Manitoba History: York Factory National Historic Site of Canada: Planning the Future for a Place with a Momentous Past

by Kevin Lunn
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Number 48, Autumn/Winter 2004-2005

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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York Factory National Historic Site of Canada on the Hayes River near the Hudson Bay coast. The large building right of centre is the Depot. The cluster of buildings left of centre is the Parks Canada staff residence and storage buildings. Most of the York Factory trading operation was in the area of cleared vegetation.
Source: Parks Canada.

What then should be our blueprint for the future of York Factory? At his lecture Dr. Ritchie pointed out the need for action if the buildings at York Factory are to be saved. ‘It would be a tragedy to have the buildings deteriorate into ruin’. Think what could happen in ten years. It is the year 1970. Picture a plane flying low over what was once known as York Factory. The pilot says, ‘Look at the heap of rubble. Someone must have tried to build something here once. I guess the climate was too rugged. “If someone does not act soon this could well happen. Must York Factory become a ruin? [1]

1. Dr. J. C. Ritchie, University of Manitoba, quoted from his lecture “Sub Arctic Vista”, in Betty Wood “Must York Factory Become a Ruin?”, Manitoba Pageant, Jan. 1962, Vol. 7, No. 2).

Forty years later the “historic place” of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC) York Factory post still exists and its three-storey Depot building still dominates the lowlands terrain of the Hudson Bay coast. But the Depot, and indeed the site of the larger post and settlement that were York Factory, lie in a precarious state. Riverbank erosion, discontinuous permafrost and ground drainage contribute to a fragile, unstable and a slowly disappearing land base that creates major challenges—and demands making choices and assigning priorities—to protecting the architectural and archaeological heritage of York Factory. In light of these unyielding threats, what will be the future state of the commemorative integrity of York Factory? What should be the long-term outcomes for managing this site and the immediate priorities? Are partnerships that benefit the protection and presentation of York Factory possible? Answering these questions will be pivotal for the management plan to be developed this coming year for York Factory National Historic Site of Canada (NHSC), a planning program that you can participate in.

The front of the Depot building. The Depot is about 93 metres from the bank of the Hayes River. The bank erodes from 1 metre per year to 3 metres every 5 years. There are archaeological features between the Depot and the river.
Source: Parks Canada.

York Factory NHSC is on the Hayes River about eight kilometres from Hudson Bay, and 250 kilometres south of Churchill. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recommended York Factory’s designation as a national historic site in 1936. In 1968 the Government of Canada acquired 250 hectares of HBC property, eleven years after the HBC closed its trading operations there. York Factory—there were three of them; 1684-1715, 1715-1788 and 1788-1957 is commemorated for its critical role in the French-English struggle on Hudson Bay for control of the fur trade, as an important HBC trading post and entrepôt for over 250 years, and as the principal base for expansion of the fur trade into the interior of western Canada. The first two York Factorys are long gone, eroded and washed away by the Hayes River. The Depot (constructed in the 1830s over top an 18th century fortification) is the third York Factory’s most prominent heritage feature, but there are also no less than seventy building sites identified from historical and archaeological evidence. They represent a complex of transhipment, manufacturing, administration and residential functions from the late 18th, 19th and 20th century fur trade. More than 300,000 artifacts have been collected. The cemetery has no less than 200 to 300 graves (most unmarked) of traders and Cree who once lived at the post and settlement. York Factory—the Cree place name is Kihciwaskahihan (“the great house”)—was the main settlement of the York Factory First Nation until the post closed in 1957. The place is still regarded by many of the York Factory First Nation as home.

Parks Canada is custodian of York Factory NHSC with the objective to protect and present its national historic significance, as well as to ensure its commemorative integrity for the benefit of present and future Canadians. Since the 1970s archaeology at York Factory has attempted to record and salvage parts of the site being lost to riverbank erosion. Drains were installed to curtail surface water erosion at the cemetery and elsewhere. In the 1990s a major engineering project was undertaken to stabilize the permafrost and foundation beneath the Depot. These initiatives have had varying success, or have provided only interim protection measures for certain resources. Regarding presentation, fewer than a hundred people visit York Factory each year. They can only get there by boat or plane. The Depot houses some displays and resident seasonal Parks Canada staff provide tours. But for most visitors, it is the wonder of reaching and being at this isolated place—so steeped and frozen in history and removed from the present-day—that inspires personal meaning and understanding as to York Factory’s national significance. A yet to be tapped audience are Canadians who will never get to York Factory itself, but who can discover this historic place and its importance from a distance.

Wave action is the main cause of riverbank erosion at York Factory. Ice scouring and permafrost contribute to the erosion. A 19th century icehouse is eroded here.
Source: Parks Canada.

Like all national parks and national historic sites administered by Parks Canada, York Factory NHSC must have a management plan. The plan must set out a long term vision (looking ahead fifteen years), objectives, targets and strategies for how the key components of the Parks Canada mandate—conservation, presentation and visitor appreciation—will be delivered in an integrated manner to ensure the long term protection of York Factory NHSC. It will serve as an account to the Canadian public, to Parliament and to the Parks Canada Agency, of what is entailed in the preservation of the commemorative integrity of York Factory NHSC. Public participation will be integral to the management planning, enabling the Canadian public, Aboriginal groups, and government and non-government agencies the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process for the management of this important site.

The threats facing York Factory are complex. The riverbank continues to erode and the stability of the Depot foundation remains a concern. Erosion, poor drainage, unstable permafrost and encroaching vegetation, as well as the difficult logistics and expense of working at this remote place, not to mention the financial constraints faced by Parks Canada, all threaten the integrity of the site. The challenge will be to determine how conditions of commemorative integrity—the protection of individual resources and in time the site itself—will be met and how.

Visitors led by Parks Canada staff on a tour of the Depot. Some of the artifacts found on the site are displayed here.
Source: Parks Canada.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: York Factory (Northern Manitoba)

Page revised: 3 February 2012