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Thunder Bay History

Thunder Bay has a rich and exciting past. This brief history is told in the following sections:


Early Inhabitants

Thunder Bay's rich history can be traced back nearly 11,000 years to the time of the Paleo-Indians. Although there is no written record of these early inhabitants, many of the stone tools they made can still be found. Spear points, axe heads and scraping implements provide valuable clues about life in the early days following the great glaciers.

Beautiful copper fish hooks, knives and gaffs of the people who inhabited the region 4,000 to 5,000 years ago have also been discovered. Anthropological evidence indicates that Paleo-Indian inhabitants mined copper in the area from as early as 5000 BC and that a trade in copper implements extended from Lake Superior to North Dakota (for Flint), and the Atlantic Coast (for shells) as early as 500 years BC.

Although it is not known whether the Ojibway peoples were in any way descendants of the manufacturers of these copper implements, at the point of European contact in the 17th Century, their settlements were the dominant culture in the Thunder Bay Area. Ojibway tribes occupied the North shore of Lake Superior and Huron. Their reach extended from Georgian Bay to the Prairies - an expanse that was travelled relatively easily by Birch Bark Canoe.

Fort William and the Fur Trade - The Northwest Company

With the use of the Ojibway canoe as a vehicle for transportation, the natural junction of Lake Superior and its tributary, the Kaministiquia River, was an important terminus in the days of the fur trade. As early as 1678, a French outpost, Fort Caministogoyan, was established. Later, after a take-over by the Northwest Company in 1803, a new fort was born.

Located in the east end of the current City of Thunder Bay, Fort William served as a the hub of the Canadian fur trade where Coureurs des bois, Gentlemen and Natives met to transact their business.

When the Europeans arrived in the 17th Century, the local Indians called this site "Animikie", which translates as "Thunder." It was the French Couriers des bois, who travelled the region transporting furs and goods who would refer to the area between the Sibley Penninula and the North shore of Superior as Baie de Tonnaire, or "Thunder Bay".

Thunder Bay's recreated Fort William Historical Park represents the fort as it appeared in 1815 when it was at its height - a bustling community of trading partners, voyageurs and Indians, all engaged in the lucrative fur trade. Fort William was the centre of the Canadian fur trading economy, the place where trapper met trader and the deals were struck.

By the middle of the 19th century the fur trade boom had long since faded and mining became the region's most important industry. Finds of copper, silver and later gold proved lucrative for those willing to take the risk. For more than a decade the famous Silver Islet mine flourished on a tiny rock in Lake Superior and, by its final years, extended 1250 feet below the level of the lake.

A Tale of Two Cities

In 1867, the newly formed country of Canada, established under the British North American Act, was interested in expansion. As the Canadians negotiated with the Hudson’s Bay Company to acquire Rupert’s land, Simon Dawson was dispatched to Thunder Bay to select a starting point for a road to Fort Garry in the west. Among Dawson’s options were the Fort William location at the mouth of the Kaministisquia and "the Depot", a nearby site on Thunder Bay, across from the Sibley Peninsula.

Used as a landing spot for ships since 1805, Dawson chose "The Depot" and a rivalry was born. Though a more established community existed at Fort William, the Kaministiquia River required dredging to accommodate ships and early ice formation would reduce the shipping season.

Work on the Dawson Road through the rugged Northern Ontario terrain began in 1869. Colonel Wolseley, arriving in 1870 en route to the Riel rebellion renamed the depot Prince Arthur’s Landing in honour of Queen Victoria’s third son. At the end of the Rebellion, Prince Arthur (near the current location of the hotel which bears its name) was left as a palisade with stables, sheds and supply shacks - a point on the new road to the west, and a starting point for the town of Port Arthur. The artist of this scene, William Armstrong (1822-1914) served as engineer to the Wolseley Expedition.  


In response to a petition from the residents of Shuniah Township, the Provincial Government passed legislation which provided for the separation of a section of the Township to form the Corporation of the Town of Port Arthur in 1884. With the growth of population and industry, a portion of the Municipality of Neebing was separated in order to incorporate the Town of Fort William in 1892. In addition to establishing public works, street railways, and maintaining order, a spirited rivalry between the two communities made for interesting history.

For both communities; however, early expansion stemmed from the political agenda of Canada’s founding fathers. Simultaneously, western settlement was promoted and Railway routes were envisioned. With the first turn of sod for the construction Canadian Pacific Railway in the town square of Fort William, 1875, a prosperous future seemed evident. Prospectors, railway workers and west-bound immigrants arrived.

With the completion of the first rail line from the west in 1882, an increasing flow of grain would shape the development of the economy. Constructed in 1884, the Horne Elevator was the first elevator established at the Lakehead. By the 1920s, the Lakehead ports had the greatest grain handling capacity in North America. 

While the most lucrative silver mined in the area came from the Islet on the Sibley Peninsula, operations were also located in Current River and Shuniah in the late 1800s. As area silver mining came to its close and the railway was completed, logging took hold as the leading industry. Bushworkers used horse drawn sleighs to haul logs to river banks where they were transported to Lake Superior and its sawmills.


Amidst rumours that Port Arthur’s application for City status included a request to Annex Fort William, both Port Arthur and Fort William attained the designation in April of 1907. Over the next 63 years, the question of amalgamation persisted. Public plebiscites, held in 1920 and 1958, defeated the issue and various local politicians had their say. One of the most ardent advocates was Port Arthur Mayor Charlie Cox, who, in an attempt to hold both offices ran as a mayoralty candidate in the Fort William Municipal Election of 1948.

On October 26, 1964, Saul Laskin, Mayor of the City of Port Arthur, presented a written submission to the Provincial Cabinet requesting a study of various issues which were confronting five of the larger municipalities in the Lakehead area. These entities included the City of Port Arthur, the City of Fort William, the Municipality of Neebing, the Municipality of Paipoonge and the Municipality of Shuniah. In due course, this submission by the City of Port Arthur was endorsed by the City of Fort William as well as the Lakehead Chamber of Commerce and the Fort William-Port Arthur and District Labour Council.

In early 1965, a letter jointly signed by the heads of the councils of the five municipalities was sent to the Hon. J.W. Spooner, the Minister of Municipal Affairs. The letter requested that the regional study as originally proposed by the Mayor of Port Arthur should be undertaken. In September of 1965, Spooner announced the appointment of Eric Hardy who had been appointed to undertake the local government review for the Lakehead.

The recommendations of the Hardy Report were accepted by the Provincial Government and, as a result, the City of Thunder Bay was created through a Provincial bill on May 8, 1969 and became a reality of January 1, 1970. Headed by Mayor Saul Laskin, the new City consisted of Fort William, Port Arthur and the adjacent geographical Townships of Neebing and McIntryre.

Since amalgamation, developments such as Lakehead University, Confederation College of Applied Arts and Sciences, and the reconstruction of Fort William Historical Park as it existed in the early 1800s have increased the community profile as an education centre and tourist destination. The City has hosted sporting events from the 1974 Ontario Winter Games, the 1981 Jeux Canada Games, and the World Nordic Skiing Championships 1995.

More Information

For more information on the history of the City of Thunder Bay, visit the City Archives. Original records used in the course of City business document the corporate history of the City of Thunder Bay and its two founding communities, Fort William and Port Arthur. Materials are available for public reference and research purposes.