By Brian Roulston
The piers of the Burlington Canal, lighthouse and the Beach Strip are popular for walking, sightseeing, picture taking and fishing. Long before the arrival of Europeans and the Empire Loyalists, centuries-old oak trees, weeping willows and wildflowers covered this narrow 4km-long sandbar. The ridge of sand was a seven-metre- high divide between Lake Ontario and the calm blue waters of the Macassa, also known as, Onilquition, Washquarters, the Geneva of Canada and Burlington Bay. It is now known as Hamilton Harbour. For hundreds of years the sandbar has been one of the best fishing spots in the area. Known to the Indigenous people as “Daonasedao,” used in their search for food and as a trading ground. Daonasedao became known as Long Beach when the area was surveyed by Augustus Jones in 1791.
In 1823, the Port of Hamilton was barely a village. Five things needed to happen before this sleepy little village could grow into the city we know today as Hamilton: the building of the railroad, immigration, electricity, enterprise and the building of the Burlington Canal. The Beach Strip restricted any chance for Hamilton to grow in a meaningful way. Large vessels were forced to moor along the Lake Ontario side, offload and store their freight in small wooden shacks they called warehouses. The freight was then carried across the sandbar from the lakeside or floated through a shallow 5-metre-wide natural outlet and loaded onto smaller vessels to go to the village. The John By, a former Rideau Canal steamer, became the first steamer to operate in the waters of Burlington Bay. It was small enough to navigate this waterway on its regular freight and passenger runs to and from Toronto, a 24-hour round trip. Some flat bottom boats such as the bateaux built by Abel Land, son of Hamilton’s first settler, were also able to take advantage of this tiny outlet. Freight was directly offloaded from larger vessels onto bateaux, saving merchants both time and money by not having to warehouse their merchandise. The little outlet was filled in once the canal was finished.
In 1824 work started on the Burlington Canal. Hundreds of men and their families from across Canada, the U.S, and Europe had settled in Hamilton’s North End. Armed with picks, shovels, and their bare hands; many of these workers even brought their own team of horses and wagons. Little is known about the men except that they were a hearty bunch. To blow off steam after a long work week, the men loved to brawl in the streets, drink, gamble and see who had the fastest horse. Horses and plows were used to make the initial cut above the waterline. A primitive dredge, that cost at least a quarter of the canal’s budget, sat nearby and was rarely used. Pile drivers sat idle too, simply because they found it difficult to drive the piles into the sand. Most of the work in the water was done by hand during the warm summer months. During winter, large heavy stones, hauled across the frozen bay by horse and cutter, were piled into the wooden cribs that were built the summer before. The work was hard, and the setbacks were plentiful. Sand continuously filled the canal and had to be dug out again and again. Arguments between the contractors and the commissioners over money and other construction issues often broke out, sometimes delaying projects.
Finally, on June 4th, 1826, the new $94,000 canal was opened for business along with a wooden pedestrian bridge between the two piers. Sadly, this bridge didn’t last long. A year later, a small schooner, the Elsie Hope, rammed the bridge, damaging it beyond repair. For the next six decades, a ferry-scow would be used to take pedestrians, horses and buggies and even cattle at no charge across the canal.
The schooner Rebecca and Eliza became the first ship to transit the canal after it had wintered along the sandbar. Hamilton was finally accessible to the world and soon Dundas would be too, with the opening of the Desjardins Canal in 1837.
On July 1st, 1826, the townspeople and the canal labourers made their way on a hot and sticky afternoon to one of the many docks that lined the beach strip. They were in a festive mood and looking forward to seeing the General Brock, a small schooner, lead a flotilla through the canal with Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland standing on the ship’s bow saluting a guard of honour. A military band played in the background. As the schooner approached, a gust of wind caught the ship’s sails, causing her to be beached on the Lake Ontario side. Several smaller boats were ordered to her side in the hopes of extricating her swiftly, but were unsuccessful. After a considerable delay, Maitland, practicing damage control, commissioned a small six- oared rowboat and continued on with the opening ceremony. A gala event later that evening did more than make up for the day’s frustrations with plenty of good food and music.
The new canal was a definite improvement, allowing some great lake vessels into the bay for the first time but it was much too small for larger lake steamers to pass through. Initially 18.5m wide and 3m deep, the canal was obsolete from the beginning. Sand drifting into the canal continued to be a major problem, partially obstructing the waterway. Navigating through the canal became so treacherous the commissioners could not justify collecting tolls. Strong gales off Lake Ontario repeatedly lashed at the canal structure and the wooden bridge during the unusually brutal winter of 1828–1829. The cribbing along the south pier was completely destroyed along its full length. A new larger one was constructed the next summer out of heavier stones inside more heavily reinforced cribbing with 3-inch-thick planks, iron bolts or 22” long tree nails. Part of the north pier was washed away and repaired as well.
A problem arose as steamers navigated through the canal. Cinders from the ships’ wood-fired boilers would float upwards through the smokestacks where a strong breeze could carry them towards the canal structure, setting it ablaze. A cinder from the Ranger burned down the original wood-frame lighthouse. Often ships rubbed against the woodwork, causing friction, which created sparks that caused fires. It was one of the many duties of the canal’s ferrymen to extinguish those flames.
The government of Upper Canada set aside £100 annually for maintenance. When Hamilton reached city status in 1846, the responsibility for the waters of Burlington Bay and the canal was transferred to the city. A few lingering problems were fixed and the canal widened to 36.5 metres.