View of Fort William in 1873 looking north. Archives of Ontario.

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.

Emily the guide is flanked by Harold as he displays a miniature copy the historical map.

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.

The monument and plaque at the corner of McTavish and McNaughton, opposite the CPR rail yard.

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.

The historical plaque.

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.

Harold unfurled the map so that a picture could be snapped. David Thompson spent 27 years in gathering data for his great map which stretched from Lake Superior and Hudson Bay to the Pacific. The final product, now displayed in the Archives of Ontario, measures 6.5 by 10 feet. This figure met the fate of many historians, dying in poverty and obscurity.

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.

Voyageurs typically wore linen or cotton shirts.

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 sash helped to keep the hooded coat closed and to support the lower back during portaging. Harold had this one made in Montreal.
Every man in the woods carried his own fire in form of flint and steel. By striking the steel, large sparks flew.

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.

These homes on McPherson Street have a distinctive style. The East End exhibits many different architectural styles. Many homes are built to the edge of the sidewalk and do not allow for lawns. Also, the lots tend to be narrow, with no space for driveways.

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.

In the late 1880s, the CPR coal dock abutted the remaining buildings of the old fort. Many coal dock workers made homes in the East End. Library & Archives Canada.

Nevertheless, the neighbourhood developed strong social bonds and founded long-lasting institutions and businesses.

The Commissary Deli and Smoked Meats has been operating since 1936 with the same family. My daughter, Laura, often patronizes this popular business.
St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church was founded by the Slovak community. In the 1880s, many Slovak immigrants came to Port Arthur and Fort William, many finding work in the coal docks.
Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Transfiguration was completed in 1918, the first such church in the province. Built in traditional Byzantine style on a cross-shaped plan, it features two square towers topped by onion domes. Inside, it has unique ornamentation and iconography adorning the walls and ceiling.

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.

At Fort William Historical Park, guides (aka interpreters) wear period dress when acting out their roles.


  1. 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.


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