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What is now Thunder Bay was once the twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William.

City of Thunder Bay archives/Handout

Bombardier Inc.’s Thunder Bay plant has been a fixture of the Northern Ontario city for more than a century, and has been the subject of layoffs and shutdowns almost as long.

It began life in 1912, and fully opened in 1917 as the Canadian Car and Foundry (Can Car) plant on the bank of the Kaministiquia River, manufacturing boxcars. During the First World War, it switched to building minesweepers, with its ships sailing off to France where they cleaned up the English Channel and nearby waterways.

What is now Thunder Bay was once the twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William. Soon after the end of the war, in a letter dated Jan. 22, 1919, Fort William’s mayor, Harry Murphy, wrote to the federal government with worries over a decline in shipbuilding contracts that threatened to close the plant. At the time, 700 jobs were on the line.

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“It would seem a pity to have such a nice plant as this closed down, now that so many men are returning from the front,” Mr. Murphy wrote, before asking whether the government could give the plant more contracts for railcars or boats.

He went on to say it would be a “pity to have these splendid buildings lying idle.”

But Mr. Murphy’s letter wasn’t enough to keep the plant in service. It went dormant between 1921 and 1937, according Gordon Burkowski’s book Can Car – A History 1912-1992.

In a letter dated Jan. 22, 1919, Fort William’s mayor, Harry Murphy, wrote to the federal government with worries over a decline in shipbuilding contracts that threatened to close the plant.

City of Thunder Bay archive

During the First World War, the Canadian Car and Foundry plant switched to building minesweepers, with its ships sailing off to France where they cleaned up the English Channel and nearby waterways.

City of Thunder Bay archive

During those years, Can Car kept a staff of about a dozen people to maintain the facility. It rented out its grounds to generate revenue. A herd of deer also took up residence on the property.

But the plant kicked up production again during the Second World War, winning contracts to manufacture fighter planes for the Allied forces. Workers built 1,451 Hawker Hurricanes plus Grumman and Burnelli aircraft.

Can Car also hired Canada’s first female aeronautical engineer, Elsie Gregory MacGill, who earned the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes” and later became the plant’s chief engineer.

The work force had ballooned to 7,000 by the end of the Second World War, and more than 3,000 employees were women.

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After the war, the plant transitioned to building trolley and railcars for passenger trains. Over the years, it landed contracts for rapid transit cars and streetcars for the Toronto Transit Commission, trains for Montreal’s Expo 67 and two-level train cars for GO Transit.

During the 1960s, it also built custom logging equipment for Northern Ontario’s forestry industry.

Hawker Siddeley Canada became the plant’s owner in 1962. Later, in 1984, it was transferred to the Urban Transport Development Corp., an entity of the Ontario provincial government.

Bombardier took possession in 1992. Since then, it has mostly built TTC subway cars, streetcars, Metrolinx light-rail cars and GO Transit train cars.

“We’ve always had incredibly good tradesmen in Thunder Bay,” Mayor Bill Mauro said on Wednesday. “[The plant] has been a major contributor to war efforts, to mass transit, aircraft, and on the list goes.”

But the latest news of layoffs has Mr. Mauro concerned for the plant’s survival. He wants to see it continue to outfit Canadian cities with transit cars, echoing the view Mr. Murphy expressed 100 years ago that the uninterrupted use of the plant is good for Canada.

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“Now the work needs to transition to what we can do to ensure the long-term viability of the plant.”

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