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Great Canadian Houses

Hudson's Bay Co. Warehouse, Fort St. James, BC - 1888

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A fabulous example of the French-Canadian style of "piece on piece" (pièce-en-pièce) or "Red River" log house construction, it carries Parks Canada's highest designation for a historic building - equal to that of Canada's Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

This fabled fur trade warehouse has been rebuilt or restored numerous times to suit the pressing needs of the day, but on the same location, and with many of the same timbers.

AC Murray, the the HBC manager who restored the building to its present configuration, in 1888, said that he probably recycled some of the very timbers that Simon Fraser had used when he built the first storehouse on this site in 1806.

The warehouse is probably the finest example of the French-Canadian "Red River' construction to be found anywhere in North America.


Hudson's Bay Company Warehouse, Fort St. James, British Columbia - 1888-89
Orig. warehouse
Found - Fort St. James, BC

Fort St. James, was founded here, on the shore of Stuart Lake, in 1806, by Simon Fraser of the North West Company, who arrived hoping to tap into the rich fur trade area inhabited by the Carrier Indians.

The warehouse above, is visible to the right of the flag left. A wooden pathway runs from its lakeside door down to the dock, where York boats and canoes would tie up to unload their furs. Carts would trundle them up into the warehouse.

 


Trade goods would be sent down the ramp to be loaded for distribution to smaller posts in the interior of BC.

When the two rival fur trade companies merged in 1821, Fort St. James became a Hudson's Bay Company post. Piece on piece log construction was brought to Canada by the French colonists in the early 1600s. For the next 200 years almost every log house built in Canada was made this way, even by the English.

Since many early fur traders were French they took this log house construction style with them as they sought furs out west near Fort Garry (Winnipeg), Manitoba, and Fort St. James, British Columbia, where some of their pièce-en-pièce buildings remain to this day.



Basics:
A framework of square posts was first set up to hold the roof. The basic belief was that a building can support a load best if it is constructed on vertical posts in line with the grain of the wood where shrinkage is least. Long square slots had been cut into the centre of the sides of the verticals.

The spaces between the verticals were now filled with short squared logs which had square tongues on both ends designed to be slipped into the slots on the posts. Verticals beside the windows kept the shrinking and sagging logs from crushing the window frames.

 

 

 

 

Left, another nearby warehouse in this style.

The advantages of piece on piece construction were many: the building never lost its shape since all shrinking was only on the small "filler logs" which simply dropped down to close the gap, keeping the walls tight; even small logs could be used; extensions of any length and in any direction could be easily made to the building.

Right, the salmon cache house is also constructed pièce-en-pièce, showing the extreme versatility of this style for building large and small.

Eventually the Swedes brought over the concept of building log cabins with long horizontal logs, resulting in sagging cabins as the walls dried out and slumped. This horizontal "log cabin" style of construction was often preferred by later immigrants, especially in Ontario, because it required less work to put up a house; after cutting down a tree all that needed to be done was to notch out a small dip (saddle) above and below, on each end of the log, so it could intersect with neighbouring logs. Cabins using this style were faster and easier to put up where timber was plentiful.

Right, no vertical posts on a house point to a horizontal log house, near the warehouse, above. Both styles of construction could be found together.

As these logs dried the house sagged and the roof line drooped at odd angles. And a good thing too! Without them we probably would never have heard of famed Canadian Group of Seven painter AY Jackson who made his reputation by painting saggy barns. He liked the response he got so well he started to paint saggy fields and hills as well... All thanks to the Swedish immigrants and their ramshackle log construction style.

Parks Canada, flouting its credo of historical accuracy, likes to keep the roof line laser straight; no roof of a Canadian log house of this type ever remained straight or horizontal. Luckily AY was born before Parks Canada, or Canada would never have been blessed with paintings by this fabulous artist...

This building was a schoolhouse at one time as well as a men's bunkhouse. It is featured below from another angle.

THEN AND NOW...


The fish cache house, far left, and the old schoolhouse or men's guest house right looked very much the same today as they did a century ago.

Below, a British Columbia Government survey party under Frank Swannell, is making ready to head off into the "wilds" of BC on foot, sometimes with pack horses or canoes. They have been staying in the school house.

In those years the country was virtually trackless still.

The expedition was to set up survey bench marks used to divide the country into surveyed lots as well a produce the first scientifically accurate maps of northern British Columbia.

 

 

 

 

Left the tramway that for some 150 years witnessed the packing of furs and goods up and down from the warehouse.

Below a York boat, used by the Hudson's Bay Company, on Stuart Lake, is bringing in bags of sugar or salt that men are trundling up the tramway track on carts. The ones in front are pulling by rope, the one behind are pushing.

Little has changed in a century; even the water levels are the same.

But the buildings that were once whitewashed, to repel insect infestation, are showing bare wood to the elements.

 

 

The road is silent today on the spot where almost a century ago, Dominion Day, July 1, 1912, was celebrated by Indian families with a field day.

As mothers happily babble beside the old stockade, the woman's sack race draws peals of laughter as the participants stumble and jump their way to the finish line.

Just a few of the faces and events these historic buildings have witnessed with the passing centuries.

 

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