From its prominent position at “the Lakehead,” the western end of Lake Superior, Thunder Bay is the terminus of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence seaway system. As such, the region has served as a natural gateway between east and west in Canada for hundreds of years. Fur trading posts were established by the French in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in order to facilitate trade with local Ojibwa tribes. Eighteenth-century French maps called the bay itself “Baie de Tonnere” and Thunder Bay was the name chosen in a municipal referendum when the two pre-existing cities of Fort William and Port Arthur amalgamated in 1970.
Fort William was established by the North West Company in 1802 and named for the company’s governor William McGillivray. Port Arthur was established by the Canadian Department of Public Works as the site for the construction of a military road built in 1869 to transport troops westward to combat the provisional government of Louis Riel during the Red River Rebellion. More permanent settlement coincided with the discovery of silver off the Silbey Peninsula. The depot was named Prince Arthur’s Landing, after the son of Queen Victoria. The name was shortened to Port Arthur in 1883, one year before the town’s official incorporation. Competition between the towns was lively. By the late 1880s, Port Arthur was the larger and more dynamic of the two. However, the collapse of silver mining curtailed Port Arthur’s mercurial growth in the 1890s. Railway construction, iron mining and the western wheat boom re-invigorated both Lakehead communities at the turn of the century. Ukrainians, Italians, and Finns, many of whom were attracted by the high demand for labour and the cheap cost of land, flocked to the region. Industrial diversification gave the region one of the most vibrant economies in Ontario at that time. Both cities were among the first in Ontario to have sewers, modern water and telephone systems, street lights and electricity.
The First World War marked an economic downturn for the region, and since then the prominence of shipping to the economy of Thunder Bay has steadily diminished. However, the city remains one of the largest grain ports in the world, shipping between 8 to 10 million tonnes annually. Indeed, grain still accounts for 70 percent of the port’s traffic. Lakehead University has been a fully fledged degree-granting institution since 1965. Tourism is the second largest employer in the city today, much of which is focussed on outdoor recreation. An increased focus on the city’s information economy has led to major investments in health care research and social services infrastructure. The city also has a vibrant cultural sector and supports a symphony orchestra as well as a major theatre company. The population of Thunder Bay in 2006 was 109,140, while the census metropolitan area in the same year stood at 122,907.