The Lake of the Woods is a remnant of glacial Lake Agassiz and contains 14,542 islands. The underlying Precambrian bedrock is among the oldest of geological formations on earth.
This region has been a centre of human activity for the past 8,000 years owing to the plentiful resources available here. The earliest inhabitants were wandering hunters pursuing big game animals. By the time the first European explorer, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Vérendrye, arrived in the late 17th century, the natives living on the shores of the lake were more settled than their ancestors, and relied on hunting, fishing, and gathering for their livelihood. The Natives referred to the north end of the lake as Wauzhushk Onigum, which literally translated means "portage to the country of the muskrat."
An abundance of fur-bearing animals and the location of the Lake of the Woods on the main east to west water route made the area of critical importance during the fur trade period. In the late18th and early 19th centuries, this area was the scene of rivalry between two fur-trading companies, the Hudson's Bay and North West Companies. The keen competition ended in 1821 when they amalgamated as the Hudson's Bay Company. By 1836 a post had been set up on Old Fort Island on the Winnipeg River. The Rat Portage post (whose name was a shortened and corrupted version of Wauzhushk Onigum) was moved to the mainland in 1861 and around it grew the community of Rat Portage.
The early town of Rat Portage was little more than a small clearing in the bush, with a meandering row of shanties along the shoreline. But this rustic little town was to become the main object of interest in the Ontario-Manitoba boundary dispute which lasted from 1870 to 1884. Each province claimed the town as part of their territory. Both provinces had jails in the town, and both issued titles to mining claims and timber licenses. Even though Rat Portage, Manitoba was incorporated as a municipality in 1882, on September 28, 1883, polling took place here to elect members to the Provincial Legislatures of both provinces. Finally, in 1884, the Privy Council of England, to which the dispute had been taken, decided in favour of Ontario. It became official in 1889.
Development, initially delayed by the boundary dispute, was given impetus by the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the early 1880s. Soon Rat Portage became a major supply and distributing centre for the burgeoning lumbering industry. The Keewatin Lumber Company was the first and other companies included Western Lumber, Rat Portage Lumber, and Dick & Banning.
Several sawmills operating around Rat Portage served both Canadian lumber companies and Minnesota operations which sent their timber to the town by steamer. The Lady of the Lake was the first important steamboat on Lake of the Woods. By the late 19th century, freight, lumber, and passenger steamers plied the waters of the lake, many of them having their home port in Rat Portage.
Other industries, like the Lake of the Woods Milling Company, developed due to the available water power at the outlets of the Lake of the Woods into the Winnipeg River. The discovery of gold in the latter part of the 19th century also contributed to an increase in the activity and settlement of the area.
It was not until 1905 that the community changed its name to Kenora. Dissatisfaction with the name of Rat Portage had been expressed by the residents of the town over the years, but apparently it took a final push from industry to initiate the change. The Maple Leaf Flour Company reportedly refused to build here because they didn't want the word rat on their flour bags. So the new name was formed by combining the first two letters of Keewatin, a sister town; Norman, an adjacent village; and Rat Portage.
As the town developed economically, support services and cultural activities flourished as well. Schools, hospitals, churches, hotels, a library and an opera house eventually appeared on the scene.
Since those initial years, Kenora continued to grow, economically and culturally, and became prominent in the tourism, lumbering, mining, milling, and commercial fishing industries. Industry, such as the Backus-Brooks paper mill which began operations in Kenora in 1923 was for many years the town's major employer.
Situated on the busy Trans Canada Highway and at the gateway to both Lake of the Woods and over 3,000 square miles of recreational country to the North, Kenora today is a bustling tourist centre providing all the amenities of a major urban centre.
Article and Kenora photo provided courtesy of Lake of the Woods Museum, for additional information about the area, please visit their museum and website.