Vintage Views of Rat Portage — Now Kenora, Ontario
Until 1905, the Ontario community of Kenora was known to settlers as Rat Portage. According to local legend, a flour mill refused to move to a place with "rat" in its name — prompting the name change. "Kenora" combines the names of two communities it absorbed: Keewatin and Norman. It's located on the Lake of the Woods near the Manitoba border.
Read on to learn a bit more history of Rat Portage. And see historical images found on Digital Archive Ontario, an online collection of over 100,000 items related to Ontario's past which are held by Toronto Public Library.
Its early beginnings
Indigenous peoples lived on the south end of Lake of Woods, relying on hunting, fishing and gathering. The north end of the lake was called "Wauzhushk Onigum", which translates as "portage to the country of the muskrat." Hence, the European traders named it Rat Portage. The first European to travel to the vicinity was the explorer Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye in the late 17th century.
Around Rat Portage, there was an abundance of fur-bearing animals. It was on the main east-west waterway of the fur trade. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the two main fur trading companies, Hudson's Bay and North West, were there competing for pelts. The two companies merged in 1821 as the Hudson's Bay. It built a trading post on Old Fort Island in 1836. Later, the post moved to the mainland and the community of Rat Portage grew up around it. It was a clearing in the woods with a long row of shanties.
Years of heavy development
In 1873, the Anishinaabe and the Crown signed Treaty 3. The Anishinaabe had been led to believe they had entered a resource-sharing agreement. Instead, the colonial administration expropriated their land and waterways to settle colonists and harvest timber and minerals.
Rat Portage became the regional services and transportation hub. Soon, the community was the homeport for freight, lumber and passenger steamers sailing the Lake of the Woods.
Rat Portage would enter a new phase of growth when it was connected to the continental railway. It was supplying timber for railroad ties and stations.
Rat Portage timber supplied Canadian and Minnesota lumber companies. The sawmills were powered by electricity generated from damming the fast moving water at the outlets of Lake of the Woods into the Winnipeg River.
Prospectors discovered gold nearby and more people moved in to develop the mining industry.
Celebrating 60 years
Rat Portage and Lake of the Woods celebrated its Jubilee year in 1897. Rat Portage was then a town with considerable amenities. Martell & Tilley published a souvenir book with many photos from that time. The book sold for 50 cents and included pictures of the celebrations, some of which can be seen below.
Two years later that the Privy Council of England finally settled a boundary dispute in 1899 as to whether Rat Portage was part of Manitoba or Ontario. Both provinces had claimed it as their own. It was deemed to be part of Ontario.