Visiting Historic Fort Dunvegan, Alberta

Whoever said “you can never go home again” obviously never grew up in the Northern Alberta prairies. After a 20+ year absence, returning to my old stomping grounds for a long weekend in August felt both familiar and alien. But one place that definitely brought back happy childhood memories was the picturesque site of Historic Fort Dunvegan.

While Mark and I were driving up north to visit my family, we drove past the Dunvegan region, which is situated on the banks of the Peace River. My husband had never been this far north in Alberta before, so it was all new to him. And this particular landscape, with its gently rolling hills was a welcome change from the miles of gold and green farmland we had driven through up to that point.

He let out a disappointed sigh when I told him we didn’t have time to explore the area. Little did he know that were coming back to Dunvegan the next day for a picnic with my uncle and aunt.

(On a side note, Dunvegan has its very own ghost story. Apparently, on stormy nights, some people have seen a woman, possibly a nun, picking berries around the hills near the Dunvegan Bridge. But if you try to talk to her, she just disappears. It’s a story I remember hearing as a child, so the story has been around for quite a while. But any time my parents and I drove over the bridge on a rainy night, I would keep an eye out for the Lady. I never did see her though.)

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We arrived at Fort Dunvegan the next afternoon. And the first thing we noticed were the costumed interpreters.

Costumed interpreter

This always helps get me into the historic theme of a place. And Dunvegan has a long history. Well, long for Alberta, which has only been a province for 110 years. Dunvegan predates this.

Dunvegan is one of Alberta’s oldest fur trade sites. It all started with the North West Company, a fur trade company headquartered in Montreal. One of their partners, a man by the name of Archibald Norman Macleod, established the trading post here in 1805. He named it Fort Dunvegan, after his ancestral home in Scotland.

Problems arose pretty early on, however. The North West Company’s rival? Hudson’s Bay Company. The two companies would often set up their posts within close proximity to antagonize each other, and their rivalry led to physical clashes with the local First Nations people, the Dunne-za, and each other, in which lives were lost on both sides. Things escalated to the point where the two companies would sink each other’s fur-laden canoes to try to put each other out of business. Hardcore.

Eventually NWC and HBC realized they had to come to some sort of agreement. So, in 1821 the two companies merged. The entire sordid history is too much to go into here, but to read more on the events that led to the merger, check out the HBC Heritage website. But, long story short: the new company became the most powerful fur trade company in the world.

HBC’s monopoly on the local fur trade meant they could increase prices anytime they wanted, plus they reduced the credit they awarded to the local Dunne-za people. Eventually, the fur-bearing animals in the area became over-hunted, and epidemics of scarlet fever, influenza, measles, whooping cough, and other maladies killed countless First Nations people. In 1860 HBC’s fur trade monopoly came to an end with independent free traders who provided direct competition.

Factor's House, Dunvegan

The Factor’s House, built in 1877-1878 is the white house in the background

Dunvegan became the headquarters for the Athabasca District in 1878, when the Factor’s House was built to house the chief officer and his family. By 1886, however, HBC changed their mind and moved the headquarters to Lesser Slave Lake.

The house has great reproductions, including a rope bed. You know the saying, “sleep tight?” That popular saying is due to these rope beds. Over time, the ropes stretched and bowed, requiring re-tightening. Otherwise you might wake up on the floor!

rope bed reproduction, Dunvegan

With traders and settlers, of course, followed Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries, hoping to instill some religiosity into the local Dunne-za First Nations people. Father Emile Grouard and Father August Husson, both Oblate priests, constructed the St. Charles Church around 1885.

They'll even let you ring the church bell!

They’ll even let you ring the church bell!

Father Grouard painted the interior. His work was highly ornate, especially considering the region. Some of the original paintings were removed years ago and stored at a church in Peace River for safe keeping. Unfortunately that church burned down, so some of these are reproductions.

St. Charles Church interior

This is the St. Charles Church Mission:

St. Charles Church Mission, Fort Dunvegan

One of HBC’s big competitors at that point became Bredin & Cornwall, who opened a rival post here in 1899. (I love checking out historical representations of shops from days gone by. And Fort Dunvegan had a pretty nice shop back in the day.)

Revillon Brothers store

Bredin & Cornwall set up this store and warehouse here in 1899, but they didn’t own them for long. The Paris-based Revillon Brothers, owners of one of the largest furriers in the world, decided to expand worldwide. In 1899 they built their own warehouse in Edmonton, and in 1906 they took over the store and warehouse owned by Bredin & Cornwall. This is the exterior of the building:

Revillion Freres building, Historic Fort Dunvegan

Revillion Freres building

By the 1890’s, however, all of Fort Dunvegan was in sharp decline. The fort finally closed in 1918 due to poor fur prices and a declining First Nations population. All of the HBC buildings were then demolished, save for the Factor’s House.

You can only enter the buildings at Dunvegan if you are with a costumed guide. Make sure to visit the interpretive center for tour times. There is also a movie to catch in their theatre. It runs approximately 12 minutes and gives a brief overview of the history of the park.

Getting There:

Historic Fort Dunvegan is located 26km south of Fairview on Highway 2.

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