Old Border Road – Pigeon River – Thunder Bay

Glancing at a map of northwest Ontario and Minnesota might be wondering how Pigeon River would ever qualify for ghost town status. There is no town site at the Pigeon River border crossing nor was there ever one. The highway itself is so devoid of commercial activity that one almost wonders if they only come out when the moon is full.

It wasn’t always like that. The small border crossing that appears on today’s maps was opened in 1963. Prior to that travellers crossed on a different road, passing through a small, but vibrant roadside tourist centre, lined with hotels, restaurants, and other busy commercial facilities on both sides of the border.

Old Border Road Thunder Bay

The old border town of Pigeon River had its beginnings in 1916. Members of business establishment in the former twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William (now Thunder Bay) formed a chapter of the Rotary Club, under the auspices of the Rotary Club in Duluth, Minnesota. The group initially consisted of 23 founding members, one of whom was William Scott, a lumberman and owner of the Pigeon River Lumber Company.

The two clubs shared a close bond and the lack of a roadway between the Twin Cities and Duluth was a source of frustration to many on both sides of the border. In addition to a roadway, they also needed a bridge to cross the gap at the Pigeon River, an international waterway that ran along both sides of the border. The reality was that such an undertaking required joint action on the part of both the Canadian and US governments, a lengthy process under the very best of conditions. The Rotarians decided it would be far less trouble to simply bypass government approval, raise the funds, and build the bridge on their own.

The project, spearheaded by Scott himself, involved construction of a wooden bridge across the gap, a deep gorge surrounded on both sides by the river. “The bridge” he argued, “would not only link the roadway between the Twin Cities and Grand Marais, but would also foster economic growth between Duluth and the Twin Cities.” Not surprisingly the project received unanimous approval on both sides of the border.

With an action plan in hand, the Rotary Club in Duluth quickly raised $1500. The Twin Cities and Cook County, Minnesota, each chipped in another $2000. D.B. Fegles, a Twin Cities member who ran an engineering and construction firm, drew up plans for the bridge at no charge. By the fall of 1916, the project had come to life.

During the winter of 1917, with the help of Scott, construction materials were hauled over to the gap at the Pigeon River. Construction began in the spring and by June the work was completed – at cost.

map of Thunder Bay – Old Border Road – August 2017

The bridge was officially opened with great fanfare on August 18, 1917. The ceremonies began symbolically with a motorcade heading south from the Twin Cities that included 65 vehicles, 240 participants and a pipe band. A mobile motor and tire repair shop (necessities in those early days when vehicle reliability was uncertain) also accompanied the parade.

The group made its way to Grand Marais where they were met by a welcoming committee that included 75 Rotary members from Duluth. By the time everyone arrived at the Cook County courthouse for the official opening, the crowd had swelled to about 500. Officials from both the provincial and state governments made well-publicized appearances, however federal officials on both sides of the border were noticeably excluded from the festivities.

The bridge was officially opened by George Howard Ferguson, Minister for the Department of Mines, Forests and Highways, who later became Premier of Ontario. Ferguson was so thrilled with the project that he pledged an additional $768 to the Rotary Club to cover the remaining debts. William Scott was duly honoured by having the Canadian portion of the road renamed “The Scott Highway.” The bridge was affectionately dubbed “The Outlaw Bridge” since no international agreement was ever negotiated or signed between Canada and the US. In the meantime federal governments on both sides of the border hurriedly scrambled to establish temporary custom offices under canvas tents, while remaining uncomfortably silent.

By the early 1920s the roadway and bridge proved to be a boon for the local economy. With the beauty of the gorges and falls now open to the general public, tourism quickly became a major focal point of the area. The bridge was open to traffic from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

border time – looking to USA From Canada – Pigeon River

One of the earliest commercial establishments was the Pigeon River Hotel, located just north of the border crossing. The rustic log structure, which opened around 1923, was primarily a lodge that included a store, rooms, additional cabins, and a lunch counter. Beer sales, undoubtedly a big attraction during the US Prohibition, were added later. Nearby the hotel there stood a new customs house and three dwellings for the staff. A short distance east of the settlement stood the majestic Middle Falls which quickly became a major draw for picnickers, sightseers, and photographers.

The Outlaw Bridge served the needs of the area remarkably well over the short term however it was not well built. By the late 20s, the bridge had grown quite rickety and accidents were becoming commonplace. At least one car reportedly plunged through the wooden railing into the river. Complaints were on the rise and this time politicians on both sides were listening.

In 1930 the Outlaw Bridge was officially replaced by a new steel span, this time with an international treaty at hand. Though officially named the “Pigeon River Bridge,” the local moniker would endure for decades more – and with good reason. The area had become quite raucous, largely the result of ongoing binge drinking and alcohol smuggling. Those problems continued until the repeal of the US Prohibition in 1933. Following that, customs officials on both sides maintained a rigorous lookout for contraband cigarettes and alcohol. One rock was jokingly referred to as “the crying rock.” That was where customs officials would smash the confiscated bottles of booze much to the dismay and horror of the smugglers.

In 1934 a post office was opened in the Pigeon River Hotel with Willet Ross Crouch as the first postmaster. According to Hansard the hotel was regular stopover for visiting provincial officials from various northern bureaus such as mines, and forestry.

Around 1935 the hotel was taken over by Max Hurtig, a dedicated and respected hotelkeeper and businessman from Port Arthur, who owned hotels in Fort William, Geraldton, and Beardmore. Under Hurtig’s ownership, the hotel blossomed. The business included Hurtig’s three sons, Harry, Ben, and Morley, all of whom were associated with the hotel at one time or another. Ben took over as postmaster on May 1, 1935. The hotel and post office were open year round.

In 1937 the Scott Highway was officially upgraded and became known as the “King’s Highway 61.” Provincial authorities even established a tourism office; an oddity for such an isolated place. The Canadian custom authorities also stepped up their operations and built a new drive-by customs office. Six new homes were added, two on the commercial strip and four more at the upper town site, just north of the settlement where there was more available land.

Traffic on the newly upgraded highway was increasing at a steady pace and the Hurtigs lost no time in expanding and improving the hotel. By the late 1930s the main hotel building had been enlarged on the south and a second dormer added to the roof. A new rooming house was built just behind the main hotel building. Additional accommodations included a row of small, private housekeeping cabins, described by one guest as “very nice.” For visuals, the Hurtigs strung a large banner advertising the hotel across the entire length of the front parking lot. By 1938 the business had grown to include a new ESSO service station with a garage and a bear pen in the back.

Early postcards featuring the hotel were distributed from the time it first opened. The Hurtigs continued selling numerous cards from their gift shop, showing the hotel, the busy highway, bears and deer cavorting in the pen, maps and assorted humorous depictions. Over time the postcards found their way into homes all over North America.

Following the end of World War II, the hotel once again underwent a transformation. With the depression and war years fading into the past, and cross border traffic and tourism on the upswing, the Hurtigs opened a new red brick hotel just to the south of the old building. The restaurant was relocated to the new hotel and the old lodge was converted to a gift shop, operated by Harry’s wife, Gladys, who had also joined the family business. Ben Hurtig who had run the hotel and post office for so many years passed away in 1949 and Morley stepped in to fill his shoes.

Gladys Hurtig was an experienced retail buyer, who had worked for Chapples Department Stores for many years. Now she had the opportunity to put her considerable expertise to serious work. Over time the gift shop grew to become an even bigger draw than the hotel. The shop carried everything from small mementos to expensive English bone china.

During the 1950s, a steady stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic passed through the tiny tourist hamlet on the Canadian side of Highway 61. The hotel boasted 40 rooms at a rate of $5.50 per day. The crossing was also a popular place for weekend partygoers from Thunder Bay.

The small rest stop at nearby Middle Falls had also grown in stature. By the late 1930s the picturesque lookout had developed into a small roadside park. By the late 40s, the park had expanded into a busy commercial venture that included camp sites, a concession stand, and a large concrete wading pool for the kiddies. There were several lookouts for people to stroll across and look down upon the majestic falls. A few kilometres east of the park stood the trail entrance leading to the spectacular scenery at High Falls. In 1959 the park was officially taken over by the provincial government and renamed the “Pigeon River Provincial Park” with a focus on increasing tourism.

While one branch of the government was busy expanding tourist facilities, another began conducting extensive road and traffic surveys. It quickly became clear that traffic had increased to the point where the old roadway was no longer adequate. This eventually led to a plan that proposed massive changes and upgrades to the existing highway.

In the fall of 1960 a meeting took place at the Pigeon River Hotel. In attendance were seven officials from the Ontario Department of Highways, five officials from the Minnesota Highways Department, along with other representatives from the federal levels of both the US and Canadian governments. It was then that the government unveiled their final decision.

The roadway was to be completely realigned bypassing the old border town by 11 km downstream, where a new bridge and customs office were to be erected. The announcement was clear. It was the end of the line for old Pigeon River Hotel and the small town site.

Construction on the new highway was completed in 1963 and the new bridge officially opened in August of that same year. The last leg of the old highway was unceremoniously downgraded to a secondary road named “Highway 593.” By the end of the year the Pigeon River Hotel closed its doors after four successful decades of operation. The old bridge and many of the buildings were dismantled shortly after that.

Today not much remains at the site except for two original customs buildings, the government information office, one tourist cabin and the vast foundations of the hotel. Evidence of the old vegetable gardens and root cellar can still be found behind the hotel foundations. Three homes, still used seasonally, remain at the upper site along with a couple of the old tourist cabins that were relocated further up the road.

The Pigeon River Provincial Park remained popular for many years and actually enjoyed its best days during the 1970s. In the mid 1990s, the Ministry of Natural Resources compiled a report focusing on damage to the delicate ecostructure surrounding the Middle Falls. They determined much of the damage was the result of vehicular traffic and made the decision to ban all vehicles and close the tourist facilities.

The park was officially closed in 2002 and reclassified as “non-operating.” It remains open for hiking and day use. Today visitors can take an eerie stroll along the trails and see the old campsites, overgrown lookouts and the crumbling concrete wading pool, where 50 years ago children romped joyously in the water. Trail guides and maps are available at the Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park near Thunder Bay.

In a rather humorous and embarrassing piece of irony, the government historical monument telling the story of the Outlaw Bridge was cut from its base and stolen in August 2005. The police speculate it was taken by “souvenir hunters” and have yet to find the culprits and recover the sign.

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