This large and colourful roadside marker stands on the side of the road near the Highway 2A bridge just south of Ponoka, and features an early photo, plans, and the vivid story of the historic Fort Ostell, which was quickly constructed in 1885 just a short distance to the west. The sturdy wooden fortress was built and guarded by 20 members of the 65th Mount Royal Rifles for just 50 days to protect against possible invasion in the area during the Riel Rebellion. Photo by John Stanton

Reflections: Ponoka’s Fort Ostell in 1885

Looking back at the very first days of Ponoka’s Fort Ostell

By Mike Rainone for the News

One of the most historical and crucial events in the early settlement of this area took place on the evening of May 10, 1885 when Captain John Benjamin Ostell and 20 members of the #1 Company of the 65th Mount Royal Rifles would arrive at the SW 5-43-25 W on the Battle River known as Brandt’s Crossing located along the rugged Edmonton/Calgary trail.

At that time it served as the sight of the busy Hudson’s Bay Trading Post as well as the home of Reverend Pere Scollen.

Under the direction of the Commander of the Alberta Field Force several companies of the Northwest Mounted Police along with the 65th Mount Royal Rifles were all dispatched along the C&E Trail to fortify several strategic supply points. These would include settlements at Peace Hills near Wetaskiwin, at the Fort located at the Red Deer River Crossing, and at the Hudson’s Bay Trading Post along the Battle River just southwest of Ponoka. The order was issued at the time to secure the Forts and provide a defense for the residents and property in the area as well as protection for travelling convoys of travellers and supplies against the possible invasion and skirmishes by marauders into the area during the North West Rebellion.

The 50 days of Fort Ostell

Captain Ostell’s troops immediately went about their gruelling tasks of building what would later be known as Fort Ostell, a name and tradition that will always be remembered and honoured throughout our Town and County of Ponoka.

The work included a trench two and a half feet deep around the log cabin, which was connected by a means of four canals with a moat five feet in depth and also surrounded the Preachers’ house. An abatis of sturdy sharpened branches would protect the area from a surprise attack, and the only entry in or out was by movable bridges placed over the canal to permit the luggage and supply wagons to cross. Strong barricades were constructed to protect all doors and windows, and also included a turf wall six feet high built around the moat. Twenty-eight loop holes were cut in the surrounding sturdy walls, at which the troops were stationed with their carbines in case of attack. Also after the completion of this formidable structure there would be night and day protection and vigilance given by patrols travelling along roads in the surrounding neighbourhoods. The building itself was built of strong logs and was portioned into two sections, including one for officer’s quarters as well as a kitchen and a dormitory, and was surrounded by a sentry box, individual canvas tents for the soldiers/guards/the baker and the captain, as well of course as a tall flag pole proudly flying the colours of our nation. These hardy French Canadian soldiers received 50 cents a day in wages for their labour, but were always well fed thanks to the supplies provided by the Hudson’s Bay Store and the skills of the Company cook.

After the Fort Ostell Post was well fortified, Captain Ostell would establish friendly relations with the surrounding neighbours as well as with the Stonies of Chief Sharphead’s Band. During the rugged construction period of Fort Ostell the 65th Battalion and Hudson’s Bay Store had many visitors, including a regular stream of stage coaches, wagon trains, and travellers along the C/E trail, as well as military groups on patrol, and of course the hardy fur-traders. Thankfully by June 27, 1885 the rebellion was over, and with the nation at peace the life of Fort Ostell as a military post was over after only 50 short but extremely hectic days and the No. 1 Company would return to Fort Edmonton. It is very interesting to note that from the time that Captain Ostell and his company arrived at the sight on May 15, 1885 until they left on June 27th not a single confrontation would occur in and around the Fort.

If one could venture onto the original sight of the Fort Ostell Museum today you would likely find very few mementos of that early and volatile part of our colourful history that took place there over 134 long years ago. Thank goodness that a prominent and permanent tourism sign depicting that legendary event and those involved now stands proudly and forever along Highway 2A near the bridge just south of Ponoka. The Local Order of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, which began in 1929 were fortunate to have been in direct correspondence with Colonel Joseph T. Ostell, who was also a veteran of the Rebellion and a brother of the late Captain John Benjamin Ostell, who passed away in 1927. As well as being allowed to tour some of the traces and remains of the historical Fort, the I.O.D.E Ladies were able to get an exact duplicate of the original flag that flew on a large pole in the centre of Fort Ostell in 1885, which is now hanging in the Fort Ostell Museum in Ponoka along with a photo of Captain Ostell and several other rare artifacts from those memorable ‘50 days of Fort Ostell.’

Ponoka Reflections

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