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Finnish fishermen of Lake Superior


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It is believed that the earliest European fishermen began to fish on the Ontario side of Lake Superior in the 1890s. But it wasn’t until the 1920s that official records on commercial fishermen were kept. According to John and Carl Westerback who arrived in Rossport, Ontario, in 1926-27, many Swede Finns were employed by commercial fisheries, using gill nets and pound nets to catch whitefish, herring, trout, pickerel, pike and smelt in Lake Superior. They used old row boats, converted lifeboats, as well as tugs for their work. Lifeboats were converted to fishing boats by adding a cabin and a small engine.

About 20 people moved from the fishing stations at Rossport to the tip of Sibley Peninsula and established their fishing stations at Camp Bay and Tee Harbor. Among them were the Westerbacks, as well as Gunnar Ingves and Roy Hedman. Other fishing stations were also developed along the north shore of Lake Superior at Port Arthur/Fort William, at Squaw Bay, Johnson Landing, Pass Lake, Hurkett and elsewhere. While many Finns and Swede Finns worked from these fishing stations during the fishing season, the families returned to their homes in Port Arthur and Fort William for the winter months.

Gunnar Westerback was one of the old-time Swede Finns who brought their fishing trade and knowledge from Finland to Canada in the 1920s. This knowledge was passed on to the second generation and in 1947 John Westerback began fishing as well. With the coming of the lamprey in the 1960s, the valuable trout fisheries collapsed, which finally caused many commercial fishermen out of the business. Only a few remained, such as the Aijala and Sameluk families, and the Westerbacks. John Westerback, who quit fishing in 1989, spent almost 40 years as a fisherman. The last remaining fishermen to this day include Alf and Carl Ronquist of Pass Lake, who are originally from Kristianstad, on the western coast of Finland.

The memory of the Finnish fishermen has been recognized by a monument that stands at the shore of Green Point, just north of Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. The statue was erected in 1990 as part of the 100th anniversary of the first fishermen to work from Green Point. It was built by Lindsay Eade, who is related to some of the early fishermen through marriage. His wife’s father and grandfather, Fred Arnold, Sr. and William Arnold, were fishermen in the area. The Green Point area used to have a 110-foot dock which was used to tie up some of the 10 or so fishing tugs that worked on Lake Superior. The Finns of Green Point would sell their fish to Kemp Fisheries located in Duluth, Minnesota and over the years a trusting and lasting association was formed between the fishermen and the American seller. In fact, when an unexpected thaw one winter left the fishermen with no way to keep their harvest frozen, Kemp Fisheries rented out the Port Arthur arena to freeze the fish and preserve them for market. Today, marine traffic is limited to small fishing and pleasure boats used by the owners of the many cottages that line the shore.

In 1990 the last commercial fisherman of Green Point, Esko Kangas, gave up his license and retired. This marked the end of a long line of commercial fishing that had gone on for a century. While only names of people who are recorded in official documents are listed on the monument, all the names listed on the monument are of Finnish descent – no Swede Finns are mentioned. The names of the fishermen are as follows: Fred Arnold, Heikki Maunula, Reino Maunula, Victor Ketola, Charlie Eskola, Edward Salmi, Wilfred Eskola, Edward Salmi, Wilfred Arnold, William Arnold, Andrew Pudas, Laurie Pudas, Walter Stanroos, George Stanroos, Frank Lahi, Evert Pasola, Svante Wierikko, Leo Hannula, and Esko Kangas.

From The Finnish American Reporter, January 1997, by Mike Roinila.

June Pelo

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