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The Upper Fort Garry Heritage Wall - Illuminating Manitoba's History

Where the Red River and Assiniboine River meet in Winnipeg, there are thousands of years of history buried within the ground. From the Indigenous people to the European fur traders to the current multicultural community, it has always been a gathering place of great importance. This is what drew the Hudson’s Bay Company to build Upper Fort Garry, the gateway to the west and the birthplace of Manitoba. Over time the fort was being lost, first to demolition and later to neglect. When it seemed as though part of the site was going to be lost to development, the citizens of Winnipeg made it clear that their history is a priority, donating over $10 million so that Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park, featuring the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall, would forever preserve the history of the keystone province.

6000 years ago Indigenous people built a fire at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. The hearth that remained became a part of the archeological record, showing thousands of years of prosperous occupation of the site by various Indigenous groups, meeting, fishing, trading and living there. Recognizing the significance (traditional meeting place) and resources (food and transportation) of the site, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye, part of the first Europeans to arrive, choose a nearby location to build Fort Rouge in 1738.

The junction of the Red River and Assiniboine River in 1821, possibly depicting Fort Rouge.
Source: Canada'a Historic Places and the Library and Archives of Canada
Thought to have been located on the south side of the Assiniboine River where it meets the Red River, the fort was a French fur trading post. In 1807 the North West Company built Fort Gibralter close by, on the north side of the Assiniboine River, which became the main fort and caused Fort Rouge to fade into history. But Fort Gibralter’s existence was also short lived, destroyed by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1816. The merging of the two rival companies resulted in the construction of Fort Garry in 1821, on or around the Fort Gibralter site. Located close to the river’s edge, Fort Garry suffered devastating flooding in 1826, which caused the Hudson’s Bay Company to move 32 kilometers down the Red River to build Lower Fort Garry. But the new location did not suffice, causing the Hudson’s Bay Company to move back to the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in 1836 to build one final fort, Upper Fort Garry, in a similar location but somewhat further back from the water’s edge than their previous efforts.

Upper Fort Garry was anchored by four large bastions linked by stone walls the towered 15 feet into the air. In 1846 the British sent the military at the fort due to fears of American expansion, causing overcrowding. To rectify this, the fort was expanded northwards, built with double wooden walls one meter apart sandwiching compacted dirt between, finished in 1853. In 1882 the Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned the fort, which was partially demolished the next year. Eventually, the northern limestone gate of the expanded section of Upper Fort Garry was all that remained, with some of the wooden walls being restored in the 1980s.

Upper Fort Garry in 1860, after it was expanded northwards.
Source: Historica Canada and the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections
The northern gate from the expanded section of Upper Fort Garry was all that remained of the dominating stone fort by the 1890s.
Source: Virtual Heritage Winnipeg and the Archives of Manitoba
In 1897, the Hudson’s Bay Company was pressured into donating the northern gate to the City of Winnipeg to be a public park. The gate represented more than just a bygone era; it was the center of trade and administration for Rupert’s Land, and the site of Louis Riel’s provisional government, which resulted in Manitoba entering confederation. But despite its significance, over 100 years passed with very little happening at the park. By the turn of the 21st century, the gate was in disrepair, hardly even visible to passersby due to the huge trees that surrounded it. Recognizing the potential of the forgotten park, Heritage Winnipeg applied for a grant from the Thomas Sill Foundation which was used to fund a feasibility study of Upper Fort Garry. The study led to the creation of the Friends of Upper Fort Garry, who after raising $10 million took possession of the land, planning to create an historic park and interpretive center. The site also eventually became a provincial park, securing its future as a public space. Nine years of effort went into creating the park, which officially opened at 130 Main Street on August 14, 2015.

A rendering of Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park.
Source: HTFC Planning & Design
The new park is not a recreation of the fort, but a creative interpretation of the history that took place on the site making use of landscaping and technology. A major feature of the park is the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall. The 134 meter wall, made of three layers of weathered steel, is in the location of the original west wall of the fort, built to the same height (4.2 meters) and depth. It also contains a symbolic bastion made of steel, representing the northwest bastion of the original fort that stood in that place. At a cost of $3.5 million, the wall depicts the chronological history of the area, beginning with the Indigenous people that have lived there for thousands of years and ending with Northwest Passage, alluding to Manitoba’s potential to forge new connections to the world in the future. It will eventually become the east wall of the interpretive center.

The Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall at Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park.
Source: Friends of Upper Fort Garry
The Heritage Wall was the second phase of the park and provided numerous challenges to bring to life. Using steel presented limitations on how detailed the images cut into it could be. The images also had to take into account the three layers of steel, which add dimension but complicated execution. The wall is illuminated by 7000 LED lights, which had never been used to create a “screen” of this resolution, posing questions as to whether or not the quality would be high enough. To help overcome these hurdles, an eight foot long scale prototype was made, complete with electronics, providing a great assistance for those working on the complex project.

Fabricating the steel for the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall at Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park.
Source: Friends of Upper Fort Garry
A section of steel with holes to accommodate LED lights for the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall at Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park.
Source: Friends of Upper Fort Garry
A Red Rive Cart (depicted to scale) and the bison hunt section of the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall at Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park.
Source: Friends of Upper Fort Garry
It was important to implement the lights correctly, as they are an imperative part of the wall, visible during the day and night, intended to draw visitors in. From the distance, visitors can see the light show and being intrigued, approach the wall. As they move towards the wall, they can then hear the sound that accompanies the lights. Depending on where visitors are standing along the wall, different effects are emitted from 18 distinct channels. The variation in sound is designed to lead visitors along the wall, eager to discover what sound is playing in the distance. Once closer to the wall, the images cut into the steel become clear, displaying the history of Manitoba.

The light show on the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall at Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park draws in visitors when they see it from a distance.
Source: Friends of Upper Fort Garry
To further create an interactive experience for visitors and bring history to life, a free app was developed to accompany the park. The app directs users to points of interest in the park, immersing the user in history. Additionally, the app helps interpret the images cut into the Heritage Wall, enriching the historical experience. By making use of technology with lights, sound and the app, the Heritage Wall is an ever evolving history presentation that can be endlessly updated and reinterpreted. On November 15, 2016, the Heritage Wall was officially opened, featuring sound and light shows every 15 minutes from 10:00 am (11:00 am on weekends) to 8:00 pm. It is a testament to the people that shaped Manitoba, from the Indigenous people thousands of years ago to the current day inhabitants of the city, determined to illuminate our heritage of years to come.

The free app guides visitors to point of interest and helps to interpret the images on the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall at Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park.
Source: Google Play 
The future looks bright for Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park and the preservation of Manitoba's history.
Source: Friends of Upper Fort Garry.



Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Canada’s Historic Places

The Forks

Friends of Upper Fort Garry
2015 Annual Report
2016 Annual Report

Google Play

Historica Canada

HTFC Planning & Design

Metro News

Virtual Heritage Winnipeg


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