Rotary A Century of Service

June 2017

Rotary was formed in Chicago in 1905 as an organization of businesses and professional leaders that provide humanitarian service, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations and help build goodwill and peace in the world. Rotary has become a truly international organization of 1.2 million Rotarians belonging to 31,000 Rotary clubs in 166 countries.

When the Lakehead wanted to form a Rotary club in 1916, owing to the good relationship Thunder Bay and Duluth had enjoyed, the Duluth Rotary sponsored them. In 1917, for its first project, the Fort William/Port Arthur Rotary club partnered with the Duluth club on an ambitious endeavour to build a bridge across the 50 ft wide Pigeon River gorge that would link the Lakehead with Duluth by road. Both cities had constructed a road to the Pigeon River that stared at each other from opposite banks. It cost $6,268 to build with almost all of the money raised by Rotary. On August 18, 1917, the bridge was officially opened for traffic. For the first time, people from the Lakehead could travel by land to Duluth. The bridge quickly became a hub for social activity and commerce with a thriving community springing up around it.

Officially, it was called the International Bridge, but was nicknamed the Outlaw Bridge because it had been built without any government involvement from either side of the border. It was a huge undertaking and, 100 years later, remains an iconic corner stone of Rotary’s dedication to its mission to serve the people and community of Thunder Bay and region.

Thunder Bay Rotary has been active in many humanitarian efforts to serve the Lakehead and region since its inception a century ago. In more recent times, one of Rotary’s endeavours it is known for is the annual house lottery. Over $5,000,000 has been raised from the draws with all of the proceeds staying in Thunder Bay and region. July 1, 2017 will mark Rotary’s 31st house draw. In 1999, Rotary embarked on its most ambitious project to date. It pledged to donate $1,000,000 to the new Thunder Bay Regional Hospital over seven years. The money to do that was raised through the house lotteries. In recognition for their generous contribution, the hospital named one of its major components the Fort William Rotary Ambulatory Care Centre.

When our city needed a new emergency shelter, the Thunder Bay Rotary clubs stepped up to the plate. They donated $210,000 which represented 10% of the cost of building the new shelter. Rotary was recognized for its contribution by having the facility named the Rotary Shelter House.

Our local rotary clubs haven’t lost sight of their international commitment either. They have worked to raise funds to build a school in Sierra Leone, provide fresh drinking water in rural India and build a hospital in Calcutta, India just to name three projects. One of Rotary’s most recent undertakings is among its biggest. The three Rotary clubs of Thunder Bay partnered with the Hill City Kinsmen, the Kiwanis club and HAGI to secure the 6.5 acre site of the Wilderness Discovery resort on Lake Shebandowan. It is in desperate need of repair and was slated to be sold. The partners formed a non-profit corporation and the Province will transfer the land to it. This is a long term commitment for all organizations involved. Rotary and its partners will renovate the camp over the summer of 2017 at an estimated cost of $500,000. The money to do this will come through some serious fund-raising, donations and sponsors along with provincial and community grants. The revitalized facility is slated to reopen the summer of 2018 as the Wilderness Discovery Handi-Capable Centre. The new centre will serve all individuals with handicaps, youth groups as well as seniors and veterans from both sides of the border.

During the century since its inception, Rotary never lost sight of the mission for which it was founded. When Rotarians aren’t working to raise money for their many humanitarian projects, sponsoring the Boys and Girls Club, Air Cadets and the Christmas parade, they are volunteering to clean up highways or serve meals at the Dew Drop Inn. The works of Rotary are ubiquitous and varied throughout our city. All that Rotary does has been valued service to all of us for a century and will be for many years to come. Thank you Rotary.

Rotary has been celebrating its first century of service for the past year with more celebrations this summer. Watch for them and join in the festivities.

I would like to thank the following for their help in writing this article:
The Thunder Bay Rotary Clubs
Thunder Bay Historical Museum

Brian G. Spare PhD is a local author, freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview magazine. Watch for Brian’s upcoming memoir “The Boy Who Couldn’t Smile” to be published later this year. Contact him at

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