For centuries, the area that would be Kapuskasing was the home of the Cree and Moose Cree people, who gave the name of Ka-Pus-Kay-Sing to the river, which means “bend in the river” and it is from that river that the community gets its name.
The Indigenous would begin to see their lives change as the fur traders arrived, changing the economic dynamic of the landscape and the cultures that dotted it.
As the fur traders came in, a new culture would emerge, the Metis, and over time they would occupy the landscape around Kapuskasing and begin to venture west where they would settle in great numbers in what would one day be Manitoba.
Founding Of The Community
The earliest recorded history of the district dates back to 1777 when a small fur trading house was built nearby by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The first post was small, only 26 feet by 18 feet. From 1781 to 1785, a new house was built and it was given the name of Brunswick House. Trading was done through the area until well into the 19th century.
In 1875, Dr. Robert Bell would conduct the first reported survey in the district for the Geological Survey of Canada.
Kapuskasing would get its modern start thanks, as with many places, to the railroad. Located in what was often called New Ontario, the National Transcontinental Railway, which would later become the Canadian National Railway, would be built in 1911. At the time, there was MacPherson station, which was a small water stop along the line.
For several years in the lead up to the First World War, the Macpherson was a water stop for steam locomotives that were hauling grain from the west.
William Lindsay arrived in the area in 1915 to work as a baker at the internment camp, more on that later, and described it as such, quote:
“There was nothing north of the railway tracks. We used to bake 24 bags of flour in 24 hours. Keeping warm in tar paper shacks was nearly a full-time occupation in itself and getting around from place to place was not easy. The roads were not what they are today and neither were the cars.”
Following the war, a government initiate to bring veterans to the area was launched, more on that later as well.
A Mrs. Joe Downie would recall later, quote:
“We lived in a tent and slept on sawdust and all we could see was just trees and water.”
Speaking of cars, the first one was not really seen in Kapuskasing until the mid-1920s.
In 1920, the Spruce Falls Company would be created and its paper mill would be the driving force behind the growth of the community. By 1921, the pulp mill was completed with the capability of producing 75 tons of pulp. Things would move slowly at this point but development was coming. By 1923, there was a small water storage facility and a hydro electric dam was built at Spruce Falls.
After some setbacks early in its history, the mill would expand and with it the community of Kapuskasing. On July 13, 1928, the New York Times would be printed entirely on Spruce Falls paper, and that has continued to this very day. In 1991, the plant was purchased by local residents and Tembec Inc., allowing it to remain an important part of the community for years to come.
Thanks to the mill and the steady employed it provided, on Feb. 18, 1921, the Town of Kapuskasing would be formed. At the time, it was completely a company town, with most of the men being employed by the mill.
In 1925, a community club would open, which contained a theatre, bowling alley, a library, gym, meeting room and more. Soon after, a skating rink and ball diamonds were built, followed by a hospital and post office in 1927.
Today, Kapuskasing is home to over 8,000 people.
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The Internment Camp
When the First World War broke out, there was a fear in Canada over enemy aliens, who were immigrants that came to Canada before the war to start new lives, and were now looking to live new lives. Unfortunately, the fear reached a fever pitch and the decision was made to put enemy aliens into internment camps.
The camp at what would one day be Kapuskasing would 1,300 German, Austrian and Turkish prisoners. Most of those interned were Canadian residents.
At the camp, prisoners were kept active in construction of buildings, clearing the land for the future experimental farm that I will talk about later, and harvesting the ample timber in the area. The camp was so isolated that there was little in the way of fences and the only access to the location was via the railroad that had been built through earlier.
For those who worked at the camp, they would often deal with mosquitoes that tormented them in the summer heat, while in the winter they dealt with terrible cold.
Of course, even though it was isolated, that didn’t stop some from trying to escape. On Dec. 18, 1917, three Austrians decided to escape from the camp, intending to catch a train to Cochrane, to at least get away from the camp for a few days.
At 2 p.m. on that day, a prisoner slipped across the cleared perimeter into the woods when two guards had their backs turned. Five minutes later, as snow fell, two others took advantage of getting away.
At 3:20 p.m., during regular roll call, it was found that three prisoners were missing. Four guards were dispatched to look for tracks.
At 3:30 p.m., a trail of footprints heading west were found.
At 4:45 p.m., darkness forced some of the searchers to return to the camp, while others continued on in their search for the prisoners.
At 8:10 p.m. searchers once again departed from the camp with lights and retraced steps that they followed until dust.
At 12:30 a.m., the escapees were caught and returned to their cells.
In August of 1917, the prisoners would briefly strike due to the hard schedule they were forced to work, and their isolation from families and their own homes elsewhere in Canada.
On May 5, 1920, the camp was officially cleared and closed, and the buildings were sold to tender and demolished by a Toronto company.
Today, a small cemetery is all that remains of the camp, which is where victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic were buried.
The Kapuskasing Inn
While it is sadly no longer in the community due to an unfortunate incident of arson two decades go, the history of the Kapuskasing Inn is so fascinating, I wanted to make sure I included it.
Built between 1927 and 1928 by George Gouinlock, whose father, also named George, had designed several notable buildings in Toronto including buildings at Exhibition Place, the CNE Government Building and the north wing of the Ontario Legislative Building.
Commissioned to build the inn by the Spruce Falls Company, it was designed in the style of Neo-Tudor and it quickly became an incredibly important part of the community.
When Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip made their first visit to Canada in 1951, the inn hosted them. On the day of the visit, the population of Kapuskasing, 5,000 at the time, ballooned to 20,000 as people crowded around the inn to get a glimpse of the Royal Couple. They stood on the lawns yelling “We want Elizabeth.”
On the day of the arrival, the Kapuskasing newspaper stated in a large headline, quote:
“Kapuskasing, by no mere fluke,
Welcomes the Princess and the Duke.”
After stepping off the plane, she would inspect the guard of honour and had an informal reception at the Community Hall. While visiting the community, she also walked two miles through the pulp and paper mill, visited the hospital and toured the town.
During her tour of the mill, she asked the wife of J.A. Ferrier about the housing situation of the community. Ferrier’s wife stated, quote:
“She told me she thought the houses looked very nice from the outside and asked me if they were as comfortable within as they seemed to be. I told her they were grand to live in.”
When she appeared, she gave a short 175 word speech of thanks for the welcome she and her husband were receiving in the community. She spoke of her appreciation to those who had first come to the district as pioneers and first hand learned the hardships of frontier life.
The inn would close in 2002 but in 2007, new investors came in to renovate it and return it to its former glory. Sadly, on May 22, 2007, youths set fire to the inn and it was damaged beyond repair. In 2008, what was left of the inn was demolished.
Testing Cars In The Cold
One unique claim to fame for Kapuskasing is that for General Motors, it is the site where they sent their cars to make sure they would work in the Canadian cold. Of course, the cold was not the only reason the location was chosen. Due to being relatively near to the Canadian headquarters of General Motors in Canada, Oshawa, it was the perfect place to set up a testing facility.
General Motor’s Cold Weather Centre was announced in 1971 and construction began in 1972, with the official opening coming in 1973. General Motors had actually been coming to Kapuskasing since 1948 but it was in 1973 that they finally had a facility. When the facility opened, GM Canada John Baker was there to saw through a bar of ice to open the doors.
The facility originally covered 159 acres, which included a 1.9 kilometre oval test track and several buildings. Testers spend days and nights cold starting, driving, checking heater performance, tires, brakes, batteries and more. Each year, upwards of 300 vehicles are tested at the facility.
The facility has grown over the past 50 years as well. It now features a larger track, covers 272 acres, a 13-vehicle garage and two vehicle testing lanes.
There are other testing facilities including at Thompson, Manitoba and Timmins, Ontario, but the first of them all was Kapuskasing.
The Soldier Colony
When the First World War ended, many returning soldiers were looking for a place to settle and begin their new life after the trauma of war. At Kapuskasing, the government saw potential in what would later be called the Great Clay Belt and a large experimental farm was established west of the community. At this farm, the government would develop crops for the area.
When soldiers began to return from the war, the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Act of 1917 was created. Soldiers would receive homesteads, grants and loans, while also being paid $500 for clearing their land. Each settler would receive 100 acres of land, as well as horses and equipment on loan to the settlers from the government.
Soon, 101 soldiers took up the offer to farm in the area, but they soon found that it was not quite what they had been promised. One soldier would state, quote:
“There are seven months of snow, two months of rain and the remainder mosquitoes and black flies.”
The government felt that the area was excellent for farming, if work was put in to get the land ready.
On March 9, 1920, J.P.S. Ballantyne, the Superintendent of the farm, was asked by the Commission of Enquiry Chairman, W.F. Nickle, about the conditions at Kapuskasing. He responded, quote:
“Get the bush cleared away, get surface drainage done and let in the sunshine.”
The Vancouver Daily World would have a different take with its headline, quote:
“Conditions of Kapuskasing Settlement likely to result in providing recruits for insane asylums.”
H.H. Dewart, the leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, would put the blame for the soldier colony issue not on the federal government, but on the provincial government. He would state, quote:
“I am surprised that no demand has been made for the dismissal of the Deputy Minister of Lands and Forests.”
By April, it was estimated by the government that 40-50 of the veteran settlers would remain at the colony, but by the end of the year, only nine remained.
The Radar Base
The history of Kapuskasing and the military extends beyond the First World War and the Soldier’s Colony. While many from the area served during both wars, it was in the Second World War that Kapuskasing found another use, as a radar site.
During the war, Kapuskasing was one of only five northern Ontario radar bases that were set up to watch for any attacks on the Soo Locks, located in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Of the five radar bases, Kapuskasing was the most important and also the headquarters.
As a result of this, and its role in protecting an important piece of American infrastructure, the United States Armed Air Forces were stationed there.
While the Second World War, and the subsequent Cold War are now over, Kapuskasing still serves a purpose with its detection system. The site of the radar base is now part of the Super Dual Auroral Radar Network, which tracks and measures ionospheric turbulence. There are 35 sites in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and Kapuskasing is the only one located in Ontario.
Ron Morel Memorial Museum
It was in 1971 that the Ron Morel Memorial Museum was created by Ron Morel Sr. as a way to house locomotive #5107. His hope was to combine his passions of history and trains.
The locomotive was built by Montreal Locomotive Works in May of 1919 and ran until 1961. Along with the locomotive there is the Canadian National Coach 5372, built in 1913 and purchased by Canadian National in 1942 and converted to a day coach. It would be withdrawn from service on July 17, 1970. In that car, the local history aspect of the museum is housed, which I will talk about shortly. The Canadian National Coach 5145, built in 1919, which operated until Sept. 20, 1970, houses the 32 foot by 8 foot model train set along with other displays.
Today, the museum features exhibits that highlight the history of Kapuskasing, artifacts from the town’s history, as well as a permanent exhibit that details the history of the Prisoner of War Camp from the First World War.
The little red caboose, built in 1912, serves as the gift shop and office for the museum. There is also a railway memorabilia exhibit, a model train display and several sculptures by celebrated Canadian sculptor Maurice Gaudrealt.