The History Of Blind River

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For centuries, the Indigenous would move through the area of what would be Blind River, fishing and following wildlife along the North Channel. The area was primarily the land of the Anishinaabe and the Mississauga. The Mississagi River was also rich in sturgeon, and provided the Anishinaabe a quick route deeper into the future province of Ontario where game was plentiful. One river, near the mouth of the Mississagi, would earn the name of Penewobecong, which translates as Smooth Rock or Sloping.

That river would receive a new name when voyageurs arrived. They would call it Blind River, as the mouth of the river was not visible along the canoe route.

Today, the Mississauga First Nation has a reserve located just to the west of Blind River. To honour the Indigenous who occupied the land long before Europeans, Blind River town council recently began adding an acknowledgement to the Indigenous before they open any council meeting.

As Europeans moved farther inland, they would eventually reach the location of Blind River. The vast wealth of natural resources found in the North Channel was enticing enough that in 1789, the North West Company built a fur trading post to access the abundance of furs and other resources in the area. The early trappers who lived in the area would eventually become some of the first settlers as they adjusted their lives with the decline of the fur trade.

One of the biggest booms for the area came in timber, of which Blind River had an abundance of. This boom was only increased when copper was found at nearby Bruce Mines in 1846 and the need for timber increased. Before long, the first sawmill was built in the community, which provided timber for the copper mines. The location of that saw mill is where the Old Mill Motel now sits.

In 1888, the Canadian Pacific Railway was built through the area from Sudbury, connecting Blind River with the rest of the country and greatly increasing the growth of residents moving to the area.

Around this same time, a training college for Jesuit priests would operate out of a building in the downtown core of Blind River. That college would eventually close, but the building would continue to stand and operate as several butcher shops and a grocery store. Today, it is one of the oldest buildings found in Blind River and is worth checking out if you are in the community.

In 1895, the Grandview Hotel opened in the community, becoming the first major hotel for Blind River. The hotel had a bowling alley, restaurant, pool room and barbershop. While that hotel would burn down in 1916, a restaurant would eventually be built on that site. Today, The 17 Restaurant is located there and is the longest-running restaurant in Blind River.

By 1906, Blind River had become a town and a second sawmill was built where the Blind River Marine Park is located today. The timber industry only increased from this point as Blind River provided the timber needed for Canada as the country’s population soared. The Carpenter Hixon Company built a sawmill in 1929, producing 89 million board feet of lumber that year. The mill would continue for another 40 years, eventually becoming the largest white pine sawmill east of the Rockies. Its capacity was listed as 120 million board feet of lumber per year, although it did not reach that point in its history.

Around 1912, there was talk of changing the name of Blind River to Riviere a l’Aveugle. On Feb. 29 of that year, a flurry of telegrams arrived at the office of Postmaster General Pelletier, criticizing the name change. The Postmaster General was surprised to learn of the name change, which was apparently going into effect on March 1. As it turned out, the name was simply the French name for Blind River and was not intended to be the new name of the community. The department had received complaints that letters addressed in French had been returned with a note that no such place existed. The Postmaster General then gave orders that all such letters be delivered at Blind River. Through an error in the department, this was interpreted as an instruction to change the name of the town, but that was not intended.

The year 1916 would be a very tough year for Blind River when it was hit by not one, not two but three devastating fires. The first fire was a relatively small one that only destroyed a few buildings, but it would get much worse from here.

On Aug. 1, 1916, a fire began that would completely reshape the downtown core of Blind River. It was not known how the fire broke out but it began in a store and by the end of the evening, the entire business section of the town was in flames. The only buildings that remained on Main Street were three stores at the far end. The fire brigade did its best to fight the fires but high winds spread the fire too quickly. Destroyed in the fire were the post office, church, Royal Bank, three law offices, a barber shop, hardware store, a doctors office, the office of the local member of the Legislature and a grocery. Damages were pegged at $15,000, or $325,000 today.

On Oct. 21, another fire struck when flames spread from either a stove or cigarettes dropped on the floor of the Casino Opera House. This fire quickly spread as citizens and the fire brigade did their best to fight the fire. Despite their best efforts, four businesses and two homes were completely destroyed. The Casino Opera House, valued at $8,000 was completely destroyed. In all, $20,000 in damages occurred.

In 1928, with the community riding high from the lumber industry, council decided to splurge on a new sewer and water system. Unfortunately, The Great Depression hit only two years later, followed by the shutting down of the biggest mill in 1931, which would remain closed for four years. By 1935, the town was bankrupt and $300,000 in debt, or $5.8 million today. The mill would open back up that same year and employ 300 people but the town was in for some rough years. Why do I bring this up? You will see why in just a little bit as the town would see its fortunes completely change and experience a rebirth rare in Canada.

In 1948, an iconic part of the community would be lost when fire tore through the Mississaugi Island lighthouse near Blind River. Foster Morris, a disabled First World War veteran, and his wife were asleep when the fire broke out. The smell of smoke woke up Foster and he found the light was out and clouds of smoke were pouring out of the entrance to the tower. He woke up his wife and they attempted to fight the fire. By midnight, people in Blind River noticed the fire and soon arrived to fight it but to no avail. The lighthouse would be completely destroyed. The lighthouse had been built in 1876 and was an iconic part of the landscape in the area.

Things began to decline in the community by the 1950s and many wondered whether the community would survive. Old-timers in the community were calling it the “hard-luck town”. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the community suffered from a temperamental lumbering industry, and watched as businesses closed and residents moved. By the 1950s, the community was deep in debt from money spent on public works projects in the 1920s, and the Ontario Municipal Board had had taken over the financial affairs of the community.

Then, a helping hand came in 1953 when uranium was discovered near to the community.

The first mention of the new discovery would appear in the National Post on June 20, 1953 stating that the uranium staking rush was on at Blind River. It would report, quote:

“A substantial uranium staking rush appears to be shaping up for the Blind River area…Quite a few calls had been received by the recorder from outside individuals and there had been a considerable demand for maps.”

The Windsor Star would report of the discovery, quote:

“Blind River may yet live again. Until this spring, the once greatest timber town in Canada was slowly starving to death, starving for lack of timber. All summer the ticking of thousands of Geiger counters has set hearts throbbing wildly, particularly those of the town’s business men.”

By November of 1953, 5,500 claims had been filed in the Blind River area.

Minister of Mines Philip Kelly would state, quote:

Government geologists are extremely conservative men but figures of the mines department bear out the claim that it is a real staking rush, one of the greatest in Ontario’s mining history.”

As hundreds of prospectors flooded into town, it was believed that Blind River was located on Canada’s greatest uranium field, and $40 million worth of uranium had already been outlined, amounting to $405 million today.

The discovery of uranium completely changed Blind River forever. In 1953, when the discovery was made, the population was 2,400. By 1955, the population had swelled to close to 5,000 people and continued to grow. Mayor Louis Berthelot had seen this change first hand. By 1955, he was in his 11th term as mayor of Blind River and despite being confined to a wheelchair due to the loss of both of his legs to gangrene, he was helping to guide its growth during this changing time. New housing divisions were popping up, the town had nearly paid off all its debt and the hospital, which had opened in 1940, was now expanding to meet the needs of the growing population. Of course, with that increase in population came problems with some people who on pay day would flock to Blind River. According to the police chief at the time, Leo Trudeau, a typical month saw about 200 arrests on drunk and criminal charges.

The Ottawa Citizen would report, quote:

“Blind River’s block long main street hums with new life. Traffic jams are almost constant. Stores are busy. Hotel rooms are almost impossible to get.”

A uranium mine was built soon after and that mine led to the creation of the Blind River-Elliott Lake uranium mining camp. Even to this day, the uranium refinery continues to be one of the biggest employers in the community, helping to make Canada a major supplier of uranium around the world.

One of the biggest news stories to ever hit Blind River occurred in October of 1957 when two men went into the Royal Bank of Canada Branch and attempted to rob it. The attempt was unsuccessful but it would sadly result in the death of J.J. Walter Bridges, who had been shot by one of the men during the robbery. The men had entered the bank at 10 a.m. and told a junior clerk to get them the money. Bridges walked in to see what was going on and was shot in the abdomen as a result. The men then ran from the building and started firing their guns as they ran down the street. Norman Solomon was standing near his car when the men told him they were taking it. He would state, quote:

“Don’t shoot, just take the car but give me my boy.”

Solomon grabbed his four-year-old son and the two men took off. They would later abandon the car and fled into the bush. The Royal Bank of Canada then put a reward of $25,000 for the capture of the men. The news would spread around Canada as the manhunt continued for the two men. Roadblocks were set up in the area that would last throughout October in an attempt to find the men. Two men who robbed a bank at Norwood would be captured and it was believed the two men were associated with the robbery that happened in Blind River. The two men were found not to be involved with that robbery but on Nov. 13, a warrant was put out for Fred Montgomery and his son Rodney, who were identified as the robbers. The men had reached Timmins by Oct. 15 it was discovered and they robbed a clothing store and put the owner into a washing machine to take clothes and money. On Nov. 18, newspapers across Canada blazed huge headlines that stated the men had been captured. Angus Campbell, who lived near Saskatoon, would collect the full reward of $27,500 for his information that led to their capture. That amount of money would be about $263,000 today. Fred Montgomery, who was 41, and his 17-year-old son Rodney would be found guilty and sentenced to hang on July 15, 1958. On that day, only Fred would hang, while Rodney would instead be sentenced to life in prison at the Kingston Penitentiary.

The building where the bank was housed had been built in 1920 and would be occupied by the Royal Bank until 1975. Today, you can visit the building and see a part of infamous history in Blind River.

While 1957 was arguably the year of the bank robbery for many residents of Blind River, there was another big news story for the community. John Diefenbaker, soon to win the biggest majority in Canadian history to that point in the federal election, came through the community as part of an election campaign tour. There was a reason for his arrival in the community and it came down to a man named Lester B. Pearson. In only a few short months, Pearson would become the Leader of the Opposition and from 1963 to 1968, he was the Prime Minister of Canada. Today, he is often considered to be the best prime minister Canada has ever had, and Blind River was represented by him that entire time, from 1948 to 1968. During the 1957 visit to the area, Pearson left a note behind for Diefenbaker that stated, quote:

“I hope you are finding the Algoma air stimulating but not too stimulating. I have been your John the Baptist preparing the way. How you can gain weight in this kind of life is a miracle.”

A drug store, now called Mitchell’s Rexall IDA, would open in 1958 and it features in a robbery as well, except this one is more funny than tragic. The robber apparently came into the store with a note that read, quote:

“This is a Robbie. I want some money or no one will be hurt.”

The robber believed that his highly confusing note would be persuasive, but instead he was simply arrested by police.

As a result of Blind River being in his home riding, Pearson would visit the community many times over the course of his career but one of the biggest visits came on May 17, 1965. During his visit to speak with business leaders at the municipal hall, he stated that he had hope for the sale of 100 million pounds of uranium to France, which would be highly beneficial to the local economy. He would say, quote:

“I think the dark, dim, dreary days of what you might call the depression are just about over.”

He would also receive a cribbage board made so that a tiny skunk popped up when the loser is skunked by the winner. Upon receiving the gift, Pearson stated, quote:

“I’ve often wondered what I could do in the House of Commons when Mr. Diefenbaker is making a speech.”

He then attended the Blind River High School prom where his wife Maryon crowned Dawn Wilson the prom queen. Pearson danced with Dawn at the ceremony, while Dave Scanlon, Dawn’s boyfriend, danced with Maryon.

One month after Pearson visited Blind River and danced at the prom, a young man was driving through the community when his car, which he named Mort, suddenly broke down in the community. That man was named Neil Young and that incident would be immortalized in his song Long May You Run, which incorrectly states that the car broke down there in 1962. Young was touring Canada as a solo artist at the time to limited success. One year later, he would join Buffalo Springfield and a musical icon was born.

Of course, if you go to Blind River you should visit the river itself. Between Hudson Street and the Trans Canada Highway, a beautiful area has been set up to enjoy the beauty of the river, including a fountain that was built in 1995 and replaced with a new one in 2020 that celebrates the importance of the bodies of water in the history of Blind River.

Also while you are in Blind River, you can hike the historic Voyageur Trail, which is a discontinuous trail that runs from along the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Superior for 600 kilometres. The 45 kilometre section that includes Blind River was built by Norm Lediett beginning in 1973. He would construct the entire trail, with the help of four others, for the next 15 years until its completion in 1988. The trail also carries some history in that during the Second World War, many of the Yellow Birch trees were logged in the area in order to be used in the construction of the Mosquito Bombers, which were critical to the allied victory during the Second World War.

Any time you visit a place with a fascinating and deep history like Blind River, the best place to go is the local museum. In this case, you can visit the Timber Village Museum, which highlights the history of Blind River through artifacts from its history. Exhibits highlight the logging, fur trapping, shipping, commercial fishing and lumbering history of the area. You can also find on the grounds the largest white pine sawmill east of the Rocky Mountains. In addition to the history exhibits and local art, the gift shop also features unique artisan goods, souvenirs, delicious maple syrup and much more.

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