Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Remembering Thunder Bay

Of all of the northern cities that I have visited over the past 3 decades, Thunder Bay is certainly one of my favorites. I spent the better part of 2004 there, researching and writing articles.

With lots of grit, this city is not particularly 'polished'. Thunder Bay is nevertheless rightly proud of it's colorful history. Located on the west end of Lake Superior, Thunder Bay has a population of nearly 110,000 and before 1970, was actually the two cities of Port Arthur and Fort William. It is the second largest city in Northern Ontario after Greater Sudbury.

Thunder Bay also has the distinction of being the second most dangerous city in Canada. But more on that later.

A couple of Thunder Bay originals. Shags, a combination shower and stag held to celebrate the engagement of a couple and Persians, an oval-shaped, cinnamon-bun-like pastry with a sweet, pink icing made of either raspberries or strawberries. I found the best ones at Nucci's Bake-a-deli on Red River Road and The Persian Man on Tungsten Street. No one has been able to tell me why the cakes are called 'Persian'!

I love forts and this one is a favorite. Walk these grounds and you will be transported back to another time.

The North West Company had a major trading post called Fort Charlotte located at Grand Portage, Minnesota. After the rebel colonists' victory in the American Revolutionary War, British and Canadian fur traders wanted to create a new center of operations to avoid US taxes. They moved the trading post north to Fort William on the Canadian side of the border.

Fort William Historical Park is a living history site. Numerous historic buildings have been reconstructed to show the range of the post, and costumed historical interpreters recreate Fort William of the year 1815.

Due to its central role, Fort William was much larger, with more facilities than the average fur trade post. Reflecting this, Fort William Historical Park contains 42 reconstructed buildings, a reconstructed Ojibwa village, and a small farm.

Fort William Historical Park has a working community of skilled tradesmen, including a blacksmith, tinsmith, carpenter, cooper, and birch bark canoe builder. They all craft products according to traditional early 19th-century methods and tools. Many of their crafts are not widely practised elsewhere.

Fort William's canoe builder has built birch bark canoes for other Canadian cultural sites, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

This has to be the most photographed spot in Thunder Bay. During my stay here I have rarely seen an occasion that there wasn't at least one or two parties of tourists snapping photos.

In September 1980 a remarkable Canadian story came to an end on the shoulder of Highway 11/17 just outside of Thunder Bay.

Terry Fox was forced to end his Marathon of Hope as the cancer which had claimed his right leg had spread to his lungs. A remarkable young athlete, Terry had run almost half way across Canada , a feat not attempted before on the scale that Fox had achieved. It was amazing in that Fox, his left leg amputated, had run 42km each day of the run - the standard length of a modern marathon - every day since he started his run on the 12th of April, 1980.

In 1981 the Ontario Government, collaborating with the City of Thunder Bay, built a monument to the achievement of this amazing Canadian overlooking the city very near to the spot where he was forced to end his run.

A must see. The Jackknife Bridge spans a river in Thunder Bay, linking the city to Mission Island. The bridge was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1910 and has two decks, the lower deck (still in use) for trains and the upper deck (removed in 2004) for vehicular road traffic.

The Sleeping Giant

Standing on the shores of the City of Thunder Bay, one can look across the waters and see a great formation of land known as the Sleeping Giant.

The local Ojibwa have a wonderful story about this rock formation.

A great tribe of Ojibwas lived outside Thunder Bay on Isle Royale. Because of loyalty to their gods and their industrious and peaceful mode of living, Nanna Bijou, the Spirit of the Deep Sea Water, decided to reward the tribe.

The Great Spirit told the chief about the tunnel that led to the center of a rich silver mine. He warned that if the Ojibwa tribe were ever to tell the White Man of this mine he, Nanna Bijou, would be turned to stone. The Ojibwas soon became famous for their beautiful silver ornaments. The Sioux warriors, upon seeing the silver on their wounded enemies, strove to wrest the secret from the Ojibwas.

Torture and death failed to make the gallant Ojibwa tribesmen divulge their secret. Sioux chieftains summoned their most cunning scout and ordered him to enter the Ojibwa camp disguised as one of them. The scout soon learned the whereabouts of the mine.

One night he made his way to it and took several large pieces of the precious metal. During his return to the Sioux camp, the scout stopped at a White Trader's post for food. There, without furs to trade, he used a piece of the stolen silver. Two White Men, intent upon finding the source of the silver, filled the scout with firewater and persuaded him to lead them to the mine. Just as they were in sight of "Silver Islet", a terrific storm broke over the Cape. The White Men were drowned and the Sioux scout was found drifting in his canoe in a crazed condition.

A most extraordinary thing happened during the storm. Where once was a wide opening to the bay, now lay what appeared to be a great sleeping figure of a man. The Great Spirit's warning had come true and he had been turned to stone.

Today, partly submerged shaft to what was once the richest silver mine in the northwest, can still be seen. White Men have repeatedly attempted to pump out the water that floods in from Lake Superior, but their efforts have been in vain. Is it still under the curse of Nanna Bijou, Spirit of the Deep Sea Water? Perhaps...who can tell?

Mount McKay

A small stone chapel stands atop Mt. McKay. It is this chapel that gives us a legend perhaps far more factual than all those of more ancient origin.

According to the Ojibwa, a flourishing encampment of Ojibwa near Thunder Bay had learned something of agriculture. Small but bountiful wheat fields filled clearings which dotted the spruce and birch forests. The tribe, jubilant at the prospects of a great harvest, found their joy short-lived one fall. A plague of black birds swooped from the sky and in spite of the men's arrows, soon devoured all the grain.

A plan for a greater hunting effort during the months that followed failed as heavy snows came. Those that ventured out in search of food soon perished in the deep drifts of snow. Fishing, through the ice was impossible as not even a morsel of food was left for bait.

Starved, crazed men set upon one another and children cried pitifully from hunger. Just as it seemed the tribe would perish, a young princess, daughter of the Chief, took her father's hunting.knife and cut strips of flesh from her legs. This she gave to the men to use as bait for fishing.

Soon, sufficient fish were caught and the tribe was saved from starvation. The heroic deed, however, was too much of a shock to the princess and slowly she wasted away.

A visiting priest arrived just in time to bless her before her death. Hearing of her brave deed, he had the men build the small chapel in her memory and bade them give thanks to God for their survival and pray for future crops. Each year at Thanksgiving, the Indians go to the chapel and it is more than a coincidence that since the first thanks offering, the crops of Thunder Bay have neither failed nor been destroyed by plague.

Murder City!

It's official! (well, sort of). According to a October 2010 survey conducted by MacLeans Magazine, Thunder Bay is most dangerous city in Canada, at least as far as homicides are concerned. According to the report Thunder Bay figures are 182% above Canada’s national average.

Canada’s national rate is 1.8 murders per 100,000 population. Abbotsford, B.C., with almost three times that rate, tops the list of the 100 most populous cities.

Thunder Bay ranks 14th overall of Canada, and Number 1 in Ontario, when crimes such as homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault, vehicle theft, robbery plus breaking and entering are factored in.

Thunder Bay's Most Famous Murder

Viljo Rosvall and Janne Voutilainen were two Finnish-Canadian unionists from Thunder Bay, and members of the Lumber Workers Industrial Union of Canada who mysteriously disappeared on November 18, 1929. The two were on their way to a bush camp to recruit sympathetic bush workers for a large strike which was gaining momentum west of Thunder Bay.

The bodies of Rosvall and Voutilainen were found by a union search party at Onion Lake the following spring. The men's funeral on April 28, 1930 was the largest ever held in Thunder Bay.

Adding to the legendary status of the event, a solar eclipse darkened the sky as the funeral procession marched to Riverside Cemetery. The funeral events were regarded as the symbolic beginning of the Great Depression for local residents.

The official cause of death was ruled to be accidental drownings, however, the Finnish community in Thunder Bay suspected that the two were murdered by thugs employed by the bush camp boss.

Evidence that the two men had struggled before their deaths as well as the questionable matter that two experienced bush workers had drowned in shallow water added to the feeling that foul play was involved. Furthermore, some community members claimed that they had gained knowledge that the hired thugs were in Finland, where they had been shipped after the murder.

There was also the fact that Voutilainen was a trapper who had maintained trap lines in the Onion Lake area for several years, and thus, intimately familiar with the area. How could an experienced trapper with an intimate knowledge of the local environment fall through ice and drown in three and a half feet of water?

The testimony of the official coroner, Dr. Crozier, also raises doubts. Not only was his testimony highly agitated and hostile, but Crozier also belonged to an anti-union "citizens' group" formed around the time of the Winnipeg General Strike.

Other inconsistencies include contradictory statements from the camp boss, Maki, and evidence of injuries on the bodies suggesting a struggle before their drowning. That violent methods were used by employers, the authorities, and/or vigilantes to disrupt or discourage union activity around this time in North America is not unusual.

I visited Riverside Cemetery on Oliver Road and found the headstones of the two union organizers.

The case of Rosvall and Voutilainen continues to be controversial. An Ontario Historical Plaque was erected by the province to commemorate Rosvall and Voutilainen's role in Ontario's heritage.

This marker is located in front of the logging museum in Centennial Park, off of Black Bay Road.

I have collected a lot of material on the Rosvall and Voutilainen deaths. Much more than this blog article could ever treat properly. I will be posting a separate article dealing with this sad event in Thunder Bay's history.