Constructing the St. Clair Tunnel

With Electro-Motive making waves in the media recently, I settled on a locomotive theme to start off the year. In September of 1891, Sarnia made international waves with the opening of the St. Clair Tunnel. The tunnel was a marvel of technology and a symbol of our relationship with our neighbours to the south.

Cutting the tunnel

The Port Huron Daily Times released a special “International Tunnel Opening” edition on September 19, 1891. Here are some of the key excerpts from that lengthy and detailed edition that recreate the excitement and technological pride that seized these communities with the tunnel’s opening:

“The greatest sub-marine [sic] tunnel on the North American continent has been completed and is now  in practical use. It extends from Port Huron, in the state of Michigan, to Sarnia, in the Canadian province of Ontario, and connects the Grand Trunk Railway system of Canada with the lines operated under Grand Trunk management west of the St. Clair river, and with the Flint & Pere Marquette and other Michigan railways. The tunnel was built and is owned by the St. Clair Tunnel Company, organized under special act of the Canadian parliament…

Sketches appeared in the newspaper quoted here.

“The idea of the tunnel was conceived, and the work was projected by Sir Henry Tyler, president of the Grand Trunk Railway Company, and through his efforts the money to construct it has been secured… The total actual cost of the whole work will approximate very closely to $2,700,000…

“To an engineer the completed work presents some novel problems. Cast iron has been used before for tunnel lining to a limited extent, and tunnels have been built before through soft material, but no tunnel, under so great a river, through such soft material and located so near to the river bottom, has ever before been built, and no tunnel of such magnitude has been lined with cast iron…

Lowering the shield

“The weather on Saturday, September 19, the day fixed for the formal opening of the tunnel, was warm and pleasant. The inaugural train, consisting of seven coaches, left Point Edward promptly at 12:30 o’clock, Sir Henry Tyler giving the signal for it to start. At the Sarnia station a stop was made to take on guests from that town and Port Huron, and the train then proceeded to Sarnia junction and the tunnel depot. At this point [an address] was presented to Sir Henry Tyler by Mayor Watson… An engine was then coupled to the seven coaches and at 1 o’clock the train started down the grade to the portal of the tunnel. As the train entered the tunnel there was a great cheering by the assembled crowd. it took just three and a half minutes to make the run from portal to portal. As the train pulled out of the tunnel on the Port Huron side whistles began to blow and continued until the train had passed through the arch and on to the new depot at Twenty-second street…”

Specially decorated locomotive for the first tunnel run

Supplement to the Sarnia Observer, celebrating “one of the great engineering feats of the age.”

Try the website Electric Lines in Southern Ontario for more information about the St. Clair Tunnel Company, fast facts about the tunnel, and more details about its construction.

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