What’s in a Name?

“I will wager no other town was so thoughtlessly named as this …

Now, name has no part, for this live town has made its own identity”

Anson Gard on North Bay, 1909

The name North Bay is pretty transparent. The city is situated on the north bay of Lake Nipissing. It is a bay. It is situated to the north of the population core of the province. Really, it’s all pretty self explanatory. There’s not too much to grasp here.

But have you ever wondered how “North Bay” actually became the official handle of the city?

Was there some sort of naming committee hell-bent on not working very hard?

How North Bay got its Name

It’s not exactly a long story, but I’ll start with some background:

The development of rail travel was absolutely crucial in this region. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) reached the area in 1882 when John McIntyre Ferguson had a intuition that the land previously said to have little potential was a place for a settlement. He purchased 288 acres at a dollar a piece.

Only one of the original boundary markers of Ferguson’s land claim still stands, it can be found at Highland St. and Britton Ave.
Photo: The Gateway

This intuition was likely based on information from his tycoon uncle Duncan McIntyre, who’s positions with Canadian Central and Canadian Pacific gave him first hand knowledge of the mapped out plan for the railway (Berton, 1971).

In what must have been a shocking, stroke of good fortune, Ferguson promptly found a customer for a large tract of his newly acquired land in the CPR, who wanted the right of way in the area. This sale lead to the crediting Ferguson with the founding of the town, and set forth his local real estate empire (Noel, 2009).

In the early years North Bay was a railway town through and through. Much of the town’s early infrastructure, including the town’s first church, was made up of train cars (Berton, 1971). Basically, transportation was its raison d’être.

So with that in mind, how did the place officially become “North Bay”?

Ferguson, arriving in 1882, needed nails to construct his home, the area’s first house. Not knowing how to designate his camp to order the nails to, he looked at Lake Nipissing and ordered them to “the north bay” without much thought to naming the community.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

His concern was describing the geographic location with enough accuracy that he receive his supplies, and I’m positive those pen strokes weren’t made with the idea that there would be a city here by the name almost a century and a half later.

Ferguson attempted to change the name later, but locally it wasn’t much of a concern as the town was busy, blossoming, and young, and there was much more important things to do.

The name stuck, and the town incorporated under the name North Bay officially in 1891.

While Ferguson may have missed the opportunity to thoughtfully name the settlement, his early role in establishing the town is beyond dispute and numerous streets in town still bear his name today. He was the beneficiary of inside information from his family, and he capitalized on the opportunity and became a powerful local force economically and politically. He was both one of the towns wealthiest men, and a long-serving mayor (four terms) (Berton, 1971).

This might remind you of the frontier nepotism explored in a previous Gateway article on the local caviar industry.

What’s in a name?

North Bay is the setting of Giles Blunt’s John Cardinal novels, and the accompanying CTV television series Cardinal. The town is named Algonquin Bay in the fiction, a slightly more creative name. Blunt may have done this as a thin veil for North Bay, but it does raise the question of what the city’s reputation might be like with a different name, for better or worse.

“North” can have different connotations depending on the context in which it’s uttered, and the person who hears it. Some might hear North Bay and think arctic tundra, others might think of the “north” as charming.

Just because North Bay sits on the north bay of Lake Nipissing doesn’t mean our city was destined to be named “North Bay”. The name arose from a particular set of circumstance. In the same manner, the city became the region’s core by circumstance rather than the course of destiny.

Becoming the Core

Commerce of Front St in the early days of North Bay
By pkdon50 – Front Street, North Bay, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48080101

North Bay is population centre in the district, surrounded by communities of various sizes including Sturgeon Falls, Mattawa, Corbeil, Callander, and Powassan. These smaller communities act as peripheries to North Bay, and while this is obviously linked to the population sizes and available services, one might wonder how North Bay became the central settlement in the region.

In 1895, Mattawa, Sturgeon Falls, and North Bay, were all vying for the role as the “County Seat” for Nipissing, the governmental centre of the region. At the time, the communities were similar sized, with Mattawa being the oldest, most established, and Sturgeon being smaller in population than the other two (Noel, 2009).

In the initial election on March 14th, North Bay won by a 177 votes, an impressive margin given the population of the competing municipalities were around 2,000 at the time. Mattawa, suspecting that the votes of “dead men and children” may have contributed to the large margin of victory, called for a recount (Noel, 2009) (Gard, 1909).

Sturgeon Falls dropped out prior to the second election, held on July 11th, and all but 24 of its votes went to Mattawa, which put North Bay behind. A local legend states that railway workers who felt at home in North Bay pushed their locomotives to the limits to reach the polls in time to cast a ballot (Noel, 2009). North Bay won the contest by the margin of eight votes (Gard, 1909).

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

The strategic position of the city as a transportation hub, connecting the south and east to the west, probably explains much of North Bay’s central role in the region. That said, this election was also pretty crucial in securing the early population growth of the region. Becoming the Chair of Nipissing County meant the city would receive a courthouse, a registry office, a jail, judges, as well as government and judicial office space (Noel, 2009).

North Bay became the community that could offer these crucial services in the region, helping to incentivize settlement in North Bay rather than the communities that surround us. They do say “it’s all about being first to market”.

The population of Mattawa and North Bay in their early years. You can see the populations begin to diverge in the period just before the turn of the century, within which North Bay became the County Chair. The following decade the population of North Bay grows fast, while Mattawa stays stagnant.

Source: Noel (2009)

As you can see in the above graph, while the populations of Mattawa and North Bay were neck and neck prior to this election, after it North Bay became the larger settlement. By 1911, North Bay’s population was about 5 times that of Mattawa

So now when you hear “North Bay” you’ll know the ridiculously simple story of how we got our name, and how the city became the population and economic centre of our region.

Sometimes, it’s important to remember that the way things are now were not an inevitability. Our city is called North Bay, and serves as the economic and populous centre of the district because of a specific set of circumstances and the actions of humans.

With this considered, let’s remember that the future is not some inevitable course set forward by the stars, but that in fact, our actions today are producing the circumstance of tomorrow.



Berton (1971). The Last Spike: The Great Railway 1881-1885.

Gard (1909). Gateway to Silverland: The Story of a Happy, Prosperous People who are Building the Metropolis of the North.

Noel (2009). Family and Community Life in Northeastern Ontario.

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