Sign commemorating historic wreck that forever changed area navigation is unveiled

sidney smith sign
Mrs. Ollie Campbell, widow of the hero of the sinking of the Sidney E. Smith, was present when Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley spoke briefly at the unveiling of a sign that tells the story of the historic event.

Few people realize that a popular fishing spot along the St. Clair River is actually a salvaged ship wreck that remains a testament to the quick actions of a master pilot boat operator who ended up saving 31 lives including the captain of the Sidney E. Smith, the vessel that collided with a southbound ship before sinking.

Visitors to the Sidney E. Smith Wharf, which is owned and operated by the City of Sarnia, will be now be able to read about the story, thanks to a sign unveiled Wednesday.

The salvaged Sidney E. Smith actually became the wharf and visitors, if they look carefully, can actually still see the propellor of the ship submerged.

On hand at Wednesday’s unveiling was Mrs. Ollie Campbell, widow of the hero of that event, Capt. Robert Campbell, who responded immediately after hearing the Smith’s danger signal and, a few seconds later, the terrible thud of the crash.

He and deckhand Robert Chadwick, who were at their station near Purdy’s Fisheries in Point Edward, rushed to the scene and expertly steadied their pilot boat against the port side of the sinking Smith.

One of those saved was Capt. Arn Kristensen, whose Sidney E. Smith was carrying a load of coal toward Lake Huron under dark, clear skies.

The Smith’s collision with the Parker Evans, a ship captained by Thomas C. Davis and owned by Hindman Transportation Co. of Owen Sound, occurred at 1:45 a.m. on June 5, 1972.

Capt. Campbell was later recognized with a prestigious Gold Lifesaving Medal from the U.S. Coast Guard for his daring rescue. Chadwick received the Silver Lifesaving Medal.

The wreck blocked half the river and interrupted a busy shipping channel. Her 489-foot hull lay broken in two sections on the river bottom. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Navy were urgently called on to mount a major salvage effort. They worked tirelessly with the Coast Guard and several civilian contractors to remove and relocate the ship using complex techniques considered highly innovative for the time.

The wreck was pulled out of the shipping channel as it no longer posed a navigational hazard for vessel traffic. Cargo was removed and each section of the wreck was sealed and filled with urethane foam, which made the ship light enough to be dragged ashore by a unique hydraulic pulling system.

Only four months after the collision, new safety measures were permanently put in place to avoid similar incidents.

To this day, ship traffic is not permitted to pass simultaneously near the Blue Water Bridge.

Two years after the Smith sinking, her severed hull was sold to Reid Aggregate Ltd., which owned the lands adjacent to the federal harbour, now owned by the City of Sarnia. Reid used the salvaged ship as a dock face along the waterfront.

—Much of this story comes from the sign now in place at the far west end of Seaway Road and was written by freelance writer Cathy Dobson.

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