Our Story

1. The Building

Our story began over 100 years ago in 1909, when land was purchased by Molson Co. (as in Molson Brewery) in what was the highest price ever paid for a downtown property in Canada. The $35 000 paid for 27 S. Cumberland St. in downtown Port Arthur is equivalent to around $2.5 million in today’s money. Blueprints were drawn up by Mickelson and Assoc. for the finest bank building in the land. The three story building would have offices on the second floor and bank manager’s quarters on the third floor, boasting the latest 1909 technologies and featuring a beautiful exterior made of limestone mined from the Rossport area.

Molson’s bank opened doors in 1912, doing regular banking business to blooming families of loggers, miners, shippers, and prospectors of the Port Arthur area.

In 1954, a national deal was made by Molson’s Co. to sell all bank assets to the Bank of Montreal. The latter bank opened in the same location and operated there for several years only to move its downtown branch in 1984.(You’ve probably heard enough about banks by now, so here’s where it gets interesting…)

2. The Brothers

Around that time the Hockenhull brothers, Slate River farmers who grew up in Fort William, ON, (now Thunder Bay south) made plans to buy the bank building at 27 S. Cumberland St. As the Hockenhulls had a sense of right and wrong, knew little about banking and had an abundance of knowledge on beef, culinary, and customer care, they decided to open a full service restaurant in the building, instead of the bank it had been for 72 years prior. Their plan was to serve the best meals in Thunder Bay using the following formula:

  • Use fresh beef and produce from Hockenhull Farms
  • Use recipes for soups, sauces, and buns that the Hockenhull family had collected over the years, and
  • Employ the friendliest, most knowledgeable people around to give the finest service around

Now all they needed was a name…

A Prospector, to keep it simple, is a person who samples and surveys rock, dirt, river beds and all the land with the hope of finding enough gold, silver, copper, zinc, iron or other metals to open a mine himself, or sell the rights to those minerals to a larger mining company. So essentially, a prospector is a person searching for treasure.

In the old days, a prospector would be away from home for months at a time, searching for his treasure. Usually alone, the prospector would head out on foot, sled, or canoe, Braving the worst of northern Ontario nature, the prospector would encounter wild animals, endless lakes and rivers, thick deciduous and coniferous forest and extreme heat and cold. Before heading out, and upon returning, it’s safe to say that a prospector might want a home cooked meal including soup, bread, buns and quite possibly a monster slab of prime rib or a juicy steak.

The Hockenhulls wanted a name that defined the quality home cooked meals, friendly service, and great value that a hard working northerner demanded in the days of old. They achieved this in the name: The Prospector Steak House, know affectionately by most Thunder Bay townies as “The Prospector”.

3. The Prospector

Founded by Brothers Leo and Michael Hockenhull, the Prospector opened doors in April of 1985, serving lunch and dinner to hungry Thunder Bay patrons. The Prospector quickly became a lunch time favorite of many downtown workers and a dinnertime must for families enjoying the prosperous eighties.

In 1989, the Prospector moved to the Marshal Wells building at 37 S. Cumberland St. one block south of the original location. The move was to accommodate the growing popularity of the Prospector, giving the restaurant double the floor space and twice the seating capacity.

Thunder Bay suffered considerable job decline as area industry took many big hits during the 90’s. Grain shipping through Thunder Bay port was cut considerably, but it was the forestry industry that was hit the hardest. Several area mills closed, and the ones that remained opened cut a great deal of their workforce.

During these hard economic times, The Prospector moved to Keskus mall in a feeble attempt to regain the lost lunch crowd amongst mall patrons. The mall was eventually torn down to make way for the Thunder Bay Charity Casino. In 1998, The Prospector reopened in the original bank location on 27 S. Cumberland St. Word spread through Thunder Bay like wildfire that the city’s favorite restaurant had reopened in the city’s favorite spot. Soon the quality served up at the restaurant during the 80’s had returned.

Later that same year, the Hockenhull family brought in the leadership of Thunder Bay businesswoman Joyce Ilkka. Through her knowledge, kindness, genuine sincerity and dedication for patrons, Joyce has gained legendary status as general manager of the Prospector Steak House. Though it’s widely known that Joyce would make the perfect mayoral candidate, she remains committed to her customers and staff at the Prospector Steak House.

Because of people like Joyce, and other long time employees, the Prospector has enjoyed huge success. Long line ups and severe wait times resulted, and dining space and holding areas were expanded to address hungry patrons.

In 2002, The Hockenhull Brothers and Sons incurred a great loss as Prospector co-founder Michael “The Bear” Hockenhull passed away, leaving things up to Leo, his sons John and Tony and Joyce. Mike is greatly missed by friends, family and customers alike for his friendly smile, attitude, love for others and his strong Christian faith.

We pledge that the quality of the food service available at the Prospector will never waiver. They promise never to change the following ingredients for the restaurant’s success:Leadership: integral to any successful team, we are led by The Hockenhulls and Joyce Ilkka:

  • Customer knowledge: pleasing you has remained our goal since we opened doors in 1985.
  • Quality Ingredients: we still cook with the finest quality meats and produce available to give to you, because that’s what you deserve.
  • Know-how and care are added into every meal: Our cooks and servers are highly trained in culinary and customer care, we add a lot of each into everything we prepare.
  • People: We still employ the best kitchen and dining staff. Some of or original employees from 1985 are still with us today.

Thanks for checking out the history of the Prospector. Join us tonight and become part of the story!