by Brian Roulston
The village of Hamilton, in the beginning, was shaded by large trees, some of which were hundreds of years old with several small ravines, bogs, streams and dense vegetation. The wind, frogs croaking, crickets chirping, birds singing; maybe the laughter of children playing nearby or the waves lapping down along the shores of Burlington Bay may well be the only sounds that you would hear. Then there’s the booming sound of the horses’ hooves and the rattle of the carriages as they pass by on the street. Horses, and sometimes oxen, were the primary modes of transportation on land in and around this tiny village in the 1830s.
In the early days, travelling or walking around the streets of Hamilton was anything but easy, and was not for the faint of heart. Until gas lights became available in the latter half of the 18th century, the streets were nearly pitch black at night unless you had a lantern or were lucky enough to have the moon as your source of light.
Depending on the season, the streets were either dry, rutted and hard-baked paths or a muddy, snow-covered impassable mess. Driving a team of horses through the streets was no picnic either, and you often had to navigate around tree stumps, large immovable boulders or rocks. Sheep, pigs, goats, dogs, and chickens were just as ubiquitous on the early streets of Hamilton as their two-legged counterparts, and it was not unusual to step into some excrement when crossing the street. On the other hand, cattle were not seen on the streets of Hamilton in the early days since sheep were the most abundant livestock owing to their wool and mutton. Cows first appeared in Saltfleet Township in the late 1800s, after early Scottish pioneers cleared enough acreage for grazing cattle and hay to keep them alive during the winter.
Hamilton’s incorporation brought planked sidewalks, which were a massive improvement to almost getting ran over by teams of horses while walking or trudging through mud, standing water, or snow. The boardwalks required constant maintenance, and the planks lasted two, maybe three years before they needed replacing. People often stepped on rotted boards, falling through and injuring themselves.
A settler coming into town one autumn evening in 1832 recounted his trip from the mountain as a muddy mess to present-day McCauley Street. After then, it became slightly better as he came to a corduroy road that was poorly maintained. Trees had become favoured as the most affordable and conveniently accessible material for roads and streets and used in many parts of the world since the Roman times. Trees were chopped and set horizontally over the roadbed before filling with mud or whatever material was available, and were well known for their bone-rattling, wheel-destroying, gut-wrenching rides through marshy and muddy terrain. Horses risked breaking legs as they slowly made their way over these roads.
Next in the evolution of our streets were planked roads, a Canadian invention that spread quickly across the border into the United States. The roads were built using sawed wooden planks 4” ( 10 cm) thick laid across the roadbed. They remained popular well into the early 1900s. Plank roads and bridges still exist to this day in lightly travelled areas throughout the province. The first the owners of the Model T Fords were more than happy to travel on these plank roads because they were smooth. Unfortunately, like the plank sidewalks, plank roads were too costly to maintain and repair. They required gravel as a foundation, and deteriorated sections were filled with stone, making them slower and bumpier. They also posed a risk to the horses, who frequently slid and fell when the planks were wet and exceedingly slick. Horses often stepped through rotted sections of the plank road as well. Plank roads eventually went out of favour with travellers, who then began to travel by rail. Along with plank roads came the much-hated toll gates. Some were located on York, John, James, Main, Barton streets and at both ends of King Street.
Asphalt walkways emerged on Hamilton’s main streets in 1883. Paving offered stable footing for horses and a smooth ride for buggies. Paved roads became more common a few years after John Moodie Jr. acquired his Winton at the TH&B (Go Station) station on Hunter Street for $1,000 from the Winton Motor Carriage Company in Cleveland, Ohio, in April 1898 and drove it through the streets of Hamilton. It was both Hamilton’s and the Dominion of Canada’s first gasoline-powered automobile.
When high-wheeled bikes gave way to the safety bikes, which were similar to what we use now, it started a new trend for bicycles in the late 1880s. Places like Hamilton were under pressure to provide a smooth surface on which they could ride. The bicycle’s rising popularity increased the pressure to improve Hamilton’s streets and roads connecting to other towns and villages. Day trippers, bike tourists and bike racers became a thing. The people that rode bicycles, later automobile owners, were influential in advocating the government for good roads in Ontario. It became known at the time as the Good Roads Movement.
Hamilton started paving the streets in a big way between 1899-1902. Large delegations from cities across America came to inspect and learn about Hamilton’s paving techniques. Much of what they knew was taken back and used. After several failed attempts, the Works Department of Hamilton solved a paving problem that practically every city in North America faced; they could replicate the consistency of Bermuda asphalt (a tar that was imported by ship from Bermuda and used for paving). They named it Tar-Macadam, and street workers considered it to be the best; it became popular among the locals back , plus it was only a fifth of the cost of Bermuda asphalt. Tar-Macadam was suitable for residential streets and streets where traffic is spread evenly over a large surface area.
A story in the Hamilton Evening Times on November 11, 1901, spoke of a delegation from Elmira, N.Y. The City of Hamilton organized a tour over regular pavement, asphalt and tar-macadam roads. The Mayor of Elmira, NY, Frank H. Flood, said city engineers across the U.S. have read or heard about Hamilton’s Tar-Macadam. In a speech later that day, he was quoted as saying, “Taken from your size (city), your roads are the best I have ever seen.”
The paving also made it easy to keep the dust down and the city cleaner by spraying water on top. With labour at 18¢ per hour, it cost the city $1.06 per square yard to initially pave our streets. In 1902 thirty-six kilometres of cement sidewalks were laid; the following year, more than ninety-seven kilometres.