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Almost the Capital: Corunna set to celebrate 200 years

Tara Jeffrey Corunna nearly became the nation’s capital — and that’s something to celebrate.
The town of Corunna is celebrating 200 years since it was surveyed to possibly become the capital of Canada. (Journal photo)

Tara Jeffrey

Corunna nearly became the nation’s capital — and that’s something to celebrate.

So says Tracy Kingston, who’s leading a committee that’s planning an anniversary party this year, to mark 200 years since the downriver town was nearly named the capital of Canada.

“A lot of people don’t realize that Corunna was a possible selection, so, to be in the running, is kind of amazing,” said Kingston, who came up with the idea last fall, after learning the St. Clair Heritage Committee was working on historical story boards to mark 200 years since the area was surveyed to possibly be the capital of the future union of Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec).

“So I called a number of people to be on a committee and they jumped right in.”

Plans are still in the works, but the celebration, themed, ‘Almost Canada’s Capital, is set to include a series of smaller details leading up to a main event in September.

That includes a dedication ceremony in May, hopefully featuring a choir of 200 local school children and the unveiling of the new story boards, created by Paul and Jan Smith along with the St. Clair Township Heritage Committee, at what’s known as St. George’s Square.

The plot of land where Hill and Baird streets meet, was envisioned as the ‘Town Centre’ and site of the future parliament buildings.

This cairn at Baird and Hill streets is the only reminder of a grand plan to locate the Parliament Buildings of Canada on this site in Corunna. Glenn Ogilvie file photo.

“The main event is scheduled for September 23, when we’ll close down a section of Lyndoch Street for a fun-filled street festival.”

St. Clair Township Council has committed to $25,000 in funding for the celebration, Kingston said, which will include vendors, children’s events and banners on all 36 streetlight poles in Corunna.

Kingston also hopes to work with members of nearby Aamjiwnaang First Nation.

“We’re very cognizant of Treaty 29, which was signed in 1927,” she said.

It was 1823 when Lord Beresford led the first of three survey teams by boat up the St. Clair River; landing at a beach opposite a beautiful island, now known as Stag Island, his party set to work plotting out an ambitious town site.

Beresford called the place Corunna, named from A Coruña in Spain, the site of an 1809 battle between the French and the English in the Napoleonic Wars. Beresford had served there under commander Sir John Moore, who would also lend his name to the future town, school and township.

In the end, geography was Corunna’s downfall: too near the U.S. and too far from the political power of Quebec.

A small stone cairn on Baird Street marks St. George’s Square, where the committee hopes to plant a small garden, along with the instalment of the story boards, to bring more attention to the site.

So when was Corunna officially established? No one really knows, said Kingston.

The first post office opened in 1852, she said, Kingston.

Remnants of the plan still live on in Corunna’s streets. Many carry the names of British officers and buddies of Lord Beresford from Napoleon’s battlefields, including Beckwith, Baird, Fane, Paget, Lyndoch, Cameron, Bentinck, Colborne, Hill and Murray.

A few streets follow the specifications of Beresford’s survey, but the diagonal spoke-roads he envisioned radiating out from the square were never built.

Despite the capital snub, Corunna grew rapidly after 1850 as families settled in the area.

Within a few years, five hotels had opened to cater to river traffic and ships leaving Corunna’s docks carried hardwood lumber, maple sugar, potash and grain.

A school was built, and graduates included three U.S. congressmen, an MP in distant South Africa and George Proctor, future mayor of Sarnia.

“It’s just a fun way to celebrate our history,” said Kingston. “And I think it’s important to bring more awareness of how Corunna originated.”

- With files from George Mathewson

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