By Brian Roulston
Let’s go back in time to one of Hamilton’s greatest accomplishments, Hamilton’s famed Crystal Palace and the first royal visit to our city.
Beset by financial problems, the Desjardins train catastrophe and a cholera outbreak, local politicians felt the city needed to boost people’s morale. In 1858, council recommended that Hamilton host the Provincial Exhibition in 1860, and they wanted to build something spectacular for the occasion, perhaps a crystal palace. Crystal palaces were the precursors of today’s industrial fair structures and places like Dublin, New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, Kingston and London Ontario each built their own versions. The idea of building the crystal palace became more important when the city learned that the Prince of Wales would be visiting Hamilton.
Hamilton won the rights to host the fair over Kingston and London, who were not at all happy about it. The Kingston Gazette ran a story accusing Hamilton of unfaithful negotiations, while The London Free Press said that Hamilton would be forever indebted to the mayors and other dignitaries of its neighbouring communities who sided with Hamilton. The city purchased the land now known as Victoria Park, today a sliver of the former exhibition grounds. Plans were drawn up to build Hamilton’s new pride, the Crystal Palace. It was meant to be a large structure in the style of London’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. It, however, turned out to be a condensed version of the original and also took some design cues from New York City’s Crystal Palace, such as the upper windows. The laying of the cornerstone finally began on May 24, 1859.
With the help of skilled craftsmen and volunteers from nearby towns and villages, it wasn’t long before the frosted glass-walled structure, with its massive round-headed glass windows on the upper level, began to take shape. The building was set up like a Greek Cross, its centerpiece being the Great Hall, a 171-foot-wide (32m) and 100 ft (30m) high octagon that could seat hundreds of diners on the main floor. A set of floating staircases allowed the well-dressed visitors to ascend to the Crystal Palace’s dome, where they could gaze out over the harbour or the countryside whilst sipping a drink. The rooftops of the single-story sections also served as observation decks. While England’s Crystal Palace was constructed with an iron frame, Hamilton’s was constructed with timber. The main entrance faced eastwards towards downtown. The exhibition site extended from Locke to Dundurn and from King to Florence Street.
Three seedling elms were planted on the newly landscaped and gated grounds, which became known as “Prince’s Square” which would eventually become a favourite location for many families, companies, or union summer picnics. Baseball became a major outdoor sport on the premises, along with football, ice skating, and fireworks. William Hand (Hand & Co.), whose shop was on nearby Sophia Street, often gave fireworks for special events at the palace. Open sheds were built across the road for the fairgoers’ horses and buggies. Along King Street were the stables for the animals that were being shown or working at the fair, as well as the display of farm implements.
In 1860 Queen Victoria dispatched her eldest son, Prince Albert Edward, known as “Bertie” to royal family members on a tour of Canada and the United States. She would come to regret this decision. When the young prince left England his only social connections were his boarding school classmates; as a result, he was shy and rarely spoke. His tour changed him into a polite but gregarious and talkative young man; it appears that the Prince’s royal tour enhanced his self-esteem greatly. Bertie had become known as an international playboy by the time he returned to London in mid-November, which greatly upset the Queen.
Invitations to the palace for the Prince’s visit, as well as tickets to the 15th edition of the Provincial Exhibition, a four-day event, were sent to James Buchanan, the 15th President of the United States, and to the governors of New York, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Tickets and invitations were also sent to the mayors of Buffalo, Toronto, Kingston, London, Detroit, Chicago, Lockport, and Milwaukee.
A meteor blazed through the twilight sky over Hamilton on July 20, 1860, as the Prince’s arrival in Canada approached. The meteor was also spotted over Ogdensburg, New York, and Norfolk, Virginia. One could only wonder if the shooting star was meant to be a good omen. The Prince arrived at St. John’s Newfoundland on July 23 1860 aboard the HMS Hero and his entourage on the HMS Ariadne. Throughout their journey, the two ships encountered heavy waves and thick fog. He then commenced a week-long tour of Atlantic Canada and Quebec, enjoying warm receptions and gala evenings.
On August 31, 1860, the Prince landed in Ottawa, where he laid the cornerstone of the first parliament building. From Ottawa, the royal tour crisscrossed Northern Ontario, visiting several communities there before heading back to Ottawa and Kingston, where he attended balls given in his honour and then on to Toronto on September 7th. From Toronto the Prince and his entourage began a whirlwind trip through Southern Ontario commencing at Belleville on September 8th, 1860. From London he went by rail making stops in Ingersoll, Sarnia, Woodstock, Brantford, Paris, Ft. Erie, Chippawa, and Niagara Falls, where he and his entourage spent the night and the early evening hours exploring the Falls.
Meanwhile, back in Hamilton, the Prince’s visit was nearly, if not completely, cancelled. The reason for the cancellation given was that the route across the mountain to Arkledun, where the Prince would be wined, dined, and accommodated during his visit, was said to be far too treacherous for his Royal Highness to be travelling on at night. Further research also suggests another reason for the cancellation. Arkledun was owned by Mr. Richard Juson, a hardware merchant at the time. Mr. Juson protested when he heard the entire mansion would be turned over to the prince during his visit. Thankfully, cooler minds prevailed in either case, and the royal visit to Hamilton resumed.
In the final days leading up to the Provincial Exhibition, which ran from Tuesday to Friday that year, the finishing touches were still being done to the Crystal Palace and its grounds. The palace and fence were in the last stages of being painted; blue on the inside and a warm white or stone color on the outside. Shrubs and gravel were the last things to be done on the grounds, while preparations were still well underway inside for the Prince’s visit. One couldn’t help but stand back and marvel at their achievements, thinking that no better place for the Crystal Palace could be found.
The Hamilton Field Battery saluted the royal train as it gently rolled into the Stuart Street Station at five o’clock on September 18th. Hundreds of people flocked up the slope behind the station to get a glimpse of the prince as the bands played joyously below. The deck was so packed with well-wishers that it was nearly impossible for the Prince to detrain. When Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, stepped onto the Great Western Railway platform, Hamiltonians erupted in a deafening cheer. Then Hamilton mayor Henry McKinstry, gave a fine speech, and the Prince returned with gracious remarks.
The Prince of Wales’ carriage, along with McKinstry’s, prominent members of the city, and 80 members of the 7th District Militia officers, passed through a densely packed King Street lined with people and performing bands. The excitement in the air over Hamilton could be slashed with a knife; onlookers waved flags and watched the proceedings from practically every apartment window or balcony overlooking Gore Park. A choir of three thousand schoolchildren stood on a raised wooden platform singing God Save the Queen, Hurra! Hurra!, and the National Anthem, first introduced as “Chant national” only months earlier on June 24th. While the children sang, the Prince inspected the beautifully crafted Gore Fountain.
The city’s society ladies were eager to show off their elegant new dresses and sparkling jewelry at the Royal Ball, which would be held the following evening at Hamilton’s sole first-class hotel at the time, the million-dollar 186-room Royal Hotel, which opened in 1857 on the corner of Merrick (York Blvd.) and James St. North; this hotel would later be destroyed by fire in December of 1935. Flags flew from buildings around the city and welcome arches covered in Prince of Wales emblems spanned the streets. On the path the Prince would eventually follow up the escarpment to Arkledun, Isaac Buchannan created a gas-lit arch visible at night to the entire lower city.
The Prince spent the first night of his tour of the Ambitious City listening to the Hamilton Philharmonic Society in the auditorium on the second floor of the Mechanic’s Institute, three buildings north of the original City Hall on James Street at the time. The auditorium was big enough to hold a thousand people.
The Prince paid a visit to Central Public School the following day, September 19th, 1860, and attended a levee before moving on to the Crystal Palace. When the young prince arrived, he was greeted with a magnificent arrangement of flowers at the entrance to the grounds. The Prince was given a private tour of the exhibition, during which he witnessed cattle and horse shows and the winners of the finest carriage and horse team, as well as the best spices, jams, and marmalade. He saw the best Hamilton-built cooking and heating stoves, as well as saddlery and jewelry. Hamilton placed second and third in the best Canadian amateur band competition that year, with the Hamilton City Band and the Hamilton Artillery Band. The Town of Coburg took home the $150 first prize money.
Prince Albert Edward then proceeded to the new waterworks plant on Woodward Avenue, where he flipped the switch, thus turning on the engine to officially open the facility. Simultaneously, somewhere in the city, a little boy chosen by Central School became the first person to turn on a city tap; he would go on to become Sir John Morison Gibson, a lawyer, businessperson, and politician, and the 10th Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. Sir John served as vice-regal counsellor to the Prince and later King.
The city’s enthusiasm reached a fevered pitch, with over 50,000 people flooding into Hamilton by lunchtime and growing to 100,000 (almost four times the city’s population) by dark, only to catch a glimpse of His Royal Highness. When you consider that the SuperCrawl and the Friendship Festival each draw up to 200,000 people over the course of a two- or three-day weekend, 100,000 people is an incredible accomplishment for the era. It would go down in history as the greatest turnout for Prince Albert Edward’s visit to Canada. The Great Ball would be the highlight of the Prince’s visit and the route to Hamilton, as well as every shop in the Gore, was beautifully lit. As the Prince’s carriage drove up Merrick Street, the Royal Hotel was gas-lit with a large circle of lights with the words “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense,” meaning “Shamed Be Whoever Thinks Ill of It.” in various colors, wrapped in a magnificent crown. Next door to the Royal Hotel, the post office was beautifully lit in Cremorne lamps with ground glass globes lighting the letters “V.A.” and “Welcome Prince of Wales.” Every window of the original Lister Block was lit too.
Inside, the ballroom was well-lit with gas lighting. Drapes in red, white, and blue cascaded from the ceiling, creating the image of a giant marquee. Pink and white curtains hung on the ballroom walls while freshly planted flowers and evergreens lined every wall on the floor below. The walls were covered with drawings of the Royal Family, coats of arms, and other royal treasures. The orchestra stood along the south side of the ballroom on a scarlet-clothed stage. Several magnificent paintings of Queen Victoria and a regal medallion encircled by a Prince’s Plume hung over the orchestra as they played well into the night and the wee hours of the morning. On the opposite side of the room was another stage with a canopy of crimson fabric embroidered with gold borders, and bells that hung on each corner. On the stage were chairs and other furnishings for the Prince and his guests to sit on and relax. The Prince danced to every number with partners assigned to him that evening, as well as a handful of the other young ladies in the audience. With ease, he casually discussed local agriculture with other guests, the high cost of living, his journey to Canada, and his own England. The supper-room was attractively decorated with flowers and a massive Prince of Wales Plume in crystals with different types of Brunswick sap placed underneath. A feast was prepared for the prince and his guests, with 75 specially prepared delicacies for the royal taste. The Prince returned to the ballroom at 10:50 p.m., where he danced until 3:30 a.m.
The next morning, September 20th, 1860, the Prince of Wales returned to the Crystal Palace and the exhibition grounds to officially open the Provincial Exhibition. Then it was off to Dundurn Castle, where he met and dined with Sir Allan Napier MacNab before boarding the royal train to Detroit. A large crowd cheered the Prince off at two o’clock that afternoon for his American tour.
Another year went by and the Crystal Palace became the barracks for British troops, the 13th Battalion Volunteer Militia, later renamed the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. The 1st Battalion, the Prince Consort’s Own Rifle Brigade, often referred to as Captain Kingscote’s Company was stationed here at one point as well.
A record crowd celebrated Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee at the Crystal Palace from June 21 to 22, 1887,entertained by the Canadian Jubilee Singers, originally called the O’Bayoun Jubilee Singers, an all-black choir composed of members of Hamilton and Guelph’s British Methodist Episcopal Churches and several people from the surrounding area, fresh off a five-year tour of the United Kingdom where they performed for Queen Victoria. The Canadian Jubilee Singers would eventually tour Canada and the United States for three years, culminating in a command performance in front of the American President, Grover Cleveland. Schoolchildren’s performances of patriotic and national melodies were included in the Jubilee events. In addition, the Crystal Palace and the Golden Jubilee included some of Hamilton’s greatest vocal performers of the time; a grand choir of 400+ professional vocalists; an orchestra of 60 musicians; and a children’s jubilee of 1000 voices.
In the late 1880s, the Crystal Palace’s surrounding buildings had deteriorated rapidly, and the wooden beams became rotted. Windows were damaged or missing due to the weather or vandalism. The buildings became condemned. At a public auction, the four buildings that comprised the cross were sold for $2339, while the Great Hall fetched a mere $450. When the octagon was demolished, part of its structure was reused at Claremount Park on the mountain at Auchmar.