COLUMN: The ‘Blue Zoo’ was queen of the Imperial marine fleet

Fondly known as the ‘Blue Zoo,’ the oil tanker Imperial Sarnia proudly carried the city’s name for 38 years. Photo courtesy of Kristina Zimmer, Imperial Sarnia Site

Phil Egan  

Between the years 1840 and 1962 more than hundred vessels were built in the busy shipyard at Goderich.

In 1948, a ship destined to become the pride of Imperial Oil’s 27-vessel marine fleet was one of them – the second to carry the name “Imperial Sarnia.”

She was built for the Great Lakes. In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the interprovincial pipeline ran east from the Alberta oil fields but stopped at Lake Superior. Imperial ships carried crude from the pipeline terminus to the flourishing refineries of Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.

When the pipeline was extended to Sarnia in 1954, Imperial Oil changed the ship’s mission. The Imperial Sarnia became a “salty” – an ocean-going vessel.

I was only 12 in 1959, but can still recall the excitement that heralded the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The expansion of the locks system linking the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes was, ostensibly, the official reason for the Royal Visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip that year.

But that was still in the future when the Imperial Sarnia made the 8,288 kilometre journey down the Mississippi River and up the U.S. eastern seaboard to arrive in Sorel, Quebec for refitting.

In 1954, newly equipped for the rigours of Atlantic Ocean, the ship rejoined the IOL fleet with a new bow and capacity to carry more than 56,000 barrels of oil.

From her base in Halifax, she served the Atlantic Provinces, U.S. east coast, ports of call in Europe, and even ventured as far north as Frobisher Bay.

In 1965, with the Seaway open, the Imperial Sarnia returned to her namesake port for service on the Great Lakes once again.

Following repairs in the 1970s the ship’s black hull was painted blue – giving birth to the nickname “Blue Zoo,” by which she would be known throughout Imperial’s maritime fleet forevermore.

Though rumours began circulating as early as the late 1970s that the Imperial Sarnia would be sold or retired, it was 1986 before it happened. She sailed one last time to Hamilton, was renamed “Provmar Terminal II,” and pressed into service as a fuel-oil storage barge.

Her proud 64-year career finally ended in 2012 when she was towed to Port Colborne and scrapped.

It was an inglorious end to a vessel that had carried Sarnia’s name across the Great Lakes and over the high seas.

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