Ear Falls History
Ear Falls is a town as rich in history as it is in beauty. View a PDF documenting its story, along with historical images dating back as early as the 1920's.
How did Ear Falls get its name?
There are different versions of the story of how Ear Falls came to get its name. The following are three versions of the story found in the museum archives:
Ear Falls was once known as Otahwaka Powitek to the Ojibwa people. This area was believed to be haunted by the spirit of a giant beaver which lived between the upper and lower falls. It was said that when the beaver was swimming, its ears could be seen rising and falling in the foaming water. It is from this myth that the name Ear Falls was adopted.
Legends have produced the names of many local spots, and one such name is Ear Falls. According to information provided by Gerald Bannatyne, a collector of artifacts, aboriginal people living on Goose Island were travelling past the rapids which are now known as Ear Falls, when they saw something that frightened them. They brought more men back with them to investigate. The ‘monster’ turned out to be a large tree route stuck in the rocks. The spot became known as ‘Big Ear ‘, which later became ‘Ear Falls’.
Many, many years ago local aboriginals had named Ear Falls ‘Otahwaka Powitek’ because the water had worn the rock ledge at the lip of the falls roughly in the shape of a human ear. The early French Fur Traders’ name for the falls was Portage D’Oreille, or literally speaking, ‘carrying place of the ear’. Upper Ear Falls, about 1.5 miles upstream, was drowned out when the lake level was raised some 16 feet when the power dam came into operation, and nothing of it remains today except dangerous ripple rapids with a very strong current.
The history of Ear Falls reflects the rich legacy of Northern Ontario. Four giant river systems meet here through a vast network of lakes. Since man kind’s inhabitation of the area, these natural waterways have helped to make Ear Falls what it is today.
The location of the waterways allowed for the capitalization of both the east-west and north-south commercial industries, from early first nation trading through to today’s tourism industry.
The economic and social factors that have contributed to the development of the Ear Falls region and the West Patricia District can be divided into seven distinct phases:
Fur Trade (1680-1880)
The beginning of the 17th century marked the arrival of French explorers to Northwestern Ontario and the beginning of the fur trade. The fur trade would remain the predominant business in the North for the next 200 years. The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company were rivals for most of the fur trade era. In 1821 both companies united, and posts were set up in the Ear Falls area on Lac Seul and Red Lake. Remains of these posts could be seen along the lakes in the area until the 1920’s when the construction of the Lac Seul Dam caused a rise in the water levels and the remnants of the fur trade were covered with water.
The arrival of the railway in the 1880’s began the decline of the fur trade. The Hudson’s Bay Company shifted the focus of their posts to meet the needs of the new residents in the area: supplies for miners, lumbermen and settlers were sold at posts and stores in the Ear Falls area.
The Railway Era (1880-1916)
Following the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1870 and 1885 geologist and surveyors mapped Northwestern Ontario. By 1923, the Canadian National Railway was extended through the boundary of West Patricia with two lines: The Grand Trunk Railway and the Canadian Northern Railway. The railway opened the area to the development of timber, fish and mineral resources. Development of Ear Falls did not occur immediately with the arrival of the railways as the lines were not close to the town, but occurred when the fur trade was altered as a result of the railway. Supplies were brought in and furs were taken out at the closest point to the rail. Warehouses were erected for shipping and receiving at Hudson. A steamer was placed on Lac Seul to enhance freight operations.
Red Lake and Central Patricia Gold Developments (1925-present)
The discovery of gold at Red Lake in 1925 initiated a rise in development throughout areas north of the railways. In the following years, thousands of claims were staked from Favorable Lake in the west, to Pickle Lake in the East.
Transportation routes, settlements and power supplies were developed to support the mining industry. It was the success of the gold mines which led to the shaping of the region’s transportation, land use and settlements patterns. It was also the Red Lake Gold developments that provided incentive for settlers to locate to Ear Falls. The falls were located on the primary freight route from Hudson to Red Lake.
A Generating Station was constructed by Ontario Hydro in order to supply power to the mines at Red Lake, which lead to the creation of the Hydro Colony at Ear Falls. By the 1930’s Ear Falls had replaced Goldpines as the main settlement in the area. When bush planes became more affordable to transport goods, Ear Falls became the jump off point to Red Lake.
Hydro Power Development
During the 1920s the Federal Government considered proposals to regulate the water in the Winnipeg River. By constructing the dam at the head of Lac Seul, the lake would become a large reservoir, retaining the spring run-off for use by power developments downstream on both the English and Winnipeg River systems. Lower Ear Falls was the selected location for the Lac Seul dam.
The construction of the dam at Ear Falls began in the spring of 1928, but not before camp buildings were constructed along the east side of the river. A coffer dam, two earth dikes, excavation and preparations of the foundations of the dam were also completed before construction began. The pouring of concrete commenced in November and work on the dam continued throughout the winter months.
The conservation dam was an economical means to create a storage basis for power developments in both Ontario and Manitoba. The construction of the dam had a dramatic impact on the lake due to a rise in water levels. Upper Ear Falls was drowned out by the dam, and well known landforms around the lake disappeared under the water level.
Ontario Hydro played an instrumental role in the development of Ear Falls. The company realized that many of its Generating Stations in Northern Ontario were situated in isolated areas. In order to retain operators for these plants, the company recognized that they would need to supply quality housing, schools, recreation halls, stores, hospitals and other buildings. The company also supplied provisions for water supply, electrical services, sewage disposal and fire protection. In 1937 a Colony was constructed at Ear Falls.
Mining and Forestry Revival (1945-present)
During the Second World War, there was a 50% decline in the gold mining industry in the Patricia district. With the end of the war and the opening of Highway 105 in 1947, the mining industry in the region was renewed. Ear Falls was now linked by road to the Trans-Canada Highway and to Red Lake.
At this time, the Chukuni Lumber Company was operating at Snake Falls. The operation consisted of a saw mill, a small box mill, and about a dozen houses lining the trail that ran through the lumber yards to the saw mill. The children of the workers were bussed to school in Ear Falls. By 1954, plans were made to move the mill operations to Ear Falls. The workers constructed houses north of the highway, along the hydro line. The Chukuni Lumber Company was eventually purchased by the Dryden Paper Company and in the late 1950’s it was closed.
In the early 1950’s, ore deposits were discovered on Bruce Lake North of Ear Falls. In 1966 Stelco, an iron pelletizing plant, was developed in the area. The Canadian Northern Railway constructed a line to the mine which crossed highway 105 to the south of Ear Falls and the outlet of Lac Seul to the East of the dam. A new town site containing 100 residential units was developed in Ear Falls North of the dam. Today the mine is closed and the rail line has been abandoned.
The construction of highway 105 helped to introduce tourism to the area with hunting and fishing camps were built on lakeshore sites along the highway. It also provided access points to Lac Seul, Cedar River ad Chukuni River. Ear Falls is a natural funnel for supplies and services due to its location between Vermillion Bay and Red Lake, and due to its waterway access points.
A tourist camp was built around the former Hudson’s Bay store at Goldpines. For several years, old cabins at Sam’s Portage were rented out to tourists. Tourist camps were also operated at Little Canada and Snake Falls. Once the Ontario Hydro construction at Manitou Falls was completed and the lumber company had closed, the tourist industry became the economic mainstay of the Ear Falls community.
Hunting and fishing have been a popular draw to the area for years, and more recently, ecotourism had added an additional element to the tourism experience of Ear Falls.
The Patricia was the fifth boat built by Ole Gustafson and Wilfred Wright of the Triangle Transportation Company around 1931.
These men were originally commercial fisherman on Lac Seul. With the gold rush of 1926, they put down their nets and turned to freighting.
The Howey Bay Gold Mine on Red Lake was fortunate enough to be connected by water with the railroad at Hudson. Freight came across Lac Seul, over the portage at Ear Falls and up the Chukuni River into Red Lake. The Patricia was mainly used on the Chukuni River between Snake Falls and Sam’s Portage.
When the Triangle Transportation Company was purchased by James Richardson in 1933, it became known as the Patricia Transportation company.
River boats ceased to operate after the summer of 1947 when the new Red Lake highway 105 became suitable for carrying heavy traffic, and the Patricia Transportation Company started to use trucks for freighting. The old water route into Red Lake closed down and all the boats were returned to Hudson.
Despite the new highway, when Ontario Hydro began Construction on the dam and generating station at Manitou Falls in 1953, there was no road to the site. The Patricia was brought back from Hudson and, for the first two years of construction, all materials and building supplies were floated behind the tugboat from the dock at Little Canada and down the English River to Camping Lake. It was here that the abandoned boat was located many years later and brought by road to the Ear Falls Museum.
The Patricia was restored during the summer of 1975 by Scott Landis and Tony Cullen. In 1982, a shelter was designed and built by Les Plomp, to protect the tugboat from damage from the elements.
The Patricia now stands as a landmark and a symbol of determination at the Ear Falls Waterfront.