1939 Charles Camsell’s Fort Simpson

In the late 1930s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ran a series of radio programs, called My Home Town, in which famous Canadian's described their hometown. The CBC asked the most famous northerner of the time, Dr. Charles Camsell, to describe what it was like growing up in Fort Simpson in the late 1800s.

Charles Camsell was one of eleven children born to Sarah and Julian Camsell. Julian was in charge of all the Hudson’s Bay Company operations in the Northwest Territories. Charles, like all the Camsell children, attended school in the south and for Charles that meant the opportunity to attend University. After receiving his bachelors degree from the University of Manitoba he went on to Queen's University then Harvard and eventually emerged with a PhD in Geology.

He then became a federal government geologist and worked his way up in the government to become the Deputy Minister of Mines in 1920, was a member of the Council of the Northwest Territories and then became Commissioner of the Northwest Territories in 1935.

In 1939 the CBC asked Charles to describe some of his earliest memories growing up in the Northwest Territories. Charles’ earliest memory was when he was four and living in Fort Liard (map). He witnessed Bishop Bompas amputate David Villeneuve’s leg. Charles couldn't remember why David's leg had to come off but he did remember watching Bishop Bompas cut away at the leg with a carpenter's saw while David smoked his pipe and calmly watched!

After that excitement you'd think the four-year-old Charles Camsell would have found Fort Simpson a dull place but back then it was the largest community in the Northwest Territories and the centre of all Hudson's Bay Company activities. Charles described the community as a large Hudson's Bay Company compound with officer's quarters, storehouses, and office buildings.

Charles was only stretching the truth a little bit when he bragged about his northern hometown of the 1880s having a library, a pool hall and a museum. All of these really did exist, its just that they were only individual rooms within the Hudson's Bay Company's officers quarters.

Charles' father had brought together quite an amazing collection of books and these were loaned out to the various smaller forts up and down the Mackenzie River while the museum was a collection of stuffed animals, fossils, interesting rocks, and Mammoth tusks and bones all set up in a room off the library. The pool hall, or billiard room as it was called, was part of the officer’s recreation room. The billiard table had taken two years on route from England but arrived without billiard balls; replacements were made by one of the Hudson's Bay Company steamship engineers from 10,000-year-old ivory mammoth tusks!