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Visit the site of old Fort Ellice

A good destination for birdwatchers and those interested in history

View from Fort Ellice site.

For history buffs and keen birders, an interesting spot to visit is the site of old Fort Ellice, southwest of St. Lazare, Manitoba. This area is also part of the Ellice-Archie and Spy Hill Community Pasture, formerly PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration), that straddles the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. It was recently included as part of Manitoba’s newest “Important Bird Area” (IBA), and is now owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

In early days Fort Ellice was an important stopping point on the route west, and a centre of western trade. It was named after Edward Ellice, an agent for the Hudson’s Bay Fur Company. The original fort was a little farther west, but it was rebuilt at this site in 1862, on a high, flat spot above the Assiniboine River, about five km south of where the Qu’Appelle River joins the Assiniboine (where present-day St. Lazare is situated). The location was likely intended so that anyone in the fort could watch for travellers on the meandering river below — though the view is now partially blocked in summer by tree foliage. The location would have helped warn of approaching danger, but it also meant that trading goods or furs being transported from or to the fort, via the Assiniboine, would have had to be carried uphill or down, some 400 feet (120 metres).

Aside from its location, Fort Ellice didn’t actually offer much protection, as the walls were only about six feet high. Buildings included storehouses for goods, a dairy, carpenter’s shop, blacksmith shop, an office and two-storey residence for the chief factor, cottages for families, and rooms for single men.

Fort Ellice was a major fort on the Carlton Trail which ran to Fort Edmonton from Upper and Lower Fort Gary, in the Red River Settlement. The trail section through what is now Manitoba was commonly called the Fort Ellice Trail, and several cart trails, following different routes, joined up at the fort site before proceeding farther west. Canoe brigades also used it as a stopping point, and small steamships, such as the SS Alpha, were able to make it up the river that far — a much faster way of travel. Records show that an 1880 trip upstream had taken 19 days, while the downward trip lasted a mere five.

The importance of the fort for trading diminished as outposts were established farther west, and once the railway was built, bypassing the fort. Although established by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the fort was transferred to the Government of Canada in 1870, when Manitoba became a province. Later, Fort Ellice became a staging point for the newly formed North-West Mounted Police Force that was sent west, into present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta. After 1875 it became an NWMP post.

The Hudson’s Bay Company gave up its business there in 1888, selling the buildings to one of its employees, and eventually they were dismantled. For many years the site was in private hands, and visitors were discouraged, but in June 2012 it was purchased by the Nature Conservancy with plans to allow public access — although it is still used as a cattle pasture.

Today the Fort Ellice site has no buildings but a commemorative stone cairn marks the spot above the river, and a metal plaque on the side contains information about the fort. There are cemeteries on the north side of the site, but the stones are overgrown and difficult to find. Prairie birds, some of them becoming increasingly rare, sing and nest on the surrounding grasslands — the reason for its recent inclusion as part of the IBA. The chestnut-sided longspur and Sprague’s pipit are two of the endangered birds found here and in the surrounding community pastures.

To reach the Fort Ellice site from the village of St. Lazare, cross to the west side of the Assiniboine River on Highway No. 41 and take the gravel road heading south. (If you are coming from the south on No. 41, turn southeast before you reach the bridge.) Drive about four km and then take a narrow road going up the hill to the right. Last fall there was no signage, but perhaps some will be erected soon, following its designation as part of an Important Bird Area. Visitors should respect all wildlife and livestock. Keep dogs leashed. Fires and garbage, and removal of plants are prohibited.

For more information and photos of the old fort, visit the Manitoba Historical Society website.

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