Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site of Canada
Algonquin College Heritage Masonry Students Join the Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site Wall Stabilization Project
Left to right: Daniel Pershaw, Kenny Davies, John Bland and instructor John Scott preparing to start work on Prince of Wales Fort© Parks Canada
Imagine working as an 18th century stonemason at a massive Hudson's Bay Company stone fort on the blustery western shore of Hudson Bay. This unforgettable work experience was relived this summer, almost three centuries later, by four students from the Heritage Masonry program at Algonquin College in Perth, Ontario, accompanied by their instructor, John Scott as part of a unique collaboration with Parks Canada at Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site (NHS).
Prince of Wales Fort NHS is in a remote location at the mouth of the Churchill River at Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba. Construction on the Fort began in 1731, as the Hudson's Bay Company, in competition with the French, sought to control the territory and fur trade resources around Hudson Bay. Despite the fact that it was designed as a military stronghold, the Fort was manned only by a few Hudson's Bay Company workers, who were unable to defend it from an attack by the French in 1782. The Fort was surrendered, its buildings burned, storerooms and embrasures blown up, cannons disabled, and then it was abandoned until the 20th century.
Prince of Wales Fort was designated as a National Historic Site in 1920. As a depression era work project the damaged sections of the walls were reconstructed. Additional work was done in the 1950s and 1960s. Still more than three quarters of the Fort's massive walls were original 18th century construction. By the 1980s the old walls were showing their age, culminating in the collapse of a small section of the outer wall in 1997. Following an investigation into the causes of wall instability, a 10-year conservation strategy was developed and implemented in 2004. This summer the work was accelerated, thanks in part to the addition of the Algonquin students to the regular team of stonemasons.
How did Algonquin College become involved in the Prince of Wales Fort NHS project? The relationship between the Algonquin College Masonry program and Parks Canada began in 1991 when Parks Canada, responsible for numerous stone heritage buildings across Canada, was invited to advise the newly established Heritage Masonry program. Most recently, Parks Canada and Algonquin College have been discussing collaboration on the restoration of stonemasonry sites of the Rideau Canal National Historic Site, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The relationship with Prince of Wales Fort NHS began with an engineer from the Heritage Conservation Directorate of Public Works and Government Services Canada who is working on the Prince of Wales Fort project. He had previously worked with Algonquin Heritage Masonry students on a College field work project restoring provincially designated historic buildings in Almonte, Ontario. When Parks Canada was looking for additional stonemasons for Prince of Wales Fort NHS, the engineer immediately thought this would be an excellent collaboration for both organizations.
How were the students chosen for such a unique opportunity? The top two students in the one-year course were automatically given the opportunity to go to Churchill. The College established a competitive process to fill the remaining two positions. With the successful completion of course work and their grade point average taken into account, students were also given several specific assignments, including writing an article on the history of the Fort, a paper discussing the significance of Prince of Wales Fort to Canadian heritage, and a justification for spending public money to preserve the Fort. Students were also tested on their project management skills as part of the competition.
Stonemasons are trained to do hard, painstaking work under a variety of conditions. Prince of Wales Fort is the ultimate challenge. Due to the northern weather conditions, work can only take place during a two-month period in the summer. Access to the Fort is by boat from the town of Churchill, and the schedule for travel across the river fluctuates daily to synchronize with the four-metre tides. The working day at Prince of Wales Fort only begins after the site has been checked and declared safe by the Parks Canada polar bear monitors, who remain on site to safeguard the staff at all times. When the wind drops flies and mosquitoes harass the workers. Daily temperatures are often less than 15° as would be expected in this northern location, but they also soar to over 30° for a few days each summer.
The stonemasons reflect the tradition of their forbearers. Masonry methods have changed little since the 18th century, except that today's masons have the advantage of better tools and electric hoists for moving stones. This is no small task, as the stone, quarried locally, is extremely hard and a single stone can weigh as much as 2500kg. The students, under the direction of instructor John Scott and the Parks Canada stonemasons, repointed (replace old mortar in the joints between the stones with new mortar) portions of the original 18th century stonework and wall areas that have recently been stabilized. Student also had the opportunity to apprentice with experienced stonemasons who are recording, dismantling and rebuilding the massive stone walls.
Some things have changed over the centuries. The teenaged 18th century apprentices, primarily from the Orkney Islands in Great Britain, recorded their experiences in letters sent home on the ships that annually brought supplies to the Fort. By contrast, their 20th century student counterparts transmitted their experiences world-wide instantly as they wrote their daily reports in a blog on the Algonquin College website.
The benefits of the collaboration between Parks Canada and Algonquin College are many. Skilled stonemasons are in demand. Many of the stonemasons keeping the Parliament Buildings maintained in Ottawa are graduates of Algonquin College, and a project such as Prince of Wales Fort NHS provides an excellent hands-on opportunity and a chance to learn new skills to enhance employment opportunities. The remote town of Churchill benefits economically from additional workers living in the town during the summer, as well as the improved maintenance of Prince of Wales Fort NHS, a major tourist attraction. Ultimately, Canadians benefit by knowing that traditional skills are being passed on and used to preserve Canada's special heritage places.
Follow the work, observations, and adventures of the Algonguin students on their blog at: