Fort William Historical Park’s Great Hall
Story by Jennifer Bonazzo, Photos by Paul Krasauskas
When you walk through the front palisade of Fort William Historical Park, if your gaze is immediately drawn to the impressive building directly across the way, you’re not alone. Elevated slightly above the others not only physically but for its purpose, the Great Hall is the brightest jewel in an array of meticulously reconstructed buildings showing Fort William as it would have been in 1815. The reconstruction of the Fort was a long process. It started in the 1960s, when it was debated where it would be rebuilt—on the original East End site, or in its current location on the Kaministiquia River. Once that was determined, a contract was struck between National Heritage Limited and Pigott Project Management in 1971, with the former focusing on planning, research, and supervision and the latter on construction. Research continued even as building started. According to a July 5, 1975 article in The Chronicle Journal, Marjorie Wilkins Campbell, a writer of Canadian history and a consultant for the reconstruction, came to Thunder Bay to check on the progress. Some of this research included paintings and drawings from the original Fort site. A few of these were vital to reconstruction of the Great Hall, including a watercolour by Robert Irvine from approximately 1811, and two drawings from 1817, often credited to when Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, took over Fort William with his De Meuron soldiers. Renderings of inside William McGillivray’s bedroom, along with a view outside his window at the main square, were invaluable to understanding how to recreate the architectural features of the Great Hall. Built in the Georgian style, the Great Hall has all the classical elements of that genre. Popularized in Britain between 1750 and 1820 while Georges I through III were on the throne, it was brought to Canada by the Loyalists who remained loyal to the Crown. This style is known for its simple, symmetrical design, and one not overly ornate or detailed. Looking at the exterior of the Great Hall, with its three large windows on each side of the main doorway and the two end chimneys—both working—it’s clear to see it achieved this balanced vision. A large verandah also covers the front of the building. The hall was completed by 1976, but it didn’t officially open until 1981 with its furniture and exhibitions. Walking through the interior with its rows of tables and chairs and the huge paintings on the walls, it’s not hard to imagine hearing the echoes of gentlemen debating important fur trade matters. Keeping up the maintenance on such an important historical building isn’t easy. The hall is made of wood, so if damage or rot occurs, logs have to be hand hewn so modern machine marks don’t show throughout the repair process. Finding people who can complete the work can also be a challenge, but worth it when the building sees over 100,000 visitors annually. July 2023 will be Fort William Historical Park’s 50th anniversary. This seems like the perfect time to come and experience the Great Hall’s timeless charm for yourself. Jennifer Bonazzo is a member of the Heritage Advisory Committee, which advises city council on the conservation of heritage buildings, sites, and resources, and their integration into development. For more information on the city’s heritage resources, visit thunderbay.ca.