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Weekends in the 1950s meant a full house at the old Sarnia Jail

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Phil Egan

When I was a boy, the only jails I knew were dreary, forbidding places surrounded by high limestone walls.

I only knew two.

My grandfather, Bill Stewart, had been one of the tough guards at Hamilton Jail. He used to escort chained and shackled prisoners on the train to the fortress that was Kingston Penitentiary. I had insisted my father drive past it on a summer family trip to the Thousand Islands. One look at “Kingston Pen” should have been frightening enough to scare anyone straight.

The other one seemed to be a miniature version of the big prison at Kingston.

It was the old county jail, built by Alexander Mackenzie in Sarnia in the early 1850s. I saw it every day during my first two years of classes at Our Lady of Mercy School.

The fieldstone building with its high jail yard walls sat directly across Durand Street at Christina – today, the site of a motel and restaurant.

Veteran and retired police officers being interviewed for a history of policing in Sarnia have described downtown’s taverns as occasionally rough places in the old days. It was not uncommon to see the “paddy wagon” (an Irish slur if there ever was one) parked on Front Street on Friday and Saturday nights.

Fistfights were not uncommon at the old Morden House, Mr. Mike’s, and the Colonial and Colborne Hotels.

They tell me that, while it was common for patrons to brawl among themselves, only rarely did someone dare to take a swing at an officer.

Some weekends in the late 1950s as many as 53 people would cool their heels at the old jail awaiting magistrate’s court on Monday morning. That could be a problem for a jail built for a capacity of 32 men and eight women. The weekend overflow was housed in corridors and on cell floors on extra beds.

An inmate’s day began at 6:45 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. with final lockup. Lights out was 9 p.m. The inmates cooked all meals. The workday included cleaning and laundry. Each man was allowed two packets of tobacco weekly and, for exercise, could walk 30 minutes in the high walled yard. They also had access to a small library.

Each inmate had a locker, and personal belongings were kept in a special box in the jail governor’s office.

The old jail was knocked down in the 1960s to make way for the old Chalet Motel – now also gone.


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