Long before the arrival of Europeans, the land that would be Fort Frances was inhabited by the Saulteaux or Anishinaabeg people. Nearby to Fort Frances was the traditional meeting place for the regional Anishinaabeg and during the 19th century, they would gather there for large Grand Council meetings. These councils would serve as the centre for regional Anishinaabeg decision-making, and dealing with issues such as relations with the new settlers, land allocation and trade.
In 1873, Treaty 3 was signed and land was allocated nearby, titled the Agency Indian Reserve, but this was not surveyed for a particular Indigenous band but as the centre for the Indian Agent of the region. By 1883, the government had banned the Anishinaabeg, and other Indigenous, from using the land for traditional governmental and ceremonial purposes. This was done because the government and the Department of Indian Affairs, believed that the Grand Councils were a threat to its control.
Today, several first nations are located around Fort Frances and along the shores of Rainy Lake. In all, an estimated 2,600 Indigenous live in the Fort Frances Tribal Area, along with 3,200 Indigenous who live off reserve.
The first European to arrive in the area was Jacques de Noyon, and he would build a temporary camp in the location that would be Fort Frances.
The era of Fort Frances begins with Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, the first commander of the western district and the person who established the fort itself. Fort Frances would be the first European settlement west of Lake Superior, but it was not called Fort Frances. Named Fort Saint Pierre when it was established in 1731, the fort was established by a few of Varennes’ men who agreed to journey west as winter approached to establish the fort. In July, Varennes arrived at the fort and then continued west to the Lake of the Woods. When Varennes set up Fort Saint Charles there, Fort Saint Pierre fell out of use and was closed in 1758.
In 1775, Fort Lac la Pluie (Fort Rainy Lake) was established by the North West Company, although it could have been built as late as 1787. Located on a high bank to the west side of Fort Frances, the site is marked by a granite boulder today. Rather than be a trading post, the fort was a depot and it served as an excellent jumping off point for reaching the area of Lake Athabasca once the ice had thawed and the journey west could be conducted. It also allowed the traders to stock up on food before the journey west.
In 1817, with the War of 1812 finished and the border redefined between the United States and Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company arrived to take over the fort in 1821 following the merger of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1830, the fort would be named by Chief Factor John Cameron as Fort Frances to honour Frances Ramsay Simpson, the daughter of a London merchant who had married the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, George Simpson, the previous year.
The Founding Of The Community
With its close proximity to the United States, its role as a site of trading for the area, and a growing number of settlers moving into Canada and to the west, the community of Fort Frances began to grow. One of the biggest reasons for this growth was paper milling, which began in the area in the mid-1850s.
In 1901, the Canadian National Railway came through, which would have a massive impact on Fort Frances. At the time it came through, there was little in the area except for some settlers and a few buildings.
In 1903, Fort Frances would be incorporated as a town and quickly began to modernize. One of the first acts of the new town was to create a fire department, Two years later, a city hall that also doubled as the fire hall was built in Fort Frances. In 1904, the first telephone system was installed, connecting the town to the rest of the province in the new form of communication.
From these early years, the community has continued to grow and is now a major tourist spot thanks to the beautiful landscape, fishing opportunities and more.
The Fort Frances Museum
If you want to learn about the history of Fort Frances, one of the best places to visit is the Fort Frances Museum. While many museums are located in new buildings, the Fort Frances Museum is situated in one of the most historic buildings in the community. The Scott Street School was built in 1898 to fill the need for the growing capacity of the area for student education. Built for $2,500, the two storey structure would serve the community until 1914, when it became too small for the growing population. The school was still used for classes after 1914 when the Robert Moore School was built, and even served as the High School. In 1928, the building became the home to the Royal Canadian Legion, which they would use for the next 40 years. From 1968 to 1978, it would be used by the Chamber of Commerce, local police and even as an assessment office. In 1978, it became the home of the Fort Frances Museum.
Inside the museum, you will find exhibits that incorporate artifacts from the history of the community, dating back to the Indigenous people, through the fur trade and to the pioneers. It also highlights the forestry history of the area that was so vital to the growth of Fort Frances. As part of the museum, you can also tour the Hallett, which I will mention later in this episode, as well as the lookout tower.
The 1903 Explosion
I often like to look at dramatic events in a community’s history, and few things are more dramatic than an explosion and fire that completely alters the landscape of a town. The same year that the town was formed, residents dealt with one of the worst events in its history. On Feb. 2, 1903 at 3:30 p.m., an explosion at the rear of the Hudson’s Bay Company store rattled the windows across the town. The building itself had two walls and ends blown out, and the roof fell in almost immediately as the entire building erupted in flames.
Within half an hour, the building was consumed in flames.
When the explosion happened, two employees were in the store and received considerable burns. Two customers in the store were also slightly injured.
Interestingly, only the store was burned to the ground and it was a saving grace that it was winter. The amount of snow prevented the fire from spreading, and the bucket brigade was able to take care of most of the flames.
This wouldn’t be the only significant fire disaster to hit the community. On June 17, 1905, a fire occurred that would destroy the Alberton Hotel, Holbeck’s Restaurant, Breckon’s Bakery, Strain’s Barber Shop, Baker’s Tailor Shop, Scott’s Jewelry, along with two other hotels, a bank, a clothing store, a drug store, a butcher shop and a hardware store.
In all, that 1905 fire caused $200,000 in damages, which would amount to about $7 million today.
The Heritage Tour
One of the best ways to discover the heritage of a community is to take its heritage tour, and Fort Frances has an excellent one. Using a Heritage Map that you can get off the town website, or from the museum, you will be able to walk through the community to learn its history first hand, seeing the buildings that were part of that history.
On the tour you can see several great spots, some of which I will highlight here.
The Sorting Gap Marina is built on the site of the original John Reid Sawmill that was built in 1902 and operated for several years. The logging industry used the marina area for decades, shipping logs in and sending them out, helping to grow the community.
In East Fort Frances you can visit The Causeway, which is a bridge that was built from 1958 to 1965 and measures 36 feet tall and over four kilometres long. Its construction cost over $7 million and the bridge to the west lifts to provide access for boat traffic.
In West Fort Frances you can visit the Fort Frances Cemetery, which was established in 1897, and includes a cenotaph to honour the men who gave their lives during the World Wars. There is also the Fort Frances Canal, which was built between 1875 and 1878 and you can visit the original location of Rainy Lake House, built in 1775.
Rainy Lake is a 932 square kilometre lake that straddles the border between the United States and Canada, and for a time, it was the domain of The Hallet.
The Hallet was the largest and most powerful boat to operate on Rainy Lake, measuring in at 60 feet and weighing 57 tons. Built by the Russell Brothers out of Owen Sound, the ship was so large that it had to be transported in pieces by rail car and then reassembled.
Once in Fort Frances, it would be used by the local pulp and paper mill for years.
As the years went on, the ship was modified to make it more suitable for the changing lumber industry. The single rudder was changed to a double rudder to make it more stable, and various other changes would come over the years including changing the engines.
Typically, the ship would haul 70,000 to 90,000 cords of wood every year, towing 4,000 to 5,000 cords of wood that stretched out for a mile. In all, it would make 20 round trips a year.
As with most things, times change and the modernization of woodland operations and concerns related to the lake environment meant the end of the lake drive. By the 1970s, it was cheaper to haul loads by truck and the Hallet would haul its last lumber in 1974.
That is not the end of the story for the ship though. In 1983, the ship was placed in Point Park and in 2009, it was restored and moved to its current location at the Sorting Gap Marina.
The Lookout Tower
Nearby to Fort Frances, you will find quite a tall structure that stands out in the area. Called the Lookout Tower, it rises to 100 feet and got its start as a radar and lookout tower near Atkikokan before it was moved to Point Park at Fort Frances in 1972. In 2009, it would be moved to the Sorting Gap Marina.
Originally, it was part of the DEW line, which was an early warning system for detecting a Soviet attack during the Cold War. Part of the Pinetree Line Radar Net, drills were conducted constantly between the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command and the Royal Canadian Air Force to test the radar operations. This particular tower was part of the gap filler initiate to cover some areas that didn’t have radar coverage.
Unfortunately, budget cuts meant that it was built but never operational and it primarily served as a forestry tower but by 1972 was not being used except for hikers who wanted a good view of the wilderness.
Today, the lookout tower gives a great view of Rainy Lake, and the surrounding wilderness around the community.
The Rainy Lake Mermaid
One of the most unique parts of Fort Frances is the Rainy Lake Mermaid. Many places will put up statues of mermaids on lakes or on the oceanic coasts, but Fort Frances is unique in its mermaid. That sculpture was created not by professionals, but by a young man looking to avoid chores at the cabin, which the Lysne family owned since 1905.
It was in 1932 that Gordon Schlichting, a Minneapolis architect student, was visiting his cousins in Canada. Of course, at the time they all had chores to do and Schlichting was not a fan of those chores.
In an article in the Fort Frances Times, Kurt Lysne, stated that his cousin Gordon, quote:
“Decided to do something better than hauling wood and water.”
Schlichting would create the mermaid out of pieces of steel, boat propellers and concrete, making it 1.5 times life size. He would build a mold of wood and tin and poured the mixture of concrete into it. He then worked with a hammer and chisel for five weeks to make the statue. At that point he secured it with anchor bolts and reinforcing rods.
His son Rollie, would state in 1997, quote:
“Dad had to use a chisel to make sure the mermaid curved where she was supposed to curve.”
Of course, as the decades went on, myths would develop regarding the mermaid. One fisherman’s tale said that the sculpture was erected in memory of a drowned girl by the man who had seen her boat sink in Rainy Lake. Another story said that a world-renowned sculpture made the mermaid while out on vacation, but at least that one is half true. Another story says a French sculptor made the statue to honour his daughter who drowned in the lake.
Schlichting would go on to become a highly renowned architect in the United States, and especially Minnesota, and he would often come back to see the mermaid creation, which has now outlasted him after his death in 1997 at the age of 83.
The 1946 Tornado
It was a beautiful summer day when the sky suddenly darkened in Fort Frances and a harbinger of doom arrived. Suddenly in the evening of June 25, 1946, a strong wind of 100 kilometres an hour suddenly hit the town, with some gusts reaching 120 kilometres per hour at some points. The strong wind preceded a tornado that hit the town. Dan Mainville would have the roof off his home torn off and the walls blown in. Inside, his 10 children were struck by falling timbers. While they were injured, the injuries were minor thankfully.
As the tornado moved through the community, it twisted homes from their foundations, uprooted trees, threw trucks and cars, including an 18-foot rowboat, while also snapping telephone and telegraph poles. The J.A. Mathieu lumber yard was severely damaged, and a 100-foot tower owned by the Ontario lands and forest department toppled.
J. Cunningham escaped injury when his boat was tossed in the wind. He would say, quote:
“It gives you a funny feeling to see things flying around your head. I could hardly believe my eyes for a moment.”
Mrs. Kem Ross would say, quote:
“It made me feel sick inside.”
In all, 12 people were injured but no one was killed. Damages were put at $500,000 in the community, which is roughly $7.6 million today.
On June 28, 1946, the town made the decision to get tornado insurance in case a similar tornado ever hit the town again. The memorial arena was soon insured against windstorm, hail, explosion, riot, impact by aircraft and vehicles and smoke damage.
The Tim Hortons Toque
One very unique event occurred in Fort Frances on Dec. 11, 2014 when the community was buzzing with news about yarn bombing trees, mail boxes and park benches in town. Two days later, long strings of yarn were found across the community.
In order to discover where the yarn led to, residents began to follow the yarn.
The eventual destination was the local Tim Hortons, which had a giant knitted toque and scarf on top of the building. The entire social media campaign was done as part of an effort by the company to get 10,000 hats donated to children in need, and 2,000 blankets donated to a Toronto shelter.
So why did Fort Frances get the big toque? According to Tim Hortons, they wanted to spread warm wishes one more time by creating the warmest Tim Hortons in Canada, in one of the coldest places, Fort Frances, Ontario.
The coldest temperature ever recorded in Fort Frances was -44.4 Celsius. Of course, it should maybe be considered the hottest place in Ontario since the hottest temperature ever recorded in the province was 42.2 Celsius, recorded on July 13, 1936 in Fort Frances.
I often like to end episodes about a community by looking at someone who achieved immense fame. For Fort Frances, that person is Duncan Keith.
Born in Winnipeg on July 16, 1983, his family moved to Fort Frances when he was two years old. Playing minor hockey in the Fort Frances Minor Hockey Association, he quickly emerged as a standout player. In 2002, he was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. After some time in the minors, he made the jump to the NHL in 2005-06, recording 21 points in 81 games with the team.
Over the next 1,192 games, he would have 625 points, including 105 goals. Along the way he won a gold medal with Canada at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, played in four All Star Games, the Norris Trophy as the top defenceman in the NHL in 2010 and 2014, the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP in 2015 and three Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
On July 21, 2008, Fort Frances recognized Keith by declaring the day to be Duncan Keith Day.
While he is still playing in the NHL, it is almost a guarantee that Keith will find his way into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2017, he was named one of the 100 greatest NHL players in history.