The modern-day city of Sarnia located on the shores of the picturesque St. Clair river, at the base of Lake Huron, is steeped in Native American culture and tradition. The city of Sarnia as we know it today experienced a rich and sundry history long before the first European explorers ever stepped foot on the shores of the St. Clair. Local historians date Sarnia’s history back as far as the late 16th century when it was inhabited by the Sauk indigenous people (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016). The territory we now know as Sarnia would change hands multiple times before European settler’s first visit.
The Sauk people’s land was seized by the Tionontati indigenous people in the early 17th century (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016). The Tionontati people aligned themselves with the Council of Three Fires; this included the Potawatomi, Odawa and Anishinaabe people, solidifying their status as the reigning tribe of the area for nearly half a century. It was only after a territory dispute during the mid-17th century, that the land was occupied by the Mohawk, Seneca and Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016). 1669 saw the first French traders exploring the area and by the late 1680’s the French had established a Fort across the St. Clair river, in what is now Port Huron, Michigan. Building a close relationship with the French settlers in Port Huron, the Anishinaabe people leveraged their relationship with the French colony and together the Anishinaabe and the French overtook the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Canadian Encyclopedia). By 1701, the Anishinaabe and the Council of Three Fires gained control of the region (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016). Prospering greatly, the Anishinaabe population grew from 3,000 people in 1700 to over 10,000 in the 1770’s; they enjoyed their reign over the land in peace until the onset of the Seven Years’ War in 1756 (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016). The British fought to overtake the French colony in Port Huron and by the end of the war in 1763, the British had succeeded, resulting in the Anishinaabe’s loosing their French trading partners (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016).
Both British and the American settlers began to invade the Anishinaabe territory, spreading smallpox and other epidemics in the process (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016). In 1827, Treaty 29 was signed by the Anishinaabe people and the British Crown; this established the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve still found today. It was at this time that the British settlers formed the community known as “The Rapids”, later named Port Sarnia by Sir John Colborne in 1836 (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016). Sarnia, Ontario was incorporated as a town in 1856, it is then that the ‘Port’ was dropped and Sarnia as we know it today began to form. Merging with the town of Clearwater, Sarnia gained city status on May 7, 1914.
The mid to late 19th century saw great development for Sir John Colborne’s Port Sarnia. Great Western Railway extend its railway from London, Ontario to Sarnia in 1858, invading Grand Trunk Railway territory, and improving Sarnia transit. Running ferries across the St. Clair river allowed for travel from Sarnia to Port Huron, Michigan (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016). In 1859 travel from London to Sarnia became possible. With the addition of ferries from Sarnia to Port Huron, quick trips to the American neighbours became the norm. The St. Clair tunnel, opened in 1891, allowed freight and passenger trains as well as passenger vehicles access to Port Huron.
1858 brought the first glimpse of Sarnia as an oil refining mecca when the first oil well was tapped in Oil Springs (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016). Imperial Oil Company moved its operation from Petrolia to Sarnia in 1898, building a large refinery in Sarnia, beginning the first signs of the now infamous Chemical Valley. Sarnia truly solidified its standing as the core of petrochemical development during World War II. The Japanese military overtook the largest natural rubber source in Southeast Asia, cutting off allied forces synthetic rubber source and drastically affecting their chances of gaining victory in the second World War (Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016).
In response, C.D. Howe, Canada’s minister of Munitions and Supply, ordered the build of a synthetic rubber plant in Sarnia, Polymer Corporation. Polymer Corporation’ s purpose was to provide allied forces with synthetic rubber needed. The $50 million project was the largest government funded wartime project. After the construction of Polymer Corporation’s plant, many other petrochemical plants followed, thus, Chemical Valley was born. Tools and trinkets from this era are some of the many artifacts donated to the Sarnia historical society and can be found on display at the Lambton heritage museum. A visit to the heritage museum offers a walk through the history of Sarnia’s inception with photo gallery displays and war remembrance exhibits.
Although the history of the Blue Water Bridge begins in Port Huron, Michigan, the great silver arch is an iconic landmark of Sarnia, Ontario and lays at the heart of Sarnia’s identity. The now iconic bridge project started in Michigan in 1935. 1935 saw the passing of Act 147; this Act created the State Bridge Commission. The Commission’s purpose was to finance the design and build of the Blue Water Bridge, connecting Port Huron, Michigan to Point Edward, Ontario. Coined “America’s greatest bridge builder”, Ralph Modjeski spear headed the project as the lead engineer. Facing many obstacles from the U.S. government, Modjeski had to ensure the channels of the St. Clair river remain unobstructed during construction of the bridge. It was mandated that construction of the bridge, nor the bridge its self must not impede with shipping channels or the river, nor impede the U.S. military’s use of the river. To ensure the actual bridge would not hinder shipping, it was mandated that the bridge had to be suspended 150 feet above the water to allow for freighters to pass freely. Struggling with the requirements, Modjeski went through many drafts in the design process before settling on the cantilevered through-truss design that now graces the Sarnia, Canada skyline.
As construction began, both countries were responsible for building their own customs, immigration and toll facilities, as well as their own approaches to the actual bridge structure. Construction began in both countries, building out across the St. Clair river and meeting in the middle. Reaching a total of 6,178 feet from end to end, a width of 38 feet and a total height of 210, the Blue Water Bridge marked its first day of operation to great fan fair on October 10, 1938. With the completion of Highway 402 in Canada and interstates 69 and 94 in the U.S., Bridge traffic increased exponentially. In 1992 it was determined that a second bridge would be erected to accommodate the traffic increase. In anticipation of NAFTA, signed in 1994, authorities realized transportation channels from Canada to the U.S. would increase in importance and traffic flow. July 22, 1997 saw the opening of the second Blue Water Bridge.
After extensive restoration to the original bridge, the two bridges allowed for dedicated eastbound and westbound traffic, the original dedicated to westbound traffic, the new construction dedicated to eastbound traffic. With three lanes each and extensive customs on each side of the boarder, the Blue Water Bridge is one of the busiest boarder crossings in North America, seeing daily traffic in excess of 12,000 vehicles. The Bluewater Bridge now serves, not only as a backdrop to the lambton county skyline but as southwestern Ontarios premire border crossing.
Sarnia, Ontario is home to many diverse and interesting people. Many historic figures: political, famous and infamous have called the largest city in Lambton County home. Alexander Mackenzie, the second Prime Minister of Canada and the first Liberal Prime Minster, emigrated from Scotland with his family in 1822. After working as a stonemason in St. Catharines, Kingston and Montreal, he settled in Sarnia and started a family. Finding success in multiple areas: construction/building, editor of the Lambton Shield, and politics, Alexander Mackenzie successfully took office as the second Prime Minister of Canada in November 1873. Holding office from 1873 to 1878, he was defeated by his predecessor Sir John A. MacDonald. Mackenzie enjoyed a fruitful political career, outside the Prime Minister’s office until his death on April 17, 1892. His final resting place can be found in Sarnia’s Lakeview Cemetery. An energetic interest in space and space travel in young generations across Canada can be attributed to Sarnia’s own Chris Hadfield. Born August 29, 1959 in Sarnia, Ontario, Chris holds the honour of being the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space. With a background as a Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot, and an engineer, Chris served as International Space Station commander and spent a total of 166 days in space. With three separate missions, the first in 1995, second in 2001 and the third in 2012 Chris solidified his standing as a beloved astronaut.
Hadfield’s popularity skyrocketed (pun intended) when he began chronicling his life as an astronaut and making social media posts about his time in space. He also gained popularity with students, by using social media platforms Chris answered questions about life in space and conducted experiments suggested by students, eg. What happens if you spill water in space? The subsequent video posts proved to be a huge hit. Chris is now regarded as a national treasure, making Sarnia proud across the globe Hadfield’s accomplishments were commemorated with the renaming of Sarnia’s airport in his honour. Chris Hadfield airport continues to proudly serve Lambton County and beyond.
Perhaps the most infamous character in Sarnia’s history is that of Norman ‘Red’ Ryan. Dubbed the Canadian Jesse James, Ryan wrecked havoc as an armed robber across Ontario, Quebec and into the U.S. Robbing banks and liquor stores, Ryan killed a total of six people during his career as a criminal. After spending time in Kingston Penitentiary, Red began to live a double life. He acted as host of a popular radio show by day and continued his life of crime by night. Red even went so far as to befriend and fraternize with well respected officials such as Toronto city alderman, a high-ranking judge, and police officials in his effort to appear reformed to the public. According to Lambton County archives, on May 23, 1936 Ryan set a strategic plan in motion to rob the liquor store at 140 Christina St N in Sarnia at closing time, 6 p.m. Unfortunately for Ryan, 6 p.m. marked the shift change at the local police station. This resulted in a large number of officers at the police station in the basement of city hall when a call came through at 5:58 p.m. that a robbery was in progress at the liquor store not far away. Storming the scene through the outdoor police were determined to take the robbers out. Ryan heard the commotion and ran for the back stairs, to be surprised by the officers. A deadly gun battle ensued, two officers were killed in the line of duty, the first ever for the Sarnia police department. Not to be deterred from the job at hand, office George Smith followed the fleeing Ryan in hot pursuit. Shots rang out, and staff and customers of the store cowered in fear. A bullet from Smith’s revolver struck the temple of the infamous bandit, putting an end to his crime spree and leading to Norman ‘Red’ Ryan’s ultimate demise.
The city of Sarnia is picturesque in its location, rich in its local history, vital in the petrochemical industry, and intriguing in its residence. Under the care of Mayor Mike Bradley, Sarnia is proud of its heritage, and hopeful for its future. Sarnia, Ontario continues to grow and prosper as an industry leader and a community united.
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