Dow Chemical was big part of Sarnia for more than six decades

A group of executives assemble for a photo in front of the Dow Chemical plant in Sarnia on July 13, 1962. Douglas Paisley photo

Phil Egan

One of the biggest shocks I received upon returning to Sarnia six years ago after 40 years away came on a drive through the Chemical Valley.

The massive Dow Chemical facility I remembered as a young man was gone, replaced by an open field.

I thought of this recently when my friend, Peter Dougan, dropped by. Peter told me of the passing, in late October, of the 101-year-old John Lennox Smart – the father of one of Peter’s close friends.

For 33 years, until 1974, Smart was the vice president of engineering and development at the Dow plant in Sarnia. The brilliant Mr. Smart graduated from the University of Toronto in 1939 with an honours degree in chemical engineering and, in 1972, was elected president of the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering.

Dow Chemical was named for Herbert Henry Dow, the company’s founder (1866-1930). He is considered today one of the fathers of the modern North American chemical industry. It’s a little known fact that, although he established the first Dow plant in Midland, Michigan, Dow was born a Canadian in Belleville, Ont.

Dow Chemical arrived in Sarnia in 1942 to create styrene for use in the campaign, led by Polymer Corporation that same year, to create a synthetic rubber industry. This was launched following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when Japanese troops were storming through the rubber plantations of Southeast Asia, threatening the Allied war effort. Dow Canada purchased a 113-acre site adjacent to Polymer.

The styrene unit was in operation by late June of 1943. It opened one month ahead of schedule, but it was heavy going. Ground was broken in August of 1942 and rains that winter “turned the area into a sea of mud,” according to Don Whitehead’s book, The Dow Story. The mud was “so deep that it pulled off the workers’ boots as they waded through it and it mired bulldozers.”

In 1949, Dow Canada’s first president, William Dow, was killed in an aircraft accident near London, Ont.

After the war, Dow Chemical became a major chemical supplier to Canadian industry. The Sarnia plant manufactured styron and glycols, as well as caustic soda, styrene, ethylene, chlorine, hydrochloric acid and ammonia.

Dow’s Sarnia workforce declined from 1,600 workers in the early 1990s to 400 by 2002. Despite the downsizing, Sarnia was shocked in August of 2006 when Dow announced the company would be pulling out of the city by 2008.

Today, the TransAlta Bluewater Energy Park and its tenants occupy some of the old Dow site.