By Brian Roulston
There was a time when there were no cars or roads, only a trail left by horses through the dense forest. On a clear sunny day, the sky would be a heavenly blue. Free of smog and pollution which would not become a thing until the latter part of the 20th Century. In the absence of city lights, twinkling stars would fill the black velvety backdrop of the night sky. As you traveled you were more likely to run across a deer, a coyote or even a bear than another member of the human race. The only noise you would hear would be the birds, the wind and perhaps the waters of the Macassa (Hamilton Bay) crashing against this narrow span of land. For centuries the people we refer to today as The Mississauga’s of the Credit First Nations traversed this land searching and hunting the once endless abundance of wildlife. This strip between bay and marsh is known as Burlington Heights and is historically significant.
During the War of 1812 Burlington Heights was a strategic position for the defence of the Niagara Peninsula and supply of the Navy on Lake Ontario. Under the command of General John Vincent, seriously outnumbered, with only 750 men they launched a successful night atta ck on June 5 1813against opposing American forces of 3750 soldiers strong. General Vincent claimed possessing the heights was so vitally important, that without it he could neither defend the peninsula nor make a safe retreat.
Tragedy on the Heights
Burlington Heights is also famous locally for one of the most tragic railroad accidents in Canadian history; The Desjardins Canal disaster, on March 12th, 1857. On that day a Great Western Railway locomotive left Toronto and was running at a moderate clip when it passed over the ageing wooden trusses that for years had supported the railway bridge. The trusses could no longer shoulder the locomotive’s immense weight. According to the only witness, a lady who lived in Shacktown saw the train sway gently to one side and surprisingly, with very little noise, it crashed some eighteen metres (60 feet) below plunging through an additional half metre) of ice to the bottom of the canal. Ninety-seven people were aboard the train that fateful night. Thirty of them survived while the other fifty-nine passengers either perished instantly or days later. Today, trains still travel the same route over the canal at the same angle using the original wall. Iron trusses have since replaced those old wooden ones.
In 1885, a JB Anderson did a water colour painting of a fisherman from Hamilton’s North End named Tom Cross. The painting featured a white-haired man with a thin beard in his late fifties wearing a well-worn beige boaters hatwith a wide brim and a matching ribbon wrapped around the crown. He also painted the gentleman wearing a blue fishing vest, beige pants and brown leather shoes while he sat on a tree stump holding a simple fishing pole made from a tree branch and a string. Beside him on the ground sat an old can filled with worms. Born in Ireland Tom lived in Hamilton for 50 years on the corner of James and Guise Street which was then called Guy Street, next to the bay. He was a fixture on the waterfront for more than 40 years. He carved out a living as waterfront handyman and a jack of all trades. Over the years Tom became a local legend by saving the lives of dozens of boaters on the lake when those sudden storms appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Tom also wouldn’t think twice about jumping into the icy cold waters of the bay to save someone who fell off one of the wharves.
Sadly on April 11th, 1893 Tom Cross’s life was claimed by the very waters that he had saved so many from. On his last day, he rowed across the bay to Burlington beach where he visited an old friend, Captain Campbell. They sat and talked about things that most fishermen talk about, then loaded two 40lb. (18 kg) anchors into his small skiff, which were to be used to anchor a couple of buoys at the foot of James Street. Just after five-thirty that afternoon he headed out on the bay, never to be seen again. His boat with one anchor and a paddle was found at Burlington Heights just below where the train had crashed into the Desjardin’s Canal several decades before.