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Fort Normandeau celebrates 125 years
Historic Central Alberta site originally constructed during the Riel Rebellion
 
reprinted from Red Deer Advocate May 29, 2010
 
One of Red Deer's oldest and most interesting historic sites is Fort Normandeau. Originally constructed 125 years ago during the North West or Riel Rebellion. It is one of only three forts constructed in Alberta during a time of war.

The original portion of the Fort was constructed in 1884 by Robert McClellan as a two-storey stopping house or hotel near the spot where the old Calgary-Edmonton Trail crossed the Red Deer River.

In March of 1885, an armed rebellion by a large number of Metis and First Nations broke out against the Canadian government. The first battle was fought at Duck Lake, Sask.

A group of militia and volunteers was organized as the Alberta Field Force, under the command of a retired and eccentric British officer, Major General Thomas Bland Strange. This military group headed northwards to secure the Calgary-Edmonton Trail and provide armed support to any residents along the way who had not already fled to either Calgary or Edmonton.

As the Field Force made its way north, a party of twenty men of the 65 Mount Royal Rifles, under the command of Lieutenant J.E. Bedard Normandeau, was left at the Red Deer Crossing settlement.

They commandeered McClellan's stopping house and proceeded to fortify it. The log walls were strengthened will a shell of planks filled with clay. Loopholes were cut into the wall of the upper storey. A palisade with three bastions was constructed around the building.

When completed, the structure was dubbed Fort Normandeau, in honour of the officer in charge of it.

After the Riel Rebellion was over, the militia departed and the fort briefly reverted to its original ownership. However, Fort Normandeau was taken over by the North West Mounted Police in 1886 for use as a post for the policing of the district.

In 1890-91, when the Calgary-Edmonton Railway established a new townsite on the Leonard Gaetz farm to the east, the Red Deer Crossing settlement was largely abandoned. The NWMP moved their operations to the new townsite in 1893, having already sawn up the palisade for firewood in the preceding winter.

The barracks building (McClellan stopping house) was later moved to a nearby farm belonging to the Cornett family. In 1938, the newly formed Central Alberta Pioneers and Old-timers' Association moved the main floor of the old building back to a spot near its original location. The structure was restored as a meeting hall for the Old-timers Association.

The site was acquired by the provincial government and turned into a provincial public campsite and picnic area. However, after the Old-timers Association built a new lodge next to the Red Deer Fairgrounds in 1957, the Fort building fell into disuse and suffered a lot from vandalism.

In 1974, as part of the celebration of the centennial of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a much larger reconstruction of old Fort Normandeau was built on a higher piece of land. As much of the old barracks/stopping house was salvaged as possible, including the logs where the soldiers stationed at Fort Normandeau in 1885 had carved their names. The new two-storey structure was completed surrounded by a palisade.

In 1983, the City of Red Deer purchased Fort Normandeau and nearly nine acres of land from the Alberta Government for $1. Some necessary repairs were made to the 1974 reconstruction. A substantial interpretive centre was also constructed to the north and west of the replica fort.

The official opening ceremonies for the new Fort Normandeau Interpretive Centre were originally set for Aug. 5 (Heritage Day), 1985. However, due to very dry weather conditions, the landscaping around the site had not had much of a chance to catch. Hence, the official opening was delayed to the following year.

Weather again caused problems for the official opening in May 1986. A terrific spring blizzard struck the week before the ceremonies. When the opening event took place, there were still drifts of snow around the site despite the bright and warm weather.

Nevertheless, nearly 2,000 people turned out for the festivities. A particular attraction was the demonstration by the 65 Carabiniers Mont Royal, a commemorative contingent established to continue the memory of the original regiment which had built Fort Normandeau in 1885.

The Calgary and Edmonton Trail
 

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