Gilberts: Tour of Chatham jail and courthouse now available

The old Chatham jail and courthouse has had a long history until it was closed in 2014 after a very interesting 160–year-plus history. To give you a glimpse of that history we have provided a brief glance backwards here.

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The old Chatham jail and courthouse had a long history until it was closed in 2014 after a very interesting 160–year-plus history. To give you a glimpse of that history, we have provided a brief glance backwards here.

We have just recently received permission from the Warrener family to go into the courthouse and jail and give you – for the first time on any of our tours, and for the first time since it was closed – an in-depth tour of the inside of the jail and courthouse.

As you can imagine, this will be a very popular tour. We are only offering this tour for one weekend (Oct. 11 and 12) and tours will be limited to a small number, so it’s important to book early. Tickets that were set aside by Eventbrite were sold out in two days. But you can still phone Sheila Gibbs (519-351-2958) or Jim Gilbert (519-674-2322 or 519 436-2058) and book your tickets that way. However, all tickets must be paid for in advance. The price is $20 for adults and $15 for children 12 and under.


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On this tour, you will also have a chance to meet with Judge Wells, who was the first judge at this courthouse.

The early surveyor Abraham Iredell of 1795 created a survey based on the course of the Thames River, with his east and west streets paralleling its crooked course. On Gaol Street, over the creek, two lateral streets (Seventh and Eight streets) were considerably apart but, thanks to a bend in the river, converged at Water Street a block closer to the river.

The resulting gore or triangle, not easily divisible into lots, posed a problem.

Another problem was that a site for a proposed jail and courthouse was needed for the growing town.

Iredell then came up with a solution that would solve both problems. Why not designate this strange gore lot as a courthouse site?

The plan was quickly approved and the Kent Provisional Council of 1847 was responsible for building a courthouse and jail. Oversight of the project was entrusted to George Young, a Harwich Township farmer who had a great deal of experience in erecting stone buildings and was held in high regard for his business ability, honesty and thrift.

Plans were ordered, but when they were completed, there was a bill of $100 to be paid for them and no money in the Kent treasury! And Kent, according to contemporary record, was in dire need of a “courthouse to accommodate the lawyers and a jail to accommodate the other rascals!”

So George Young and four other prominent citizens, of whom George Witherspoon of Chatham was one, chipped in $20 each to get the plans out of hock.


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Tenders were secured and that of Brown & Baxter of Chatham for 6,000 pounds ($4 to the pound, or $24,000) was accepted. Contractor Baxter and Overseer Young went to Malden to procure stones. Plans called for blocks of a certain size and thickness. They arranged for a shipment of stone by boat to Chatham.

The stones were landed on the riverbank opposite to the site, and the rest of the way up the bank were accomplished by horses and oxen. The hauling alone was a heavy job and teamsters and draught animals were exceedingly busy in the latter part of 1847 and early 1848.

Stone for the lime was also landed on the riverbank and burned there. The practice in those days was to burn the lime as needed, the belief being that with much exposure to the air the lime lost its vitality. This practice possibly accounts for the fact that the mortar, in the old courthouse itself and in the outside walls, was as sound after more than a century as when the stones were laid.

The first roof was made of tin and, as a result, stayed bright and shiny for a number of years. It was also easily visible for a considerable distance and resulted in the courthouse and jail earning the nickname “Old Tin Top.”

After the courthouse was started, a young Scotsman came to Chatham and spent several days keenly inspecting the work. So somewhere in the rear wall of the historic jail and courthouse just above the footings are the stones well and truly laid by Alexander Mackenzie. The Sarnia stone mason would be Canada’s prime minister within 25 years.

So don’t forget. Book your tour of the courthouse and jail for Oct. 11 and 12 before the tickets are gone!

And there are still a few tickets left for the Cemetery Strolls, which will be held on the evenings of Oct. 18 and 19 and Oct. 25 and 26. More about those tours next week.

The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.

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