What began as a search for oil led to the discovery of salt. The discovery of oil in Lambton County in the late 19th century had many believing that vast wealth might be just around the corner. Oil fever was rampant.
In 1866 a Goderich man named Samuel Platt thought he’d take a chance. He raised $10,000, put together a company he called the Goderich Petroleum Company, and began drilling on the north shore of the Maitland River. When Platt reached 686 feet without striking a gusher, the partners walked and Platt nearly gave up, but the town and county chipped in $1,500 to keep the drilling going.
Bingo. At 964 feet, Platt drilled into 60 solid feet of rock salt. This quantity of salt had never before been discovered in Canada. The Goderich Petroleum Company quickly became the Goderich Salt Company. A salt boom began that would last a generation.
Sarnia sat 200 feet above immense salt deposits, but nobody knew it. Drillers in Warwick searching for oil also found salt, and more was discovered in Mooretown, but the first salt well sunk in Sarnia in the 1870s went to 1,500 feet and found nothing.
In 1902, the Cleveland- Sarnia Sawmill Company was located in what is today the north end of Centennial Park. That year, the company, in a spirit of diversification, sank two salt wells south of their plant. The venture was almost a disaster. Hitting gas at 270 feet, the result was a massive explosion and a raging fire that took Sarnia firefighters six hours to get under control.
The sawmill company didn’t give up though, and in 1904 it granted a charter to the new Empire Salt Company. Between 1,675 and 1,755 feet, it found 80 solid feet of pure rock salt. Built on the south side of the sawmill plant, Empire’s work went on nine hours a day, six days a week. Cheap fuel came from the sawmill in the form of shavings, sawdust and slabs of unwanted wood.
When manager J.I. Carter retired in 1910, the sawmill company took over the operation of Empire Salt. The company was later reincorporated under the name Dominion Salt Company Limited, a division of Morton Salt of the USA. Between 50 and 60 men and women were producing 1,500 barrels of salt a day from four salt wells. The salt block had become an important sector of Sarnia’s economy.
Modernization and a switch to coal fuel in 1927 led to Dominion Salt’s purchase in 1928 by a Toronto group. In 1941, Dominion Tar and Chemical of Montreal bought the salt works, which was subsequently known as the “Sifto” division of Domtar.
Sifto closed in 1964 as the demand for bulk evaporated salt declined. In 1965, Mayor Henry Ross began negotiations with Domtar for the 50 acres of water lots and 30 acres of land that, for the price of $250,000, would become Sarnia’s delightful Centennial Park.
From salt mines to parkland – it was a 74-year journey.