Tornados, wrecks featured on Heritage “disaster” tour

Aftermath of the 1953 Sarnia tornado, Front Street looking south. Courtesy of Lambton County Archives, Wyoming, 9JA-M.024

Cathy Dobson

Pat McLean was a 22-year-old nurse in training at Sarnia General Hospital when, without warning, the infamous F4 tornado hit Sarnia on May 21, 1953.

Hundreds of buildings were destroyed and the community thrown into chaos.

“I was in the cafeteria and the drapes began blowing,” she recalls.  “I ran over to close the windows and went to help wherever I could.”

It was 5:45 p.m. and the newborns had been taken from the nursery to be with their moms.

“Thank heavens, because all the windows were shattered in the nursery and there was glass everywhere,” said McLean.  “It was a mess.”

Her memories of that fateful day in Sarnia’s history will be part of an online presentation April 15 featuring calamities – manmade and natural – that have challenged the community.

Representatives from museums across Sarnia-Lambton will discuss local disasters, including the Great Storm of 1913, explosions in the oilfield, Snowmaggedon 2010, shipwrecks and train wrecks.

McLean’s son, Dave, will speak on both the 1953 tornado that ripped through downtown Sarnia and the 1983 tornado in Reece’s Corners.

Dave McLean is uniquely qualified for the job.  Not only did he grow up listening to his mom’s stories about 1953, the McLean family was living east of Reece’s Corners when he looked out the window in 1983 and saw the funnel cloud that smashed the little community.

“The sky grew dark and was all different colours, then I heard a loud explosion of thunder and lightning,” he said.  “It was truly alarming to see.”  The same was true of the cleanup, which he participated in a few days later.

McLean is now a retired high school teacher and volunteer at the Forest Museum.

The April 15 online presentation at 7 p.m. is billed as a Heritage Hour and part of a virtual series hosted by local history experts.

The series was developed last year when all museums were forced to shut their doors, says Lambton Heritage Museum curator Dana Thorne.

“We brainstormed on how we could still deliver content and landed on these panel-style presentations with local themes that have really caught the public’s imagination,” she said.

Each webinar is attracting about 60 participants, Thorne said. Lambton Calamities seemed like a good fit at a time when the community is being tested by a modern disaster.

Heritage Hour is free but pre-registration is required on the Lambton Heritage Museum website (www.heritagelambton.ca) where three Heritage Hour presentations from 2020 can also be viewed.

Future Heritage Hour subjects include On the Lam in Lambton, on June 17, and Lambton’s Haunted History, on Oct. 21.

The Arts Journal reflects the cultural fabric of our community.  Send your ideas to cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca.