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Study floats Fort Simpson's industrial past

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Mar 25/05) - During its early days as a trading post, Fort Simpson was home to small shipyard where workers built boats to carry furs and supplies from Great Slave Lake to the Mackenzie Delta, according to soon-to-be-released archaeological study.

All that remains of the shipyard today is long trench overlooking the Mackenzie River at Heritage Park. But from about 1830 to 1860 it was construction site for York boats - open hulled wooden vessels that were the flagships of the Hudson's Bay Co. throughout what is now western Canada and the NWT.

The shipyard is one of the few confirmed York boat building sites in the country, said Jennifer Birch, a graduate student in archaeology at Carleton University. Birch examined artifacts uncovered during excavations in the summers of 2002 and 2003.

"It is a relatively rare find," she said.

With square sails, a row of oarlocks and peaks at the front and back, the ships somewhat resembled Viking Longboats.

They replaced freighter canoes beginning in the 1830s as the chief means of transporting furs and supplies to and from the remote outposts along the Mackenzie River.

"In their time, they were very important," said Stephen Rowan, a member of the Fort Simpson Historical Society.

Charles Camsell, Commissioner of the territory from 1935 to 1946, recounted in his biography travelling from Fort Simpson to Fort Smith via York boat - a voyage the took upwards of 15 days.

"When we left Fort Simpson... our brigade consisted of a half-dozen York boats, each manned by a crew of 10 half-breed and Indian voyageurs," he wrote.

"Our family occupied a platform at the back, also used by the steersman. In wet weather, a tarpaulin was stretched over this space, for we travelled whether the weather was fair or foul."

The first evidence that York boats were constructed in Fort Simpson came from a series of digs that began in the summer of 2002.

A team of archaeologists and local history buffs unearthed a wealth of artifacts from a long trench near the Papal Site including ceramics, pottery, nails, musket balls and most importantly: small rivets and metal spikes.

Birch believes engineers burned old York boats in the trench in order to recover the metal fittings.

"Getting supplies in places like Fort Simpson was very difficult at the time," she said. "So the builders re-used the parts."

The York boats were used by the Hudson's Bay Co. in the Western Arctic until the late 1880s, when they were replaced a steamship named the Wrigley, Rowan said.

Birch will present her findings at a Canadian Archaeological Association conference in Nanaimo, B.C., this May.

She hopes to return to Fort Simpson in 2006 to share her work with the people of the village.