Upper Fort Garry as a Transport Hub in British North America
For much of the 18th and 19th century Upper Fort Garry and its predecessor forts at the Forks linked the economy of the west to a system of trade that was international in scope.
For almost five decades Upper Fort Garry’s strategic location astride a major crossroads in North America was pivotal to the movement of people, culture and resources throughout the western interior. It was a role that the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers had played for thousands of years. From here Indigenous peoples travelled and traded throughout the plains and parkland and beyond, tied into exchange networks that reached as far west as the Pacific and as far south as the Mexico-USA borderlands.
In the post contact period the Upper Fort became a critical link in the fur trade transport and provisioning network, a hub for traffic in furs, trade goods, and food supplies, the focus for settlement in Red River, and later the debarkation point for immigrants to western Canada. From the Upper Fort, Red River cart brigades travelled overland to posts south and west, while Metis tripmen manned the York boats that plied the river systems of the Northwest from York Factory to the distant Athabasca region. Leaving the Upper Fort in the spring, bound for York Factory and the English [Churchill] River district, the boat brigades carried the products of the region such as pemmican, flour, corn, biscuit and vegetables to northern posts. On their return in the fall the boats brought trade goods from York Factory, English provisions, agricultural equipment and mail. Travellers, missionaries and company officers also journeyed on the boat brigades, headed for the Red River Settlement and places beyond. Red River carts carried pemmican and plains provisions from the Pembina region and south, while other brigades travelled as far west as Fort Edmonton.
Steamboats would eventually supplement York boat and cart traffic in the Northwest, enhancing the Upper Fort’s role in the company’s transport network. After 1858, a growing inventory of supplies would come from the south through St. Paul, gradually displacing York Factory and the Hudson Bay route. As transport technology evolved, the railway would in turn make river traffic obsolete, the first lines arriving from the south in 1878 and the CPR from the east in 1883. The railway would forever alter the ways in which people and freight moved throughout the western interior. With these changes Upper Fort Garry and the fur trade ceased to be relevant in the new city of Winnipeg that developed outside the company reserve. From here, merchants and entrepreneurs would supplant the centuries-old boat and cart routes as goods and people moved to the new farms and communities of the prairie hinterland.
Over the course of its history the HBC’s complex system of transport was critical to its mercantile success. It connected the fur trade and important centres such as Upper Fort Garry to European markets and a global trade in commodities. The Upper Fort was the beginning of Winnipeg’s role as a transportation hub from early cart and boat traffic, to steamboats, railways, highways, and in more recent times the mid-continental trade corridor and Asia-Pacific gateway that is CentrePort.