CCGS Alexander Henry National Historic Site

A large Coast Guard ship on the water
The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Alexander Henry docked in Thunder Bay, Ontario, 2022.
© Parks Canada / Will Pratt

The former Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Alexander Henry was designated a national historic site in 2023.

Commemorative plaque: No plaque installedFootnote 1

CCGS Alexander Henry

The former Canadian Coast Guard Ship (CCGS) Alexander Henry is a retired light icebreaker, buoy tender, and navigational aid ship that served on the Great Lakes from 1959 to 1985. As the main Canadian icebreaker committed to Lake Superior, and the first government-owned icebreaker there, Alexander Henry provided exemplary service to marine navigation, breaking ice to extend the shipping season at the Lakehead. The ship’s critical duties included supplying lighthouses and escorting lighthouse keepers, maintaining buoys, and performing life-saving search and rescue missions. The vessel represents the commitment of the Government of Canada to marine navigation in a period of expanding shipping and trade.

Black and white photo of a Coast Guard ship
The ship off the Keefer terminal, Thunder Bay, Ontario, circa 1983. 
© George Lucas, CCG, courtesy of the Transportation Museum of Thunder Bay

Designed by the Montréal naval architectural firm German & Milne, and built by the Port Arthur Shipbuilding Company, the ship was launched on 18 July 1958. The vessel was one of over ten icebreakers ordered as a part of a government shipbuilding program prompted by a post-war expansion of shipping and trade alongside concerns for sovereignty in the Arctic. Originally constructed for the Department of Transport’s Marine Services fleet, the ship was one of 49 large vessels incorporated into the Canadian Coast Guard upon that agency’s inception in 1962 and repainted the service’s iconic red and white.

The vessel is part of a long history of government regulation and support for marine navigation and is an excellent representative of activity on the Great Lakes. The Coast Guard was formed to meet the increasing complexities of these tasks, and Alexander Henry would serve in the Central Region, with district offices in Prescott and Parry Sound. The ship was responsible for the safe navigation of huge volumes of shipping enabled by the construction of canals and locks, culminating in the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 which allowed full-sized ocean bulk carriers to travel the Upper St. Lawrence River and to all five of the Great Lakes. One of Alexander Henry’s roles was to extend the shipping season as long as possible, breaking channels in the ice from the Lakehead at the northernmost ports in the system during the freeze-up in early winter and around break-up in the spring. Major bulk cargoes shipped on Lake Superior include grain, coal, iron ore, and pulpwood, and the region became a major feature of the Canadian economy. The ship also maintained navigational aids, bringing lighthouse keepers and supplies to the various light stations, and maintaining buoys during the shipping season. The vessel could be called to perform search and rescue missions whenever marine disaster struck. While the vast majority of Alexander Henry’s work was on Lake Superior, in the 1980s, the ship sailed to the Newfoundland Region, where it helped tend navigational aids.

“The Board of Directors of the Transportation Museum of Thunder Bay (TMTB) is honoured that the former Canadian Coast Guard Ship, Alexander Henry - built in Thunder Bay and now a museum ship with TMTB - has been officially designated a national historic site in recognition of Alexander Henry's historical importance in Canadian maritime history.”

Wally Peterson, Chair of the Lakehead Transportation Museum Society

The vessel was retired in July 1985, after which the former CCGS Alexander Henry became a museum ship. It was first exhibited at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston where it was well maintained for over three decades. In 2017, the ship was purchased by the Lakehead Transportation Museum Society and towed to Thunder Bay where it continues to host visitors in the summer. The vessel is one of the best surviving examples of the government’s icebreaker construction programme of the late 1950s, designed to meet Canada’s responsibilities off its coasts and on inland waters.

This press backgrounder was prepared at the time of the Ministerial announcement in 2023.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Get information on how to participate in this process

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