Description of Historic Place
The building at 4 Front Street, commonly known as the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) Staff House, is situated south of the intersection between Front and Museum Streets in the remote northern community of Moose Factory. The two-and-a-half-storey, clapboard-clad building was constructed in 1847-50 and originally served as accommodations for the officers of the HBC.
In December 1977, ownership of the HBC Staff House was transferred to the Ontario Heritage Trust, thereby conferring protection to the heritage elements of the house and the scenic character of the property. The Staff House is also part of a National Historic Site that was designated in 1957 to commemorate the early operations of the HBC.
Located slightly south of the intersection between Front and Bay Streets in the south-eastern area of Moose Factory, the Staff House is a landmark building within Canada's oldest continually occupied English-speaking community. The community, which is only accessible by water and air, consumes the southern half of Factory Island, and is located directly across the Moose River from the Town of Moosonee. The positioning of the Staff House at the edge of the island is significant in the interpretation of the site as a trading post, as access to James Bay is gained only 18 km north of the settlement. Other significant heritage resources located near the building include the St. Thomas Anglican Church (1864), the HBC Cemetery (c.1802), and the buildings of the Centennial Park Museum.
The HBC Staff House is associated with the early operations of Canada's oldest corporation, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). Established in 1670, the HBC began as a fur trading enterprise and later evolved into a trading and exploration company with operations spanning Canada and parts of the United States. The HBC established its first trading post at the mouth of the Nelson River during its first year of operation, and in 1673, a second post was founded on the Moose River. The early history of this second post was quite riotous, with the British relinquishing ownership to the French in 1686 and then recapturing it ten years later, only to burn it to the ground. In 1730, a new post was built by the HBC, one mile upstream from the first Moose River fort. This post expanded significantly in the 1820s following a merger between the HBC and its principle fur-trading rival, the North West Company. The Staff House was constructed between 1847 and 1850 to provide suitable shelter to the doctors, ship captains, clerks, and secretaries recruited from Britain on five-year work contracts. These workers, known as officers, lived on the first floor of the building during the summer and moved into the second floor bedrooms during the cold winter months. The staff house retained its use as a residence until it was transferred to the Ontario Heritage Trust in 1977. The building is currently the oldest surviving HBC officer's house in Canada and the oldest structure in the James Bay Lowlands.
The HBC Staff House employed the traditional British ship-building technique for its construction. This technique, which was utilized to build many of the early HBC buildings at Moose Factory, was characterized by laying horizontal squared logs one over the other and pinning them together with steel spikes. Oakum, a tar and jute fibre mixture used chiefly for caulking seams in wooden ships, was also used in the construction process to chink the joints between the timbers. Due to the harsh climate of the area, the house was clad with clapboard siding for extra weatherproofing and two large back-to-back fireplaces were built at the centre of the house. Following the turn of the 20th century, the interior layout of the house was altered several times. The most obvious of these alterations was to the building's fenestration, with the doors and windows on the main level of the east elevation being repositioned to accommodate the new interior arrangement.
The grounds of the HBC Staff House were the site of two seasons of archaeological excavations in 1979 and 1980 in which the Ontario Heritage Trust recovered over 40,000 artifacts. The recovered artifacts represent evidence of trade between the Native and British populations, as well as the lifestyles of the HBC employees at the Staff House. Included within the list of recovered artifacts are large quantities of glass trade beads, ceramics, and clay tobacco pipes.
Source: Trust Property Files, Ontario Heritage Trust
Character defining elements that contribute to the heritage value of the HBC Staff House include its:
- unique HCB design and construction techniques using local materials and HBC employees as builders
- log construction technique inspired by shipbuilding methods (squared logs laid horizontally and pinned together with hand forged spikes)
- raised foundation that extends above the flood line
- clapboard siding used as extra weatherproofing
- variable fenestration that results in a different appearance for each of the four elevations
- single-hung sash windows with twelve-over-twelve glazing patterns on the main floor and eight-over-twelve glazing patterns on the second storey
- square, nine-pane casement window on the attic level of both gable ends
- exterior basement entrance at the rear of the house
- lack of exterior ornamentation
- standing seam metal pan roof with clips used as protection from the elements and fire
- rolled metal eavestroughs and downspouts supported by hand forged iron brackets
- stone and brick chimney in the centre of the roof
- first floor layout with eight small rooms arranged in a 'U' configuration around two large common rooms
- second floor layout with eight rooms bordering a central hall
- 1850 interior colour scheme with walls and ceilings in grey, wainscoting in dark grey and trim, doors, and windows in brown or reddish-brown
- two back-to-back fireplaces supported by a massive stone foundation
- one inch thick tongue-and-groove wall partitions held in place by wooden cornices and baseboards
- chair rails protecting the walls throughout the house
- door trim with one side offset to act as a door stop
- hand forged self-closing door hinges
- stove pipe holes in the walls, ceilings and floors indicating the use of woodstoves (now missing) on the first and second floors
- vestiges of previous stair openings marked by boarded areas on floors and ceilings
- rough-hewn wood beams of the basement ceiling and trap door opening to the first floor above
- unpainted floor boards (covered by hardwood flooring on the main floor) on the first and second storeys
- dirt floor and exposed stone foundation in the basement
- signatures of the house builders (HBC employees) found on the attic rafters
- 40,000 artifacts uncovered on the property
- central location within the HBC trading post
- existence as a landmark building within the community
- position near the edge of the island, close to the Moose River
- proximity to a number of other historic buildings (both HBC and non-HBC related)