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Local photographer among first to use images on postcards

Published on

Phil Egan

They portray a community lost to the passage of time.

The keen eye and roving camera of photographer Louis Pesha captured Sarnia and the surrounding area in the years before the First World War.

We see the old post office with its iconic clock tower, the billowing sails of iceboats lined up on Sarnia Bay, and Canatara Park as it looked at the turn of the last century. Pesha could often be seen with his camera and tripod along the banks of the St. Clair River. He photographed sailing ships under tow, strange-looking pig boats and ore carriers plying the waters.

Pesha captured it all in images he displayed on postcards of the day. Today, thousands of these postcards are displayed in museums and historical society websites from Sarnia and across Lambton County to Michigan and Ohio.

He was born Louis James Pesha in 1868 in Lambton County’s Euphemia Township. He worked on his father’s farm as a young man and opened his first photography studio in Oil Springs. It would be the first of many. Pesha studios would soon be built in Alvinston, Brigden, and finally Marine City, Michigan.

Sarnia historian Dave Burwell, who owns a massive postcard collection of Sarnia and Lambton County, says the popular Pesha was one of the earliest photographers to feature his images on postcards.

But not everyone loved him. A price war with a competitor named G.A. Hadden in 1899 resulted in serious threats.

“We, the people of surrounding towns not more than 99 miles from Alvinston,” read an anonymous letter published in the Alvinston Free Press, “take this opportunity of warning you of your danger if you continue to make those cheap 98 cent photos.”

This Pesha image reveals beachhouses, boats and children at Woodrowe Beach, a 15-acre lakeside cottage resort once located east of the end of Christina Street. The Lake Huron waterfront land was sold to a housing developer in 1954 for $160,000.
Dave Burwell Collection, Sarnia Historical Society

The previous month, competitors had broken into Pesha’s Alvinston studio and destroyed much of his material. “We will proceed to do greater damage to your galleries,” the letter threatened, “if you do not raise your price.”

The price war was later settled amicably.

In January of 1901, a massive fire destroyed an entire block of businesses in Brigden, including Pesha’s studio. He relocated to Marine City.

Pesha was at the height of his fame and popularity when, in 1912, he was killed near his father’s home in Inwood, 25 miles east of Courtright. Parked on the side of a 15-foot embankment, Pesha accidentally threw his Stanley Steamer automobile into reverse while trying to set the emergency brake. The vehicle rolled over and landed in a ditch, killing Pesha instantly.

It was a tragic end for the 44-year-old celebrity, who is recognized today as one of Canada’s most prolific and skilled early photographers.

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