Rossport History

How did Rossport get its name?

Rossport is named after John Ross (c1820-1898), construction manager for the north shore of Lake Superior route of the Canadian Pacific Railway from August 1882 to June 1885.  His construction headquarters during that time period were located in Port Arthur, Ontario and at Rossport, then known as McKay's Harbour.

McKay's Harbour was named after Alexander McKay who operated a small fur trading post at Pays Plat and his son, Charles McKay, who was a lighthouse keeper at nearby Battle Island from 1878-1913.

The Lake Superior Trek 1885

When the North-West Rebellion erupted in March 1885, the Canadian government immediately dispatched military forces to the West.  About 3,700 troops from the East were transported, fed and sheltered by the Canadian Pacific Railway, then under construction. 

Four formidable gaps, between the Longlac and Nipigon areas in the railway’s line north of Lake Superior, totaled about 90 miles.  One of these stretched about 20 miles from Jackfish westward to Winston’s Landing.  For several days the soldiers struggled across the gaps by sleigh and forced marches over rugged terrain and lake ice.  Where track was laid, they rode board-sided flat cars.  Though hardships and harsh weather made the trek an ordeal, no men were lost.

After the end of CPR construction in 1885, Rossport became an important commercial fishing centre.  Bowman Street is named after John Bowman (1858–1950) who operated a fishing company there.

The tiny village of Rossport garnered a wide reputation for being a source of prime fish.  An article in the Dominion Illustrated from October 1888, speaks of how dealers from Eastern Canada had travelled to Rossport and other North Shore communities in order to contract for Lake Superior’s fine freshwater fish.   Another article from November 1888 talks of a trial shipment of ten barrels of fish from Rossport being sent to Belfast, Ireland where it was quickly sold.

An archive has been created by John Goodier that provides a tremendous amount of information about the fishery that has operated along the north shore of Lake Superior, including the Rossport area.

In 1901, Rossport joined other North Shore port communities in becoming a regular stop for steamships belonging to Francis Clergue. The vessels operated between Sault Ste Marie and Port Arthur.

In 1907 tenders were called by the Dominion Public Works Department for the construction of a wharf at Rossport.

Most interesting is how a small local competition in 1937 morphed into an international event. There was a time when the Rossport Fish Derby was a staple on every sports fisherman's calendar.  An August 1952 article in the Toronto Star describes over 4,000 people attending that year’s self-proclaimed “greatest amateur fishing event in North America”.  Cars, tents and people would be visible along the highway for a distance as participants arrived and staked out a piece of land to camp on for the one-day event.  The arrival to the lake of a non-native species, the Lamprey Eel, caused devastation to the Lake Trout population and, over time, brought about the downfall to the days of the derby.

In 1911, the luxury steam yacht Gunilda, owned by William L. Harkness, floundered on the McGarvey Shoal and sank 8 kilometers from Rossport.  The actual date of the sinking varies from August 11 to August 29 to August 31st depending upon the article.  A Toronto Daily Star news item contained in the Friday, September 1, 1911 edition states that the vessel ran aground on Wednesday, which would be August 30, and then refers to the sinking as occurring "yesterday" or August 31, 1911.  This timeframe could reflect accuracy as after the vessel ran aground on the shoal and stabilized, a small boat was sent to Rossport where arrangements were made for the dispatch of a rescue tug from Port Arthur.  It would take time for that tug to travel to Rossport.  Therefore there would be a difference in the time between when the Gunilda ran aground and when it was actually pulled off the shoal only to sink.

Painters from the Group of Seven (artists) visited Rossport and the surrounding area several times in the 1920s.  In 2018 a plaque was installed in the Rossport Community Park celebrating their visits.

The Rossport Community Hall was first opened in 1929 by the Woman's Institute of Rossport. The organization had $700 in its bank account and the women that belonged to the organization decided to spend $50 to purchase the land on which on the building is located from the Canadian Pacific Railway.  On May 28, 1983, the second renovation was viewed by the Community.  On March 18, 2023, the third renovation was viewed by the Community.

On October 3, 1933, Rossport's waterfront suffered great damage as a result of an unusual tidal phenomenon referred to as a seiche.

Source: Wikipedia  

Further Information For History Buffs

History buffs will enjoy a visit to the Rossport Museum, housed in a caboose donated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad.  

Once an overnight stop on its line, passengers would disembark at the CPR hotel, now the Rossport Inn Cabins, a designated historical site.  There are two other historical sites: the Rossport Union Church and the first auto shop, what used to be the Forget-Me-Not Gift Shop.  

The Rossport Marina and the docks reflect the village's past as a major stop by the voyageurs on the fur trade route to and from Fort William, and of having a primary economy of fishing for many years.  

If possible, one must plan a boat trip to historic Battle Island Lighthouse.