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OPINION: Wrecking ball about to level 110-year-old river landmark

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For many Sarnians, it’s a spot as familiar as Canatara Park and the refineries of Chemical Valley.

Since the first wave of European settlers arrived in 1832, Ferry Dock Hill has been at the very heart of old Sarnia.

And when the former law offices at 2 Ferry Dock Hill fall under the wrecking ball in coming weeks, one chapter will close and another begin in Sarnia’s rich history.

That early community was surrounded by impenetrable swamp and forest, making the St. Clair River the only way in and out. And the Customs House Wharf, as it came to be known, was the focal point.

A revealing photo from 1872 shows the Ferry Dock encircled in a forest of masts from sailing vessels anchored offshore. The dock is stacked with rows of cordwood, fuel for visiting steamships.

The railway terminal also stood at the foot of Cromwell Street, and later, passenger cruise ships of the Northern Navigation Company docked there, added to the traffic congestion.

In 1880, the old Customs House shared the waterfront with the Waterworks and, further north, the Sarnia Brewery. By the turn of the century, the Customs House was surrounded by freight offices, customs brokers and shipping offices, the tugs of the Reid Wrecking Company, and the old Hotel Normandie.

About 1910, the old Customs House was replaced by the current building that ultimately became synonymous with the law offices of George Murray Shipley Bell (GMSB).

In the year 1956 it was home to Canadian Immigration and Customs. Next door, at 104 Cromwell, was the Bluewater Ferry Company, and 112 Cromwell, the Hotel Normandie, had become the less formal Art’s Tourist Lodge.

Bill McCart, now 89, was an accountant at his brother’s law firm of McCart & McEachran, which opened in 1950 and evolved into GMSB.

The building at 2 Ferry Dock Hill was owned by a London man in the late 1950s and he operated it as the Mariner Restaurant. But it was unable to acquire a liquor licence and wasn’t successful.

The law firm, by then known as McCart McEachran George and Curran, purchased 2 Ferry Dock Hill in the early 1960s and stayed for almost 60 years, McCart said.

Now owned by the city, 2 Ferry Dock Hill and its structural integrity has been undermined in recent years by the rising water level of the St. Clair River.

Council approved $300,000 to demolish it in December and the work is expected to begin soon.

It is the last commercial building directly on Sarnia’s downtown waterfront, and its removal will create an unbroken strip of green space extending from Imperial Oil to Sarnia Bay Marina.

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