Manitoba History: York Factory National Historic Site

by Lillian Stewart
Manitoba Northern Historic Sites, Canadian Parks Service

Manitoba History, Number 15, Spring 1988

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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From its location at the mouth of the Hayes River overlooking Hudson Bay, the great depot building at York Factory (referred to by local natives as Kischewaskaheegan—the Great House), stands like a lonely sentinel, a reminder of York’s once crucial role in the history of the Western Canadian fur trade. In operation for almost three centuries, York Factory served first as an important bayside trading post, second as a major administrative, transhipment, and manufacturing centre in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur trade network, and third after 1875 as an important regional trading post in northern Manitoba. York’s prominent role in the early history of Western Canada has been recognized by the federal government and in 1968 a plaque was erected at the site. It reads:

From the founding of Port Nelson in 1682, the series of posts at the mouths of Hayes and Nelson Rivers played a major role in the operation of the Hudson’s Bay Company for 275 Years. First a major fur trading post, then a base for expansion into the interior, York Factory eventually became the Company’s principle entrepot in the early 19th century. After almost 100 years of decline due to change in the fur trade and its transport, York Factory was closed in 1957. Acknowledging its historical importance, the Company transferred the remains to the Government of Canada in 1968.

In 1982 the Canadian Parks Service undertook a management planning program for York Factory National Historic Site. Over the next five years Parks consulted with various levels of government and the public to arrive at a final management plan for the site. The first of two rounds of public meetings took place in 1983 in Winnipeg and throughout northern Manitoba. These meetings resulted in the accumulation of information which led to the development of plan alternatives. Subsequently a federal-provincial working group was established with a mandate to develop a strategy for promoting tourism development focusing on the Gillam-York Factory-Churchill Region. The plan alternatives were presented to the public at a second round of public consultation meetings in April of 1986. The final plan, completed one year later, contains a summary of Parks’ intentions regarding the development and operation of York Factory. It also outlines the tourism initiatives that have been proposed for the Gillam-York Factory-Churchill corridor.

Depot building, York Factory, 1983.
Source: Robert Coutts

In December of 1987 the Honorable Tom McMillan, Minister of the Environment endorsed the York Factory Management Plan. Throughout the fifteen year life of the Plan, the Canadian Parks Service will continue to undertake protection and development of York Factory. The major initiatives which Parks will undertake at York Factory will be first, the stabilization of the infrastructure and second, development. In 1989 the park will begin construction of new accommodation for park staff stationed at York Factory. Projects are also in place to stabilize the historic buildings at the site: the depot, library and powder magazine. Projects to rehabilitate the cemetery and the riverbank are also in the planning stages. While some of the on-site work is scheduled to begin in 1988, archaeological investigations and major construction work will occur in subsequent years.

Site development programmes will focus to a large degree on the interpretive and marketing facets of the plan. To aid in this development, five historic themes were outlined for the site:

  1. York Factory and the English-French struggle for control of Hudson Bay.
  2. York Factory as a focal point for British control of the fur trade hinterland.
  3. Life at a Hudson’s Bay Company Post, 1789-1870.
  4. The work environment and artisan manufacturing at York Factory, 1789-1870.
  5. European-Native contact at York Factory: Cultural and socio-economic interaction in the fur trade.

Existing facilities such as the depot building will be outfitted to house a major interpretive exhibit. In addition, the historic boardwalk system will be reconstructed and will link the site’s various historic resources. Display nodes and a self-guiding pamphlet will be used to interpret archaeological features at York Factory.

Off-site interpretation will be achieved in co-operation with the York Factory federal-provincial Working Group. Team members from the Canadian Parks Service, the federal Department of Regional Industrial Expansion, and the provincial Departments of 1) Natural Resources, 2) Culture, Heritage and Recreation, 3) Northern Affairs, and 4) Highways and Transportation have been working together since 1986. The Department of Natural Resources has completed field research for a document nominating the Hayes River as part of the Canadian Heritage Rivers system. The Wildlife Branch of the Department of Natural Resources wishes to pursue the designation of Cape Churchill as a world Heritage Site. As well, the Canadian Parks Service is scheduled to undertake a major ethnohistorical study (including an oral history) that will examine the key role played by the Native community in the development of York Factory. Parks also plans to develop a marketing package which may include a popular history of York, an “edu-kit,” and a mobile interpretive display.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: York Factory (Northern Manitoba)

Page revised: 3 February 2012