It Almost Disappeared
We take the Howard Watson Nature Trail (HWNT) for granted today, but it came close to not happening.
From 1967 to 1982 the former CN Rail tracks (running north from Sarnia, under the 402 overpass, then east across Modeland Road to Camlachie and Forest) lay unused, gathering weeds.
In May of 1982, Sarnia Twp. councillor Howard Watson sent a letter to Lambton Wildlife (LWI) pointing out that this CN branch line, from Forest to Sarnia, was about to be abandoned. He wondered if the club had any interest in this as a potential hiking or bicycle path. Thus the seed was planted for what we now know as the Howard Watson Nature Trail (HWNT). But would the council approve? LWI wanted to find out.
The First Rejection
In August 1983, a LWI member, Don Smith, asked Sarnia Township Council to purchase the abandoned rail line, for use as a trail. The council, with the exception of Howard Watson, rejected the idea!!
And then…..for 3 years, nothing.
But behind the scenes, plans were brewing.
A North-South Route Under Highway 402 establishes “Unofficial” Trail
In 1982, Sarnia Township purchased the abandoned section from Michigan Avenue north to Exmouth Street. Someday, the township wanted to use that route under the 402 overpass to build a new north-south roadway (ie: Rapids Parkway) (see proposed roadway/trail below) The rail tracks were removed, leaving a cleared pathway for locals to use as an “unofficial trail”.
(below, a concept of what the trail will look like once the Rapids Parkway is connected to Exmouth Street, planned for the 2022-23 timeframe)
Meanwhile, The St Clair Region Conservation Foundation had purchased the corridor from Michigan Avenue to Camlachie village as potential “green space”, a decision they soon regretted since a strong citizen lobby group was about to cause the Foundation headaches with their insistence that the land be converted to a nature trail.
In 1986, citizens Don Hislop and Gord Catterson led the charge for establishing a trail. Others disagreed with that direction. The Foundation didn’t want the hassle and sold the property to Sarnia and Plympton Townships. Now the future trail was divided into two sections: Sarnia Township owned London Line to Mandaumin, while Plympton Township had Mandaumin to Camlachie village.
Immediately Sarnia Township council decided to sell the rail property to abutting property owners, who could then extend their lot lines to include the section of trail adjacent to their properties.
Not so fast!
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.
The Second Rejection- Pro and Anti-Trail Groups Face Off
Not everyone wanted a trail. An anti-trail group had formed which argued that a trail would devalue their property because of loss of privacy, potential backyard thiefs, and difficulty in controlling motorcycles. They wanted council to sell the land to the abutting owners. And many of those owners might be happy at the prospect of larger lots for little money.
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 again rejected by the council. Only Howard Watson and Sam McCrea voted for a trail. Their support was appreciated but it was not enough. Another rejection for the Pro-Trail group.
Pro-Trail Support Grows as Plans to Sell The Lands Fall Apart
Between September and December 1987 there was much activity involving council, the anti-trail and pro-trail groups, and LWI. Council’s plan to sell the lands to abutting owners was falling apart. The legal process of informing the owners of their options was too complicated and unclear to many. An explanatory letter followed. It too was unclear. And many of those abutting owners were not actually interested in buying the land. They wanted a trail instead.
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.
Lambton Wildlife Steps Up
At this point, with solid positive results from the Observer mail-in survey, LWI then communicated to the council an important proposal: that LWI would manage the trail at no cost to the municipality.
Sarnia Township Becomes Clearwater and Victory Rises From Defeat
In the meantime, Sarnia Township ceased to exist as an entity. It was incorporated as Town of Clearwater and held its first council 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 not happy and vowed to carry on 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.
Building and Managing a 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)
The First HWNT Trail Management Committee Is Formed
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.
Clearwater Becomes Part of Sarnia, Michigan-to-Mandaumin Section of HWNT Designated as City Park
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 (now the trail owner) 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.
City Allows “Unofficial” section From Michigan to Exmouth to be part of HWNT, on ONE CONDITION…..Access to 402 Underpass
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.
New Trail Faces Early Challenges
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.
Lambton Wildlife Trail Involvement Ends in 2013
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 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
Rails-to-Trails Becomes a Province-Wide Movement
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 Sarnia. 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.
As of today……
Much has changed since the beginning.
The City of Sarnia has been very supportive through its support 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 ways. Signalled crossings have been added at Michigan Ave, Finch Drive, Wellington and Exmouth Streets. Improved crosswalk markings have been installed at most crossings. 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.
Gateways have been constructed at Michigan, Modeland and Wellington trail entrances, consisting of gazebos, benches, parking and informational signage.
In 2020, a paved section of the trail was constructed to connect it east-west to Lambton College. And year-round porta-johns were installed at Cathcart Park and Suncor Nature Way entrance.
On balance, 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.
The advent of the COVID 19 pandemic saw dramatic increases in trail use, especially in Mar-May 2020 and continuing through 2021 and 2022. The trail and all its amenities remain open.
The trail today remains a place of solace, peace and natural beauty.
The HWNT is managed today by the Bluewater Trails Committee, a committee of Sarnia Council. You can see the names of the committee members at https://www.bluewatertrails.com/committee-members/