Pilgrimage: Fort St. James National Historic Site

A unique bed and breakfast where one can experience life in 1896 is in a Canadian fort named after a saint in central British Columbia. Fort St. James is the only national park in the country where people can sleep in historic dwellings, making it one of the best-kept secrets of the Canadian parks system.

The trade store and office, which was the commercial center of the post where furs were traded for other goods.

The trade store and office, which was the commercial center of the post where furs were traded for other goods.

Just off the Yellowhead Highway that bisects the province in two, the fort sits on the bucolic shores of Stuart Lake. It was founded in 1806 by Simon Fraser, the dashing entrepreneur and explorer who opened up western Canada for the British and established several fur trading posts along his route. Fort St. James was a trading center for furs that would be transported overland to eastern Canada for shipment to Europe. 

Fur pelts were worth everything in Europe at the time and British royalty, starting with Queen Victoria, would be known for their gorgeous robes edged in white and black fur from ermine trapped in Canada.

In 1821, the site was named Fort St. James, possibly to inspire some devotion to God in an extremely isolated area visited by few people other than explorers, fur traders and the native Carrier tribe, known today as the Nak’azdli First Nation. For years, the fort was the capital of New Caledonia, as British Columbia was known at that time.

The Canadian parks system has preserved the fort, with all the furniture and implements set in the year 1896. Not only can one visit the various log structures used as warehouses, stores and homes during the day, but it’s possible to stay the night in the antique-laden Murray House, built in the 1880s. 

The officer’s house is romantically dark in the evenings with only a few strategically placed lamps to offer light so as to give the effect of the candles that were used at the time. To while away the evening hours, games are set out in the dining room such as checkers, cribbage and crokinole, a game developed in rural Canada in the 1860s.

Annie’s Room, the room occupied by the daughter of Alexander and Mary Murray. Notice the second cradle made of woolen blankets and suspended from the ceiling by ropes.

Annie’s Room, the room occupied by the daughter of Alexander and Mary Murray. Notice the second cradle made of woolen blankets and suspended from the ceiling by ropes.

My daughter (then 11) and I stayed there during an 11-day tour around British Columbia. The quiet village surrounding the fort is only 95 miles from Prince George, the major city in central BC. One must arrive by late afternoon to take advantage of the salmon (or steak) dinner served to guests (and included in the price) in a cozy café with a stunning view of the lake and the sun setting over the low hills. We also loved the ginger lemonade.

The only downside to staying in the house was that the bathrooms were across the grass in a maintenance building. We were given flashlights for the trip which were an improvement over what was available a century ago. Back then, the home was occupied by an Alexander Murray, his wife, Mary, and their daughter Annie. My daughter stayed in Annie’s room and I stayed in the Murray’s room, which displayed late 19th-century clothes, an antique bathtub and devotional pictures of Jesus and Mary. 

The place was missionized by French-speaking religious brothers from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who were sent by Bishop John-Norbert Provencher, the first bishop for the Canadian West, who was stationed in what’s now Winnipeg. The first sustained Catholic missionary effort among the region’s Indians was in 1842-43 and it was primarily the Oblates (who competed with the Anglicans and the Methodists to convert what’s now northwestern Canada), who got to the area first. In 1878, Our Lady of Good Hope, a Catholic church, was built nearby on the shores of the lake.

We didn’t get to the church (which is still standing), as we arrived in town on a Sunday night. The next morning, after a pancake, sausage and eggs breakfast in the café, park employees brought outside a huge “historic game box” that had croquet, horse shoes, ropes for tug of war and a collection of sticks and be-ribboned hoops called the “game of graces;” a popular Victorian activity for girls in the 19thcentury. Even more popular were the daily chicken races, where five chickens from a nearby coop get to run down a short track to the delight of the tourists who bet on which chicken might win. (Ours lost). 

One could also wander about the 19th-century log buildings around the property and meet the staff, who were dressed in period clothes. They explained the history of the local fur trade, which included coyote, lynx, otter, martin, muskrat and silver-tip fox. They also showed us how moccasins in that era were waterproofed (with mink oil) and served us warm gingersnap cookies from one of the ancient stoves. 

A view of the fort from Lake Stuart. The cafe is on the hillside to the upper right.

A view of the fort from Lake Stuart. The cafe is on the hillside to the upper right.

Getting there:

The site is 581 miles north of Vancouver, BC. The B&B fee (in Canadian dollars) is $130/night per adult and $85/child (4-11. Kids younger are free) which is pretty reasonable considering that it includes two very substantial meals. Up to five people can stay in the Murray House and another four can stay in a building known as the Men’s House, formerly an early residence for fur company employees.

Park website: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/bc/stjames

For the B&B: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/bc/stjames/activ/camping