York Factory, ca. 1950 by P.A.C. Nichols
In 1843 fur trader Robert Ballantyne described York Factory as "a monstrous blot on a swampy spot, with a partial view of the frozen sea." Mosquitoes and flies in the summer and intense cold in the winter "render the country unbearable." Yet in terms of logistics that "swampy spot" was actually considered to be prime real estate.
Situated on a low-lying narrow peninsula that separated the mouth of the Hayes River from that of the Nelson to the northwest, York Factory was built in 1684. This followed two unsuccessful attempts (1670, 1682) to establish a major post at "Port Nelson", the term originally used for the land between the two rivers. The location was key for several reasons. Both major rivers led inland, although the Hayes was less rough and thus the preferred route to and from the interior. Along the shore of Hudson Bay silted mudflats deposited by river outflows made for shallow waters, keeping large vessels at a distance. But ocean-going ships could anchor at Five Fathom Hole, a deep anchorage some seven miles off York Factory and sloops sent out to load and offload cargoes.
Soon after its construction the fort became a pawn in the Thirty Years' War between the English and the French. Their North American possessions increasingly became a secondary theatre of military operations. Raids by the French resulted in the loss of almost all the bayside posts at one time or another. Periodic recapture by the English meant that most posts changed hands several times. York Factory was itself held by the French for a period of 16 years (1697-1713) after being captured by Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville. The terms of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 restored it and all the other posts to the Company.
"The evacuation of Port Nelson", from The Great Company, by Beckles Willson, 1900
In 1714 Captain James Knight, Governor on the Bay, and Henry Kelsey, Deputy-Governor, armed with a commission from Queen Anne, repossessed York Factory. They found it in an appalling state. Knight reported:
"...the Place as wee are come to is nothing but a confused heap of old rotten houses without form or strength, nay not sufficient to secure your goods from the weather not fitt for men to live in without being exposed to the frigid winter my own place I have to live in this winter is not half so good as our cowhouse was in the bottom of the bay & I have never been able to see my hand in it since I have been here without a candle it is so black & dark cold & whett with all nothing to make better but heaping up earth about it to make it warm ..."
It would be impossible, he said, to repair the fort, and the only thing to do was to build a new one about half-a-mile downstream. By October of 1715 they were able to move into what he described as "the best lodging as ever Man had in this country." Next year they put another storey on the house in which to store dry goods and skins and erected palisades around it. Knight soon went north to build another new post, leaving Kelsey in charge at York. By 1718 Kelsey reported they were still adding to the fort: a cookroom, smithy, trading room, powder room and 300 boards and planks.
Detail showing York Factory, map by Jack McMaster, 2004
However, the fort's foundations were weak: constructed on top of shifting permafrost, the buildings had to be repaired every 25 to 30 years. In 1778 the newly appointed Surveyor of the Company, Philip Turnor, made an examination of the fort and recommended that the staff quarters be rebuilt. But the new building would not survive for very long. In 1782 HBC's posts were attacked by French admiral the Comte de la Pérouse, who was harrying British possessions in support of the American revolutionaries. After destroying Fort Prince of Wales and ransacking its stock, he headed for York Factory and launched a massive attack with a party of 250 men. Humphrey Marten, then in charge at York, saw the French ships approaching and quickly loaded York's stock of furs onto a ship, sailing safely away. Though Marten succeeded in saving York's assets he could not save the fort: de la Pérouse and his men burned it down.
Marten soon returned to help rebuild the fort. Joseph Colen led the rebuilding project in 1785. He wrote: "No time shall be lost in the erection of a new Factory on the Foundation of the old one." His project stalled in 1788 when the Hayes rose 32 ½ feet and flooded the place. The damage done by ice was so severe that Colen was forced to choose an entirely new location for the fort. This was about a mile upriver, on ground that stood nearly four feet above the flood's high water mark. The building project was slow to get off the ground. As late as 1798 John Ballenden complained that, "the Whole Building is a mere Shell." But by 1819 Arctic explorer and Royal Navy Captain (later Sir) John Franklin reported that the fort was fairly complete. His notes describe it as having an octagonal court in the centre, surrounded by buildings that were two storeys high and placed in the form of a square.
A design for building a commodious fort at York Factory, by Joseph Colen, 1786 and 1787
By the late 18th c. York Factory's star was on the rise. After 1774, when HBC began to build posts in the interior, it became the gateway to Rupert's Land and the Company's major trade depot. Although treacherous and rocky, the Hayes nevertheless had the required depth to handle the large freight canoes needed to transship trade goods inland. This secured its place as the primary route to the Bay and permitted the gradual adoption of the even larger York boat, so-called because the Factory was its ultimate destination, which could handle over 4 tons of freight. In 1810 it became the headquarters of the new Northern Department of the Company
By the mid 19th c. the Factory was a sprawling complex of over 50 buildings dominated by the white depot building which remains today. During its peak years York Factory was home to artisans of many different trades: shipwrights built sloops and York boats; carpenters built and repaired buildings and furniture; blacksmiths supplied most of the metal hardware needs; a cooper worked much of his time constructing barrels and kegs; a tinsmith formed pots, pans and household items; and a tailor made and repaired clothing. In 1830 Rupert's Land Governor George Simpson's wife Frances described the "Old Factory" as a building with shops where one could buy groceries, haberdashery, ironmongery, cutlery, medicines, and even perfume.
The Factory was laid out in the form of an H, the guesthouse, depot, and the summer mess house in the line forming the cross bar. The legs of the H were composed of four fur stores, the arms contained the trading shop, provision store, clerks' house and the house of the officer in charge. Various other buildings such as a boat shed, oil store, lumber house, ice house, powder magazine, cooper's shop, and smithy, were scattered here and there. In 1840, Letitia Hargrave, wife of Chief Factor James Hargrave, described the Factory as an appealing place to live: "It looks beautiful. The houses are painted pale yellow. The windows and some particular parts are white. Some have green gauze mosquito curtains outside and the effect is very good."
York Factory, n.d.
York's population grew with each passing year, soon outstripping the resources needed to sustain it. A sprawling complex spanning eleven acres, its immense size made it very difficult to fuel: the demand for firewood far exceeded the supply. By 1880 it took a labour force of some forty to sixty men and women to transport firewood from cutting sites to wood yards. Food shortages were also becoming an issue. Declining goose, caribou and rabbit populations affected food supplies. The imbalance in the local ecosystem became glaringly obvious. In 1873 York Factory's role as the headquarters and supply depot for the Northern Department officially ended. Chief Factor Joseph Fortescue, who was in charge of York Factory from 1872 to 1884, terminated the York Factory brigades and operations were reduced.
For two and a half centuries its life had been governed by the rhythm of the annual transatlantic shipping cycle, which ceased in 1931. York Factory, a minor post serving a dwindling local population, would quietly close in 1957. In 1960 it was declared a National Historic Site and since 1968 has been operated by Parks Canada. Today only the depot and a small outbuilding stand as the sole survivors of the once large bustling establishment and there is little to at the important role that York Factory once played in the development of northern and western Canada.