By Ron VandenBoom
Area tourism may be getting a boost from greater numbers of Canadian and European visitors thanks to the efforts of the Old Forts Trail Association and Havre board members Gary Wilson and Emily Mayer-Lossing.
Wilson and Mayer-Lossing, along with Fort Benton board members Sharalee Smith and Bill Anderson, recently returned to Havre from a Fort Day Conference held at Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, that included representatives from Fort Whoop-up, Fort Steele, Fort Battleford, Fort Calgary, Fort Walsh, and Fort Macleod, all historic old forts of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
Royce Pettyjohn, heritage preservation specialist for the Fort Walsh National Historic Park, near Maple Creek in Saskatchewan described the purpose of the first ever meeting as a way for the various Canadian forts to better network for their mutual historic benefit and for marketing purposes.
The Montana contingent of dignitaries were the guests of Fort Walsh and were allowed to make a presentation at the conference describing the goals and purpose of the Old Forts Trail and how it historically ties in with the success of the RCMP forts in Canada.
All of the Canadian forts at one time received the bulk of their supplies via the Old Forts Trail which extended north from Fort Benton to Fort Walsh and Fort Battleford, Saskatchewan, or via the Whoop-up Trail which extended northwest from Fort Benton passed Shelby to Fort Whoop-up, Fort Macleod, Fort Calgary and Fort Steele in Alberta.
Fort Walsh is currently the northern most member of the Old Forts Trail Association with Fort Battleford, Saskatchewan, scheduled to officially join the organization on June 9 when they hold their Annual Historic Weapons Demonstration Day. Members of the Old Forts Trail Association will be on hand to celebrate the occasion and have scheduled their annual Rendezvous for June 9 - 10 to coincide with the Fort Battleford event.
Wilson said he is excited by the conference.
"It's exciting stuff," Wilson said. "The potential for increased tourism coming from Canada to visit attractions locally and in Fort Benton will increase greatly as our relationship with our Canadian friends continues to develop."
Wilson cited figures released at the conference that show the number of visitors to Fort Steele exceed 130,000 annually while visitors to Fort Macleod and Fort Walsh currently average 50,000 and 20,000 respectively. Collectively, all the Canadian forts welcome about 250,000 tourists annually.
"Many of their visitors are European," Wilson said, adding that Germany is one of the European countries that shows an exceptional interest in the history of the old west, both Canadian and American.
Wilson said he was given about 30 minutes to make a presentation at the conference and responded to numerous questions concerning the relationship between the forts, their American link, and the Old Forts Trail organization.
Pettyjohn too was excited by the success of the conference and the prospect of improving marketing and historic awareness between Canada and Montana through the Old Forts Trail network.
"The day was pretty overwhelming," Pettyjohn said, adding that at the end of the day he felt everyone had gotten something out of the experience and that they were willing to work closer together for the mutual benefit of all.
From the historical aspect, Pettyjohn said awareness of how each of the forts interacted with one another and their relationship with the United States, Fort Benton, and the Old Forts Trail increases knowledge and makes the tour guides "better story tellers."
From the marketing perspective, Pettyjohn said joint brochures that share history and tourism information helps everybody.
Pettyjohn also said including information about the Old Forts Trail and Havre attractions is something he expects will be added to the various fort's Web sites. Links to the individual Web sites of each attraction are also expected.
Wilson said Fort Welsh already distributes brochures advertising Havre and Fort Benton attractions and he hopes the new links with Fort Battleford and with other Canadian forts and tourism organizations, will increase sources for marketing and the number of visitors to Havre and Fort Benton.