The secret tunnels of Port Arthur: Part 1

June 2019

The Lakehead region has been host to many myths and legends over the centuries. Of these legends, there are ones that have been repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact. One of the most well known examples of this is the persistent rumour that two of Port Arthur’s hotels (the Prince Arthur Hotel and the lesser known Mariaggi Hotel), were host to smugglers’ tunnels.

Originally built in 1885 as the Northern Hotel, the Mariaggi was right on the waterfront across the road from the old CN train station, where the Service Ontario building is today. It presented itself as a place of luxury to those staying in the city and was seen as the best hotel in the city until the Prince Arthur Hotel opened in 1911. During Canada’s prohibition era (1916-1927), a rumour started circulating that the Mariaggi was host to a liquor smuggling operation and used a tunnel connecting the waterfront and the hotel. People even claimed to have seen the entrance to this tunnel in the basement of the building, but this is where truth becomes stranger then fiction. It was not a tunnel used by smugglers to bring in alcohol, it was a bear den.
How on earth was there an active bear pit in a hotel in the core of Port Arthur? To know that, we need to look at the Mariaggi Hotel’s manager, Max Hurtig. An immigrant to Canada, Hurtig managed the Mariaggi Hotel for years and rumours of his being involved with smuggling alcohol surrounded him. Hurtig was a big fan of hunting, going out whenever he had the opportunity. At some point Hurtig started bringing orphaned fawns and bear cubs back with him to the hotel and he needed a place for them to stay. He had a den built for them in the basement, cutting out a little home for them through the bedrock that the Hotel was built upon. Once the animals were old enough, Hurtig would have them moved to another establishment he managed, The Pigeon River Lodge, to get them out of the city.

Eventually Hurtig stopped bringing animals to the hotel, but the den remained, and to some of the people who saw it, it looked like an entrance to one of the rumoured smuggling tunnels. People who worked there or who knew Hurtig, said that the “tunnel” was little more then a crawl space past the entrance, only being as high as four feet in some places. The hotel was built on solid bedrock as well, making tunnelling unlikely and the den itself was facing uphill towards Cumberland Street, towards the waterfront, or so the story goes.

So while Max Hurtig’s connection to smuggling is still debated, the idea that he had a smuggling tunnel in his hotel is just a myth, surviving long after the Mariaggi itself was renamed, later torn down and replaced by the Service Ontario building. Rumours still persist, however, that there was a tunnel connecting both the Mariaggi to the Prince Arthur hotel, so stay tuned for my next article to find the answer to that!

Connor Kilgour is a local history enthusiast that has a fascination with the history of Thunder Bay and the Lakehead area

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