Saint John's newly recreated Fort La Tour damaged by 'suspicious' overnight fire

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Half the roof and most of the side of this building, part of a recreation of the historic Fort La Tour in Saint John, were destroyed by fire early Wednesday.  (Julia Wright/CBC - image credit)
Half the roof and most of the side of this building, part of a recreation of the historic Fort La Tour in Saint John, were destroyed by fire early Wednesday. (Julia Wright/CBC - image credit)

Place Fort La Tour hadn't even officially opened when fire ripped through the newly recreated fortress on Saint John's waterfront early Wednesday morning.

The project has been decades in the making, so the damage caused by the fire is devastating to those who have worked so hard to make it happen.

"There's no words," said Beth Hatt, the chair of the Fort La Tour Development Authority.

"It's sad, it's disappointing. We've been working years for this and so many volunteers ... It's just really unfortunate. We were ready to open in three weeks."

Hatt said the alarms started to go off at about 2 a.m. on Wednesday.

"By the time I got here from Grand Bay, they had it fairly under control, but the extent this morning is … I mean, we all had tears last night. When you work this long and this hard, this is really difficult," she said Wednesday morning while surveying the damage in the daylight.

This is what the front of the recreated fortress, as seen from the water side, looked like before Wednesday's fire.
This is what the front of the recreated fortress, as seen from the water side, looked like before Wednesday's fire. (Submitted by Beth Hatt)

One of the buildings closest to the water sustained heavy fire damage along one wall and a large portion of the roof. An adjoining wooden gate was essentially destroyed.

Hatt said there's a lot of uncertainty now. Although insurance will largely cover the repairs, she doesn't know how long they will take or how it will impact the "soft opening" planned for three weeks from now.

She said summer students are scheduled to arrive for employment in the next month and this will likely go ahead as planned, but school trips and other functions may have to be postponed. That will mean reduced revenue and will likely affect the group's plan to be self-sufficient.

Hatt is buoyed, however, by the amount of support already pouring in — from contractors willing to start repairs right away to monetary donations promised.

"I am blown away by the community rallying this morning and how much help we've been offered," she said.

Several residents came by to have a look at the damage.

This structure was most heavily damaged in the fire, along with an adjacent fence and door.
This structure was most heavily damaged in the fire, along with an adjacent fence and door. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Lydia Boyd, who walks by the site a few times a week, was very disappointed at the amount of damage that was done.

"It's just unbelievable," she said.

"It's an absolute asset to the city, and I think it's kind of a slap in the face to the city to think that this would happen on this beautiful location."

Hatt said it's too early to say whether the fire was deliberately set. She said the site has a pretty good video surveillance system and all footage has been turned over to investigators.

Most of the damage was confined to one area of the fortress structure itself, but park-like benches about 200 metres away from the main fire bear the telltale signs of arson.

The benches appear to be made of composite lumber, not wood, so they wouldn't normally burn. A large hole was visible in the seat of one of the benches and the plastic-looking building material appears to have melted away.

This bench sits a fair distance away from the recreated Fort La Tour. The seat, which is made of a composite material, appears to have melted.
This bench sits a fair distance away from the recreated Fort La Tour. The seat, which is made of a composite material, appears to have melted. (Mia Urquhart/CBC)

The Saint John Firefighters Association's Facebook page said firefighters arrived to "heavy amounts of smoke and flames coming from the building, with difficult access for incoming crews."

Although the building sustained "extensive damage," firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading to other structures.

The post also says the cause of the fire is being investigated by the fire department and the Saint John Police Force. In a news release issued Wednesday afternoon, police spokesperson Jim Hennessy said the fire is considered suspicious.

He said investigators would like to talk to anyone "who may have information in relation to the fire." They are asked to call the Saint John Police Force at 648-3333 or Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-8477 (T.I.P.S).

This shot is taken from inside the fortress and shows the building most heavily damaged by the fire.
This shot is taken from inside the fortress and shows the building most heavily damaged by the fire. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Saint John-Rothesay Liberal MP Wayne Long visited the site on Wednesday morning to survey the damage.

He said it was "pretty overwhelming."

"Being here is just surreal. To think that a beautiful historic tourist attraction — that so many people have spent so much time working together to make a reality for our community — is just so senselessly and needlessly torched … it's just a sad day for the community."

Recreating the historic fort

The Place Fort La Tour project was announced in June 2018. The $1.8-million project recreates one of the first settlements in Canada on almost the exact site where the original stood almost 400 years ago.

Hatt explained that there is an Indigenous burial ground on the original spot, so the recreation had to be built on land closer to the water. The site is located on Portland Point at the mouth of the St. John River within Saint John Harbour, and it's connected to Harbour Passage.

Firefighters managed to contain the fire to one section of the fortress replica, but this main building sustained a lot of damage.
Firefighters managed to contain the fire to one section of the fortress replica, but this main building sustained a lot of damage. (Submitted by Joe Comeau)

Charles de Saint-Étienne de La Tour, governor of Acadia, built a fort at the site in 1631 that became one of the earliest centres of the French fur trade with the region's Indigenous peoples.

The settlement has become known for the bravery of Françoise-Marie Jacquelin, Madame de La Tour. In 1645, during her husband's absence, she and 40 soldiers held off a much larger force of rival governor Charles de Menou d'Aulnay for three days before he took the fort in the name of the king.

The fort was destroyed in the 17th or early 18th century, and the archeological site was designated a national historic site in 1923.

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