The Lake Superior port of THUNDER BAY, some 110km from Nipigon, is much closer to Winnipeg than to any other city in Ontario, and consequently its 120,000 inhabitants are prone to see themselves as Westerners. Economics as well as geography define this self-image, for this was until recently a booming grain-handling port – for grain harvested in the Prairies. Some grain still arrives here by rail to be stored in the town’s gigantic grain elevators on its way to the Atlantic, but since the 1990s the economics of the trade have favoured Canada’s Pacific ports and many of the elevators that dominate the harbourfront are now literally rotting away.
Scarred by industrial complexes and crisscrossed by rail lines, Thunder Bay is not immediately enticing, but it does have enough of interest to make a pleasant stopover on the long journey to or from Winnipeg and points west. The most agreeable part of town is the few blocks stretching inland from behind the marina in Thunder Bay North, north of Central Avenue, where you’ll also find several good cafés and restaurants. Thunder Bay South is much less appealing, but on its outskirts is the city’s star turn, the replica fur-trading post of Old Fort William.
Thunder Bay was created in 1970 when the two existing towns of Fort William and Port Arthur were brought together under one municipal roof. Fort William was the older of the two, established in 1789 as a fur-trading post and then becoming the upcountry headquarters of the North West Company. It lost its pre-eminent position when the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies merged, but it remained a fur-trading post until the end of the nineteenth century. In the middle of the nineteenth century, rumours of a huge silver lode brought prospectors to the Lake Superior shoreline just north of Fort William, where Port Arthur was established. The silver didn’t last and the Port Arthur, Duluth & Western Railway (PD&W), which had laid the lines to the mines, was soon nicknamed “the Poverty, Distress & Welfare”. The Canadian Northern Railway, which took over the abandoned PD&W lines, did much to rescue the local economy, but did not bring Fort William and Port Arthur closer together. Rudyard Kipling noted that, “The twin cities hate each other with the pure, passionate, poisonous hatred that makes cities grow. If Providence wiped out one of them, the other would pine away and die.” Fortunately, the 1970 amalgamation bypassed Kipling’s prediction and nowadays these parochial rivalries have all but vanished.