The economic opportunities found in the cities of Fort William and Port Arthur drew workers to the region during the first decades of the 20th century. Located on the north shore of Lake Superior, many believed it had the potential, like many regions of Canada at the turn of the 20th century, for unlimited economic success.
As the editors of the Port Arthur Daily-News suggested on March 20, 1906, “the assets of Canada are stupendous, the country reeks with underdeveloped riches, agricultural soil, minerals, water power, navigable lakes and rivers, a healthy invigorating climate, in fact, everything that makes a country great, waiting only for capital and energy of a man to develop it.”
From the heyday of Fort William as the inland headquarters of the North West Company to the brink of the Great Depression in 1929, the Lakehead was seen as a region of untapped and limitless resources, and capable of fuelling continuous progress and development. Port Arthur and Fort William acted as a metropole for a resource-rich hinterland. The two cities were also viewed as the hub of the Canadian nation, having become the central railway and shipping point for the transshipment of the West’s staple products for the East’s manufactured goods.
The first industry to take advantage of this new means of transportation was mining. While not established until 1868, it attracted many businesses, investors and immigrants to the area and had a profound effect on the region’s future. The silver boom resulted in the establishment and growth of Fort William’s sister city, Prince Arthur’s Landing (incorporated as the town of Port Arthur in March 1884) and the development of an infrastructure which included town halls, churches representing various denominations, schools and an inter-urban street car system.
The Lakehead was a small isolated region distant from the Canada’s major centres of population. Yet, because of the railway and the mining boom, the Lakehead was a prime destination for capital investment and for immigrants. Even following the collapse of the market for silver in the 1880s, with the Canadian Pacific Railway as the only significant object of development in the region, potential still existed. In addition to assisting immigrants to settle in the western part of Canada, the Canadian Pacific Railway also acted as a conduit by which settlers could transport their goods back to the Eastern markets.
The Lakehead, as the central terminus for Canada, benefited immensely from the accompanying national expansion. Its fortunes increased with every bushel of grain or cord of wood transshipped. The wheat that flowed through the Lakehead was integral to the prosperity of the West, the feeding of millions in Europe during the First World War, and the nourishment of the United Kingdom afterwards. The wood cut from the region assisted in building the cities of central Canada during the industrial boom. The shipment of grain, wood, and other resources also precipitated the creation of a shipbuilding industry. Despite being over 1,000 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean, the Western Dry-dock in Fort William became the largest of its kind in Canada. Its existence epitomized the influence and reinforced the optimism that the railway industry had on those in living in Northwestern Ontario.