OPINION: What’s in a nickname? How Sarnia became the Imperial City

A vast crowd filled both sides of Front Street to cheer on a Royal visit by the Duke of Connaught and his daughter Princess Patricia, who came to officially declare Sarnia a city on May 7, 1914. Lambton Heritage Museum Photo

Phil Egan

For more than 100 years Sarnia has been known as the Imperial City.

Some people might think the name is connected with Imperial Oil, once the city’s largest employer. They would be wrong.

Over the years, many Ontario cities have adopted nicknames. London is the Forest City; Guelph is the Royal City; St. Catharines is known as the Garden City.

For many years, Sarnia had its own popular nickname as well. It was known across Ontario as Tunnel Town.

Before the opening of the engineering wonder that was the St. Clair Tunnel, trans-border trade between Canada and the U.S. was tedious and frustrating.

The Grand Trunk rail terminus in Point Edward was located at the narrowest part of the St. Clair River between the two countries, but the laborious task of unloading freight from rail cars onto boats, and then reloading it again on freight cars on the other side, slowed the movement of goods between suppliers and markets.

And though Sarnia and Port Huron were in close proximity, the river current was heavy and swift. Ferries making the crossing also had to contend with passing ships entering and leaving Lake Huron.

As the tunnel neared completion, the excitement in Sarnia and Port Huron mounted to an exceptional pitch. It was on everyone’s mind, and continuing newspaper and magazine coverage brought massive attention to Sarnia.

By the time the St. Clair Tunnel officially opening in 1891 Sarnia was generally known around the province as the “Tunnel Town.” And as the town approached the 10,000 people needed to become a city, many thought it a fitting nickname for the fast-growing community.

But Sarnia’s Board of Trade had other ideas. They saw Sarnia from a tourism viewpoint, and were busily trying to attract vacationers to our beaches and resorts at the hub of the Great Lakes. These merchants promoted Sarnia as “The Beacon City,” and that was the name brandished in many of the board’s out-of-town newspaper ads and promotional campaigns.

But the issue was finally decided at an April 20, 1914 city council meeting. With declaration of city status just weeks away, the title “Imperial City” was adopted by council in recognition of the Royal Visit by His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught and his daughter, Princess Patricia,

It was the Duke, who was also the Governor General of Canada, who would read the proclamation declaring Sarnia a city.