Home SECTION HOME Histories of Rotary Districts & Clubs - www.districthistory.org SEARCH


From "Under the Northern Lights"

Canadian history at www.canadaclubs.org

Edited or written by Rotary Global History historian PDG Jim Angus

District 5580

District 5580 is an international district encompassing all of North Dakota, the northern half of Minnesota, a section of western Wisconsin (including Club #40 at Superior), and  part of northwest Ontario. The oldest club, currently in this district is Duluth #25

Geographically, District 5580 is one of the largest districts in North America, stretching twelve hundred miles from Marathon, Ontario, the location of the District’s most easterly Rotary Club, to Bowman, North Dakota on the west, and north to James Bay. A person travelling across the length of this vast District will see the badlands and the prairies of North Dakota, the fertile farmland of the Red River Valley in both North Dakota and Minnesota, the lakes and forests of northern Minnesota, the iron mines of the Minnesota Arrowhead region, the apple orchards of northwest Wisconsin, and the logging, mining, fishing, and tourist areas of northwest Ontario. The District contains sixty-six Rotary clubs – sixty clubs in the United States and six in Zone 22. The Zone 22 clubs are: Marathon, Geralton, Nipigon, Thunder Bay/Port Arthur, Thunder Bay/Fort William, and Thunder Bay/Lakehead. Fort Frances, a seventh Zone 22 club, surrendered its charter in 2002. The balance of this history will concentrate on the activities of the Zone 22 clubs, acting independently or in conjunction with U.S. clubs.

The Outlaw Bridge at Pigeon River    


Years ago, roads in northwestern Ontario and northeastern Minnesota were rudimentary logging roads.  Even on these roads, there was no way to travel from  Forth William and Port Arthur to Duluth by vehicle, because there was no bridge across the Pigeon River separating Ontario and Minnesota. Rotarians met the situation head-on and solved the problem. The following account was extracted from a history of the “Outlaw Bridge” written by Past RI President Crawford McCullough in 1955.

            The Pigeon River Timber Company, with a mill at Port Arthur, had lumbered the area beyond Slate River, reaching the Pigeon River. A devious, partly dismantled bush trail used in the earliest timber operations still existed. Through the combined efforts of prominent citizens on each side of the border, and the financial assistance of Ontario’s Department of Mines and Resources on one hand, and Cook County and Minnesota State authorities on the other, the district road through Slate River and beyond was, by 1916, extended via the old trail to the Pigeon River, and the existing Minnesota road northward through Grand Marais was extended to the Pigeon.

          In early 1916, the Rotary Club of Fort William-Port Arthur was founded under the aegis of the Rotary Club of Duluth, Minnesota. William Scott, manager of the Pigeon River Lumber Company of Port Arthur, was one of twenty-three charter members of the new Club. He soon convinced the members of the Club to take the lead in promoting ways and means to link the two deadend roads by a bridge across the Pigeon.

            The Pigeon River, being an international waterway, could be permanently bridged only by joint action of the American and Canadian  governments. It was soon apparent to the Fort William/Port Arthur Rotarians that this would be a prolonged and tedious process.

            Here was an emergency that could only be met by taking urgent and unorthodox measures. It was decided to raise funds locally to build a wooden bridge to span the gap. Here again, William Scott showed his virtuosity as a leader. The Rotary Club of Duluth raised fifteen hundred dollars; Cook County, Minnesota granted two thousand dollars; Fort William and Port Arthur, through the efforts of the Rotary Club, also raised two thousand dollars. D. B. Fegles, a charter member of the Fort William-Port Arthur Rotary Club and an engineer who headed a Fort William construction firm bearing his name, did the necessary engineering free of charge. His firm was then awarded the contract to construct the bridge at cost.      

          During the winter of 1916-17, materials and supplies were hauled to the site, and by early summer the structure was completed. During the construction period, plans were already in the making for a suitable opening of the new highway and bridge on an international scale. Future RI President, Dr. C. C. McCullough of Fort William, who at that time was president of the joint Rotary Club, headed a committee which included the entire membership of the Club, to complete and carry out these plans.

            Complete co-operation of all interested organizations, the citizens in general, and particularly the village of Grand Marais was attained. To represent the Ontario government, the Honourable G. Howard Ferguson, Minister of Mines, Forests and Highways (later premier) agreed to be present. Due to a previous engagement, the Governor of Minnesota could not attend. For obvious reasons, because the bridge was international in fact but not in law, no invitations to participate in the celebrations were extended to federal authorities. It was a case of presenting the national authorities with a fait accompli.

            On 18 August 1917, a motorcade of sixty-five cars, carrying two hundred and forty people, accompanied by a pipe band and a mobile motor and tire repair shop, set out from Fort William and Port Arthur, navigated the primitive highway, crossed the gaily decorated bridge, and made its way over the connecting new road through the Native reserve to the outskirts of Grand Marais, Minnesota, where a triumphal arch had been erected. Here the cavalcade was met by a welcoming committee from Cook County, citizens of Grand Marais, and seventy-five Rotarians from Duluth. With this enthusiastic escort, the cavalcade, now consisting of five hundred people, made its way to the grounds of the Cook County courthouse where a formal ceremony opening the road took place.

            The funds raised for the bridge did not quite cover all the costs of its construction. When the Minister of Mines, Forests and Highways was informed of the deficit, he graciously agreed that his department would pay the seven hundred and sixty-eight dollars that was owed to the construction firm.

            Eventually, the two federal governments got around to authorizing the construction of a bridge across the international waterway of the Pigeon River. It was not recorded whether the Rotary Bridge was known to them or not, but it must have been designated as an international bridge, for it was not until thirteen years after its construction that the Rotary Bridge was replaced by a steel bridge under joint federal authority. The steel bridge has been replaced by a concrete structure located farther downstream. As for the Rotary Bridge, it has always been known affectionately as “The Outlaw Bridge of Pigeon River.”

In 1987, a ceremony commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the construction of the Outlaw Bridge, organized by PDG Gordon Judge, was held at the Pigeon River, with R.I. President M.A.T. Caparas in attendance. A commemorative plaque was unveiled at the site of the bridge.

The Peru Medical Clinic Project

Ever since the precedent set by the construction of the Outlaw Bridge, a strong bond of friendship and co-operation has existed between the Rotary Clubs of Duluth, Minnesota and Thunder Bay, Ontario. Creation of a medical clinic in the Peru jungle by the clubs in the two cities is a continuing example of how international co-operation can produce beneficial results. Jon Helstrom, architect and member of the Rotary Club of Duluth, proposed the project, following a visit to the project site with fellow Rotarian, Dr. Joseph Leek.  The Rotarians visited Dr. Linnea Smith, a Wisconsin doctor who had given up a successful medical practice to provide medical care to the Yagua people in Las Palmeras, a village in the Yanamono region of Peru, fifty miles down the Amazon River from the city of  Iquitos.

            The site visit revealed that Dr. Smith was operating out of very primitive facilities and needed assistance in order to continue delivering adequate care. Helstrom designed a medical clinic sixty by thirty feet with thirteen rooms and a residence twenty by twenty-five feet with a roofless latrine for Dr.Smith. The estimated cost was US $30,000 for material; labour would be provided by Rotarian volunteers.

            Helstrom discussed the project with the Duluth Rotary Club, which gave Dr Smith a one year grant of  four thousand dollarsto allow her to rent better space and hire some Yagua assistants, until funding was secured for permanent facilities. Since The Rotary Foundation does not give matching grants for construction of buildings, most the money had to come from Rotary Clubs and individuals. The project captured the hearts and minds of Rotarians and non-Rotarians alike. The Rotary Clubs of Duluth, Duluth Harbortown, Thunder Bay/Port Arthur, and Thunder Bay/Lakehead contributed the funds and forty Rotarians and their partners from Duluth and Thunder Bay went to Yanamono in February 1993, at their own expense, to build the facility. The six thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars donated by the Rotary Club of Thunder Bay/Port Arthur was matched with a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The Mechanical Contractors Association of Thunder bay, with no particular association with Rotary, donated one thousand dollars to the project and District Governor Jim Angus made a personal donation.

            On Saturday, 20 February 1993, three volunteers from Thunder Bay joined with eighteen volunteers from Duluth at the Duluth Airport with luggage, tools, and equipment for the one-month project. (They were joined later by others.)  The party flew to Iquitos, a city of approximately seven hundred thousand people, situated on the Amazon River, four degrees south of the Equator. They arrived in Iquitos about 11 p.m.. The next morning, the party met with Dr Smith at the Explorama Hotel dock and loaded their equipment and themselves onto the hotel’s boat. Equipment included one table saw, one cut-off saw, three generators (there is no electricity at the site), various power tools, and the volunteers’ hand tools.

             By noon, they arrived at Explorama Lodge, settled into their rooms, and enjoyed the first of many fine meals at the dining hall – catfish, fresh vegetables, hearts of palm, beans, rice, fried bananas, and fresh fruit. In the afternoon’ they hiked the mile-long path through ankle-deep jungle mud to the clinic site, a corner of a sugar cane field donated by owners of the neighbouring farm. The site had been cleared and the foundation posts (hualcapus) had been installed by local residents. A barge loaded with construction materials for both the clinic and Dr. Smith’s house was moored on the banks of the river, about seventy-five yards from the site. The materials had been bought by Helstrom and delivered by the Rotary Club of Iquitos.

            Extracts from the diary of Roly Turner, a plumber and member of the Rotary Club of Thunder Bay/Port Arthur, who, with the help of his wife Judy, installed the plumbing system, provides a glimpse into the experience of the volunteers.


            February 22 – Work day #1

            At 6 a.m., the volunteers walk to the site and unload the barge, sort, file and inventory the             materials at the clinic site. … Local men, women, and children are most eager to help….   We are all impressed with their strength, stamina, and enthusiasm to work. This afternoon we begin to level and cut the hualcapus, and start to build a fabricating shop for the cabinet-furniture makers. The construction materials for the doctor’s residence are           transferred from the barge to a smaller boat, taken up the Yanamono Stream adjacent to the lodge and unloaded. … The jungle has been cleared and the hualcapus are being installed by the Natives. … This evening we enjoy our first well-earned refreshment in the lodge cantina, complete with live entertainment.


            February 23 – Work day #2 - through March 6 – Work day # 13

            Our daily routine is much the same: rise at 5 a.m. and dress, usually in yesterday’s damp, dirty and sometimes mouldy clothes. Have tea in dining room – forgo breakfast … take one or two bananas to eat as we walk to the site. Sun rises at 6 a.m. Work at the site until noon, return to the lodge, shower, dress in clean shorts and shirt for lunch … return to our room or the hammock house for a siesta or reading/writing time.

                        We return to the site between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. and work until 6 p.m. The sun sets shortly after. We return to the lodge, dress in clean clothes and enjoy fellowship and a cocktail in the cantina. At 7:30 p.m., we enjoy a meal of fish, chicken      or beef, vegetables, hearts of palm, beans and rice (yes beans and rice) bananas (boiled,  baked, or fried) and fresh fruit. The first few weeks of long hours usually see us in bed by   9p.m.The rice and beans novelty twice a day soon wears off.

                        On Sunday, February 28, the arrival of Laird Schrimshaw from the Lakehead Club, and six more volunteers from Duluth bring our total contingent to 28. … The new arrivals are quickly and unceremoniously put to work. By March 13 (day #13) we have levelled and cut the hualcapus, installed the floor beams, joists and decking, raised and sheeted  the outside walls, fabricated and installed the roof trusses and  corrugated metal roofing, installed and covered the inside walls, and begin work on the ceilings and plumbing system. Our well driller, Ryan Richards, an American living in Iquitos    for some eight years, has made two visits to the site. The well is drilled and being purged and cleaned out. Work on the Doctor’s house has begun. Native craftsmen have constructed the roof support rafters, and thatched roof. Volunteers have levelled and   cut the hualcapus and begin work on the floor.

                        During this period, two of the Duluth surgeons take time away from their carpentry duties to practice their craft with Dr Smith in the existing clinic. Using a battery powered head lamp … they remove a basal cell carcinoma from a local man’s face.

                        Though this period consists of fairly intense work days to ensure a scheduled        completion, it sees some very strong and long lasting friendships grow within an interesting blend of construction workers; male (21), female (7), Americans (24), Canadians (4), a handful of professionals and those with varying degrees of amateur carpentry skills – 28 pairs of eager hands in all. Good examples are the talented cabinet-      furniture makers - teaching physician from the University of  Minnesota (Duluth) medical     school and a professional engineer.

                        On March 6, we lose eight of our volunteers. … they find it hard to leave new friends and a partially completed project. Fifteen of those who remain – the “lifers” –    have chosen to see the job from start to finish.

            March 7 – Work day #14 and Fiesta day      

             This morning we clean and decorate the site for the official dedication. By noon District  Governor Jim Angus and Pat along with four volunteers from Thunder Bay and four more from Duluth arrive to boost our numbers to 30.

                        Members of the two Rotary Clubs in Iquitos and 400 residents of Las Palmeras    and many neighbouring villages join us for the dedication ceremony. Dr. Smith,    Fernando Torres (president of the Iquitos Rotary Club), Jon Helstrom, Bruce Von Riedel (the constriction foreman) and District Governor Jim Angus make a number of short         speechesand presentation. Governor Jim has lugged a 50 lb. bronze plaque all the way from Thunder Bay… . After the ceremony all gather at the schoolhouse for the fiesta, complete with musical entertainment, dancing, complimentary rum drinks and one dollar    cervosa (beer). A well deserved break for all!

            March 10 – Work day # 17 through March 14 – Work day #21

            We lose Governor Jim and Pat and five Duluthians, who leave for a short trip to Machu    Picchu, and then home. We greet one newcomer, for a work force of 24. On March 13 we    gain one more. During the last days our pace slows down, and we actually enjoy the odd breakfast. … One crew completes the clinic, including solar panels, electrical system, plumbing system, doors, window screening, and ceilings. Another crew remains at the doctor’s house to complete the floor. They also finish the outside walls, window screening and inside partitions. The house is a curious blend of Amazonian and North    American architecture.

            March 15 – Work day #22 (last work day)

            Dr. Smith moves into the clinic facility, which is complete accept for paint and running      water. The well driller has yet to return and complete the connection of the well head to the water system. … Dr. Smith will recruit local volunteers to paint and maintain the    buildings. Her house is complete and ready to move into, but the latrine and shower unit    still lacks a roof. Later in the afternoon, Jon Helstrom acquires a boat and takes 12 of us to the middle of the river for a swim. The 15-minute exercise sees boat and swimmers carried at least one mile down stream by the current.

            March 16.

            All but four leave the site for a short trip to southern Peru to visit historic Cusco and the    famous Inca ruins of Macchu Picchu, then home. The final trip upriver to Iquitos is a quiet and touching experience, as we leave many new found friends behind. Those who remain put the finishing touches on the building and prepare the remaining tools and equipment for the return home. By Sunday March 24, all 40 volunteers have returned home. All 40 gave 100% to make the project a success.


In 1995, the Thunder Bay and Duluth Rotary Clubs raised funds, and sent a team of volunteers to Las Palmeras to construct a four-room , fourteen by forty foot addition to the building. This gave Dr. Smith enough room to accommodate a new dental surgery and three rooms for visiting medical staff. In 1999, Rotarians in Thunder Bay and Duluth obtained a Rotary Foundation Discovery Grant to identify three potential well sites in Las Palmeras. In 2000, Rotarians from Thunder Bay/Port Arthur and Duluth drilled three wells with the help of a local well driller and installed hand pumps. The pumps are on platforms approximately five feet above ground to allow use during the Amazon flood season.          Governor Jim Angus and Dr. Linnea Smith at the dedication ceremony of the Yanamono Medical Clinic

The Las Camelias, Guatemala Electrical Project

A Joint World Community Service Project


In June 1997, Roly Turner, a veteran of the Peru Clinic Project,and now chair of the World Community Service Committee of the Thunder Bay/Port Arthur Rotary Club, became concerned about the lack of participation in World Community Service projects by the seven Rotary Clubs in District 5580.  It became clear that some of the obstacles facing clubs were their small sizes, restricted funds, and lack of experience with applications to the Rotary Foundation for matching grants. He and committee member Paul Lehto proposed that the clubs join forces and identify, and finance (through club funds and matching grants) a substantial World Community Service Project. The result would be that all the clubs involved would experience the process of participating in a World Community Service project from start to finish and thus gain confidence for launching a project of their own.

             Following invitations to the seven Rotary Clubs in District 5580, a working group of fifteen members, representing the five clubs agreeing to participate, was formed. After a series of meetings by telephone, fax and in person, the clubs agreed to support a project identified in the 1997 Uniendo America Project Fair. In January 1958, Roly Turner, with the help of a District 5580 discovery grant, travelled to Las Camelias, Guatamala to meet with members of the Guatamela Del Este Rotary Club, and members of the Las Camelias Development Committee. As a result of the meeting, it was agreed that plans would be made to provide electrical power to approximately ne hundred and seventy families in the village of Las Camelias.

            The five clubs – three clubs in Thunder Bay and the Marathon and Nipigon Rotary Clubs – committed U.S. $6,800 and the working group began applying for matching grants. All applications were successful and the project was funded as follows:

Five District 5580 clubs     US               $6,800

District 5580 (SHARE)                             6,800

The Rotary Foundation                           13,600

CRCID                                                          2,225       

Las Camelias Development Committee  9,000

Municipality of Patzun, Guatemala          3,225            

Total Project cost                                   $41,650

            The project was completed before the end of November 1998 by local contractors under the supervision and authority of the Guatemala Power Corporation. Electric power was supplied to one hundred and seventy homes; because the contract came in slightly under budget, the contractor used the balance of the funds to install lighting on the path that runs through the community. The citizens now have electric lights and power for doing homework or the production of goods for sale by cottage industries. The Guatemala Power Corporation maintains the system and charges the homeowners for service.

As predicted by Turner, the Las Camelias electrical project generated a number of World Community Service projects by the Canadian clubs. The Rotary Club of Thunder Bay/ Port Arthur launched two more projects jointly with the Guatemala Del Este Rotary Club. One involved reconstruction of a school in El Escarbo, Guatemala to be used as a community centre and adult craft training centre. Completed in 2003, the total cost was Cdn. $15,000. The second project provided a migrant shelter house with kitchen and sleeping facilities in Tecum Uman, Guatemala. Completed in 2004, the shelter cost Cdn. $17,500.

            The Rotary Club of Thunder Bay/Fort William teamed up with the Rotary Club of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to construct a community education and health centre at the Puerto Vallarta city dump. The total cost was Cdn. $20,000. A second project, launched jointly with the Rotary Club of Calcutta Inner City, India in 2002-2003, saw construction and equipment of a community eye hospital in Calcutta at a cost of Cdn. $28,000.

              The small Club of Nipigon launched two World Community Service projects. At a cost of Cdn. $16,000 and working jointly with the Guatemala Del Este Rotary Club, the Nipigon Club created a laundry facility in a boys’ home in El Aguacate, Guatemala. At the time of writing, (January 2004) the Nipigon Club, in co-operation with the Rotary Clubs of Marathon and Geralton, is developing a community water project in El Hato, Guatemala at an estimated cost of Cdn. $18,200. The co-sponsoring club is Guatemala Antigua.

RGHF Home | Disclaimer | Privacy | Usage Agreement | RGHF on Facebook | Subscribe | Join RGHF - Rotary's Memory Since 2000