy of Windermere Historical Society, A802.

Pioneers’ Day began in the water off Canterbury Point, with half a dozen canoes paddled by Invermere residents dressed up as voyageurs. They came ashore and were met by Ktunaxa and Secwepemc men from nearby Indian reserves who had been encouraged to dress in “traditional” garb such as beaded gauntlets, embroidered buckskin shirts, and feathered headdresses. The white “traders” and “traditional” natives smoked peace pipes to signify friendly relations, then headed towards the tipi encampment that local native families had set up. Joined by native women and children (also attired in “traditional” garb), the party marched past the cameras and toward the fort. After lunch was served, local natives were awarded cash prizes in categories like “best teepee” and “best dressed squaw,” in contests similar to those that tourism promoters had organized at the Banff Indian Day for years. In a speech to the crowd, Robert Randolph Bruce promised that the Memorial Fort would become “a great museum.”[3]

However, it soon became clear that no one in Invermere had the resources or expertise required to run it as an attraction. No one could replace the artifacts loaned for the opening ceremony; no historical society was formed; no curator was hired. That no one knew how to operate a museum is not surprising, for there were none in the BC Interior at that time. Bruce tried to convince the HBC, CPR, and National Parks Branch to take permanent responsibility for the fort, but these proposals came to naught. The fort proved impossible to give away.

Bruce and the CVIF were in dire financial straits by 1923, and plans to make the Memorial Fort a major tourist attraction ground to a halt. The building was intermittently used as a community hall during the 1920s and 1930s, but was in such disrepair by 1945 that it resembled an actual nineteenth-century ruin. Local history enthusiasts tried to restore the forlorn structure for the 1957 sesquicentennial of Kootenae House, but their requests for assistance to the provincial government, Historic Sites and Monuments Board, and – ironically – the HBC were all rebuffed on the basis that the “fort” was not an authentic historical structure. The remnants of the David Thompson Memorial Fort were torn down in 1969 and Canterbury Point – by then known locally as Fort Point – was subdivided for summer recreational homes.

About The Author
Ben Bradley is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. He is currently researching the cultural history of Highway 401 in eastern Ontario, and the history of rowdiness and other ‘bad behaviour’ in Canadian parks.

Resources:

[1] David Thompson, David Thompson’s Narrative of His Explorations in Western America, 1784-1812 J.B. Tyrrell, ed. (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1916); W. Stewart Wallace, A Sketch of the History of the Champlain Society (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1957), 4-5.

[2] Windermere Valley Museum and Archives, David Thompson Memorial Fort collection, Bruce to Edward Fitzgerald, deputy chairman, Hudson’s Bay Company, 13 July 1921.

[3]Cranbrook Courier, 1 September 1922, 1; J.B. Tyrrell, David Thompson: Canada’s Greatest Geographer: An Appreciation (Invermere, 1922).