Port Arthur Stadium – Thunder Bay Border Cats
Photo by Marc Viquez, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 2.57
Port Arthur Stadium 425 Winnipeg Ave. Thunder Bay, ON P7B 6P7
Year Opened: 1951
Summer Baseball Across the Border
Unless you’re an avid hunter or camper there likely has never been a reason for yourself or your family to venture anywhere near Thunder Bay, Ontario. This is arguably one of the most remote communities of more than 100,000 people on the continent as it’s located at the end of a winding four hour drive from Duluth, MN to the southwest. It sits eight hours east of Winnipeg and six hours west of Sault Ste. Marie. However, it’s a prime shipping port for Lake Superior and its pristine wilderness draws in outdoor enthusiasts.
The community also has a hidden gem of a ballpark, Port Arthur Stadium, the home of the Northwoods Leagues Thunder Bay Border Cats. Thunder Bay’s location has never had it comfortably in the footprint of any league, but since the 1990s, the now-defunct Northern League and now the Northwoods League, have extended their Upper Midwest geography north and into Canada to take advantage of this park’s potential. The park dates back to the 1950s and was used exclusively for local town ball teams and also the occasional Canadian junior tournament until the professional Thunder Bay Whisky Jacks arrived in 1994.
The team’s clever nickname, and teal-based colors, were a reflection of the 1990s and the team was a cult favorite in magazines but never a success at the box office. The team left after 1998, but along came the Border Cats in 2003 who enjoyed moderate success at first, but who now mostly play to crowds in the low hundreds as well.
Food & Beverage 3
There is the usual array of ballpark from food from hot dogs to peanuts. However, down the third base line there is a stand offering barbecue pulled pork sandwiches and on the opposite side an ice cream stand for the warm summer months. On Saturdays with a ticket purchase, fans can order a steak, potato, and beer for $35. Local Sleeping Giant Brewing Company offers products at the ballpark and tall boys are $5 on Thirsty Thursdays.
Port Arthur Stadium is a classic ballpark from the post war boom that is definitely appreciated in a league such a summer collegiate league. The concession stands are underneath the covered grandstand and it is a ballpark design for the focus of watching baseball. Still, there is a lot of fun to be hand at Border Cats games.
Unless the Border Cats are playing a playoff game (where sellouts are frequent), the crowd on most nights will top out in the low hundreds. On nights where it’s cool that number might even been in the dozens. Still, the sight lines are nice and the roof contains the sounds of the game and creates a stereo effect for your ears. It’s a relaxing night, even if it can be dull.
It’s a shame, because while the park clearly shows its age, with chunks of concrete missing, the overall condition of the facility is amazing. The main grandstand extends from base to base wrapping around home with seats 3,000, all individual plastic seats. The seats begin five feet off the ground and extend up 20 rows, with all fans walking up to their seats. A roof covers all but the last few yards of seats down both baselines and a press box sits atop the roof. A drawback is that mesh netting runs the length of the seating structure.
The staircases are very narrow (a throwback to the 1950s), and some steps have worn away so it can be dangerous in spots. The interior of the grandstand is also very tiny, with a hallway that is only slightly bigger than that inside a home, expected to flow fans to concessions and restrooms, but remember this wasn’t built for professional baseball. Still, the interior is painted bright white and red and the facilities underneath are kept clean.
The ballpark is located in Port Arthur (Fort William is another city that combined to form Thunder Bay in the early 1970s) and you’ll hear plenty of untrue rumors about safety. The stadium itself sits next to the 1981 Canada Summer Games Aquatic Centre, which is still used as a city recreation center, and also a small hockey rink (this is Canada). Beyond right field is a former little league field that has been allowed to go into disrepair and is now used as a dog park. Just beyond center field is a major commercial strip that includes everything from chain restaurants and megastores to a gentlemen’s club.
Sadly, there just aren’t many. Thunder Bay has had a checkered past of supporting teams for not only baseball but also hockey (though Lakehead University has been a box office success recently). The excuses are plentiful and the dozens of fans at the game you attend will be quick to tell them to you from weather, to the lack of media exposure.
Unless you fly into Thunder Bay (which is very expensive), your likely trek will be from Duluth, Minnesota, hugging Lake Superior. On a map it doesn’t look far, but because it’s a two-lane road in the wilderness it takes up to four hours and that doesn’t include the 10 minute stop at the border. Once inside the ballpark itself, the concourse is easily manageable and crowds are never near capacity for most games. The signs for bathrooms and exits/entrances are clearly marked.
Return on Investment 3
Getting to Thunder Bay is a hassle, but at the end is a gem of a ballpark that otherwise wouldn’t have been seen. Port Arthur Stadium isn’t one of the classic minor league ballparks, nor should it be considered as such, but is worth a visit as it’s been fairly well maintained. Just noticing how small the aisles and hallways are further brings into perspective how much bigger society has gotten in general.
The club offers weekly promotions that include Mega Mondays where it is all you can eat for $32, Toonie Tuesdays where kids tickets, pizza slices, and pop are just $2, and Weenie Wednesdays where hot dogs are just a loonie.
Thunder Bay is home to the largest grain elevators in North America and they provide the backdrop/skyline of Thunder Bay beyond centerfield. The city itself also offers a number of picturesque views of Lake Superior and the wilderness that surrounds the civilized areas. If you’re one into hunting or fishing or camping, this is definitely a place to checkout and maybe make the ballgame something that is done on a day into town.
Port Arthur Stadium is a throwback but ideal for Northwoods League baseball. The team is under new ownership and hopefully there will be a few new changes to the gameday experience, but still provide baseball in town for the foreseeable future.