Travel’s come long way since Voyageurs

Alberton Centennial Times

When a graceful Twin Otter, bearing the familiar orange, white and blue colours of Norontair, glides in for a landing at the Fort Frances Municipal Airport some 90 minutes after departing from Thunder Bay, it is a far cry from the early days when travel was by canoe over the first Voyageur’s Highway.

It was a proud moment on June 28, 1965 when Premier John Robarts swung the traditional broadaxe to open Highway No.11 providing a direct link between Fort Frances and Thunder Bay over the second Voyageur’s route, Highway No.11. But that was a decade ago.

In 1972, the Fort Frances Municipal Airport was opened and then in 1975 when Norontair, a regional airline subsidized by the Ontario Government, came into being, Fort Frances had air connections of its own to all parts of the world by way of Thunder Bay or Dryden.

How different

How different in 1830 when Lady Frances Simpson, after whom the community was later named, took seven days to travel between Lakehead and Fort Frances, then known as Fort Lac la Pluie. It was her wedding trip and Sir George Simpson, noted for his excellent canoemen, did not dawdle along the way. As Lady Frances noted, often they were up at 2 o’clock in the morning and continued until at least 8 o’clock in the evening, sometimes later.

In 1846 Paul Kane, the noted artist who later wrote of his experiences in “Wanderings of an Artist”, travelled between Prince Arthur’s Landing (Port Arthur) and Fort Frances with a canoe brigade consisting of three canoes with eight men and 25 “pieces”, each containing 90 lbs. of trade goods and supplies, in 13 days over the Kaministiquia route.

This was unusual in that normally each canoe carried 23 pieces of goods because of the many difficult portages compared with the 25 pieces which had been carried over the easier Grand Portage route to Lac la Pluie.

In 1767, six small canoes destined for Lac la Pluie and two small canoes for Lac du Bois carried 18 bales, each 90 lbs of trade goods, etc.; nine kegs of gun powder; one keg flint steels and gun screws; four cases iron ware and cutlery; two cases guns; two bales brass kettles; two cases looking glasses and combs; five cases manufactured carrot tobacco; 12 bags shot and balls; and one box silver work and wampum.

Old Post

Under the North West Company, the Lac la Pluie post, situated at the foot of the present Fairies Ave., contained the noted Athabasca House, an advance depot to outfit the brigades from the Athabasca territory, the summer season being too short to permit them to make the journey to and from Grand Portage.

The importance of Lac la Pluie post can be ascertained from the fact that in 1818, 30 canoes containing 848 pieces were sent out to Athabasca departing on the first of August and arriving in the north around the end of September. A typical cargo was: 134 pieces, high wines and spirits; 102 and ammunition; 200 bales of provisions; 24 pieces of hardware; and 190 pieces of baled goods.

Other events were taking place in Canada which were destined to change the Voyageurs’ Highway form a canoe route to a “road” over which emigrants would travel to far off Western Canada.

In 1857, Simon James Dawson, civil engineer assisted by Henry Y. Hind, geologist and naturalist, was asked to study the country from Lake Superior to the Saskatchewan. His report, “The Country, Lake Superior and the Red River Settlement.” made in 1859, again focused the attention of Old Ontario settlers on this region. He proposed the first improvement upon the early Voyageurs’ Highway, a land and water route of 499 miles from Thunder Bay to Fort Garry.

The first Riel Rebellion in 1870 drastically changed the picture. Col. John Garnet Wolseley, with 1,200 soldiers, was sent into Manitoba to restore order. As the armed troops were unable to travel through the United States, the principal transportation route between Eastern and Western Canada, they made use of the embryo Dawson Route, with Mr. Dawson as superintendent of transportation of troops.

Col. Wolseley’s troops left Toronto in May, reached Fort Frances early in August and Fort Garry on August 24.
This green and fertile oasis in the midst of the desert of rock forest, and waters was like a glimpse of the “Promised Land” was their verdict of Fort Frances.

The Rev. George M.Grant, a Presbyterian minister who was Sir Sanford Fleming’s secretary on his trip west to locate a route for the Canadian Pacific Railway through British Columbia, only took six days in 1872 to travel between Fort William and Fort Frances. Wagons, canoes, and finally on Rainy Lake, a steam launch towing two barges and four canoes were utilized.

In 1875, when 2,700 passengers were carried over the Dawson Route, it reached the peak of its popularity. The federal government had insisted that the successful bidder, who was subsidized, should carry passengers over the route from Fort William to Fort Garry (Winnipeg) in 10 or 12 days and freight in 15 or 20 days; provide houses or tents at stopping places with no travelling on Sundays; and good meals at 30 cents. Complaints were numerous that the trip took 20 to 26 days and housing was deplorable. In 1878, when Winnipeg obtained rail services, the Dawson route travel ended with the knowledge that it had cost the Dominion Government at least $220,000 for six years.

However, as it was reported, the Dawson route had served an essential political purpose in maintaining the bond between Eastern and Western Canada.


The Dawson route introduced steamboat navigation to Rainy Lake and Rainy River and with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1884 to Winnipeg from Toronto, the Province of Ontario opened up the western part of the district to settlement with free homesteads. In a pamphlet for settlers, published in 1894 the province pointed out that four steamers ran regularly between Keewatin-Rat portage and Fort Frances, making round trips weekly.

“During the winter, the mail is carried on sleighs, leaving Rat portage for Fort Frances on the first and 15th of every month, calling at the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Louise (Hungry Hall?) at the mouth of the Rainy River, at Hughes & Co.’s saw mill in the Township of Worthington, at Rainy River post office in the Township of Morley, at Emo post office in the Township of Lash, at Big Forks post office in the township of Roddick.

Transportation, Toronto to Rat Portage via the CPR first class fare (all rail, 1,154 miles) was $34.60 or colonist fare $21. Then, from Rat Portage to Fort Frances via Steamer Shamrock,: adults $4; children $2.50; cattle and horse per head, $4; colonists’ outfits of household goods, $8 per ton; ordinary supplies (provisions) $10 per ton. The freight rate by CPR form Toronto to Rat Portage was $4 per ton.

In the 1890’s Fort Frances was served from Wabigoon on the CPR. A combined stage and steamboat route was set up utilizing Upper and Lower Manitou Lakes and Rainy Lake. Sleighs were used in the winter. Mail, passengers and cargo were carried.

In the winter, on Lake of the Woods, fortunate people were able to make use of sleigh transportation; others “walked in ” over the ice. Because of the current in the river, which made walking on the ice dangerous, the Rainy River District received its first colonization road.

The commissioner of Crown Lands reported in 1885 that “the Colonization Road had been located by the Dominion government some 10 years ago from Fort Frances westerly to Lake of the Woods, and in its construction this season, the original location was followed with few exceptions.

“Work was begun at Fort Frances and continued westerly to the first Indian Reserve a total of 13 miles, embracing 2 1/2 miles built in 1884 and included in the expenditure of $2,462.89 or about $189 per mile, for which is reported a good road.

“In consequence of strong currents, the ice on the river is never safe, it is said, and without a good road the settlers for several months in the year cannot reach their supply market, Rat Portage, and I would therefore urge the continuation of the road from year to year for at least another 30 miles, or to where the ice in the river is comparatively safe. The land is reputed as being excellent along the river and well worth developing”

On June 23, 1899, 33 members of the Ontario Legislature and 17 newspapermen arrived if Fort Frances by boat from Kenora. Reeve Barr, in his “address form council” said, in part: “If, gentlemen, you take away the conviction that ‘good leading roads’ is the ‘keynote’ to the success of ‘New Ontario,’ and a determination that such will be given, you will have done a grand work for your province and for us by your trip.”

In that year, the residents were concerned about a new road between Fort Frances and Emo with another road to open up the country north of Crozier and McIrvine.

Road Building

Road building, however, received its greatest impetus after the turn of the century. the election of J.A. Mathieu to the Ontario Legislature in 1911 and the setting up of $6,000,000 Northern and Northwestern Ontario Development Fund in 1912 coincided with an extensive settler’s road program being undertaken. This district network of roads became a part of the Ontario and Manitoba highways systems through the good graces of Minnesota when, in 1921, the State of Minnesota completed some 20 miles of highway between Cusson, then an important logging centre, and Lake Kabetogama. This access to the Midwestern States also permitted Americans to visit this vacationland for the first time in numbers and then, in 1936, with the opening of the Fort Frances-Kenora highway, tourist business skyrocketed.

One of the most momentous highway conferences ever held in Northwestern Ontario took place in Fort William on September 3, 1930, when communities along the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific rail lines agreed that the Trans-Canada highway should be built form the Lakehead to Winnipeg via Dryden and Kenora and, at the same time, another highway be constructed form the Lakehead to Fort Frances.

To Lakehead

In 1936, the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce approved its first resolution calling for the construction of the Fort Frances-Kashbowie link of the highway with the Lakehead. Three years later the first survey was started.

Further stimulation was brought about in 1954 when the Great River Road of the Mississippi Parkway System was routed through International Falls and Fort Frances to link up with the Trans-Canada Highway No.17 just east of Kenora. Then in 1960, the opening of the Rainy River- Baudette bridge shortening the highway route to Manitoba and Winnipeg, brought closer to reality Highway No.11 form Toronto to the northwestern part of the province.


Two years after the start of the Colonization Road, now known as Highway No. 602 between Fort Frances and Emo, the first railway to serve this region was chartered, although it was never built as such. It was the Ontario and Rainy River Railway Co., incorporated in 1886, to be built between Port Arthur and Rainy River.

Highway travel was not as simple during the 1920’s as it is today. As late as December, 1929, the municipalities between Fort Frances and Rainy River formed the Fort Frances- Rainy River Road Snow Ploughing Association to finance the keeping open of this road during the winter months. The sum of $422.50 was collected after Bruce Campbell demonstrated the use of his 12-ft. plough which was attached to the rear portion of a logging sleigh and pulled by a battery of three heavy trucks. He first used the plough for opening up the road north of Sleeman where it is presumed he was taking out pulpwood.

Sir William MacKenzie and Sir Donald Mann, to become famous as railway promoters and builders, secured control of the Manitoba and South Eastern Railway and in 1898 constructed 45 miles of tracks from St. Boniface to Marchand. To extend it to the Lakehead, the the two promoters in 1899 purchased the Minnesota and Manitoba Railroad Co., and then purchased The Ontario and Rainy River Co. charter. To secure trackage into Port Arthur Mackenzie and Mann then purchased the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway, which dated back to 1883.

Eighteen miles of this line provided MacKenzie and Mann with entry into Port Arthur.

Through the purchase of these three companies, MacKenzie and Mann then proceeded to extend their Manitoba and South Eastern Railway. The 62 miles from Marchand to Sprague to Rainy River. The line between Rainy River and Fort Frances, 55 miles of track, was opened on October 10, 1901. On December 30, 1902, a silver spike at Atikokan marked the closing of the gap of 212 miles between Fort Frances and Stanley Junction where the new track lined up with the Port Arthur, Duluth, and Western Railway and access to Port Arthur along the lake front. The first crossing of Rainy Lake was by trestle, and 10 years later more than a million cubic yards of rock were dumped to provide a new island-hopping route across the lake.


In 1901, the Duluth, Virginia and Rainy Lake Railway Co. was incorporated in Minnesota as a lumber railway 93 miles in length from Rainier to Virginia. In 1905, MacKenzie and Mann became became partners in the Duluth, Rainy Lake and Winnipeg Railway Co., a wholly-owned subsidiary of MacKenzie and Mann, became sole owner of the Rainier-Virginia railway. On December 16, 1912, Virginia and Duluth were linked up.

In 1907, the Minnesota and International Railway reached International Falls, a subsidiary of E.W. Backus who through the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company was beginning a vast papermill complex at International falls and Fort Frances.

On October 4, 1922, the Canadian Northern Railways, the name under which the MacKenzie and Mann railway lines had operated for many years, were nationalized by the government and became known as the Canadian National Railways.

CNR ceases

July 31, 1977, CNR passenger service ceased when the two-car railiner made its last run between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay via Fort Frances. It was introduced on June 1, 1971. With the opening of Highway No. 11 and faster Grey Goose bus service, fewer and fewer passengers were riding the rails. The same had happened to the Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific when, in the 1950’s a railiner displaced the regular passenger train and then it, too, disappeared from services.

During the 90’s discovery of the first iron ore at Atikokan stimulated interested in base metals and some ore was mined and smelted at the Lakehead. With the discovery of new large iron ore deposits under Steep Rock Lake, the outbreak of new large iron ore deposits under steep rock Iron Mines Ltd. came into production. This Steep Rock iron mining development led to the opening of Highway No.11 between Port Arthur-Fort William and Atikokan on August 13, 1954 with the Hon. Leslie Frost, then prime minister of Ontario, wielding the famous broadaxe.

During the past years, as Fort Frances developed and maintained its importance as a transportation centre, one factor was frequently overlooked: millions of feet of logs and pulpwood sticks had been transported over the lakes and rivers which comprise the Rainy Lake watershed. Now these tows, too, have become things of the past as trucks carrying up to 25 cords bring the logs to the mills.


For the first 200 years of its existence, Fort Frances had been acquainted with transportation by land and by water, but transportation by air did not come on a regular basis until the mid 1920’s when the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests stationed its first DeHavilland “flying boats” in Fort Frances as a means of fighting forest fires. Later a small reconnaissance “Moth” was added. Since then planes have been stationed here to assist the department in many ways. Regular private commercial charter services were started after the war when Russell “Rusty” Myers began operating with a Piper Cub and from that one machine his extensive Myers’ Flying Service has grown. In recent years, Rainy Lake Airways Canadian Voyageur Airways, and Ontario Central Airways have began providing charter services from Fort Frances.

Then, first regularly-scheduled airline to serve borderland began operating between International and Minneapolis-St. Paul after the expansion of the International Falls Municipal Airport in the 60’s. It was the first airport in borderland. Major renovations are planned for the airport this summer to handle the larger jets and traffic.

Transportation development continue. On August 4, 1970, the George Armstrong Co. began construction on the “Manitou” road from Nickel Lake on highway 11 to Dryden on the Trans-Canada Highway 17. It is expected that the road will be completed by Christmas, 1979. Other forest access roads also are being constructed throughout the district.

Fort Frances Fort Frances has been fortunate that, through the dedicated efforts of many men, transportation to meet the needs of the community and the district, has been attained.