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The Russell Street beer legend goes skunk

George Mathewson The naming of P.E. McGibbon public school on Russell Street in 2009 sparked a heated and sometimes divisive controversy.
This is believed to be a rare early image of south Russell Street, although the Lambton County Archives can’t confirm it with 100% certainty. The rail tracks in the centre of the dirt road do help support the case, though. A trolley line opened on Russell Street in 1892 to connect the downtown with what today is known as the VIA train station. Photograph courtesy of the Lambton County Archives, Wyoming. Photograph Collection, 9JA-N.

George Mathewson

The naming of P.E. McGibbon public school on Russell Street in 2009 sparked a heated and sometimes divisive controversy.

After the school board’s naming committee reached an impasse, trustees decided to call the new school Russell Street Memorial.

Problem was, Russell Street itself was named for George Russell, a 19th century Sarnia brewer, and critics said giving a beer baron’s name to a children’s teaching institution was, well, problematic.

They needn’t have worried.

The two guys behind the Sarnia Street Name Project have uncovered conclusive evidence that Russell Street wasn’t named for George Russell after all.

“Once we saw the dates we knew something was fishy,” said Randy Evans, who with Tom St. Amand has pretty much debunked the long accepted story.

For one thing, Russell Street shows up on a town survey plan in 1855. That’s a full six years before George Russell even arrived in Sarnia.

“And he was just 15 years old when it was named,” St. Amand said.

What’s more, George Russell, a local politician and founder of The Sarnia Brewery in 1861-62, had no proprietary interest in that area, subsequent surveys show.

Then there’s his occupation. The Russell Street lands were owned by businessman Malcolm Cameron, who sold it to the Vidals, the town’s leading family. And the teetotalling Camerons and Vidals were both staunch temperance advocates.

“They weren’t going to name a street after a brewer,” Evans said.

So if not Sarnia’s first sudsmeister, where did Russell Street get its name?

St. Amand and Evans believe the inspiration was an English reformer named Lord John Russell, twice the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Three of John Russell’s political allies were fellow reformers named John Bright, Richard Cobden and Lord Palmerston. And that 1855 survey plan shows Cobden and Bright streets right there beside Russell, with Palmerston added later.

The British prime minister idea was first voiced by city resident Jack Howden, who is originally from the U.K., St. Amand said.

“Everything Jack said sounded right but I was a bit skeptical at first. But Palmerston, Russell, Bright together. It just makes sense.”

Once complete, the Sarnia History Project will contain the background stories of as many of the city’s 550 streets as possible.

The goal is to publish a free, online resource by the end of this year on Sarnia’s website, and possibly a book for schools and libraries.

Streets still to be solved include Ryan, Joel Park, Evan, Vye, Roper, Lang, Glendale Drive, Lee Court, Len Avenue, O'dell Avenue and O'Dell Street, Maynard Court and Daley Avenue.

Anyone with any information can email [email protected]

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