Thunder Bay Tourist Pagoda

Backgrounder

In 1909, the City of Port Arthur constructed a brick information office on a lot across the street from two transcontinental railway stations and passenger shipping docks. This strategic site was intended to increase the visibility of the building, which was used to advertise the city to business visitors and tourists. Since its construction, this structure has served continuously as an information kiosk, first for Port Arthur and now for Thunder Bay. This rare heritage building, with its unconventional but carefully conceived design, specialized function, and relatively old age is a reminder of the booster spirit which captured the soul of frontier Canadian cities during the two decades surrounding the turn of the century. It also speaks to inter-city rivalries that were common in early 20th century urban Canada, and specifically the rivalry that existed between the cities of Port Arthur and Fort William before the two amalgamated to become Thunder Bay in 1970.

In the early 20th century, Port Arthur was in a boom period. The Canadian National Railway decided to make Port Arthur its Lake Superior terminal in 1902, and later that decade the Canadian Pacific Railway replaced its small station east of town with a larger structure on Water Street. With a population of about 12,000, two intercontinental railways, and a number of steamship lines using Port Arthur as a terminus, by 1908 the city was considered an important Lakehead port. It was during this boom period that civic leaders in Port Arthur proposed the construction of an information kiosk to promote the city to tourists, investors and industrialists.

A mix of civic boosterism promoting the improvement and expansion of the city, and the rivalry with neighbouring Fort William served as an impetus for the building. Boosterism had a strong impact on municipal development in cities west of the Great Lakes, as cities competed with each other to attract new industries, increase their populations and improve their municipal services. In the case of Port Arthur and Fort William, the two cities vied to become the largest and most developed city in northwestern Ontario. However, while many Canadian cities participated in civic boosterism, Port Arthur was among the few communities to undertake the construction of a purpose-built information kiosk during the early decades of the century.

A design competition for the proposed information kiosk, with a prize of $25, called for a design with a striking appearance that would attract the attention of visitors. The winning design, by prominent local architect H. Russell Halton, did not disappoint. The building is an octagonal brick structure with an umbrella or pagoda-shaped roof and a bell-shaped cupola. The roof is supported by a wrap-around verandah with columns and the entryway is topped by a carved beaver and maple leaf. The design represents an eclectic and eye-catching blend of elements drawn from several architectural traditions, a popular design choice for recreational and ornamental public buildings at the time.

This uniquely-designed tourist pagoda, which officially opened in February 1910, was constructed adjacent to the new Prince Arthur Hotel, near the railway station and the waterfront, considered the gateway to the city. With this strategic location, civic boosters hoped that the building would attract individuals arriving or passing through by train or ship. Posters were placed in the building’s windows and staff handed out brochures, pamphlets and other promotional material. The pagoda remains in operation today, and continues to serve its original information function while its striking architecture still attracts the attention of visitors.

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