In the early 1900s, there was a firm expectation that western Canada—specifically Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan—would explode in population. Much of the development in Fort William and Port Arthur, now amalgamated into Thunder Bay, Ontario, stemmed from this anticipation.
Fort William Starch Company is Founded
It was in this environment that three commissioners for the Canadian Pacific Railroad, a preeminent investor in the area, saw the opportunity to take advantage of the lack of starch factories in the west.
Between the massive corn supplies over the United States border and the lucrative rail infrastructure, they estimated such a plant would be guaranteed to succeed. Sir Edmund Oslet, Sir Augustus Nanton, and W.D. Matthews founded the Fort William Starch Company in 1911, and began making preparations to find a suitable location for a plant.
At that time, the most powerful starch and glucose interest was Canada Starch, a conglomerate that controlled three of the major plants in the country. The Vice President of Canada Starch was also happened to be a power within Canadian Pacific. He began lobbying the Fort William men to merge with Canada Starch upon learning of the plans for Fort William.
After some negotiation, it was decided that, although the companies would operate separately, Canada Starch would be the principle stockholder in the new company. In exchange, the conglomerate agreed to fund the initial construction at Fort William, a $300,000 investment.
Construction on Mission Island Begins
The stock was transferred from Fort William Starch Company to Canada Starch on June 14th, 1912, and on September 6th the Canadian Stewart Company was contracted to begin construction. The contract read they were to:
…provide all of the general and detailed drawings and specifications, to supply the materials and perform all the work for the erection and completion ready for operation, of a glucose and starch manufacturing plant, all to be in accordance with the owners’ instructions, to be located on Parts of Lots 6 and 7, Island No. 2 at Fort William, Ontario.
Canadian Stewart was set to complete the plant on Island No. 2, today called Mission Island, by October 21, 1913, but by the end of that year, it was clear that the project was getting out of hand. Not only that, but they had already spent $350,000 on constructing and equipping the factory, $50,000 over budget. Canada Starch’s manager there estimated that construction would total $650,000.
First Few Months
Fort William’s new starch factory was declared completed on March 12, 1914 after Canada Starch invested about $750,000. To celebrate, the company treated the businessmen of the city to lunch as the first load of corn was ground in the mill building. Not all were happy at the plant’s opening however, as it was widely reported that the town contributed $100,000 to construct a factory which mainly processed U.S.-imported corn.
It was true; since the passage of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, Canadian companies could import U.S. corn duty free, which was convenient because Canada’s southern neighbor grew much more corn than the western provinces, where farmers favored crops of wheat.
The plant was set to employ some 200 workers, and was then scheduled to grind 1200 bushels of corn daily. This would produce an average of 2 train cars of product—at this time just glucose—per day.
New Works is Shut Down
It was bad timing, however, as the outbreak of the Great War forced all corn shipments to be rerouted to flour mills. Flour is far more valuable than starch for starch in wartime, and the war effort had no need for a rural starch factory. When the stock of corn on-site was depleted, the still-new plant was forced to cease operations.
The equipment was mothballed, and a skeleton crew was employed to maintain the factory until such time it could be reactivated profitably. It would remain closed for the remainder of 1914, all of 1915, and the first half of 1916 as well.
Reactivation in WWI
Canada Starch was losing money in Fort William, which until then had not produced any profit for the company; it had not even paid for its own construction! In late 1916, Romania entered WWI on the side of the Allies and agreed to send some of its corn to Canada.
It was decided that reopening the plant on Mission Island exactly as it was mothballed would not be profitable, so an additional starch line was planned. The company’s Brantford, Ontario plant was aging. Fort William Starch, with its new line, would replace it. $180,000 was secured for a new starch department to be completed by October 1916. In the meantime, the old plant would restart its glucose operation using Romanian corn.
Recession Extinguishes Hope
Because of the expense related to shipping the corn, processing numbers were down in 1917. The plant ground just 270,000 bushels, barely more than it did in half of a normal year.
When the new department actually opened in early 1918, the plant managed to turn a profit for the first time in its history. That year, it ground 800,000 bushels between the glucose and starch departments!
The company’s products at the time included “Silver Gloss” and “Niagara” laundry starch, various lines of “Benson’s” corn starch, “Bosco” chocolate syrup, “Casco” animal feed and even “Dexacor,” a foundry product used for sand casting.
Although the plant was set to operate like this for years to come, Canada slipped into an economic decline in the early 1920s. This is in part due to a post-war recession and in part due to a series of trade and tariff disputes with the United States. By the end of 1921, demand for starch in the Canadian west plummeted, and that November the factory was again taken out of operation.
It would not be reactivated.
In the years leading up to the shutdown, vital staff had been transferred to other facilities, usually the Canada Starch headquarters in Cardinal, ON. After reevaluating their situation in February 1922, the company decided to permanently close the plant and use it as a depot to ship westward the glucose and starch manufactured in the east.
Canada Starch sold the long-empty plant in 1943 to the Department of Munitions and Supply to use as a shell-packing plant.
Fort William during World War II
The former starch plant was not the only Fort William asset called into military service. In 1941, the Canadian Car & Foundry converted their bus and railroad car manufacturing floor into a warplane factory. Until the war ended, the plant produced the Hawker Hurricane and Curtis Helldiver, flown by the Royal Air Force and US Air Force, respectively.
The former starch works is still known as the “Shell Plant” to some Thunder Bay old-timers, although there is little information available about what exactly happened on Mission island. I look forward to finding more information about the Starch Works during wartime.
After the war, the buildings were forgotten once left abandoned for years. In the 1970s, a lumber mill moved onto the property. While it has since been replaced by another mill, few of the buildings are used.
The starch works buildings are by and large scrapped and in disrepair. Some are used for storage, other are condemned. Nonetheless, aside from the change in ownership and lack of equipment inside, little has changed about these brick shells on Mission Island in over a century.
Fort William Starch Works will never be redeveloped or saved, but until it crumbles, I will make the long drive around the island to see this place again.