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Long lost Robertsville was Sarnia’s first suburb

Published on

George Mathewson

Never heard of Robertsville? Join the club.

Even keen local history buffs usually draw a blank when asked about the 19th century community, which was actually Sarnia’s first suburb.

Surveyed in 1856, Robertsville began with 20 lots laid out by two developers in an area bounded by what today are called Exmouth Street, Colborne Road and Ferndale Avenue.

In other words, the Northgate shopping plaza and lands to the north.

“At that time that was way out in the boonies,” said Tom St. Amand, who with fellow researcher Randy Evans has looked into Robertsville’s origins for the Sarnia Street Name Project.

“We came across the name on a plan in the registry office and nobody seemed to know about it or even heard of it,” Evans added.

The settlement was apparently named for Robert Skilbeck, who owned its southern half.

Skilbeck was an early resident from England who recognized Port Sarnia’s growth was hindered by a lack of cash and financing options. He proposed a financial syndicate and in 1844 opened the head office of Sarnia’s first bank at his small brick home.

Skilbeck House, built in 1834, still stands at 112 Maria St. and the syndicate evolved into the Lambton Loan and Trust, Canada first trust company.

Robertsville had no churches or stores and none of the original homes seem to have survived.

John Cameron, who owned the other half, named its two intersecting streets after himself. But his legacy has disappeared as thoroughly as Robertsville: John Street was later renamed Hall Street and Cameron Street became Toro Street.

Perhaps Robertsville’s most colourful property owner was Thomas Forsythe, Sarnia’s first mayor. Following a narrowly contested election in 1857 against city father Malcolm Cameron, Forsythe arrived at the inaugural council meeting before Cameron and physically assumed control of the mayor’s chair.

Forsythe was forced from office five month later when a court ruled the election results invalid, and he left Sarnia under a cloud after being accused of failing to collect import duties on a large shipment of brandy.

The 1880 map of Sarnia Township shows Robertsville as a community separate from Sarnia and Point Edward, and St. Amand and Evans have found people identified themselves on the voters’ list as residents of Robertsville as late as 1917.

Hundreds of people have so far helped the pair “solve” about 550 street names for the Sarnia Street Name Projects, with about 150 left to go.

They hope to publish a free, online resource by the end of this year on Sarnia’s website, and possibly a book for schools and libraries.

Some of the tougher nuts left to crack include Daley, Maynard, Samuel, Lillian, Ryan, Isabella, Willa and Vye streets.

“I’m confident we’ll find a lot of the streets but I don’t think we’ll find all of them,” St. Amand said.

Anyone with any information can email [email protected]

 

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