ART. XII. Historic Site Profile : Fort Langley.
A brief description of what visitors can expect to see and do at Fort Langley National Historic Site in British Columbia.
Fort Langley National Historic Site is about a 45 minute drive east of Vancouver, near the town of Fort Langley. The site consists of a fur fort reconstruction and interpretive centre. The paved parking lot can accommodate tour buses and visitors with large RV's. All of the buildings are wheelchair accessible, with the exception of the second storeys of the Big House and warehouse ; however, photographs of the second floor are available on the main floor. At present, there are no washrooms in the fort site, just in the visitor center.
The fort's stockade is accessible to the public, and features two bastions and a catwalk. The warehouse is an original building dating to about 1840. The stockades and all the other buildings on the site have been reconstructed on the location of original foundations. The fort buildings are a 'Big House' (factor's residence), blacksmith's shop, cooper's shop, and servant's (employee's) quarters. Also inside the fort are a sawpit, wedge-type fur press, and reproduction York boat. Demonstration sites for goldpanning and Red River construction were also set up when we visited. Costumed interpreters at the fur fort focus on life at Fort Langley around 1858.
Fort Langley was named after Hudson's Bay Company director Thomas Langley. It was established by the HBC in 1827 on the Fraser River about 50 kilometers above where it flows into the Pacific. The fort flourished, and the fur trade was only one aspect of the HBC's business at Fort Langley; they had a bustling operation salting salmon and running a large farm to supply other fur posts in the area. Eventually, the farm operation at Langley Prairie, 11 kilometres from the fort, grew so large that the fort needed to be relocated to be closer to it. In 1839, a new Fort Langley was built four kilometers upstream from the old one, at the present location of the historic site.
In the spring of 1840, the newly-constructed fort was destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt. A Royal Engineer visiting this third Fort Langley described it :
'A stockade some twenty feet high, built from timbers squared with an axe, sunk some feet into the ground and well braced within. A wooden bastion frowned from each corner, provided with eye-holes for spying the country or shooting, as the case required. Each bastion carried two 9-pounder guns. This enclosure could be secured by a heavy gate of the same material as the walls of the stockade, and all was safe from the attack of Indians...Within the stockade stood a long, low, log building for the stores, with a small, square window and a very strong door. A general building served the white employees, some clapboard shacks were occupied by the men who had taken to themselves 'maids of the forest'...Last, but not least, was a comfortable one-story log-house, with a nice verandah in front, where resided the Hudson's Bay Factor in charge...'(Hannon, 142-143)
A second floor was added onto the Big House later.
The little fort played a big role in B.C. history. In March 1858, hundreds of people began pouring into Victoria from California. They had heard that the HBC had deposited gold from sandbars on the Fraser River in the San Francisco mint. The prospectors were soon descending on Fort Langley. Every day, hordes of hopeful prospectors bought $1,500 worth of supplies from the HBC's stores at Fort Langley, and soon the fort was taking payment in gold dust.
In eight months, 30,000 prospectors came through Victoria and Fort Langley. This flood of Americans was seen as a threat to British sovereignty, so Britain decided to make the area a crown colony and thus place it directly under British law. In 1858, on the upper floor of Fort Langley's Big House, James Douglas was sworn in as the first governor of the newly-created colony of British Columbia.
Visiting Fort Langley Today
Today, the two highlights of Fort Langley are the Big House and the 1840's warehouse. As mentioned earlier, the warehouse is an original building, and Fort Langley has done it up beautifully. The ground floor has an impressive display of trade goods ; it is the finest and largest such array we've seen, and it is chock full— there is just enough room for visitors.
The attic is full of barrels and sacks. In the attic you can examine the building's construction more closely. The warehouse is one of the few historic buildings using Red River construction still standing. Red River construction (also called Hudson's Bay construction) was used for many fur trade buildings. It consists of grooved (mortised) posts with squared logs with tongues (tenons) cut on the end stacked between them to make the walls.
The Big House is furnished in fine Victorian style. It has a parlour, business office, two dining rooms, and a number of bedrooms. We tagged along with a school tour, and site interpreter Gerry Borden did a wonderful job of bringing to life each room and the people who would have used it. Upstairs is the reproduction of the meeting room used for the ceremonies in 1858. One can easily imagine the scene when a hundred people crowded in to witness the establishment of British Columbia.
At the servant's quarters, site interpreters do a fine job of explaining family life at the fort and the different ethnic groups that worked at Fort Langley (Hawaiians, French-Canadians, Scots, and Natives). The reconstruction of the servant's quarters will seem a little odd to visitors familiar with Fort Edmonton Park's fort complex. Like the married men's quarters at Fort Edmonton, each bedroom has its own separate outdoor entrance, but a modern concession has been made to keep visitors dry in wet weather : all of the bedroom apartments are connected by an interior corridor so that visitors do not have to go outside to go between adjacent rooms.
The interpretive centre, washrooms, and gift shop outside the fort are all temporary facilities. They were set up after a fire destroyed the old visitor center a few years ago. Plans are under way to replace them soon with a permanent facility. The current visitor center has a small theatre which shows a short introductory film. It also has a number of artifacts excavated from the site on display. This is a neat little collection of items, all with short descriptive labels to put them nicely into context.
Three more buildings will be built inside the fort site in the next few years. A new administration building will also house public washrooms (including handicapped washrooms) inside the fort walls. Two other new buildings will house a theatre and exhibits. All the new buildings will be modern buildings under historic facades. Construction of these buildings was already under way during our visit.
Fort Langley National Historic Site was bustling when we visited on a May weekday. School groups were scurrying about everywhere, keeping park interpreters very, very busy. Interpreters apologized and told us that the site is often quite busy ; they suggest that tourists visit on weekends to avoid the crowds of students.
Fort Langley is open year-round and hosts a number of special events. For reenactors, the highlight is Brigade Days, which is held on the B.C. Day long weekend (first weekend in August, plus the following Monday). Reenactors depict the arrival of the fur brigades at the fort, have period camps, hold demonstrations, and participate in other events throughout the weekend. In short, it sounds like a great time!
Although Fort Langley N.H.S. is not as big as Old Fort William or Fort Edmonton Park's fort complex, it is a fine site which impressed us with its knowledgeable & enthusiastic interpreters. It is well worth a visit.
For further information, contact Fort Langley N.H.S. at (604) 888-4424 or (604) 888-2822.
Borden, Gerry (Fort Langley N. H. S. Heritage Communicator ). "Brief History of Fort Langley" Web page.
Hannon, Leslie F. Forts of Canada : The Conflicts, Sieges, & Battles That Forged a Great Nation. McLelland & Stewart : Toronto, 1969.
Copyright 1994-2002 Northwest Journal ISSN 1206-4203. May I copy this article for my class?