Driving down Front Street, the main drag of Sarnia, Ontario, one gets the impression that wealth once lived in the city of 75,000. There was a time before the boarded up storefronts and empty downtown parking lots, when the town once known as The Imperial City had shared a rosy view of the future. While older residents will tell you that the downtown was never the same after the Tornado of '53, which ripped the roofs off dozens of the city's Victorian commercial buildings, and members of the next generation will say that it was the construction of the Lambton Mall which sapped business away from the core in the late 1970s, there are today none old enough to remember Sarnia's true heyday, which occurred from the late 1800s to the 1920s. Unbeknownst to many, there was a time when streetcars ruled the roads, alongside the Model T's and carriages which jockeyed for position en route to the St. Clair Ferry, and summertime day-trippers made their way to Lake Huron Park for a day at the beach. This edition of Once Upon a Tram will take a look at the fascinating history of the Sarnia Street Railway Company, and a city that was once defined by its connection to light and heavy rail.
Incorporated as the Town of Sarnia, Canada West, on June 19, 1856, the small port town of 1,000 people across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, Michigan, soon became a boomtown thanks in large part to its prime location along major Great Lakes-area trade routes between the United States and Canada. Only three years later, the Grand Trunk Western Railroad, a subsidiary of the larger Grand Trunk Railway, arrived in Sarnia in 1859, quite literally placing the newly incorporated town on the map.
Clearly discernible in the archival 1880 map of Sarnia and Point Edward above, the delineation of the Grand Trunk Railway (along Lake Huron) and the Grand Trunk Western Railroad (through south Sarnia) are easy to pick out, while keen eyes may also detect the first route of the Sarnia Street Railway as marked along the downtown waterfront, which ran along Front Street beginning in 1875. The close proximity to nearby Port Huron, Michigan, clearly visible across the St. Clair River, illustrates the perceived need at the time for what ultimately became the St. Clair Tunnel in 1891 as a direct extension of the Grand Trunk Western Railroad's Canadian rail network.
Created in 1874, the Sarnia Street Railway Company operated horse-drawn trolleys up and down Front Street and the adjacent Sarnia waterfront for a quarter of a century from 1875 to 1901, thus giving Sarnia the designation of being the last place in Canada to switch to electric streetcars, roughly a decade later than most. Upon its debut, the Sarnia Observer marvelled at the arrival of the fleet's first two cars, made in London, England, which had been delivered to the city via Britain's Great Western Railway. The cars, "very tastily got up," to be named "Sarnia" and "Huron" (The Observer, September 17, 1875, pg. 2).
In the photograph above, which appears to have been taken from the back of a carriage, the view of Front Street captures the result of the 1901 transition from horsecars to electric streetcars. While the horsecars were officially retired in 1901, they made a brief return to city streets in July 1912 following a massive fire which badly damaged local power stations and transmission lines.
Seen in the historic postcard views of the Sarnia River Front (above) and adjacent Front Street (below), the development of the Sarnia Street Railway was directly linked to the city's connection to the St. Clair River and thus to rail and freight travel between the United States and Canada. The Sarnia Street Railway was an integral part of Sarnia's broader heavy rail network, with later routes eventually bringing electric streetcars directly to the Grand Trunk Western Railroad station just south of the city centre. The postcards both also feature the ornate City Hall which was similar to many downtown structures that succumbed to the aforementioned Tornado of '53.
By the early twentieth century, thanks in equal measure to the 1891 completion of the St. Clair Tunnel (seen below), and to the ongoing development of the refinery lands known colloquially today as the Chemical Valley, the population of Sarnia ballooned from 1,000 in 1856 to 10,000 in the 1911 Census, that figure rising to nearly 35,000 by the Second World War.
Before long, downtown Sarnia was home to a bustling urban streetscape, with the shops, hotels, and boutiques of Front and Christina Streets the site of an abundance of activity. Several grand hotels (nearly all of them now long gone or defunct), including the Hotel Vendome (seen below, its spire rising directly above the roofs of the streetcars), served Sarnia's many rail passengers and visitors, including a revolving door of visiting notables that included no less than two royal visits and a one-time stopover by Civil War Hero and American President Ulysses S. Grant.
The Sarnia Street Railway expanded rapidly following electrification in 1901, with the creation of a handful of new routes beyond the original Waterfront/Front Street route. The network soon carried passengers from downtown to what became Tunnel Station on the Grand Truck Western Railroad, as well as north of the city centre along the Beach Line to Lake Huron Park during the summer months. Parallel to the Front Street Line, the completion of a Christina Street Line became part of an expanded downtown network, while south of the city centre, the Vidal Street Line carried commuters between downtown and the grand estates of Sarnia's south end, with an extension moving further south to form a direct connection to the refinery lands. North of the city centre, the Point Edward Line served to connect Sarnia proper to adjacent Point Edward, located at the confluence of the St. Clair River and Lake Huron.
At its height, the electric-era (1901-31) Sarnia Street Railway operated a total of 10 passenger cars and one baggage car along six distinct routes, with a modest system that was more than able to serve a local population that grew from 10,000 to just over 30,000 over the course of its 30-year run. While the service remained popular from its horsecar inception in 1875 to the end of electric streetcar service in February 1931, the arrival of the automobile, along with what became Sarnia's long economic decline and stagnation following the dual effects of the Great Depression and the opening of the Welland Canal (which dramatically altered local freight patterns), spelled a slow but steady end for the original boomtown dreams of The Imperial City.
From 1931 to the present, Sarnia has been served by a variety of bus-only public transportation companies. The publicly owned and operated Sarnia Transit was incorporated in 1974, and has served the community for the last 40 years. The population recently reached 75,000 after the amalgamation of surrounding townships, while the city itself is increasingly becoming a victim of suburban sprawl. Following a decade of urban revitalization efforts in the core, such as the Sarnia BIA's monthly 'First Fridays,' the restoration of the old Imperial Theatre into a playhouse, the recent completion of the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery within the former Saks Department Store, as well as the long list of summer festivals that take place on the downtown waterfront, locals and tourists alike have been able to witness a return of life and urban vibrancy to the city centre. While the once-familiar trundle of streetcars will likely never return to Sarnia, with even the local Via Rail depot struggling to bring more than a a handful of daily trips to and from Toronto via London, there are movements currently afoot to expand the local bus network, with City Hall currently debating the merits of a brand new downtown bus depot to go up at the soon-to-be redeveloped Bayside Centre (formerly Bayside Mall) in the heart of downtown Sarnia.
SkyriseCities will return soon with a new edition of Once Upon a Tram, which will take an in-depth look at the transit legacy of a city near you.
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