The land that Atikokan sits on was inhabited by the Indigenous for millennia, long before Europeans ever arrived. The primary Indigenous group was the Ojibwa-Chippewa. The name of the area and community itself comes from the Ojibwa-Chippewa with Atikokan meaning “Caribou Bones” or “Caribou Crossing”
At the current townsite, the caribou would often winter and it was here that many were hunted by the Indigenous to provide them with meat through the cold season.
Nearby to Atitokan, there are many Indigenous rock paintings and the lake names also attest to the Indigenous history of the community.
In 1688, Jacques de Noyon became the first European to meet the Indigenous of the area. Thanks to Noyon, the exploration of the area would increase but it would not happen quickly. The next explorer was La Verendrye (LA VEH AH ANDRE), who arrived in 1731 and he would open up the area to the fur trade. By 1741, French fur traders were common in the area and competing against the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company.
The fur trade history of the area would slowly decline through the 19th century but something else would come along to aid settlement, the Dawson Trail.
Construction on the Dawson Trail began to the west of the present community in 1868, one year after Canada became a country. It would take another six years before the trail was done although it would be used by the government to transport Colonel Wolseley and his troops to Winnipeg to fight in the Red River Resistance.
The trail started in Thunder Bay and moved to the west towards Winnipeg. It had several different routes but the current Highway 11 that connects Atikokan with Thunder Bay follows parts of that old trail.
The same year that the Dawson Trail was completed, J. Baptist and M. Pichot of the Hudson’s Bay Company discovered gold southwest of the community at Jackfish Lake. This would become an influential moment not only for the mining history of Atikokan but also for the local Indigenous. Chief Blackstone prevented an attempt to build a mine for the gold in 1872 and he would negotiate the Northwest Angle Treaty, which would cede the land to Canada, and creating reserves.
Chief Blackstone would pass away during the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic and today is buried at Angus Lake.
Today, Atikokan sits on Treaty 3 land.
The history of the Dawson Trail would be short when it was superseded in 1882 with the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway that passed through the area north of the community. In 1897, William McInnis, a geologist, came to the area and revealed the potential for iron ore. The first thing most noticed in the area was the potential for timber, not iron though. The first attempt to harvest timber occurred in 1886 and this would prove to be an important industry for the area until mining began to take over in the mid-20th century.
In 1899, the Canadian Northern Railway would lay out a townsite that would become Atikokan. Despite the townsite being laid out, the community was little more than a bush settlement until the 1940s when iron ore spurred on development of the area.
The same year that the townsite was laid out, Tom and Mary Rawn became the first residents of European descent. The hope of finding gold had brought the couple to the area and with the rumours a divisional point would be built in the area, Tom would build the Pioneer Hotel. This hotel had 18 rooms to accommodate the few people who came to the region to stake a claim. Speaking of staking claims, Tom Rawn was the first person to do so for iron ore in the area.
The history of Atikokan has a lot to do with mining and few places in Canada mined on the scale of Atikokan. This was all thanks to Steep Rock Lake. The lake had been carved by the glaciers thousands of years ago, leaving ridges of water with exposed outcrops of iron. There was speculation by 1885 of mining in the area but the lake made it difficult to access the iron ore.
First arriving in 1926, and then in 1937 and 1938, Julian Cross located a major orebody under the lake.
Cross was famous for finding a silver mine in the Thunder Bay area. Did not like using modern technology. Would travel with canoe, backpack and a pick.
Julian Cross and Joe Errington came into partnership to make the initial drilling possible and prove the iron ore was under the lake.
The iron ore was not flat along the lake. There are fault lines that run through, including the Samuel fault line, and that meant the iron ore is broken up and in chunks because the lake is an M shaped lake.
Morson Scharth Fatheringham knew Errington and he ended up at Steep Rock Lake. He was a mastermind and one of Canada’s great engineering minds.
To take advantage of the abundance of ore, Steep Rock Iron Mines was formed one year later but getting to the ore was not easy due to flooding in the mine.
Another company formed that operated on the lake was Cayland Ore, which combined Canada with Inland Steel to create the name.
A small shaft was sunk to 1,400 feet below the lake level. The sinking of the shaft went well but before long it became impossible to get the water out of the shaft.
It may have ended there but the Second World War was beginning and the demand for ore was extremely high. To that end, Pop Fotheringham was brought in 1941 in to divert the river system to prevent it from flowing into Steep Rock Lake. Thus began one of the most amazing engineering projects in the history of Canada, and even North America. For Tom Rawn, his claims would suddenly become very profitable and he would sell 109 claims to the Midwest Iron Mining Corporation. He then created Rawn Iron Mines Inc. using his 60 remaining claims. Sadly, soon after he went out prospecting and never returned. His body was never found.
The diversion of the river and the draining of the lake was a bold plan. It was so immense there was sceptics from the United States. Two consultants, two of the top geologists and engineers at the time, verified the work of the men and that became the basis for going ahead with the river diversion. It took about a year to do it, working around the clock and they had to build roads into the area.
The consisted of diverting the river system involved removing 110 million yards of silt, gravel and rock, taking 270 million tons of the lake bottom out. This project moved more earth than the Panama Canal and it did so in just half the time. The amount of water pumped out in eight hours was enough to supply all of Montreal with water for an entire day. In one single week, the amount of earth moved was the same amount excavated to make the Yonge Street subway in Toronto.
The work to get the lake drained to access the ore was worth it. By 1949, one million tons of ore per year was being extracted. Two mining companies would operate out of the mines for the next three decades, the aforementioned Steep Rock Iron Mines and Caland Ore Company.
The amount of high grade ore pulled out from the pits at the bottom of Steep Rock Lake was enough to produce every single steel part in every automobile ever driven in Canada up to 1970. By the time the mines closed in the 1970s, over 90 million tons of ore had been extracted from the mines.
While there was enough ore to keep the mines in use for upwards of 100 years, taconite, a new iron ore was being used more by the 1970s. This made the ore from the mines less economical. By the 1980s, the mines had closed.
The mines may not have lasted long, but they allowed the current community of Atikokan to become the place it is today. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce soon arrived in Atikokan, while roads were quickly built to the community. By 1950, 3,000 people were living in the community. With this rapid growth, lots in the community quickly began to skyrocket in price. What originally cost $10 per acre soon became $100 per square foot. A lot on Main Street bought for $300 in 1949 would cost $28,000 by 1954. In that year, Atikokan was incorporated as a town.
I’ll talk more about the changing face of Atikokan at this time later in the episode.
In 1921, an epic story of travel reached the world concerning the story of Dr. Graham Chalmers. On Sept. 29, Chalmers, who was a doctor from Toronto, disappeared in the bush outside the community, about 40 kilometres to the northwest. He had been on a fishing trip when he became lost while with his nephew had left the bush to attend to other matters. When he returned, he found his uncle gone. A search party was sent out to find the doctor and the weather was terrible as winter was beginning to settle in. Two Indigenous men were part of the search party and after 13 days, they would find Dr. Chalmers by following tracks made by the rubber studs in his boots. When found, he had no matches and was holding a dead partridge. During his 13 days lost in the bush, Dr. Chalmers had no food or fire. When he was found, the searchers did everything they could to keep him comfortable for the night and the next day took him to Fort Francis where he would board a train dispatched by the Canadian National Railway to be taken home to recover. Upon arriving home, he was greeted by his wife and was well on the way to recovering.
Today, smallpox has been eradicated from the planet. For the past 40 years, no human has ever contracted the disease but there was a time that it was one of the worst diseases in history. It is estimated to have killed upwards of 300 million people from 1900 to 1977, while decimating the Indigenous populations during the 1600s to 1800s.
Back in January 1926, Atikokan was the site of a smallpox outbreak that had many on edge. What was thought to be a minor outbreak quickly became very serious when two people died and case numbers began to increase in the community. There had been several vaccinations in the community and strict isolation of cases, but it was still spreading. Along with the two dead, there were seven infected that were known about. The people in isolation were also in contact with trappers and lumber camps before they knew they were infected. It was believed that this strain of smallpox came to the community because of a drifter named Rambling Johnson. Johnson worked at several lumber camps for a few days and visited various trappers. The Winnipeg Tribune reported quote:
“The small town of Atikokan is terror-stricken at the outbreak. Most of the citizens have been vaccinated and every stranger arriving there is looked upon with suspicion until he is seen by a doctor.”
The story of the smallpox outbreak also brought about a hero named Al Smith. He was a trapper and prospector when the epidemic hit. News of a man hit by smallpox reached the town but no one could get to him and all anyone knew was what the woodsmen who came in told them. Smith had just arrived in the community and he realized it was his friend. He set off to find his friend and found him delirious and sick. Smith watched over his friend for 10 days with barely any rest. Sadly, even though he was with his friend, the story ends tragically when Smith’s friend passed away shortly after medical help arrived. A coffin was brought to the shack, where Smith dug a grave and served as the only mourner for his friend.
In May 1935, Atikokan left enough of an impression on poet C.D. Lang that he would write of the glories of Atikokan. He would write one poem stating quote:
“We sing a lay, without a blush, of Atikokan in the bush.
We could not love thee any more, O beauteous town by Scheider’s store.
So we have busted into song to let the gaping gang along
Along the whole blamed CNR get wise to what we have and are.”
During a railway strike in August 1950, Atikokan was completely cut off from the rest of the country and that created a very serious problem. Food supplies were quickly running out and the only bakery in town had exhausted all of its yeast supplies. At the time, there was no road outlet and no regular air service. By Aug. 24, it was estimated that within four days, the food supplies of the community would completely run out. The community appealed to the strike committee of the Canadian National Railway for a mercy train to be sent out. The town put in an order for 250 cases of milk, and the federal government was asked to send in a Royal Canadian Air Force amphibious plane. D. Wright, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce would say quote:
“They’ll send out 15 planes to look for one person who gets lost in the woods. Well, there are 3,000 of us lost in the woods here.”
Two days before the community ran out of food, a relief train filled with 40 tons of food arrived in the community. As soon as the train arrived, 150 people ran to the station to collect supplies. The box cars and refrigerator cars were put on a siding and the locomotive and caboose returned to the lakehead. Within one of the refrigeration cars, there was 800 gallons of fresh milk. With the train were union officials who ensured conditions under which the striking organizations sanctioned the emergency trip were not violated.
During the boom years of Atikokan during the 1950s as the mines were bringing in many new residents, the community was changing every day. While the thought of a boom town brings up images of a rough and tough place, Atikokan didn’t have that trend. The Kingston Whig-Standard reported in July 1954, quote:
“There’s no whisky. If any gambling exists it certainly isn’t visible. Nearly all the women are married and busy raising families. And when two trucks driven by husky young men reached Atikokan’s main intersection at the same time, I saw each driver politely wave on the other.”
While the community only had 300 people in the early-1940s, it was reaching 5,500 people by 1954 with expectations it would have 30,000 people by 1960.
At the time, Atikokan had the highest birth rate of any community in Canada, 42 per 1,000 people. To accommodate this, a wing costing $130,000 was added to the hospital, with half being paid by the government and the other half coming from the community.
The community was also looking for teachers and paying well for them. When one advertisement was placed in a Toronto newspaper, the community received 55 applicants. By 1965, there were 2,000 children in the community attending five public schools and one separate school. In the high school, there were 450 students.
The Steep Rock Company contributed heavily to the community, bringing in many services for its workers.
In 1957, Atikokan would join the Space Race thanks to a group of teenagers who decided to create the Atikokan Rocket Club. By March 1957, the members of the club had fired four rockets into the air. The boys in the club had built a laboratory in the basement of Ron Eyton’s house, and they built their rockets without the sanction of the school. The local police would give them permission for the experiments as long as they were conducted at least one mile from town. The boys would don lab coats and safety goggles, and their rockets consisted of steel tubes about three feet long.
Due to the fact that Atikokan is on the edge of the Ontario wilderness, with over 600 lakes within only a few hours drive, there are plenty of opportunities for canoeing. Add in Quetico Provincial Park nearby, and it should come as no surprise that Atikokan is the Canoe Capital of Canada. Around Atikokan there is over one million acres of park, with 2,000 back country campsites and canoeing is a big part of living in the area. A morning paddle through the many waters around Atikokan can include seeing many bird species, moose and other mammals, and even a few reptiles depending on the time of year and time of day. Known as the trail of the voyageur, the community sits right along the canoe route taken by French explorers who travelled west to the Mississippi River and then south to the Gulf of Mexico.
If you would like to learn more about the history then the best place to check out is the Atikokan Museum. In the museum, you will learn the history of the community, dating back to its geological history that played a role in making Atikokan an iron ore boomtown. From there, through organized self-guided tours and excellent exhibits, you will learn about the Indigenous, boomtown and mining history of the community. Only a portion of the museum’s artifacts are on display but this creates an ever-changing exhibit that brings you something new on each visit. A historical park is located next to the museum via a footbridge, where you can visit outdoor exhibits of logging and mining equipment.
The first artifact donated to the museum was the Shevlan Clark Locomotive, and is now on display in the heritage park. It was dug out of the bush and completely refurbished. It was so heavy, trucks could not go over bridges and it had to come in a special way to be placed in the park.
There is also a Barringer Brake, an ore-crushing Stamp Mill, a logging raft capstan and a dredge anchor. As well, throughout the town, you can see large artifacts on display throughout the town, which include descriptive labels. To view these locations in the best way, you should take the Atikokan Walking Tour.