by Edgar J. Lavoie
Thunder Bay’s East End is so crammed with history that it’s coming out of the cracks in the sidewalks.
So we discovered recently in Thunder Bay Museum’s history walk.
The walk should have begun at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, October 22, at the monument that marks the site of Thunder Bay’s original mini-metropolis. In the early decades of the 19th century, some 2000 souls crowded into a few acres on the north bank of the Kaministiquia River. That was far bigger than the size of York (aka Toronto) at that time. The site was christened Fort William.
Today not a scrap remains of the ancient fort. Fort William has been recreated upstream some 15 klicks away from fresh-cut logs. It is now a tourist mecca.
At fifteen minutes past one o’clock, participants were still arriving. A handful of participants had signed up online; dozens had not. The guide, Emily Hunt, with the assistance of Harold Hunt (yes, her dad), was frantically urging participants to sign in on paper for purposes of contact tracing during the ongoing pandemic. Everyone wore masks.
Michael DeJong, museum curator, arrived to assist the guide, Emily. The crowd of 60 some participants had grouped around the monument. Erected in 1916, the granite “standing stone” was engraved with the history of the site. It stands at the corner of McTavish and McNaughton Streets, opposite the yard of the Canadian Pacific Railway. An official metal plaque supplements the monument.
Emily read from a script, detailing the history of the site, starting with its occupation by indigenous people of the Laurel and Black Duck cultures. In 1803, the North West Company fur traders erected the first Fort William. In 1875, the CPR began constructing the line to Winnipeg, and in 1878, the trading post closed its doors. Piece by piece, the railway company demolished the fort. In 1902, the last building was razed.
Harold Hunt (who had spent three summers as an interpreter at Fort William Historical Park) trotted out several artifacts for the crowd to marvel at. He was careful to state that some of the exhibits were indeed replicas.
The participants divided themselves into two groups, one following Emily, the other, Michael. They paced themselves down the streets of the East End. Every so often, a group would stop and listen to another ream of information read out from the script.
Many of the streets of the East End were named after Scottish fur traders, such as McTavish and McNaughton. The neighourhood hosted homes, institutions, and businesses of many ethnic groups, including Finns, Greeks, Italians, Polish, Slovaks, and Ukrainians. The bustling city saw many labour disputes, including one of the bloodiest riots in Canadian history. In 1909, freight handlers in the East End began a six-day strike that necessitated the intervention of militia to help the outnumbered police force.
The East End grew faster than other neighbourhoods in the city. City services could not catch up with population growth. And matters were complicated by having part of the East End constructed on a bog subject to frequent floods.
Nevertheless, the neighbourhood developed strong social bonds and founded long-lasting institutions and businesses.
A write-up by Thunder Bay Museum concludes with these remarks: “Today, the East End is a quiet neighbourhood, primarily residential but with several businesses, both new and old, still operating. The area’s skyline is punctuated by church cupolas and steeples, still gathering places for some of the vibrant communities that call Thunder Bay home. It is difficult to do justice to an area with as complex and fascinating a history as the East End . . . “
As the tour wore on, some participants dropped out. It was very interesting stuff, but more than any normal person could reasonably absorb.
After an hour and three-quarters, with no end of the walk in sight, our party of three participants left to keep another appointment.
With some rejigging, this guided tour could become a popular attraction.
One thought on “EAST END WALKING TOUR”
Would this be the part of town where an infamous lady who was born near Owen Sound plied her trade? Her name was Meg Matthews. I believe that she ran one or more “houses of ill repute” in the Port Arthur/Fort William area. A few years ago, when I managed the four Catholic cemeteries in the Owen Sound area, I received a call from your area asking if we could search our records to see if she was interred in one of our cemeteries. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any such evidence.