A renaissance of northern heritage

Thunder Bay’s Tourist Pagoda

"Heritage is finding new life in northwestern Ontario. From Thunder Bay to Kenora, the north is experiencing a new appreciation of its heritage resources and using them to enhance communities and celebrate the region’s unique history in the growth of the province."


Thomas Wicks

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date:12 Jun 2008

Photo: Thunder Bay’s Tourist Pagoda

After railway development connected this once-isolated area to the rest of the province at the end of the 19th century, the abundant natural resources attracted industry, which turned work camps and villages into towns and cities. Over time, the area has taken advantage of its natural beauty and developed its tourism sector as well as retained its traditional resource-based economy. In revitalizing the region’s communities, heritage – both natural and cultural – has begun to play a key role in connecting the area’s past to its present and conveying that history to residents and tourists alike.

Thunder Bay’s Tourist Pagoda, built in 1909, is such an example. Built to the designs of local architect H. Russell Halton, the pagoda was part of a publicity campaign launched by the town of Port Arthur (later renamed Thunder Bay) to promote the city to tourists. At that time, Thunder Bay was a transportation terminal of docks and stations for Canadian National and the Canadian Pacific railways (CNR and CPR), as well as passenger ships. The “publicity Pagoda” located near the railway station was seen as a way of encouraging travellers to visit the growing community. Recalling the eclectic architectural motifs and forms used in English gardens and parks, the mushroom-shaped structure has a distinct green ogee roof. The heritage value of the structure was commemorated by the City of Thunder Bay, who designated it under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1979. In 1986, the building was designated a National Historic Site by the Government of Canada. The Ontario Heritage Trust has held a heritage conservation easement on this property since 1992. Now, almost 100 years since it was built, the pagoda is a part of our heritage that continues to fulfil its original role in providing tourists with information on Thunder Bay and the surrounding area.

CNR Station, Fort Frances

The CNR station in the Town of Fort Frances, built in 1913, reflects the importance of the railway in the development of this border community. No longer used as a station, the building still holds value to the community as a volunteer bureau and a provincial constituency office. There is a strong desire on the part of the community to see the property preserved to ensure that it continues to perform an important role in the community.

The Town of Kenora had the foresight to retain their 1898 post office and turn it into municipal offices back in 1980. This task was carried out with the aid of a provincial heritage grant. The building was able to retain its role as a gathering place for the community, thus keeping an important heritage building in use. For 10 years previously, the building had been vacant and was threatened with demolition. The fact that it was saved and put to new use emphasizes the role heritage buildings can play in defining their communities.

The Town of Sioux Lookout – three hours northwest of Thunder Bay – is using its 1911 CNR station as a stepping-off point toward revitalizing its downtown. The importance of this building in the community is so great that its restoration is regarded as a means of transforming the entire town. Sioux Lookout’s economic development officer, Florence Bailey, says that the station was identified in numerous studies as “the anchor of the downtown core.” When originally built, the station sustained the community – providing jobs, transportation, communication and the delivery of goods. VIA Rail still makes regular stops at the station; large crowds of locals gather to greet and welcome passengers as they pass through. The unique history of this station has provided the impetus to reinstate the building as a community hub and economic catalyst; the community has established an economic development commission to oversee the project. The municipality believes that its preservation is vital in providing a focal point for residents in the community. In turn, travellers may be encouraged to stay longer and discover what the area has to offer.

This renaissance of northern heritage continues to shape Ontario in unique and profound ways. These examples highlight the way in which heritage buildings act as stimulators of civic pride and urban redevelopment. Just as these structures reflect their respective communities’ past and early prosperity, they can continue to provide a place for the community to gather, while acting as generators for future revitalization.

Kenora Post Office

Photo: Kenora Post Office

CNR Station, Sioux Lookout

Photo: CNR Station, Sioux Lookout