The Port Huron, Michigan – Sarnia, Ontario Border Crossing

The�border crossing between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario, has always been an important spot on a key trade route.

Indians from the Chippewa, Ojibway, Huron, and Ottawa tribes, whose nations included land on both sides of the St. Clair River, braved its tricky currents, crossing in canoes with cargoes of tobacco, corn, and furs. British and French fur traders traveled the Indian trails, from Toronto to the east, Detroit and Chicago to the west, and Sault Ste. Marie to the north, that met here.

Before, and during, the U.S. Civil War, Port Huron was a northern terminal of the Underground Railroad. Any farm house from that era, or any of the Victorians that dot the city’s south side, could have been stations where friendly “conductors” hid escaped slaves until they could reach the next safe house, and eventually freedom in Canada.

In 1865, when the war had ended, bands of expatriate Confederates gathered in Canada and planned to invade the United States from Sarnia. Ontario milita dispatched from nearby London prevented the invasion from taking place.

The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada incorporated in 1851. By 1856, it linked Toronto and Montreal. Three years later, the line reached Sarnia. Ferries carried freight trains across the St. Clair River until 1891, when the world’s first rail tunnel linking two countries opened. For over a century, the tunnel carried goods from Canada to Chicago and American inland markets. In 1995, a new tunnel that could accommodate larger rail cars opened parallel to the old one, which was closed.

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Ferries handled vehicle traffic until 1938, when the Blue Water Bridge opened. In 1997 a second span opened, for eastbound traffic into Canada, and the original span became one-way westbound into the United States. The Blue Water Bridge connects Ontario route 402, the freeway from Toronto, with Interstates 69 and 94. This crossing is the fourth busiest on the U.S. – Canada border, and a key spot on roads whose importance the North American Free Trade Agreement has increased.

When the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1958, it allowed ocean-going ships to reach Great Lakes ports. The St. Clair River became part of what’s now the world’s busiest inland waterway. Only a handful of the world’s river-road meeting places see more goods pass than does the spot where the Blue Water Bridge crosses the St. Clair River.

On September 11, 2001, the bridge closed for about three hours. Truckers still experienced waits of up to twelve hours to cross, as they did at other key border crossings. Since then, I’ve noticed that the Canada Customs border control officers have become more fussy, and ask way more questions than their American counterparts. They ask those questions�for a reason: to get visitors away from queries whose answers they may have memorized, and to speak without a script. So be cool, and try to forget that you’re talking to someone with the power to have you and your vehicle searched, in places where you don’t want them searched.

U.S. citizens won’t need a passport to enter Canada until December 31, 2007. My driver’s license is all I’ve ever needed to get in, but that’s probably because I’m local. If you’re not, and plan to cross the border anywhere, bring a picture ID and your birth certificate. The more documents you have proving your residence and citizenship, such as voter registration cards, the better, but don’t get a passport just to go to Canada until it becomes a requirement.

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Port Huron and Sarnia, like all border towns, have problems unique to border towns. Now and then, illegal aliens are caught trying to enter the United States through the railroad tunnel, or crossing the river to one of the public access sites on the American side. U.S. Border Patrol vehicles cruise the riverfront, reminding office workers having lunch in the parks, and fishermen waiting for nibbles, that they’re on an international frontier.

At this important crossing on the world’s longest undefended border, unlike in Detroit, the public has access to the waterfront. Unlike in New Orleans or New York, other favorite cities of ship watchers, the flags on the other sides of the river are different. It’s a place you’ll appreciate if you have a sense of history, or if your only desire is a peaceful spot to spend a summer afternoon.