COLUMN: Mail Tale: A look at the early postal history of Sarnia

Ottawa hired contractor, preacher and city mayor George Proctor to build Sarnia’s first federal building. Completed in 1904 at the corner of Front and Davis streets and overlooking the St. Clair River, it was demolished in 1957 to make way for the current post office building. Photo courtesy, Holland Paisley Photographic Collection, Lambton County Library, H112-11.

Phil Egan

Saturday home mail delivery ended in 1969, but moving the mail has been a priority since the earliest days of old Port Sarnia.

Having an insatiable curiosity about your hometown’s past means always being on the lookout for obscure material about its history.

I stumbled upon one of these recently in the form of a small 1975 booklet titled, “Postmarks Sarnia,” by H.F. Bardwell.

Postmark collectors are part of the philatelic (stamp collecting) crowd so that’s what I was expecting when opening the booklet. But Postmarks Sarnia instead proved to be a fascinating summary of early postal history.

Regular mail began on Feb. 6, 1837, when the village’s first post office opened in George Durand’s store – making Durand our first postmaster.

Canada’s first post office had opened in Halifax as early as April of 1754, established to link the colonies to the packet service to England.

In 1853, when Port Sarnia had a population of about 400, a Mr. P.T. Poussett became acting Postmaster, doing business from a location at Christina and Lochiel streets. Poussett called himself as a “conveyancer.”

Jacob B. Swartz took over on May 1, 1854, but upon his death three months later he was succeeded by David McCall, who operated the post office from premises at Front and Francis (later Davis) streets.

The word “Port” was officially dropped from the village’s postal address in 1855, when it became simply Sarnia.

McCall held his appointment as Postmaster until late June of 1859. By that time, Sarnia had risen from village to town status and it population had doubled to nearly 800. On next up as Postmaster was Dr. Alfred Fisher, whose post office was on the east side of Christina Street, south of George.

A calamitous fire destroyed much of the downtown commercial core in 1867, but Dr. Fisher and some helpers scurried about and managed to save the letter mail by transferring it to a small red brick building at the Vidal residence – the site of today’s Insignia Hotel (formerly Drawbridge Inn).

The red brick building had been the home of the Bank of Upper Canada, which had moved to larger premises immediately north.

Not long after the fire, the town’s mail operations were transferred to the legal offices of Davis and Watts, located today near 211 Front Street North.

The red brick former bank building endured until the 1960s, when it collapsed while being moved.

Got an interesting tale? Contact columnist Phil Egan at philegan@cogeco.ca