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The wild history of the Riverport Tavern

Published on

Kip Cuthbert

The building known today as the Riverport Tavern dates back to 1886, when it opened as the bank of the fledgling Alpha Oil Co.

The company had been founded by Thurston G. Hall, a chemist who convinced a group of U.S. millionaires to buy up the old Dominion Oil refinery to produce a new and cleaner type of oil.

The lavish, two-story Italianate bank building erected at the corner of Front and Wellington streets featured three-inch thick pine doors and a grand view of the St. Clair River.

But Thurston proved more adept at producing snake oil than processing crude, and two years later liquidation proceedings began. When a court-appointed watchman was sent to drive company officials out of the bank building, Hall jumped the mediator, the watchman fired several shots, and Hall was hauled off to Sarnia Jail.

The following week Hall tried to re-enter the building again, sparking a Western-style shoot-out and Hall was sent back to the U.S. where he continued to scam investors.

The Alpha Oil Co. was absorbed by what would become Imperial Oil and the bank building sold off to Alexander Kidd, a previous partner in the downtown Belchamber Hotel.

Kidd’s Arlington Hotel opened in 1894 and quickly became a favourite with locals and visiting guests. The rooms were tastefully furnished, the cuisine excellent and guests made to feel at home for $2 a night.

He added a third floor in 1897, and the following year a grand wraparound balcony from which summer visitors (arriving from nearby Ferry Dock Hill) could overlook the river.

When Kidd suddenly died in 1911 his wife Nellie took over its operation until the stock market crash of 1929.

Mrs. Kidd sold the hotel to the YWCA for it to be used as a hostel for women suffering hardships and homelessness during the Great Depression.

One woman who was a youngster at the “Y” during those years told me it was a magnificent place of splendor from its lobby all the way up to the cozy rooms.

When the Second World War came, the YWCA roomed women contributing to the war effort and covering for our men fighting overseas.

Following the war the YWCA became the YW-YMCA and accepted a buyout offer from Guelph hotel owner D. M. Fischer in 1947. Plans for a new seven-story hotel collapsed, however, and by 1952 the building had become the St. Clair Hotel.

It featured a “Ladies’ with Escort” entrance from Front Street, because women still couldn’t could enter “The Lounge” on their own, and a “Gentlemen’s ‘Draft Room’” entrance off Wellington.

In 1967, hotel president Al Tentebaum announced a $100,000 investment to double its room capacity and redecorate the cocktail lounge with wall-to-wall broadloom. The dining room was modernized and allowed to provide liquor with meals on Sundays.

The St Clair became a popular nightclub with live bands, jukeboxes and DJ’s, yet between the mid-1960s and 1970s the wraparound balcony was removed and the outside façade lost much of its original charm.

In 1978 the hotel was purchased by brothers Peter and Aris Athanasopoulos. They combined the view and Ferry Dock Port history to create its current name, The Riverport.

The brothers immediately began structural upgrades, adding stronger support beams and other improvements to bring the old building up to modern safety standards.

The third floor was removed, making it once again a two-storey building. Laws prevented the addition of a new balcony, and after vandals repeatedly broke the windows, they were covered over.

Today, the adult entertainment venue known as The Riverport is one of a handful of Front Street buildings left standing from an era of prosperity and optimism in Sarnia.

Deep within its basement is the original gigantic boiler and the Alpha Oil Co. cement bank vault … I wonder what’s in there?

– With thanks to John S. Rochon and Peter Athanasopoulos

Kip Cuthbert is a history buff and DJ for Stoke’s Bay. Contact him at [email protected]

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