Main Street – Thunder Bay, Ontario

Okay, Thunder Bay (map) is not quite in Minnesota, but it is the largest city northeast of Minneapolis, larger even than Duluth with over 100,000 people (though of course, when you get talking about metropolitan areas, the numbers change). “Thunder Bay” didn’t even exist as a named place until 1969, it was formed by the consolidation of the adjacent Lake Superior municipalities of Fort William and Port Arthur, Ontario. Wikipedia writes:

On 1 January 1970, the City of Thunder Bay was formed through the merger of the cities of Fort WilliamPort Arthur, and the geographic townships of Neebing and McIntyre.[10] Its name was the result of a referendum held previously on 23 June 1969, to determine the new name of the amalgamated Fort William and Port Arthur. Officials debated over the names to be put on the ballot, taking suggestions from residents including “Lakehead” and “The Lakehead”. Predictably, the vote split between the two, and “Thunder Bay” was the victor. The final tally was “Thunder Bay” with 15,870, “Lakehead” with 15,302, and “The Lakehead” with 8,377.[13]

There was more controversy over the selection of a name for the amalgamated city than over whether to amalgamate. A vocal majority of the population preferred the “Lakehead”.[14] There was much discussion over whether there was any other city in the world that uses the word “The” in its name, which there is, as The Pas, Manitoba has “The” in its name, for example. The area was often referred to as the “Lakehead” before and after amalgamation based on its geographic location. It was seen as the “head” of shipping on the Great Lakes and the “rail head”.

If only they had Ranked Choice Voting. Nevertheless, you can imagine the possibilities, Green Bay, Wisconsin could have renamed itself Cheesehead.

Crossing into Ontario, and the Eastern Time Zone, from Minnesota, it becomes immediately apparent that the roads are in better condition. This is not due to the gas tax, which is higher, but not dedicated to transportation, but instead better management and different priorities.

Fort William was established by the Northwest Company (1803-1821) as a fur trading outpost. Today it is a living history museum (well worth seeing if you happen to be in the neighborhood, the Great White North’s equivalent of Williamsburg) replicating its final glory days in 1816 as the Hudson’s Bay Company took over the Northwest Company, but before this outpost was disbanded.

Historical Fort William

Historical Fort William

Since Thunder Bay is an amalgam, there is more than one Main Street. In fact the official Main Street is a desolate industrial serving street. There is also a High Street in the Port Arthur section, but that is mostly residential in that area. There are also lots of strip shopping centers and big box stores in newer sections of town. Instead the traditional main street in the Fort William part of town I took to be Victoria Avenue, which is bisected by an unfortunate 1980s urban mall: Victoriaville Center. This was locked shut on Sunday morning, presumably to keep out the locals, who were not among society’s victors.

Even on a Sunday morning, transit was operating, with Bus shelters ubiquitous. Parking meters abut the buildings instead of the curbs. Accessibility, particularly to growing rather than declining economic sectors, was lacking. Even the pawn shops and check cashing are going out of business. Transportation seems the least of Thunder Bay’s problems.

The buildings on the other hand, are mixed at best. Thunder Bay is literally a hollowed out shell of its former self, as illustrated by the Canadian Bank of Commerce facade.  They shamefully let their building fall into such a stage of disrepair that only the facade remains.  If the bank were out of business, that would be bad enough. But in fact it is still an operating entity (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce). Is this how they want their brand reflected? Now I guess it is better to preserve the facade than it be a completely empty lot. But the strongest bank in Canada should want to do something with this site, if only to fund a public facility if they don’t wish a branch.

In the US we are quick to praise Canadian urbanism, looking at Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and even Edmonton and Calgary. We do not somehow look to Thunder Bay.

Canadian Bank of Commerce Building, Thunder Bay Ontario

Canadian Bank of Commerce Building, Thunder Bay Ontario

Graffiti, with commentary

Graffiti, with commentary

So the buildings don't fall down

So the buildings don’t fall down

Victoriaville Center South Entrance, Parking structure and skyway to your left. Traditional government building to your right (out of frame)

Victoriaville Center South Entrance, Parking structure and skyway to your left. Traditional government building to your right (out of frame)

Elks Lodge, Thunder Bay

Elks Lodge, Thunder Bay

Some public capital invested in the new Courthouse Building

Some public capital invested in the new Courthouse Building

Desolate streetscape in Thunder Bay

Desolate streetscape in Thunder Bay

Pop Can Fundraising

Pop Can Fundraising

Two-story building on Victoria Ave, Thunder Bay

Two-story building on Victoria Ave, Thunder Bay

Public Square and Fountain, Thunder Bay

Public Square and Fountain, Thunder Bay

Building, Thunder Bay with Art Deco elements

Building, Thunder Bay with Art Deco elements

Superior Athletes, Antiques on Victoria, Thyme by Ambiance, Thunder Bay

Superior Athletes, Antiques on Victoria, Thyme by Ambiance, Thunder Bay

May Street, 1909, Thunder Bay, Mural on side of Times Journal Building

May Street, 1909, Thunder Bay, Mural on side of Times Journal Building

Roy Building, Thunder Bay

Roy Building, Thunder Bay


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5 Responses to Main Street – Thunder Bay, Ontario

  1. Alex August 17, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    Did you go to Port Arthur? It is moderately less desolate than Fort William. But yeah, in general, Thunder Bay is just a place to stop and briefly patronize emblematic immigrant businesses and then head on to some of the stunning hiking around there.

  2. Nick Sortland
    Nick Sortland August 18, 2015 at 4:00 pm #

    Notice the difference in word choice between Americans and Canadians with regards to cities merging:

    Americans use ‘Annex’ which is a military term meaning ‘take-over’.

    Canadians use ‘Amalgamate’, a unifying, coming together, sharing of resources.

    ‘The more you know!’

  3. GlowBoy August 24, 2015 at 8:39 pm #

    “There was much discussion over whether there was any other city in the world that uses the word “The” in its name…”

    Guess they didn’t know about The Dalles, Oregon?

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