By Brian Roulston
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Port of Hamilton had grown into the fourth busiest port in Canada, trailing Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto. Steamers like The Perseverance, Shannon and Echo became everyday occurrences among the sailing schooners Breeze, General Wolfe and Princess of Wales. Horse drawn wagons were going every which way, loaded with freight from these vessels, heading to merchants near and far. Businesses based on shipping, such as sailmakers, boat repairs and boat building, sprung up quickly and became big businesses.
The construction of the Burlington Canal resulted in a slow but steady increase in the number of industries in the area; it wasn’t until hydroelectric power was brought from Decewsville in 1898 that industry truly flourished in Hamilton. James Street North and the new Grand Trunk Railyard area came to life with shops, inns, taverns, and boarding houses. Barbershops, saloons, blacksmiths, feed mills, and other agricultural suppliers were the town’s primary job creators. The building of the Burlington Canal was in the long run a good thing for the Port of Hamilton. However, the new canal, which allowed Great Lakes passenger ships to pass through, unintentionally threatened the Port of Hamilton’s population.
As Quebec City and Montreal reached their capacity for more immigrants, Toronto and Hamilton were next in line. The end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Irish Potato Famine, and the eviction of Scottish Highlanders from their land all contributed to the influx of immigrants to Hamilton. The conditions on the ships were frequently filthy and overcrowded, with the majority of passengers travelling in the hold. These, along with the heat of July and August, provided ideal breeding grounds for Cholera. In 1832, Hamilton, a small town of around 800 people, was unprepared to deal with the onslaught of such a disaster. The town was aware that the immigrants were on their way and had made every effort to prepare. Unfortunately, they were prepared for Cholera as an airborne disease rather than a waterborne disease. Hamilton was not alone; Toronto, like many other small towns and cities across North America, was hard hit. The epidemic in Hamilton lasted from 1832 to 1854 and came in waves, with the most severe outbreaks occurring in 1832, 1849, and 1854. Officially, 120 people died; however, because records were not well kept or there were simply too many to record, the death toll is thought to be much higher. The town was ready to move on once the cholera had passed.
Recreation and leisure activities were relatively new concepts in the late nineteenth century. Great Lakes steamers Macassa, Mazeppa, and Modjeska would soon be making stops from the James Street dock to the beaches of Burlington for a day of laying on the beach and swimming, and eventually became the first form of everyday commuter transportation between Hamilton and Toronto.
During the 1870s, small fruit and vegetable farms sprouted up along the beach strip while fishing shanties lined the opposite side. Wabasso beach (now La Salle Park), and Brant Inlet (Burlington) became the playground of rich and well-to-do Hamiltonians. It was the area that had been least affected by the pollution of the harbour. Hotels, cottages, restaurants and nightclubs slowly replaced the farms and fish shanties. Those who couldn’t afford to eat at the restaurants or pay for club admissions frequently sat outside, listening to the bands play until the early hours of the morning. Steamer trips from Hamilton to Toronto often included an evening of live music and dinner.
Blue-collar workers could not afford such luxuries but enjoyed a day at the beach through company-sponsored picnics and church events. In the new century, Hamiltonians with more moderate incomes could ride the Hamilton Street Railway over the beach strip to this popular summertime resort. Free HSR rides to the beach strip for the children became reality as concerned parents and city officials worried about them swimming in the polluted waters along Hamilton’s shoreline. The new Burlington Beach Commission took control of the beach strip in 1907, and the dirt path from Hamilton to Burlington was paved in 1923 for automobiles. Burlington also purchased Wabasso Beach from the City of Hamilton in 1923, and the area was renamed LaSalle Park after René-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, a 17th-century French explorer and fur trader and the first to explore Hamilton Harbour. Burlington operated the amusement park until 1947. Cottages on the beach strip were converted into permanent year-round residences not long after the amusement park closed.
In the 1870s, pleasure boating became popular on the bay. The Burlington Canal made it possible for yachts to move freely between the harbour and Lake Ontario. The Royal Hamilton Yacht Club, at its original location along the beach strip, and the Victoria Yacht Club at the foot of Wellington Street, were both established as places for leisure craft sailors to socialize, swim, store their yachts, and sail.
Alexander Brown constructed a wharf near LaSalle Park and supplied up to 50,000 cords of firewood a year to the many steamships that sailed across Burlington Bay. Docks were also constructed at the foot of Sherman Avenue where both Great Lakes steamers and sail ships could be serviced.
In 1882, there was even a proposal to build a canal with two locks from the bay to the downtown core at King Street in place of Wellington Street. It never got off the ground due to the lack of money and opposition from the railway. Hamilton would have looked very different today if this had come to pass.
The Burlington Canal was widened again in the early 1930s to 92 m, with two 9 m channels. The Burlington Canal and Hamilton Harbour remain some of the busiest waterways inside of the St. Lawrence Seaway today.