100 Years of Play

Image courtesy of City of Thunder Bay Archives
Celebrating Thunder Bay Playgrounds

by Brian G. Spare

There was no better day than Family Day during WinterFest for Mayor Keith Hobbs to usher in the next century of the Playgrounds Program. He proclaimed 2014 as the “Year of Play” noting that this year was the centennial of the Supervised Playgrounds Program in Thunder Bay. “Recreation has always been important to this area.”

Image courtesy of City of Thunder Bay Archives

Playgrounds have a vital role to play in our community

In June of 1914, Mayor S.C. Young proclaimed the inauguration of the Supervised Playgrounds Program Fort William. Five playgrounds participated that summer – Central, Ogden, Franklin, St. Martin’s and Collegiate. Fort William joined the playground movement hosted by many progressive cities throughout North America. Port Arthur followed suit in 1917. It was believed that playgrounds have a vital role to play in our community that affords young people the opportunity to release energy through creative play and in an atmosphere conducive to socialization. Playgrounds, they felt, were an integral part of a child’s developing years allowing for their natural growth through free play in a relaxed, outdoor supervised environment.

As well, playgrounds would offer mental and emotional security. They would provide a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in everyday tasks that engendered confidence and pride in themselves and the playground as a whole.

Mayor Young insisted that the program be offered at no cost all children, and funded at a low cost-per-child. He outfitted one of the playgrounds at his own expense. In its first year, over 1,500 children participated in playground activities.

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The Outlaw Bridge

by Brian G. Spare

Thunder Bay and Duluth have enjoyed a good relationship for well over a century. Initially, the only way to travel to Duluth was by the three times weekly steamboat. The turn of the twentieth century saw more and more motorcars. The people of the Lakehead wanted to explore the townships around them, and they needed a land route to Duluth. William Scott, an American businessman from Wisconsin Rapids, and Rotarian, who settled in the Lakehead, lobbied to build a road to Pigeon River. By 1916, a one-lane gravel road was constructed through the efforts of Mr. Scott. It wound its way south following the old Pigeon River logging trail and was aptly named The Scott Highway.

People could now drive 40 miles to Pigeon River, but when they got there they had to turn around and come back. The Americans had built a similar road from Duluth. It ended at the Pigeon River opposite the Canadian one and the two stared at each other across the 50 ft. wide river gorge. Mail from the United States, after being driven to Pigeon River, had to be ferried across, hauled up the bank, and then driven to the Lakehead. This wouldn’t do. A bridge had to be built.

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Rotary – A Century of Service

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum
Bridge Builders, Humanitarians and More

by Brian G. Spare

Rotary was formed in Chicago in 1905 as an organization of businesses and professional leaders that provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations and help build goodwill and peace in the world. Rotary has become a ruly international organization of 1.2 million Rotarians belonging to 31,000 Rotary clubs in 166 countries.

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum

When the Lakehead wanted to form a Rotary club in 1916, owing to the good relationship Thunder Bay and Duluth had enjoyed, the Duluth Rotary sponsored them. In 1917, for its first project, the Fort William/Port Arthur Rotary club partnered with the Duluth club on an ambitious endeavour to build a bridge across the 50 ft wide Pigeon River gorge that would link the Lakehead with Duluth by road. Both cities had constructed a road to the Pigeon River that stared at each other from opposite banks. It cost $6,268 to build with almost all of the money raised by Rotary. On August 18, 1917, the bridge was officially opened for traffic. For the first time, people from the Lakehead could travel by land to the Duluth. The bridge quickly became a hub for social activity and commerce with a thriving community springing up around it. Officially, it was called the International Bridge, but was nicknamed the Outlaw Bridge because it had been built without any government involvement from either side of the border. It was a huge undertaking and, 100 years later, remains an iconic corner stone of Rotary’s dedication to its mission to serve the people and community of Thunder Bay and region.

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Thriving with Activity

Image courtesy of West Thunder Community Centre
West Thunder Community Centre
Celebrating 30 years thanks to volunteers and visionaries

by Brian G. Spare

A Sense of Community

What is a community? It can be a group of individuals with a common goal, who work together to achieve their aim with respect, honesty and accountability toward each other. The people of Westfort are just such a group. They have always had a strong sense of community, and it is with this spirit of community that the citizens of Westfort began to gather in each others homes to discuss and plan how they would provide for their common need. They had many halls in which to meet that were by in large built with a single use in mind that were often seasonal.

What we need.

What we need, they decided, was a year round, multi-use facility for everyone of all age groups and interests. The idea grew. On March 23, 1988, a public meeting was held in the auditorium of Mary JL Black library, a board of directors was elected to oversee location, fund raising, building design, policies and programming, and begin the process of incorporating as a not for profit organization. That evening, he quest to build their centre began in full, and over two years, volunteers donated over 30,000 hours of their time to hold bingos, raffles and craft sales, canvass businesses, service clubs and government as well as going door-to-door to raise $120,000, 10% of the initial $1.2 million price tag to build their community centre. What would they call their community centre? A contest was held, and on March 28, 1989, West Thunder was chosen from more than 300 entries. Now that they had a name for their centre, where would it be built? A 4.8 acre site in St. Martin’s Park was chosen at 915 Edward St. on the corner of Edward St. and Empire Ave. By March of 1991 they achieved their fund raising goal. The Ministry Tourism and Recreation contributed $475,000, the City of Thunder Bay $805,000, West Thunder building build campaign $120,000 and Lakehead Japanese Cultural Association $100,000 for a total of $1.5 million the final cost of constructing the 11,000 square foot facility.

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Grain – Our Proud Heritage

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum
Our legacy of a century of grain handling through the Port of Thunder Bay

by Brian G. Spare

In 2003, Friends of Grain Elevators (FOGE) was formed by persons who had worked in or were associated with the grain industry in Thunder Bay. They had all witnessed how much the grain trade had changed from an employer of 1000s of people to only 100s. Now, only six elevators were operating when there was once over twenty. They all felt strongly that the legacy left to us by a century of grain handling through our port, a major impact it had on the development to their city, had to be preserved. Together they formed the core group of FOGE with the goal of recording, researching and finding a place to showcase the history of grain handling in the Lakehead, and to seek out like-minded people as themselves. They quickly found them, and together they pursued their goal of preserving our grain industry’s past. It became both their mission and a labour of love. Fifteen years later, the core group who formed FOGE are still together actively working towards their goal.

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Kids Bids

Image courtesy of Sasatoon Public Library
An auction just for kids!

by Brian G. Spare

Think back to when you were a youngster. Wouldn’t it have been cool to have an auction just for kids that was every bit as like one for grown-ups? You would be on TV, win games, toys or even a bike that you bid on, and all you had to do is save up your potato chip bags.

In 1960, Robert Watson of Watson Advertising proposed such a show to Old Dutch Potato Chips of Winnipeg, Manitoba founded in 1954, as a promotion. He proposed the Kids Bids auction show where children could save up their Old Dutch potato chip bags and box tops that would be worth points to bid for prizes provided by Old Dutch. A small bag would be worth 10 points, the larger bag worth 25 and a box top worth 100 points. A moderator would open the show, welcome all the children to Kids Bids and introduce the auctioneer. The auctioneer set the minimum number of points the prize to be bid on while high school-aged girls dressed in Dutch costume displayed the prize. Then the bidding started. If a child had enough points to out bid everybody else he or she won the prize. Then the moderator handed out the prize.

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Knights of the Air

Image courtesy of Bayview Magazine
Trailblazers of Northwestern Ontario

by Brian G. Spare

In today’s Canada, we enjoy good railway, road and aviation systems that traverse the country. We can ride the rail, drive or fly to almost any destination we wish. Just 100 years ago, things were quite different. The national railway linking east coast to west was still new. There was no TransCanada highway spanning the continent. And aviation was in its infancy. As much as the building of the Canadian Pacific railway is credited with forging this nation, bush pilots were responsible for opening up and maintaining the communities throughout this country that were isolated by the rugged terrain of this great land. To these isolated and often sparsely populated communities, bush pilots were a life line. Trappers, prospectors, missionaries, mountaineers, sportsmen and entrepreneurs in these places all relied on the bush pilot.

Bush flying began in Canada after World War I when there was a glut of surplus warplanes and service-trained pilots who found a new use for their skills providing air service to remote areas. The “bush” in bush pilot originally described the scrublands of South Africa. Eventually, the word bush was used to depict everything from wind-swept tundra and northern boreal forests to the sand dunes of the Sahara. These intrepid aviators flew second hand planes that had been damaged, repaired and patched many times that, as one pilot admitted, were little more than a collection of spare parts. They flew over ice-covered mountains, barren tundra, dense forests and arid deserts to bring food, medicine, mail and emergency aid to communities that could only be reached by air. Al Cheesman, Orville Wieben, Punch Dickins, John Peacock, Elmer Ruddick, Stan Wagner, Wop May, Hellick Kenyan and Duke Schiller are some of the bush pilots who flew all over Northwestern Ontario. From Nakina, Hudson, Rossport, Armstrong, Sioux Lookout, Red Lake, Big Trout Lake, the twin cities and beyond, these pilots were vital. These pilots and their planes brought isolated communities into the 20th century. They could fly over rugged terrain in hours what would take days or weeks to traverse on the ground.

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Evolution of a City – Part 2

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum
The Story of Thunder Bay – Part 2

Nominated for the George B. MacGillivray Publication Award

by Brian G. Spare

On January 1, 1970, the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William along with parts of the municipalities of Neebing and McIntyre amalgamated to form the City of Thunder Bay. However, the debate over amalgamation began 60 years earlier.

The road to amalgamation

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum

The first formal record of a discussion to amalgamate Fort William and Port Arthur was a letter by I.S. Heinrich dated Oct. 28, 1910. In it he stated that since the discussion of union of the twin cities was again prominent, he proposed “Portfort” as a name for the amalgamated city. Ten years passed before a public vote as held. On January 5, 1920, the citizens of Port Arthur were asked, “Are you in favour of the union of the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William, upon terms to be mutually agreed upon?” Of the 1923 votes cast and counted at the Whalen building, 1183 were in favour and 740 against. Although a majority of citizens were in favour of amalgamation, no further action was taken for another 38 years. It had always been rumored that Port Arthur’s application for city status in 1907 included a bid to annex Fort William. If that was the case, both towns were still incorporated as cites that year. Maybe there was something to that rumor, though, because in 1948 Port Arthur mayor, Charlie Cox and staunch proponent of amalgamation, tried to become mayor of both cities when he ran for the mayoralty of Fort William in its municipal election.

On December 1 in Fort William and December 8 in Port Arthur, 1958, the same question as in the 1920 plebiscite was asked of the citizens of both cities. This vote would not be legally binding, and many questioned whether it was worth the trouble to ask the question. The results were as follows:

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum

Fort William: For 4209 Against 6827.

Port Arthur: For 5468 Against 5331.

Over the years, amalgamation was debated on and off and various names were proposed for a unified city including Port Edward, Williamsport, Westport, Westgate, Port Thurwilliam and Fort Artwill. Still, nothing was done.

By the 1960s, the Chamber of Commerce of each city had united to form the Lakehead Chamber of Commerce and the Labour Councils had merged. Fort William’s and Port Arthur’s public libraries accepted each other’s library cards and they had a book interloan system. There was an agreement for a co-operative telephone system. The Lakehead Regional Conservation Authority (LRCA) was created, as well as the Lakehead Planning Board, the Lakehead Board of Education, Lakehead Harbour Commission, Thunder Bay District Health Unit, Thunder Bay Mutual Fire System and Children’s Aid Society. Political and economic forces were at work in the 1960s too. Keefer terminal was completed in 1962 in the intercity area. The Intercity Development Association, and the Lakehead Chamber of Commerce both lobbied vigorously for amalgamation. In spite of this, the cities remained separate.

Images courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum

In the end, the decision to amalgamate was not made by the citizens of the Lakehead, but the Ontario legislature. In 1968, then mayor of Port Arthur, Saul Laskin, who was also a strong supporter of amalgamation, spoke with Minister of Municipal Affairs, Darcy McKeough, about the ongoing dispute over uniting the two cities. Minister McKeough said he would introduce legislation at Queen’s Park, Bill 118,The City of the Lakehead Act. On May 8, 1969 it passed. Port Arthur, Fort William and the Townships of Neebing and McIntire would become one city on January 1, 1970. A loud hue and cry went up from the citizens citing they were not allowed to vote on this. As compensation, they were given an opportunity to decide on the name of their amalgamated city. The plebiscite had a choice of three names which were Lakehead, The Lakehead and Thunder Bay. Thunder Bay won by a narrow margin of 600 votes. This sparked more protests. People felt the new city’s name should be some form of Lakehead since the combined vote was larger than that for Thunder Bay. None the less, the unified city would be named after the inlet on Lake Superior upon the north shore of which it resided.

More than the sum of its parts

Amalgamating four municipalities took much more effort than just changing the names. Each had municipal plans and bylaws which had to be integrated. The most significant benefit to the new city as a whole was the combining and expansion of sewer and water services. Until then, McIntyre had no sewer treatment at all. The two public transit systems and police services were combined. Attention was turned to the intercity area between the old cities of Fort William and Port Arthur. The area had been left mainly because of the railway lines that crossed it and all its peat bogs that hindered development.

Before amalgamation, all four municipalities attempted to provide adequate local government services, but didn’t have the tax base to do so, especially McIntyre. If the rivalry between Port Arthur, Fort William and the two Townships, and the competition for government initiative and infrastructure funding that would have resulted in one area receiving funds at the expense of the other, or may have us by altogether. After amalgamation, the City of Thunder Bay could speak with a single voice which has worked in its favour.

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum

A work in progress

One of the highlights of Thunder Bay’s inaugural year was when its own Carol Commisso won the Miss Canada pageant. Over the years, Thunder Bay, as one city, has achieved things that likely would not have happened had the four municipalities had remained separate. We hosted the 1981 Canada Summer Games. In 1984, the Neebing McIntyre Floodway was completed to control the annual flooding of the Intercity area, and the Community Auditorium opened in 1985. We held the 1995 World Nordic Championships, and along with it came our new airport. We played host to the 1996 Scott’s Tournament of Hearts.

Our history began with the fur trade with the pelts going to cloth Canadians and the people of Europe. The region’s economy changed and expanded with the coming of the transcontinental railway. Through our port we shipped grain to feed the world. We exported lumber for pulp and paper. Our factories built planes, buses, rail cars and ships. The people here have shown how diverse and adaptable they are.

The resource based economy that has sustained this region for decades is in decline. In its place our university and college are expanding. We have a new university hospital, medical school, law school, and a world renown research facility. What will be next? Whatever it is, the people of Thunder Bay will show the adaptability they always have and prosper in the change. Once again the city built on the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big Sea Water will rightfully earn the name, anemki, given to this land by the Ojibway centuries ago. They called it thunder.

Thank you to 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 Bayview Magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com.

*Previously published in Bayview Magazine*

Evolution of a City – Part 1

Image courtesy of City of Thunder Bay Archives / Bayview Magazine
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.

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In The Shadow of Anemki Wajiw

Image courtesy of Bayview Magazine
Etched Murals at Thunder Bay International Airport Celebrate Indigenous Culture

by Brian G. Spare

What sparked this endeavour was the work of an aspiring young artist and film maker from Couchiching First Nation who is involved in a project to reclaim Indigenous languages and places across Ontario. She uses commercial billboards to showcase Anishinabe language and imagery in ways to make us think about place. In Thunder Bay, she placed art entitled “Place Where The Thunderbirds Land” on a billboard in the Northwood Mall parking lot during the spring of 2016. It depicted a Thunderbird landing on Anemki Wajiw (Thunder Mountain) or what we now know as Mount McKay.

We had been looking for a theme

The President and CEO of Thunder Bay International Airport, heard her May 16, 2016 interview on the local CBC radio and went to look at the billboard. He was inspired by what he saw. “The airport Terminal Building was being renovated at the time,” he recounts, “We had been looking for a theme to guide some art installations. With the airport being in the shadow of Anemki Wajiw, it was clear that this was the ideal theme.” In conversation with the Department of Art History at Lakehead University regarding this art project being located in the airport. it was suggested that the young Indigenous art collective, Neechee Studio, might be a good fit.

Continue reading “In The Shadow of Anemki Wajiw”
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