Step into a time machine in the heart of the Edmonton river valley, a place where you can shift from the modern city back to its very inception. My children and I step inside whenever we feel like stretching the fabric of time to investigate our city’s roots. Fort Edmonton Park, a national historic site nestled in a leafy bend of the North Saskatchewan River, preserves four distinct time periods: 1846, 1885, 1905, and 1920. Costumed historical interpreters bring these history lessons out of the books and into real life.
It’s hard to believe we’re just off one of Edmonton’s main arterial freeways when it feels so much like wilderness. We’re headed into 158 acres of history hugged by verdant parkland forest. It’s as if we can hear the whispers of the Blackfoot and Cree as they gather beaver pelts to trade at the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost.
Back to the Beginning
When I ask my son Ben his favourite part of the Fort Edmonton experience, he replies, “The train, mom. Definitely the train.” It picks you up old-fashioned style from a platform inside the gates. All aboard, we feel the clackety-clack of the steel wheels and hear the friendly whistle blast, which seems to shake the poplar leaves.
We disembark in 1846 at the replica fort, where aged timbers form formidable walls. We learn about beading from a Cree family in their riverbank encampment and it feels more like we’re living history than learning history.
Inside, we’re immersed in the fur trade. We wander through Rowand House, the imposing home where the chief factor lived. It’s a world of warm woollen Hudson’s Bay blankets and glossy beaver pelts. Take time to wander the rooms and see the artefacts – my kids spot a bedpan and giggle when they learn what it was used for.
Settle in With the Settlers
1885 Street reminds us of Little House on the Prairie. Free-roaming turkeys gobble their way amongst homesteads and pioneer shops, including a dusky blacksmith shop and millinery (hat maker). Work your way up the creaky old stairs and into the hidden nooks and farm pens of these old buildings to deeply understand Edmonton’s rough-and-ready, dirt on the cheeks beginnings.
At 1905 Street we stop at Tent City, where folks set up temporary canvas dwellings during a housing shortage throughout Edmonton’s transformation into a city. There’s a shiny red fire engine, electric lights and a trolley car – symbols of Edmonton’s rapid growth.
Finally we arrive in the 1920s for tea at Johnson’s Café in the Hotel Selkirk. For those who feel at home in this era, there’s no need to leave; grab a boutique hotel room upstairs and travel through history again next morning.
We run for the midway, where my daughter chooses an ornately carved horse for a carousel ride. The vintage rides are a family favourite. Gaze across time from the Ferris wheel, then head to the Capitol Theatre to watch Northern Light, a short 4-D film (snow falls and the seats shake!) which shares 10,000 years of Edmonton’s past.