Tom St. Amand
In an online review of Canatara one tourist has noted that the park’s best-kept secret is a wooded area “locals have fondly nicknamed ‘Tarzan Land.’
Certainly, the 22-acre woodlot is no secret to Sarnians but how it came to be called Tarzanland more than 70 years ago is a bit of a mystery.
Tarzanland, which stretches north and west from the intersection of Christina Street and Michigan Avenue, has had a few names.
According to Canatara historian and Lake Chipican Drive resident Jack Fraser, locals originally called it “first bush” —because it was the first woods encountered when heading inland on Michigan Avenue from the river.
When Woodrowe Road (now Christina Street) was developed the woodlot was briefly known as Woodrowe Road Park.
The Grand Trunk Railway owned the property until 1923 when the CNR took possession. The city’s Parks Board initially leased it from the railway and then acquired it outright in 1938, when it became part of Canatara.
Philanthropist Maud Hanna had organized the Sarnia Horticultural Society in 1920 and was a public speaker and pamphleteer who campaigned for natural spaces and public parks.
In 1932 she made a key donation that helped the city purchase the core of what is today’s Canatara Park. She was also the driving force behind the development of the woodlot just south of the main entrance.
Mrs. Hanna wanted the woodlot, which was already home to a large assortment of wildflowers, birds and trees, to be a nature preserve.
An abundance of wild grape vines also grew there, especially on the west side. And when children discovered the vines were strong and accessible, a perfect combination for allowing them to swing freely among the trees, the woodlot became known as Tarzanland.
City naturalist John Teasell, 87, remembers swinging on the vines with his twin brother and other neighbourhood kids in the 1940s. By then, the area was already called Tarzanland, he said.
Tarzan himself was introduced to the world in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 novel, Tarzan of the Apes. The jungle hero in a loincloth became a media sensation when Olympian Johnny Weismueller starred in a series of 12 Tarzan movies produced between 1932 and 1948.
It was during this period the name Tarzanland caught on locally.
The colourful name stuck and kids continued to swing away in Tarzanland, bellowing out Tarzan’s distinctive cry — “the victory cry of the bull ape,” as Burroughs described it —until the 1960s when the Parks Board took out most of the vines.
Today, the woodlot is recognized as a precious remnant of Carolinian forest housing a wide variety of native trees, shrubs, herbs and wildflowers.
Officially, it’s a part of Canatara Park. Unofficially, though the vines and swinging kids are long gone, it remains Tarzanland to Sarnians to this day.
Tom St. Amand is a retired high school teacher