Tugboats of the Lakehead

March 2021

Since the later-half of the 1800’s tugboats have been a regular sight on the waterfront. During all those years they’ve filled all sorts of roles for our community, from guiding ships in and out of the harbour to assisting in dredging operations to breaking ice and occasionally acting as rescue ships.

The tugs, along with the companies and people who’ve run them have developed a notable if often unnoticed legacy and reputation in local waters with the tugboat “James Whalen” being a great example of this. The tugboat operated in the Lakehead area for many years in the early and mid-20th century as both a traditional tug, and also an icebreaker. In its early days in 1906, the boat was involved in the recovering of passengers and crew from the shipwrecked SS Monarch.

Today, two companies operate tugboats in the harbour, Thunder Bay Tugboat Services that operate out of the Pool One slip and Lakehead Tugboats that operate from McKellar Island and between the two they make sure tugboats are ready 24 hours a day for ten months of the year. This is a good thing as in 2020 there was an even greater need for them.

I do not need to explain what happened in 2020, everyone knows the basics, but what a lot of people may not know is that 2020 was also the busiest year for the Thunder Bay harbour in twenty years or more. The reason for this was as the pandemic took hold, many communities began to stockpile grain and canola and the demand went up and with that demand brought a new need for shipping. This year saw over one hundred and fifty ocean-going vessels (salties) in the port, averaging four or more ships a week. They came from Canada, the U.S. and beyond and I personally remember seeing ships from Poland and Micronesia. Additionally, there were a number of other large lake bound vessels that visited the harbour during the same period that in some cases also needed the tug service to guide them safely into the port.

For the tugboat crews this meant a lot of time living on their boats. They had to keep them ready for whenever a ship was preparing to leave or enter the harbour. While the harbour tries to keep to a schedule, the tugboats generally don’t know the exact time of departure for some ships because the grain, canola or other supplies the ship is loading arrive by train or truck leading to occasional loading and departure delays. That means a ship could call to leave at any time, day or night and the tugboats must be ready.

Once winter hit our region some of the larger tugs also had to assist the coast guard in icebreaking, giving them even more work to do. Thankfully it was rather mild for the first half of winter.

In my personal opinion the crews were unsung heroes in 2020 as few fully realized the work of our city’s tugboats, along with other tugs all over the great lakes had to do to keep things running. They did the job without the attention other organizations receive. With 2021 looking to be another busy year, take a moment to think about them the next time you walk the waterfront and see a tugboat. Take a moment to think about the hard work they do in keeping our port running.

For anyone who wishes to see a historic tugboat up close the James Whalen is on display at the Kaministiquia River Heritage Park.

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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