Randy Evans and Gary Shrumm
It was a tough job but somebody had to do it. And James Capes was up to the task.
Between 1880 and 1895, Capes and his band of gravediggers drew upon strong backs and stronger stomachs to dig up the dead from four of Sarnia’s six early cemeteries. Re-interment followed at the community’s new burial grounds, which today are known as Lakeview and Our Lady of Mercy cemeteries.
They worked with pickaxes and shovels, and it was a daunting task. After all, Sarnians had been burying their dead for decades at six locations across Port Sarnia:
1 – The Wesleyan Mission at Christina and Devine streets, which was established in the1830’s. Its cemetery was used in 1839 for the burial of Mrs. Anna Maria Penrose Mitton. Hers is often referred to as the first European adult burial in the area.
2 – The Town Cemetery on Maxwell Street (now Harry Turnbull Park). Though formally created in 1852 on a land transfer from George Durand, it appeared to have been used since 1842 as a cemetery.
3 – The Lambton County Jail Yard on Christina Street. The scene of three executions, it had one body interred on site: Elizabeth Workman, who was hung in 1873 for the murder of her husband.
4 – The Roman Catholic Cemetery at St. Michael’s Mission (later Our Lady of Mercy church grounds) The cemetery created by the Catholic Diocese was gifted in the late 1830’s by Sarnia pioneer George Durand, whose first wife, Mary, was Catholic. It was established when the Church was St. Michael’s Mission, located at the west end of the current property. The cemetery was moved easterly when OLM was built in 1878. The first burial in the Catholic Cemetery was that of Maria Donnelly in 1839.
5 – St. George’s Episcopal Cemetery, located on St. Vincent Street
6 – The Methodist Church cemetery, south of Nelson Street.
By the 1870’s these original Sarnia cemeteries had served their purpose. As the population expanded and the number of deaths increased, problems arose.
Concerns were expressed about their deteriorating condition, the associated health risks, and the surprising practice of many Port Huron bodies being transported across the St. Clair River for burial in Sarnia.
The Sarnia Cemetery Company (later Lakeview Cemetery) was formed for the sole purpose of moving the deceased to a place outside of the town. By 1879, the Corporation had acquired the lands now known as Lakeview Cemetery and Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery. Access to both was via Cemetery Road, now known as Colborne Road.
With the new burial lands in place, Mr. Capes was in a position to begin his undertaking.
The first interment at Lakeview was that of Peter McGregor, who died in 1880 at the age of 82.
Authors’ note: Our research was restricted to the re-interment of bodies from Sarnia’s pre-1890 cemeteries. Further research into early Sarnia Township and Lambton County cemeteries would be most welcomed. Be careful where you dig.