At the head of the shores of Lake Superior is where Thunder Bay is found. Its location is not only showcases the beauty and splendor of Northwestern Ontario, but is also a strategic access point between the Eastern provinces of the Great Lakes, the Atlantic Ocean and the Western provinces. Formed as a merger between the cities of Fort William and Port Arthur and the townships of Neebing and McIntyre in 1970, Thunder Bay took its name from what 18th century French maps labeled ‘Baie de Tonnerre’. Affectionately called the Lakehead, Thunder Bay’s history has been a long development.
The area was originally inhabited by the Ojibway Indians and for hundreds of years they populated the rugged, beautiful terrain. Their culture remained dominant until the arrival of the Europeans in the late seventeenth century. French fur trading posts were unsuccessfully established in 1679 and 1717, but permanent settlement began in 1803 when the North West Company established Fort William. The post was active for numerous years until the amalgamation of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821. In the following years the newly formed Canada was interested in western expansion and the site for a starting point of the Dawson Road to Fort Garry was needed. Simon Dawson had two choices, the already established town of Fort William or a common landing spot for ships, known as ‘the Depot’. Dawson chose the latter, as the Kaministiquia River at Fort William required dredging to accommodate ship and was prone to early ice formations, resulting in shorter shipping season.
Work began on the road in 1869 and in 1870 Colonel Wolseley renamed the site Prince Arthur’s Landing, in honour of Queen Victoria’s third son. The site was later renamed Port Arthur in 1883. The close proximity of the two towns led to a spirited rivalry. In 1875, the town of Fort William was favoured in the establishment of the railway facilities by the Canadian Pacific Railway. The completion of the first rail line in 1882 brought about an increased flow of grain, which helped shaped the development of the economy. In 1884, Horne Elevator was established and by the 1920’s the ports had the greatest grain handling capacity in North America. In 1902 each citiy established their own municipally owned telephone systems and by 1914, both cities had modern infrastructures of sewers, safe water, electric lights, and street lighting. With the advent of World War I, the Lakehead’s economy grew with the making of munitions and ship-building.
The forest industry has always played a prevalent role in the economy of Thunder Bay, starting in the 1870’s. The first pulp and paper mill was established in Port Arthur in 1917 and Fort William’s mill was followed in 1920, eventually four mills were in operation. Manufacturing in the region recommenced in 1937 when Canada Car and Foundry Company plant re-opened to build aircraft for the British. Currently run by Bombardier Transportation, the plant has remained, producing forestry, then transportation equipment for urban transit systems for the Toronto Transit Commission and GO Transit.
The rivalry between the two cities frequently brought about the question of amalgamation. Over 63 years two plebiscites were held in 1920 and 1958 and both times they were defeated. However in 1964, Saul Laskin, Mayor of the City of Port Arthur, requested the Provincial Cabinet conduct a study of various issues which were confronting five of the larger municipalities, the City of Port Arthur, the City of Fort William, the Municipality of Neebing, the Municipality of Paipoonge and the Municipality of Shuniah. The Hardy report resulted in a recommendation of the amalgamation of the five municipalities in question, which created the City of Thunder Bay on January 1, 1970.
Currently the city has a population of 109,000 inhabitants. It is the largest city in Northwestern Ontario and acts as a regional commercial and medical hub for the surrounding smaller communities. The area still is privileged by air, rail and shipping traffic due to its prime location along major continental transportation routes. Thunder Bay has the third busiest airport in Ontario and Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railway continue to provide service, despite the decline in western grain shipments. Thunder Bay is no longer the key player in Canadian east-west trade but since amalgamation, Thunder Bay has experienced growth with educational institutions with the establishment of Confederation College and Lakehead University. The recent establishment of the Northern Ontario Medical School adds to the growing life sciences sector in the economy.