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Powering the Civic Railway

It is fitting that the first thin strand of copper that brought the magic of electricity to Fort William was essentially a by-product of the competitive spirit that has motivated so much of the progress of the Twin Cities. It is perhaps equally fitting that this most useful natural force was first harnessed for a humble and mundane service: the electric street railway. Port Arthur receives the undeniable credit of having been in the vanguard of cities to recognize the enormous potential of electricity in public transport. As a consequence, Port Arthur is counted among the first communities in Canada - and in North America for that matter - to establish an electric street railway system.

A full decade before the turn of the century, the clang of the trolley bell was a familiar sound along Port Arthur’s main street.  Power for the system was generated by a steam-driven dynamo in a plant located on the banks of the Current River. By the early 1890s, community leaders were closely following advances in electrical generating equipment. By the mid 1890s, the need for electric power was evident, both to supply the needs of an expanding street railway system and to meet the demands of expected industrial expansion.

Photo of the Times Journal building on May Street

Soon after the founding of Port Arthur’s street railway, a series of seemingly unrelated events occurred that ultimately spurred the development of power generating facilities in Fort William as well. After the street railway was extended to Fort William in 1893, the first electric lights were operated in Fort William. In 1894, two years after the inauguration of the trolley system, the publisher of the Fort William Daily Journal, T.A. Bell, arranged with the street railway superintendent, Thomas McCauley, to run two wires from the trolley feeder into the Journal’s editorial office on May Street. To this improvised circuit, five 16 candle power lamps were connected. It is not recorded if this arrangement was officially sanctioned, or was an ingenious but unofficial innovation. Nevertheless, the first electric bulbs - five of them - to be used in Fort William, were linked to this unorthodox power source, preceding the community's own supply of electricity for lighting by four years.

While the advent of electric street cars marked the first recorded use of electricity in Fort William, it was not in itself, however, the cornerstone of the development of electricity in the city. While Edward Spencer Jenison of Chicago attempted to develop hydroelectric power at Kakabeka, in 1901 Port Arthur decided to develop hydroelectric power on its own on the Current River.

Photo of the inside of Kam Power CoThe company that formed to develop and sell Kakabeka power was called the Kaministiquia Power Company. In 1904 Port Arthur applied for an Act to incorporate Current River Power Company for the purpose of supplying the Towns of Port Arthur and Fort William and the Municipality of Shuniah, and other municipalities, corporations and individuals with electrical power. After completion, the town of Port Arthur used  700hp: 400hp for lighting and the rest for the street railway. By 1907, Kaministiquia Power Company was completed. By 1908, at the Current River power house, operation of steam pumping had been discontinued and replaced by water power after the installation of a Water Wheel.  A year later, the joint board overseeing the civic railway in both cities determined that they would not be able to guarantee continuous service unless auxiliary power was provided. A resolution was passed by the board urging City Council to purchase an Auxiliary Apparatus for the street railway powerhouse, in the shape of an extra Motor Generator Set.

Port Arthur Entrance sign

As a result of early electric power and hydroelectricity being controlled by private companies, utilities departments were often forced to enter into long contracts to ensure a guarantee of service for their citizens. In 1913, Fort William was not in a position to power its street railway within their boundaries. In order to do so, they required 600 more horse power than they were receiving from the Current River powerhouse in Port Arthur. Port Arthur, however, was unable to provide the power as they were at risk of reaching their peak with the Hydro Electric Commission. Fort William authorities immediately got busy with the Kam Power Co. to arrange a temporary supply of power to the system, which Fort William agreed to foot the bill for.

Photo of Fort William hydro buildingAs Fort William and Port Arthur expanded rapidly, the ever growing complexity of providing efficient and affordable electricity forced many changes in administration in the first half of the 1900s. It was therefore proposed that a single body be established to govern and guide the operation of the utility in the future for Fort William. The Hydro Electric Commission of Fort William was established and was commonly referred to simply as Fort William Hydro. For the first half of the 20th Century, electric power development in Northern Ontario came with great financial risks but the Thunder Bay region was recognized as being a substantially stable area. Because of the region's stability, Thunder Bay was established as an integral part of Ontario Hydro.

In 1900, the only electricity being produced in the area was by the cities of Fort William and Port Arthur and they used it to power businesses and homes but also their civic railway. Electricity remained in the public transportation system of the cities of Fort William and Port Arthur until amalgamation in 1970. By 1971, however, the last electrically powered public transit vehicle was taken off the road in favour of the flexibility of gas and diesel engines.