The Forges du Saint-Maurice National Historic Site in Quebec is getting $613,000 to rehabilitate its access road, redesign its Grande Maison reception area and install new interpretive panels along its interpretation circuit.
Financed through the federal infrastructure investment program, these infrastructure improvements (which equal about $490,000 USD) are on top of the new features already announced for 2021. The new immersive experience 1600°C: Trial by Fire was announced in December and will allow visitors to experience the hard work of blast furnace workers using new digital technology. The new audio path Diabolus ex machina, created and narrated primarily by internationally renowned regional artist Fred Pellerin, was announced in February.
These new visitor experiences and infrastructure upgrades are in line with the strategies identified in the site’s 2020 management plan. The strategies aim to make the Forges du Saint-Maurice a major attraction for the community and the regional tourism offer, as well as a national historic site that focuses on the protection and presentation of heritage.
“By investing in the conservation and restoration of the Forges du Saint-Maurice, we are enabling visitors now and in the future to discover an important historic site while connecting with nature in a safe and stimulating environment,” François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, and Member of Parliament for Saint-Maurice—Champlain, said in a news release. “The Forges du Saint-Maurice is a treasure for the Mauricie Region and Canada, and we are really proud of it.”
The latest management plan for the Parks Canada site was released in 2020 and replaced the one from 2007. It explains that the site was chosen to build forges starting in 1730 due to its terrain, hydrography and proximity to raw materials. “Known as the cradle of the Canadian iron and steel industry, the site fulfilled its industrial purpose until 1883. Today, archaeological vestiges and museum facilities allow visitors to learn about the historic significance of this site. Its rich biodiversity, proximity to the Saint-Maurice River and vast grassy areas make it an enchanting natural setting for contemplation and exploration. A subterranean source of water emitting methane, commonly referred to as `Devil’s Fountain,’ is considered to be a sacred fire by the Atikamekw Nehirowisiw community.”
The Forges became a national historic site in 1920. Parks Canada took over in 1973 and has helped develop and preserve it. In 1985, it inaugurated the massive metallic structure protecting the remains of the blast furnace and containing one of the exhibits. In 1990, the Grande Maison (ironmaster’s house) was rebuilt as a visitor reception area. In recent years, the site installed interactive terminals and outdoor interpretive panels, replaced outdoor furniture and restored the Grande Maison and the lower forge’s chimney.
The management plan pinpoints two key strategies for the next decade.
First, the Forges will become “a major attraction for the community and the tourist offer of la Maurice.” For this, it must become a “revitalized, more lively, and diversified” offer. Parks Canada promised to collaborate with local partners, including the Atikamekw Nehirowisiw and other Indigenous communities connected to the site “to honour and introduce their culture and historical contributions to the public.”
The second key strategy aims to make the Forges a national historic site dedicated to cultural and natural heritage protection and promotion. Parks Canada will continue conservation efforts for cultural resources and the natural environment. Interpretive activities will raise public awareness of the site’s cultural and natural attractions and actions to preserve them. The strategy aims to boost awareness and take into account the cultural and spiritual heritage of the First Nations with connections to the territory of the site.
Located in Quebec’s Mauricie region at the northern end of the city of Trois-Rivières, the Forges is halfway between Montreal and Quebec City and is bordered by the Saint-Maurice River. Each year, about 10,000 visitors learn more about Canada’s first steel industry. But the management plan says attendance is below the site’s potential. Before 2012, it drew about 15,000 visitors a year. The numbers then dropped by 50 per cent when the site offered a shorter season and fewer events. In 2017, because of the 150th birthday of Canadian confederation and free entry, the site drew 20,900 visitors. “This exceptional year shows that it would be possible to maximize the site’s reception potential in order to increase its attendance,” the management plan concludes.
The heart of the Forges is a blast furnace. A “Grande Maison” — formerly the ironmaster’s house — holds exhibits about the industrial community. The original cellar showcases the cast-iron and iron products — like pots, pans and stoves — that were made here for more than 150 years. The forges served military and domestic needs while the fur trade, logging and agriculture ruled the economy. It turned out iron for shipyards and royal arsenals and then for Canadian railways.
“Visitors will be able to see how well the nature trail is cared for and appreciate the rehabilitation work conducted on the archeological remains last fall,” Parks Canada said in a news release. The Forges du Saint-Maurice urban park offers a 60-hectare (148-acre) nature area not far from downtown Trois-Rivières.
The size of the site does present challenges to Parks Canada. About 35 per cent of its archaeological vestiges and metal objects have been restored, but most continue to deteriorate and require conservation efforts and management of invasive vegetation. Some nature trails have been closed because of structural deficiencies in several footbridges. A lack of animation, the 2020 management plan noted, “leads to disinterest on the part of the public.” The plan identified the need to recognize, honour and present Indigenous cultures having a history with the site.
Although management plans cover a 10-year period, Parks Canada set ambitious short-term goals to boost the site between 2021 to 2025.
The Forges is usually open to the public from the weekend before Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in late June until Labour Day in early September, but given the rapidly changing Covid-19 situation, the Forges will re-evaluate its programming in June in light of the recommendations of public health experts. About 70 per cent of its visitors are usually adults. The site also hosts school groups in the spring and fall, as well as cruise passengers from September to October.