150 Years of Sports

June 2017

As Canada celebrates 150 years of Confederation I thought it a perfect opportunity to take a step back in time to the early days of summer sport in this part of the world. From the games enjoyed by our indigenous populations to the introduction of various activities by our early settlers, our area has had a very rich and proud sports history, which has seen many changes over the years.

As you drive around town today you can see people of all ages participating in a wide variety of sports with the most up to date attire and equipment. As I look over photographs from over a century ago not only have the clothes and gear changed, so too have the sports.

Our July 1st festivities are known today as Canada Day but up until 1982 they were known as Dominion Day. While today we enjoy fireworks and entertainment to mark our nation’s birth, early Dominion Day celebrations included sporting activities on the water such as canoeing, rowing, and sailing with track and field, lacrosse, cycling and horse racing drawing crowds on land.

As the years progressed so did the introduction of more organized forms of sport. During the 1880s one of the first sport groups to occupy Waverley Park was the Port Arthur Cricket Club. Fort William also formed a cricket club with matches between the neighbouring communities being a popular past time for participants and spectators.

Sharing space on the grounds in those early days was the Waverley Park Lawn Bowling Club which constructed a shelter on the property in 1916 and was active into the 1920s and 30s.

Field lacrosse was so popular during the late 1800s and early 1900s that reports of businesses closing up shop to go to a match were commonplace. Games would take place on fields all around the area with Fort William fans flocking to the field at Simpson Street and Victoria Avenue and Port Arthur fans heading to Waverley and Current River Park.

Soccer, or football, as it was referred to locally in those early days, was amongst one of the first sports to be reported on in our local papers dating back to the late 1880s. By the 1890s both Fort William and Port Arthur boasted their own football clubs and in 1899 joined the Western Canada Football Association.
Baseball has also been a part of the history of northwestern Ontario dating back to the late 1880s, with local teams being established and taking on competitors from the surrounding area, with the Port Arthur Baseball Club being deemed the 1894 Champions of Algoma. By the early 1900s the Thunder Bay Baseball League was underway with large crowds gathering at McKellar Park, the Agricultural Fairgrounds and Current River Park to cheer on such teams as the Maridays and the YMCA.
With a history dating back to 1890, the Lakehead Exhibition grounds, which were operated in those early years by the West Algoma Agricultural Society, was the site of many sporting activities. Automobile racing began as early as the mid-teens of the last century and continued on for many years with the likes of Frank Colosimo and his King’s Ford Special thrilling the thousands of fans who would come see him race.
The agricultural spring and fall fairs would also feature the popular sport of sulky racing with purses going as high as $300. Throughout the year weekend and holiday races were sponsored by the Fort William and Port Arthur Driving Associations, which amalgamated in 1913 to become the Twin City Driving Club, and featured both local and out of town participants.
This popular sport was not just active during the summer months as crowds of up to 5,000 would line the banks of the Kaministiquia River in Fort William or gather at the foot of Arthur Street in Port Arthur each winter to watch the very popular sulky racing on ice. In fact one local horse made history in 1910 by setting a world record for the half mile which had been set on an ice track in Toronto the previous year. Completing the circuit in one minute, three and three-quarter seconds was a horse by the name of Tokay who was owned, trained and driven by Fort William resident Thomas McCranor, who was a very successful racer during those early years, winning numerous local races and on the western and eastern Canadian circuits.
Although we may no longer head to Waverley Park to take in a cricket match or to the CLE to watch sulky racing, one thing we do have in common with our fellow citizens of yesteryear is the desire to gather together on our nation’s birthday to celebrate the fact that we are blessed to live in one of the greatest countries in the world. Happy 150th birthday Canada.

Diane Imrie is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. She can be reached at dimrie@tbaytel.net

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