Historic Sites

Historic & Heritage Sites

Almost every square inch of Northeastern Ontario has some kind of historic significance. Beginning with the legends of the Indigenous people who have long been stewards of this land, to the Voyageurs and their big canoes full of furs paddling up the Mattawa river; from homesteaders and pioneers through the early timber industry, and the booms and busts of mineral and metal mining — in Northeastern Ontario, there is a story at every turn in the road (or river, as the case may be).


Turtle Island – the birth of a continent

Much of the history of Northeastern Ontario, both Indigenous and European, is rooted in the waterways that have always connected people and communities across the region. But the biggest deal on water? Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world, is described in some Ojibwe oral traditions as the birthplace of Turtle Island — the origin story of our continent. And the science backs up the myth — artifacts excavated from Sheguindah Hill, just south of Little Current, are carbon-dated to 10,000 years ago, just after the last ice age. The archeological area was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1954.

Big canoes – Voyageurs & the fur trade

In Northeastern Ontario, the end of a road is always an interesting place to arrive, but especially so when it’s Moose Factory – 18km from the mouth of James Bay, it is only accessible by train (the Polar Bear Express from Cochrane), boat or ice road. Built by Hudson’s Bay Company in 1673, the community of Moose Factory, originally called Moose Fort, is one of the oldest European settlements in Ontario and the second fur trading post in Canada – the old fur press is still visible on the shores of the Moose River. Steeped in the mythology of the coureurs du bois, it is an eerily beautiful and remote relic of a bygone era. Built in 1847-50, the HBC Staff House is the last surviving fur trade officer’s dwelling in Canada and the oldest building in the James Bay area. The Moose Factory Buildings were formally designated an historic site in 1977.

Further to the south, Mattawa, where the Ottawa and Mattawa rivers meet, is the oldest European settlement in the Nipissing District. A geographic hub for the fur trade, Mattawa has an extensive network of historic canoe and portage trails. Of historical significance are three crosses on Quebec Hill, said to be erected in 1686 on the order of the Sieur de Troyes to make it easier for the voyageurs to locate the entrance to the Mattawa River on their voyage to the West.

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The evolution of the waterways

The white and red lighthouses visible on almost every headland around Manitoulin Island evoke the romance of traveling by ship – although they are best viewed on a summer day with a light breeze, sun glinting off the water, instead of the dark and stormy nights they were built to withstand. As canoes gave way to steamships and sailing vessels for transporting goods and people, the increased traffic on the lakes and bays of Northeastern Ontario brought a boom in lighthouse-building. Between 1866 and 1918, nine lighthouses were built on Manitoulin Island and six on surrounding islands, several of which are museums today. These heritage lighthouses, light towers and fog alarms give visitors an intriguing glimpse at life in pioneer times. 

Riding the rails

The railroad, another mode of transport steeped in mythology, is still used today to move resources across the country, but at one time it was instrumental in the discovery of these resources, and responsible for much of the economic growth in Northeastern Ontario. The westward expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1880s – from Bonfield, where the first spike was driven into a sunken railway tie – led to the birth of communities such as North Bay and Sudbury, and the growth of lumber and mining industries in the north. 

When the T&NO line (Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway — later Ontario Northland), expanded north of North Bay, agriculture and lumbering flourished in the New Liskeard and Clay Belt area. More importantly, the TNO led to the discovery of silver at Cobalt and gold in Timmins when track construction exposed precious metals. 

Many of these northern railway stations are designated as historic sites and are open to the public, like the Canadian Pacific Railway station in downtown North Bay and the unusual Ron Morel Memorial Museum in Kapuskasing.


Booms, busts and drama – Northeastern Ontario’s mining history 

Northeastern Ontario’s mining history has enough thrills, chills and drama to captivate anyone. The mines that developed in and around Kirkland Lake, Timmins, Cobalt and Sudbury produced ten times as much gold (and silver, and quite a lot of minerals) as any Klondike field – and almost as many legendary characters. Museums and historic sites across the region pay homage to the area’s rich mining heritage.