We’ve got drama, humour, courage in the face of opposition and a bit of cheekiness which combine to tell the story of our beloved trail.
From 1967 to 1982 the former CN Rail tracks (running north from Sarnia, under the 402 overpass, through Modeland Road to Camlachie and Forest) lay unused, gathering weeds. In May of 1982, Councillor Howard Watson sent a letter to Lambton Wildlife (LWI) pointing out that this CN branch line, from Forest to Sarnia, was to be abandoned. He wondered if the club had any interest in this as a potential hiking or bicycle path. Therein lay the seed for what we now know as the Howard Watson Nature Trail (HWNT). So… in August 1983, a Lambton Wildlife member, Don Smith, presented to then Sarnia Township Council a suggestion that they purchase the abandoned rail line, with the intent to set it aside as a trail. The council, with the exception of Howard Watson, rejected the idea!!
Nothing. For three years, nothing. But…. below the surface there was activity.
In 1982 the Sarnia Township purchased the abandoned rail track land from Michigan Avenue to Exmouth Street in order to take advantage of the 402 overpass, since the rail property went under it. The intent was to someday use this as a north-south connection via the abandoned rail property. This meant that, once the tracks were removed, a cleared pathway was left for locals to use as an unofficial trail. This will play out later in the trails history.
The St Clair Region Conservation Foundation had purchased, for approximately $25,000, the corridor from Michigan Avenue to Camlachie village. However, the foundation quickly found itself embroiled in the controversy to have this land set aside as a trail.
During 1986, citizens Don Hislop and Gord Catterson lobbied the Foundation for a trail. Faced with this contentious issue the Foundation decided to sell the property to Sarnia and Plympton Townships. This meant that this tract of land was now divided into two parts: Sarnia Township had London Line to Mandaumin, while Plympton Township had Mandaumin to Camlachie village. Immediately Sarnia Township council decided to sell the rail property to abutting owners.
Meanwhile, a committee of concerned citizens emerged after an initial meeting arranged by Marlis Saunders: Gord Catterson (chair), Don Hislop, Fernand Noel, Sheila Sheriff, and Sheila White. This group lobbied the Sarnia Township Council to set this parcel of land aside as a trail instead of turning it over to abutting property owners. The pro-trail group felt that this unique parcel of land would be an ideal pathway for pedestrian usage, safe from Lakeshore Road traffic and of value to the general population. In addition, there were rare plants especially in the Modeland Road to Blackwell Sideroad section.
Concurrently, an anti-trail group had formed which argued that a trail would devalue their property because of loss of privacy, potential backyard thievery, and difficulty in controlling motorcycles. These concerns supported the Council’s drive to sell the land to the abutting owners.
In September 1987, the pro and anti-trail groups formally presented their cases to Clearwater Township Council. Despite strong evidence supporting a trail, the concept was rejected by the council, again with the exception of Howard Watson as well as Sam McCrea, who joined in supporting the trail concept. Their support was appreciated but it was not enough. The battle for the trail was lost.
However, between September and December 1987 there was a whirlpool of activity involving the council, the anti-trail and pro-trail groups, and LWI. The anti-trail group had devised a complex procedure whereby abutting land owners could purchase segments of the rail property which abutted their property. A legal firm, hired in December 1987 to represent the Township Council, issued a letter to the abutting property owners, which detailed the process for purchasing the abutting property. These abutting properties lay between Michigan and Mandaumim roads. The letter was confusing and was followed up by an explanatory letter. Suddenly, many abutting owners found themselves with the option to buy land they did not want, preferring instead the trail concept. There followed a deluge of complaints to Clearwater Council from both abutting owners and citizens at large who strongly supported the trail concept.
While the council had been busy with its plan to sell the properties to abutting owners, the discouraged pro-trail group received welcome support from LWI member Peter Banks. During December 1987 Mr Banks set up a blitz of information sessions with radio, TV, press, and a public meeting at the Sarnia Library, along with the distribution of a pro-trail information pamphlet. One key element was a half page advertisement in the Sarnia Observer, which provided information on what the council was proposing to do with the trail to sell it to abutting owners and lose it forever. Readers were requested to vote yes or no for the trail concept, and most importantly, asked them to return their completed form directly to Council offices. This was very important since this would gauge public support for the trail concept, not just the abutting owners. Many LWI members were involved in this blitz and we owe thanks to them for their dedication. The response to this ad was impressive. About 200 forms were mailed in, with the greater majority expressing support for the trail. In addition, LWI then communicated to the council an important proposal: that LWI would manage the trail at no cost to the municipality.
By this time, the Sarnia Township had been incorporated as Town of Clearwater and held its first meeting on January 11, 1988, at the London West United Church on London line. The trail issue was the main item on the agenda. Over 250 people attended the meeting in the church hall. Many citizens expressed their opinion, for and against the trail concept. Finally, LWI representative Fernand Noel presented LWI’s proposal for the trail: that LWI would manage the trail for a trial period of three years at no cost to the municipality. In the subsequent voting, councilor Peter Merchant voted in favour of the trail concept, along with Howard Watson and Sam McCrea. We had finally won! There followed a very enthusiastic applause of approval from the audience. The anti-trail group was visibly very upset and vowed to carry on with the fight. Details of the management agreement still had to be developed. Amazingly within the span of one month, a major blitz by Peter Banks, with LWI support, had transformed a defeat into a victory for the trail.
Don Hislop and Fern Noel met with Dick Chowen of Clearwater office to work out the many details of trail management: taxes, liability insurance, installation of maze gates, signs and fencing, trail clean up, and communication with abutting owners. During this time other important matters were being tended to.
Since LWI was going to be responsible for management of the trail, funds were required. A fund raising program was set up again by Peter Banks. LWI members and abutting owners were canvassed and, in a few months, some $20,000 was raised. Many man-hours of work were involved in assembling the list of abutting owners by perusing property tax listings at Sarnia City Hall, then composing letters and pamphlets, mailing, receiving and recording donations.
During this time the anti-trail group also remained active. Letters were sent to the local newspaper, calls were made to the council office and some even joined LWI to make sure that their points of view were heard.
Finally, after years of struggle, the big day arrived. On June 14, 1988 Fern Noel escorted Dorothy Edwards, then president of LWI, to the Clearwater office for the signing of the Management Agreement between Clearwater and LWI; a momentous occasion. From this point forward, LWI was responsible for managing a swath of land 7 miles long and 100ft wide, stretching from Michigan Road to Mandaumin Road. (3)
LWI formed a Trail Management Committee with Fern Noel, Gord Catterson, Sheila White, and Peter Hill. The summers of 1988 and 1989 were very busy. Two summer students were hired, and supervised by Sheila White to help clean up the trail, since garbage of all sorts had accumulated over the years. Peter Hill and Fern Noel were busy erecting fences and gates at key entry points, spreading gravel over low or sandy soft spots, and erecting trail signs which prohibited the use of motorized vehicles on the trail. A major challenge was the design of maze gates at trail entry points, which allowed people with bicycles or baby carriages to enter but not motorcycles. In August 1988 a letter was sent out to all abutting owners informing them of the new trail and how LWI planned to manage it. A Crime Stoppers sign was posted at each entrance offering a $500 reward for reporting vandalism. In addition, the letter stated that the trail area, with the exception of the walking path, was to be left in its natural state. No alteration would be allowed.
By September 1988 gates and signs had been installed and the trail was ready for the expected flood of users. The positive public response to the trail was so quickly evident that, in 1990 , the second year of the trial period, the City of Sarnia declared it a success. The trail from Michigan Road to Mandaumin Road was designated as a linear park and officially named the Howard Watson Nature Trail, to be managed by LWI. This name was strategic in assuring permanency.
At this point the unofficial trail from Michigan Avenue to Exmouth Street comes into the picture. Residents in that area who had been using this section as a trail wanted that part to be tacked on to the HWNT, which ended at Michigan Avenue. Representatives approached LWI and the city with their request, which was granted but with clear understanding that at some point in the future the city would want to exercise its right to use the 402 overpass, which would have an impact on the trail. Shortly after this agreement, the city decided to further extend the trail concept all the way to Confederation Street, thus expanding LWI’s management load, from 7 to 10 miles of trail.
The first few years of trail management were particularly challenging. Although the public support for the trail was extensive there was still open hostility and challenges. The worst was the frequent invasion of motorcycles, which could enter at ungated points. Some people tried setting up gardens, Bocce Courts, even patios on the trail, dumping garbage etc. But all has lessened with time. In June 1993 the trail committee celebrated the fifth anniversary of the trail. A ceremony was held on the trail near Blackwell Side Road with Mayor Bradley as Master of Ceremonies. Mayor Bradley unveiled a special sculpture: “Trackman” made of rail spikes and odd pieces recovered along the rail line, which was mounted on a pedestal with a plaque. The plaque gives some important history about the area when the line was also used for transport of freight and passengers.
In 1994 the LWI trail committee conducted a trail usage survey from April to September. From this survey it was estimated that the trail had been used an impressive 10,000 times. Running and cycling accounted for 52% of the trail usage. The observations suggested that the public viewed the trail more for healthy recreation rather than a nature trail. During this year another funding venture raised $9,000. These funds, as before, were used to repair gates, weed control, insurance and taxes.
As part of the trail management plan, Gord Catterson, of LWI, organized annual Earth Day trail clean-up from Confederation Street to Mandaumin Road. Public participation was always very significant, and each year a large dumpster (4) was filled. This arrangement lasted for some 25 years. In 2013, Gord passed the responsibility to Lambton Outdoor Club (LOC). Thus ended LWI’s involvement with HWNT. For a shorter period of time, LWI was involved in light trail clean-up of the trail section from Mandaumin to Camlachie village
During this local trail activity there was similar activity going on elsewhere in Southern Ontario, and the organization Rails to Trails was born. Sarnia was the prime example of success since it was the first in Ontario to officially convert an abandoned rail line to a trail. Fern Noel and Sheila White attended many meetings in support of this now province-wide movement. In 1996, Sarnia City formed “The Bluewater Trail Committee” to oversee trails throughout Lambton County. Gradually, under the capable guidance of Terry McCallum, Parks & Recreation Director, the city assumed more responsibility for trail maintenance. The trail is now well maintained by the city, serviced by volunteers, and enjoyed by thousands of people, in all seasons.
UPDATE AS OF 2018
At this juncture, the trail is 30 years old. Many changes have come about. The City of Sarnia has been very supportive as manifested through the activities of the Bluewater Trail Committee. Where we had a gravelly foot path, a few feet wide within a 100ft corridor we now have a 6 ft path of hard packed surface, much of it resurfaced in 2016. Parents can now push their buggies on the trail. Proper gates have been installed at key points. The two bridges on the trail have been upgraded with safer railings, and wider passage way. Periodically, overgrown vegetation is cut back. The change in the floral scene is also very significant. Trees have grown and a distinct canopy is gradually developing in areas that were formerly wide open. The section between Modeland Road and Blackwell Sideroad once had rare prairie plants, which have now unfortunately largely disappeared. However the trail is well maintained and now exhibits a natural succession of trees. The motorcycle problem is essentially gone.
Yes, there continues to be occasional problems, but on the whole, the trail is a huge success. The majority of the abutting owners have installed their own gates to access the trail. The issue of privacy is gone because of tree and shrub growth. One very notable point is that whenever an abutting property is up for sale, the trail becomes a positive selling point.