The Story of Thunder Bay – Part 1
Nominated for the George B. MacGillivray Publication Award
by Brian G. Spare
People have lived in this area for at least 10,000 years. However, the city of Thunder Bay and its history, as most of us know it, began with the fur trade. In 1679, Duluth and the French Courier de Bois built a post at the mouth of the Kaministiquia River on the north shore of the inlet on Lake Superior. They named it Fort Kaministquia. The native people called the inlet Animike meaning Thunder. The French called the inlet “Baie de Tonnaire” or Thunder Bay. In 1870, the Pigeon River was set as the international boundary between Canada and the United States, and the fort fell into disuse. In 1803, the powerful Northwest Company rebuilt the fort naming it Fort William after one of the company’s principal partners William McGillivray. For next 60 years, Fort William became the place of the annual Great Rendezvous where buckskin-clad voyageurs arrived at the fort paddling their canoes laden with a year’s worth of furs to sell, load up with supplies and catch up with the outside world before heading back into the seclusion of the forest for another year’s trapping. Heavy feasting, drinking, dancing and song characterized these events. When the Northwest Company amalgamated with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, Fort William began to decline as the centre for fur trading.
The fur trade gave way to the grain trade. The mode of transportation changed as well with the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway across Canada. Fort William was chosen as the western terminus for the railway in what is now Westfort. The Canadian Pacific syndicate building the railway located its headquarters closer to the mouth of the Kaministquia River on a branch off of May St. called Syndicate Ave. Grain would be transported from the prairies by rail to the Lakehead to be loaded onto ships. The first ship load of grain to be shipped was loaded onto a steamer docked at the end of Brown St. using wheelbarrows.
In 1857, ten kilometers north east of the Kaministiqia River, Simon J. Dawson, who was sent by the federal government to survey and build a route to the Red River settlement, landed on the north shore of Lake Superior. Where he landed was named Prince Arthur’s Landing after Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Arthur. Three years later, Col. Wolesley landed a military force at Prince Arthur’s Landing to follow Dawson’s route to put down the first Riel Uprising. Wolesley left a small militia at the Landing.
The McKellar brothers, Peter and Donald, had surveyed the area around the Current River in 1866 and discovered a silver deposit nearby. Later that year, they opened a the Thunder Bay Silver Mine. A settlement grew up around it to house 200 hundred workers and support mining operations. Five kilometers away, Peter McKellar opened the Shuniah Silver Mine. Both mines were in operation until the late 1880s. The housing for the miners became the community of Current River. As it expanded, it joined up with growing Town of Port Arthur. Roads were constructed to each mine. Part of the road to the Shuniah Mine still exists as Shuniah St. and to the Thunder Bay Mine as Black Bay Rd. Current River became one of the Lakehead’s first street car subdivisions powered by hydro from the Current River dam.
As the CPR tracks were being laid through Prince Arthur’s Landing, William Van Horne lobbied the Landing’s council to change the name to Port Arthur citing that Prince Arthur’s Landing was too long to put on a railway ticket. Being a man used to getting his own way, Van Horne printed Port Arthur on the tickets. The council capitulated, and in 1884 it was incorporated as the Town of Port Arthur. The settlement of Fort William incorporated into a town the same year. Both towns were incorporated into cities in 1907.
The building of the transcontinental railway was very important to the growth of the Lakehead. Along with attracting the workforce needed to build and maintain the railway, it brought huge government subsidies that were used to pay the workers, buy supplies, support businesses and line the pockets of land speculators. The first train from Winnipeg chugged into Fort William July 8, 1882. As the railway grew, the Northwest Company’s Fort William was gradually demolished to make way for rail yards coal-hanging facilities and grain elevators. In 1902, the CPR demolished the last building form the fur trading era.
The lumber industry prospered from the railway too. Railway ties were needed, support buildings constructed and homes had to be built for the growing labour force and their families. The neighbourhoods became what are now Westfort and McKellar wards.
In 1913, C.D. Howe, Professor of Engineering at Dalhousie University, later dubbed “The Minister for Everything” was sent to the Lakehead to build grain elevators. In five years, the Lakehead had the largest grain handling capacity of any port in the world. ”He was also instrumental in moving our airport to its present location from Bishop’s Field on Rosslyn Rd.
The need for a railway to link the young country from coast to coast, the shipping of wheat grown on the prairies, and the lust for mineral wealth are the main reasons the towns of Fort William and Port Arthur grew. The combined population of the two towns was nearly 2,000 in 1881.
Fort William and Port Arthur resembled frontier boom towns until the Great War. World War I, 1914-18, put an end to it. Housing dropped in value. At least a dozen major factories shut down which and hence the labour force declined. The population plummeted from 21,000 in 1915 to 18,000 in 1917.
After the war, Fort William and Port Arthur became urban communities. The Pulp and Paper industry became the major employer fueled by the demand of American newspapers for newsprint. By 1921, four mills were operating in the Lakehead. The population of the two towns grew to 24,000 by 1931. Pulp and Paper carried the towns through the Great Depression of the 1930s. Just as the depression began to lift, World War II broke out. Fort William and Port Arthur turned to war-related manufacturing. The Canadian Car plant built 1,650 Hurricanes and 836 Helldivers. At its peak, it employed 6,760 people. The Port Arthur Ship Building Company made Corvettes and Mine Sweepers, and at its height employed 800 workers. After the war, Can-Car reverted to making buses and subway cars, while the Port Arthur Ship Building Company went into repairing cargo vessels.
Despite the loss of manufacturing jobs, the Pulp and Paper and Grain industries were booming. The growth of these industries reflected the buoyancy of the Lakehead’s economy. With the end of WWII came the baby boom and an increased need for consumer goods. The post-war economic boom would carry the Lakehead forward to face its next challenge, amalgamation. The rival twin cities would unite as one.
Thank you the following who assisted with this article:
Thunder Bay Historical Museum
Thunder Bay Public Library
City of Thunder Bay Archives and website
Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview Magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com.
*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*