Thunder Bay·Updated

Fire ravages century-old Finnish Labour Temple, home to famous Hoito Restaurant in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Firefighters in Thunder Bay, Ont., battle a massive fire at the century-old Finnish Labour Temple building on Bay Street that started on Wednesday evening. The Hoito, one of the city’s most famous eateries, was housed in the building’s basement.

Flames ripped through upper levels of building designated as national historic site

Firefighters work to battle a blaze at the Finnish Labour Temple building in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Wednesday evening. (Matt Vis/CBC)

One of the most recognizable and historic landmarks in Thunder Bay, Ont., suffered devastating damage as a fire tore through the building.

The massive fire at the century-old Finnish Labour Temple building on Bay Street started on Wednesday evening. The Hoito restaurant, one of the city's most famous eateries, was in the building's basement.

Thick smoke blanketed nearby blocks as the fire burned. Eventually, flames began showing through the roof and upper levels of the east side of the building before spreading to the front side through the turret. As of Thursday morning, firefighters were still on the scene, with smoke continuing to come from the remainder of the building.

Platoon Chief Dan Coulter said the fire, which remained in the roof, was largely under control by Thursday morning. He said the site remains unsafe for firefighters to go inside, with efforts ongoing from the exterior of the building.

An assessment of the extent of damage has yet to be done, he said, but it's obvious that it's significant.

"If you go by, you'll notice the roof is pretty much collapsed in on all three sections," Coulter said. "[The cupola] collapsed, so that was a big feature that hit everybody hard when that went. It's basically burned down to the second floor."

Nobody was injured, he added.

Fire officials said the first call came in around 7 p.m. ET Wednesday. First-responding firefighters went inside the building and up to the third floor, but were quickly forced out of the building as conditions worsened. Throughout the night, crews were engaged in an aerial battle with the fire,with both aerial platform trucks pouring water onto the flames for more than 12 hours.

Significant amounts of water poured down from the upper levels of the building, flooding the lower levels and the street below.

Large crowds had gathered in the immediate area to watch fire crews do their job. Thunder Bay police issued a statement just before 10 p.m., asking members of the public to avoid the immediate area on Bay Street between Algoma and Secord streets. Police said excessive traffic was causing a safety hazard.

The building was sold last year after the Finlandia Association, which owned the property, owed more than $1 million  and voted to dissolve, liquidating its assets. The building was purchased for $375,000 by Brad MacKinnon, a real estate developer based in Barrie, Ont., who had ties to Thunder Bay.

The Finlandia Co-operative, which formed after the sale of the building, had reached an agreement with the new owner to reopen the Hoito next year.

The building, which was designated as a national historic site in 2015, was originally built beginning in 1909.

Flames engulfed the roof and upper levels of the historic Finnish Labour Temple building. (Matt Vis/CBC)

Derek Parks, a former Finlandia Association board member who was involved in previous efforts to save the building, was in tears as he watched flames rip through the structure.

"You're born and raised in Thunder Bay; it's part of everyone's heritage," he said. "The history of the Labour Temple, it's significant not just for the city, but the region. Across the country everyone knows the Hoito, and the story.

"You saw when we were going through the bankruptcy. All the stories that came out from people all across the country and international. That kind of global support makes you realize it was really quite an icon for our area."

Firefighters continued to douse water onto the Finnish Labour Temple building on Bay Street, as of 5 a.m. ET Thursday. (Gord Ellis/CBC)

Parks said he hopes the fire doesn't mean the end of the history at the site.

"This building should be a focus of getting back in some form as the symbol it is for this community," he said.

"We can build again." 

Fire officials said the cause is undetermined at this point, though an investigation is expected to be conducted once the building is determined to be safe.


With files from Jeff Walters