transport logo

The renamed museum’s logo features key modes of transportation that have helped to define Thunder Bay’s history.

By Ian Pattison

It’s about time. Time, that is, to reflect on its passage here at The Lakehead, a term still used in some circles but discarded by a local group that is all about time.

The former Lakehead Transportation Museum Society made a splashy spring debut this week, re-emerging as the Transportation Museum of Thunder Bay. Aiming to grow its profile as another major local tourist draw, the society said the term Lakehead is no longer relevant to a world of tourists looking for things to do in Thunder Bay.

Nostalgia aside, that is only logical and signals a determination to make the most of Thunder Bay’s rich history as a national transportation hub. It’s a history that includes a surprising array of modes of moving people over the course of a really long time.

Paleo-Indian hunters on foot followed caribou herds into this area 10,000 years ago. At the time of the first European contact in the 17th century, the Ojibwa were this region’s only inhabitants, hunting, fishing and travelling by canoe.

The canoe served as transportation by explorers and fur traders. In 1803, the North West Company built Fort William, the first permanent European settlement here. Sailing ships soon appeared in the bay.

In 1869, engineer Simon Dawson built a camp to the north of Fort William called Prince Arthur’s Landing. The Dawson Trail served the land and water route, in wagons and canoes, to Manitoba’s Red River as Canada expanded westward.

Both communities grew in a hurry with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railroad which built its first grain elevator in Port Arthur in 1883, (the year my grandfather, Russell Brown, arrived here, incidentally. His father and brothers had already built a business bringing cattle up the Great Lakes by steamship).

CPR furthered Canada’s growth with a fleet of Great Lakes passenger steamships that brought passengers to the Lakehead to board the train to continue west.

One of those ships, the last of its kind, is the Keewatin that might have called this, its northern terminus, its final home but for the failure of a former city council to secure it from its Michigan owner.

As he aged he looked to sell the grand vessel but interests in Port McNicoll, its southern terminus, won out and there Keewatin was moved as part of a waterfront development.

The project ultimately failed and the developer recently looked for potential interest in the ship. This time, Thunder Bay did not express any and Keewatin was finally donated to the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston.

The irony is, the main fixture of the Transportation Museum of Thunder Bay is the former coast guard icebreaker Alexander Henry that opened the harbour here every spring before being retired and moved to the Kingston museum. When that facility was in a period of transition, the Thunder Bay group managed to acquire the Henry as its centrepiece at the former Pool 6 elevator dock that serves a new generation of passenger ships that call here throughout the summer.

IN ANNOUNCING its new iteration, the transportation museum group showed off a nifty new logo (when can we buy T-shirts?) and, as first reported by the CJ’s Sandi Krasowski, a dockside vendors’ market to serve cruise ship passengers.

The logo features four segments.

Top left is the tug James Whalen. Owned by the city, the century-old Whalen was moored for decades, largely unseen and heavily vandalized, on the Kam River. While the museum group tried to acquire the tug and move it to a place of prominence in front of the Henry, its pumps failed and it sank. The city had it raised and moved to dry land while its fate is decided. There is only one place for it and everyone, including everyone on council, knows where that is.

Top right on the logo is an old streetcar that foretold major railcar manufacturing at the former Canadian Car and Foundry plant. Over the course of its life beginning in 1917, Can Car and its descendent companies have built boxcars, minesweepers for the First World War, fighter planes for the Second World War (including the storied Hawker Hurricane shown bottom right on the logo) and Bill trolley buses, with the street railway cars another early electric vehicle decades ahead of today’s move toward EVs.

Hopefully, the man who spearheaded the original transportation society with his Buddies Of the Brill who acquired and restored two original trolleys, can be brought back onto the board from which he resigned over some disagreement. His enthusiasm and the buses belong in the museum compound.

During the 1960s the plant built custom logging equipment and transport truck trailers exemplifying the Twin Cities’ place at the highway crossroads of Canada. Then came the next generation of TTC subway cars, streetcars (there’s still an old one lying around somewhere locally), Metrolinx light-rail cars and GO Transit train cars.

Finally on the logo, at lower left, is a steam engine signifying the important role of transcontinental rail transportation, passenger and freight, in this city’s history.

While Thunder Bay remains a huge railway freight hub, its passenger train service is gone, the result of successive federal budget cuts (Liberal and Conservative) which led to transfer of the Via Rail Canadian train from CP tracks to the northern CN route, bypassing the scenic Lake Superior North Shore.

There are many alive today who remember the big, black puffing steam engines pulling trains into CN and CP stations in both former cities. Port Arthur turned down an opportunity to buy a steam engine for display – reportedly for $10 – as they were phased out in favour of diesels.

A volunteer group of railway buffs did acquire an old diesel and some period passenger cars that sit forlornly near the old south-side CN station.

The Transportation Museum of Thunder Bay is seeking to move the city’s other rail artifact, an old CN caboose carefully restored by the Thunder Bay Railway Historical Society, to its nearby compound at Pool 6.

Would it not also be logical to move the old train there, then to search for a steam locomotive and associated period cars to hitch to the caboose, presenting two eras of rail travel at one museum site? More than 80 historic CN and CP locomotives alone survive in Canada, listed on

Finally, to complete the logo, while there are 16 airworthy Hawker Hurricanes still in existence – prohibitively expensive to even contemplate – there are another 27 or so on display or undergoing restoration throughout the world – including in Calgary, Brandon and Ottawa.

Museums flourish when they grow their collections. With this city’s almost unparalleled transportation history, its vibrant volunteer sector, its burgeoning transportation museum with much room to grow, and the potential for fundraising and public funding, there may be no limit to what can be achieved with some creative negotiating.

Can we as a community at least think about preserving more of Canada’s past, moving it through time to the present at a waterfront park that holds infinite potential to show the world what we’re made of?

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.