Sarnia from the Port-Side – Summer 1956

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Anna Young

The setting sun is reflected in low, billowy, cloud formations on the Canadian side of the St. Clair River, which is growing darker by the minute, as a big ore carrier, with lights on deck and masts, powered by the miracle of her dynamo, emerges from under the span of the International Bridge where Lake Huron flows into the river. The ship, carried by the nine mile current at this point, glides noiselessly along the rhythmic course that ships and cargoes have travelled for 200 years. Its silhouette combines with the river’s ancient waters, shifting and iridescent in the growing darkness, with mirrored images of spiles and derelicts to capture one’s imagination. All through the night they pass, by night as well as by day, for the river is a sparkling, winding thoroughfare of changing moods and wonderful cloud effects, a backdrop for the pattern of men and ships.

Blue Water Bridge to Sarnia

Although International Bridges have come with progress they will never provide the color and novelty of the old Sarnia-Port Huron ferries. Choppy crossings, well-buried “treasure” smuggled in baby carriages or suspended from swinging undergarments, popcorn and peanut shells, are long remembered features of those old ferry-boat days. During this period Point Edward situated at the mouth of the St. Clair River, one mile above Sarnia, was a railway terminus for trains crossing to the U. S. by car-ferry. However, on the completion of the St. Clair tunnel it assumed a smaller role almost overnight. Its loading facilities being favorably situated were used by the Northern Navigation Company as a freight and passenger terminal even though passenger offices were maintained and traffic was routed through Sarnia.

Although Sarnia Bay has now been cleared, in the interest of politics and a dubious speck of town planning, it was in days gone by a harbor of ship’s bones consisting of rotting timbers, old anchors and rusting chains, all of which lay forgotten by everyone but the local boys for whom it made a delicious rendezvous. Here some were taught a grim lesson but in spite of the various hazards, such as the wash from passing ships, which threatened those who teetered precariously on homemade rafts, or the thin coating of ice which formed between seasons and tempted a few, drownings were rare, even though supervision of the waterfront was unknown. The proximity of churches to the water made religious education something of a choice as, although the boys started for Sunday School, only occasionally did some of the worthier members straggle up the bank and into classes at the ringing of the bells. The majority remained to enjoy the quiet waters of the Bay and only vaguely heard the bells afar off.

The premises of the Reid Towing and Wrecking Company was the rendezvous of the old timers for, as many of the jobs performed by the firm were epics in their day, what better place could be found for reminiscence? The saying “Reids can do it,” meant that the company, under the guiding genius of Captain Tom Reid, a worthy successor to his father, was ready for the hardest kind of business and its docks were used by these same old timers as a barometer of the times. Each morning, as Sarnia roused to the light of a new day, they would eye Reid’s to check on the positions of the tugs City of Sarnia and Guardian and the homely old salvage vessel, a powerful red and black hulk, the Maplecourt, which usually lay like an old watch dog with one eye open, her fires bunkered down but geared for an emergency anywhere on the Lakes. If one of these were missing the question popped, “Where’s the trouble?”

Watchers from all walks of life stopped on the street, dropped the check on the horses’ necks and stood in a fence corner or pulled up beside the willows of the river-bank to watch the passing boats. The ships of the company which started as the Beatty Line received more than a fair share of attention, for every Sarnian had an intensely possessive pride in the company. This line and its successors operated a fleet of package freight and passenger vessels out of Sarnia for nearly eighty years and the fact that many of the officers were fellow townsmen bred a personal interest in their careers.


The Beatty Line was organized by the late Henry Beatty of Thorold in 1870 with the Manitoba. This ship, a paddle-wheeler built in Port Colbome, was commissioned to run between the ports of Sarnia and Thunder Bay with calls at Silver Islet, Batchawana and Keewatin on Lake Superior. Captain Symmes, of Sarnia, was her first skipper. She was joined by the Ontario in 1872 and the Quebec in 1873. They had been constructed of white oak at a Chatham, Ontario shipyard, were propeller driven and were among the largest ships operating at that time on the Great Lakes.

In 1876 the name of the firm was changed to the Northwest Transportation Company by Messrs. Jas. H. and John B. Beatty who became managers when Henry Beatty went over to the C.P.R. The new management added two more ships, the Asia and the Sovereign, which were canal size and operated from Kingston to Prince Arthur’s Landing, carrying rails for the new C.P.R. transcontinental railroad. In 1882 the Asia went on the Collingwood, Owen Sound, Sault Ste-Marie run and was lost that year on Georgian Bay, leaving only two survivors of the 100 souls on board. During this same year the United Empire, Queen of the Beatty Line, was launched by the Parry – Dyble Shipbuilding Company, located on the site of the present Number One Plant of the Imperial Oil Refinery at Sarnia. Built with an arch truss to add strength to her hull she used both wind and steam. Her power was supplied by a 1,000 h. p. engine, built by George One of St. Catharines, then a thriving shipping centre, and she carried a foremast sail, similar to that of a Thames barge. This was said to add both speed and steadiness. Affectionately called “Old Betsy” by her crew, she supposedly had accommodation for 150 passengers at rates as low as $28.00 return, berth and meals included. Her first Master was Captain Ed. Robertson, known to his friends as “Pa” Robertson. He was followed by Captain R. D. Foote and then by Captain John McNab who continued as Master until she was rebuilt in Collingwood and returned to the Lakes as the Saronic. Later she became a barge.


The Monarch, built in 1890 at Sarnia, with arches of steel running fore and aft to strengthen her white oak, became a total loss when, coming down on the last run of the 1906 season, she went on the rocks of Isle Royale. After the Monarch there were no further ships built at Sarnia for 54 years until the Mac-Craft Corporation used the shipyards for the duration of the second World War. When their first small vessel went down the ways there was no one present who remembered being present at the last launching.

The first forty years of this century brought glistening passenger boats which operated seven day luxury class cruises. Their pennants flying and their decks lined with vacationists, these ships came from Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago and Duluth. Among them were the Great Lakes Transit Company ships Octorara, Tionesta and Juanita; the D. & C. Navigation Company ships Greater Buffalo and Greater Detroit together with the Northwest, Northland, North American and South American of Chicago interests. They provided entertainment and relaxation unsurpassed by modern standards. During this same period there were the perky daily excursion vessels, their clean black and white lines cutting across the inimitable blue of a brilliant afternoon on the river, familiar to all and highly patronized in their time. The Tashmoo which had a smooth, sharp prow, that answered to her engines like a dog to its master, along with the Put-in-Bay and Thousand Islander gave wholesome relaxation and holiday diversion to rich and poor, young and old. By moonlight the young people tripped the light fantastic romantically on their dancing floors.

By moon and by barometer readings fearless, vigilant navigators from Sarnia handled their ships with skill and daring on the notoriously difficult waters of the Great Lakes and many of them perished. Slowly improvements were added to ease their task. In 1916 the Glensha, later renamed Goderich, was the first to be equipped with wireless, and in 1925 the Gleneagles was the first to be given direction finding apparatus.

HAMONIC, burned at Point Edward

In 1926 the Huronic, Hamonic and Noronic of the Northern Navigation Company, previously the Northwest Transportation Company, became known as the Northern Division, Canada Steamship Lines, and Canada Steamship Lines adopted the original Beatty Line stack as their own. The accidental burning of the Hamonic at Point Edward dock in 1945 and the tragedy of the Noronic fire at Toronto in 1949 have been intimate losses too poignant for words. The Huronic, built in 1901, survived as a freight carrier for a few more seasons, and then regretfully, went the way of old ships, to the steel mills at Hamilton.

As the chill of Autumn comes the River takes on its nutbrown look, the short evenings close in and pleasure boats hang up their tarpaulins and pull in to the slips. Through the fog and dreamy mistiness of Indian Summer, the sirens of cargo vessels blow sharp warnings. October passes, the winds blow stronger and with the first few snowflakes in the air the river mirrors the purple storm clouds lowering over it. Ice begins to form in the slips while, unconsciously, the big freighters seem to quicken their pace. As winter nears the storm warnings increase and there is no time to lose in the urgency of moving 100 million bushels of grain 1000 miles to the seaport. With only 20 foot channels part of the way, there is equal necessity of getting tons of iron ore moved before insurance rates, doubled with the weather hazard, increase the freight rates. These were the factors of fall navigation during the first half of this century.

By December twelfth, “Last boat in” echoes along the waterfront. The smoke dies down from stack after stack while ice forms in the slips to hold ships fast. Snow blows in about the decks, icing ledges and cables and giving an Arctic element to the scene. Aboard the ships wintering in the Bay the ship-keepers, who usually lived in the crew’s mess-rooms and were there comfortably equipped for winter living, made their eight­ hour rounds. Ashore it was a festival of home for the men whose business precluded such an element for eight or nine months of the year. Social activities such as curling, conferences among departmental heads and navigational school for those qualifying for certificates made time fly. Sailors already in retirement provided much local colour. Thus, the winters were spent recalling past seasons and this season with the varied experiences only sailors themselves could appreciate. Day by day the ship-keeper marked off the calendar until the tenth of March drew near. Then engineers and their crews boarded the ships, the waterfront went into action, small boys drifted down to the harbor with wholesome curiosity and painters, pipe fitters and welders worked ceaselessly fitting out the ships for the season’s service. When ice reports told of clearing channels to the head of the Lakes and buoys and lighthouses showed the way, the sirens sounded. Once more the people stood, on the street or riverside watching the ships go by. The strokes of the Post Office clock echoed along the waterfront but few foresaw the momentous changes shortly arriving to change the leisurely trend of Sarnia life.

Progress took over suddenly at Sarnia. Great areas along the river road were stormed by bulldozers and in no time at all tall chimneys superseded the whispering willows. Miles of fabulous illumination lit the machinery along the river like a huge circus of multicolored balloons while men moved, like ants, to execute the workings of a great industry. The river road was closed but the new highway carried rushing trucks, hordes of workers, high tension electrical wires and service stations. News was picked out of the air, while people travelled fast to beat the next red light.

The sun is laying long fingers across the marshes of Sarnia Bay and lights begin to twinkle on the International Bridge as the big, new, Diesel-engined flagship of the Steel Trust rounds the bend past Gratiot light and sets her course for Lake Huron. She is the latest link in the chain, joining east and west in competitive enterprise and supply, building a new world and feeding a universe, a chain forged bit by bit of a wide variety of ships over a period of two hundred years, a chain, the romance of which, has captured the imagination of all. Now the middle of the century is here, bringing with it streamlining, automatic loaders and round trips shorter than any optimist had foreseen. The age of sail is gone, the age of steam is passing, the Diesel has arrived.

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About the Author: Herself the daughter of a ship’s officer and reared in an atmosphere of ships and the men who navigate them, Miss Anna Young, now a resident of Guelph, Ontario, has given a picture of Sarnia on the St. Clair River as she knew it in her girlhood when her home was a meeting place for Sarnia’s skippers and chief engineers.

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