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Column: The ‘King of the Lakes’ was a Sarnia triumph

Published on

George Mathewson

I remember feeling a weird sort of pride when I heard the industrial complex on the back of the old $10 bill came from our Chemical Valley.

As it turns out, Polymer Corporation wasn’t the first example of Sarnia industriousness to grace our nation’s money.

The United Empire was a steam ship built on Sarnia Bay from oak trees surrounding the town. According to the history books, the largest crowds ever assembled here gathered to watch her launch on Nov. 3, 1882.

The United Empire was, simply put, the finest ship on the Great Lakes – Canadian or American.

The Boston Evening Transcript crowned the ship “The king of the lakes” boasting the most powerful engine in use on fresh water.

“(The cabins are) very tastily finished in white and gold, with stained glass skylights,” the newspaper noted in a travel story.

“Her tables are richly spread and bountifully loaded, and she can accommodate 250 cabin and 300 steerage passengers, besides carrying 1,200 tons of freight.”

The federal government was so impressed it used an image of the United Empire passing through the Sault Locks on the Canadian $4 bill.

Yes, there really was a $4 bill and millions of them were printed. In fact, you might want to check Uncle Arthur’s coin collection. A single 1902 United Empire $4 bank note fetches $400 to $18,000, depending on condition.

The United Empire proudly carried passengers and goods from Sarnia to Lake Superior, with stops in Goderich, Kincardine and Sault Ste. Marie.

Its owner, the Sarnia-based Beatty Line, soon had a fleet plying the lakes, and passenger demand for fresh linen grew so strong the company opened a laundry downtown.

In 1904, the United Empire was rebuilt and renamed the Saronic, the first in a line of legendary passenger ships with names like the Noronic, Huronic and Hamonic.

But steel ships soon eclipsed the old wooden steamers, and in the winter of 1915, while berthed in Sarnia, the Saronic was damaged by fire.

Her hull was converted to a steam barge and, a few years later, what had been the greatest ship on the Great Lakes was abandoned.

















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