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Thunder Bay’s historic tourist pagoda welcomes visitors for over 100 years

May 2021

The Tourist Pagoda near the waterfront in Thunder Bay, Ontario, is the oldest continuously operating tourist information building in Canada. Built in 1909, in what was then Port Arthur, it was strategically located near the waterfront and across the railway tracks from the grand Port Arthur Union Station, so as to attract visitors arriving in the city by both rail and water. At the time, Port Arthur was in competition with neighbouring Fort William for tourism.

The octagonal brick building with limestone trim, features a wrap-around verandah, a pagoda-shaped roof with cupola, a Tuscan columned entrance-way with a stone panel over the entrance that depicts a beaver and a maple branch, both symbols of Canada, and a gable extending over the entrance that includes a small dragon’s head, said to be a Scandinavian symbol for good luck.

On various occasions, starting in 1961, the Thunder Bay Jaycees have painted red, yellow, pink and blue polka dots all over the copper roof of the Pagoda, as a publicity stunt. This earned the building the nick-name of the “Polka-Dot Pagoda.”

The design took elements drawn from several architectural traditions, forming an eclectic and eye-catching blend of Roman, Greek,
Indian and Scandinavian architecture, intended to draw attention. Port Arthur had a population of around 12, 000 in the early 20th century, and it was a booming city. The Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk Railway both served the city, as did a number of steamship lines, and the tourist pagoda was intended to promote the city to tourists, investors and industrialists.

The cities of Port Arthur and Fort William amalgamated in 1970, becoming the City of Thunder Bay.

The Tourist Pagoda continues its original function as an information centre for the city, but its striking architecture also makes it a tourist attraction. It was giving a heritage designation in 1986.

Sources: Thunder Bay Tourist Pagoda – Wikipedia, Parks Canada – Thunder Bay Tourist Pagoda National Historic Site of Canada (pc.gc.ca), The Pagoda (thunderbay.ca), Thunder Bay Tourist Pagoda – Canada.ca, HistoricPlaces.ca – HistoricPlaces.ca.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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