By Brian Roulston
The building located at 51 Stuart Street is haunted, as the legend goes. A young English girl was raped by a well-to-do and influential businessman. Her parents sent her to Canada to start a new life. While on the voyage over she met the ship’s captain and they had a brief romantic relationship. The relationship was short because the captain was married. He didn’t want any trouble back home, so he murdered the girl and cruelly dumped her lifeless body in the vault of the old Custom House. To this day people claimed to have heard and seen the girl’s ghost strolling through the building.
It was not Hamilton’s first custom house. That distinction goes to Nathaniel Hughson’s old hotel located where the present day Marina Towers are located. It served between 1845 and 1852 as a custom house to handle the influx of Irish Immigrants who came to Canada as a result of the Irish Potato Famine. This building later became The City Hospital, Hamilton’s first Hospital.
The Hamilton Custom House on Stuart Street was the last in a series of custom houses constructed by the government of Upper Canada prior to confederation. Government offices of the day had typically been located in rented buildings or private homes. Taxes and tariffs were once collected by the cities and municipalities.
The Federal government took over the collection of these taxes and tariffs and soon it became its largest single source of revenue. Toronto led the way with tariffs and duties collected while Hamilton was second. From the 1850’s through to the early 1900’s the old Port of Hamilton (Hamilton’s North End today) enjoyed the status of being the leading port in Canada, a top-notch commercial center and a transportation hub thanks to The Great Western Railway built just 7 years prior. The Great Western’s rail lines connected Ontario to the United States at both Niagara Falls and Windsor. The large amount of international freight traveling through Hamilton by land and water required a large customs facility.
As you may remember Sir Allan McNab, Premier of Canada West (Ontario), from 1854-56, influenced the decision to bring the Great Western Railroad through Hamilton rather than Brantford. He was also influential in locating the Custom House in Hamilton across from the original G.W.R yard on Stuart St. The ground floor was used to examine goods entering the country. The upper floor had a long counter where railroad workers, sailors and merchants conducted their customs business. It was also notable at the time for its central heating, running water and gas lighting. Up to 20 men worked there at the Custom House during its peak.
The customs office moved out in 1887 due to the lack of space. It was moved to a much larger facility at the Post Office building at John and King Streets.
The old building in 1887-88 then became an elementary school for Hamilton’s North End children where attendance in the school was sporadic at best. At that time, children would usually quit school when they reached their 14th birthday. They were needed to help their parents farm or work as wage earners to support their families. Some of the lucky children attended night classes that were offered by the school. In 1893, a branch of the YWCA held classes in cooking, sewing and general housekeeping.
From 1900 to 1908 the building was used sparingly until it became a hostel for victims suffering from serious economic depression. It was also used as a shelter for immigrants. From 1912 to 1917 a factory bought the run down building from the federal government. They made vinegar there now as their previous plant next door had burnt down.
The building was used for the next 33 years to make yarn for the local clothing manufacturers.
For a while the old custom house sat empty until a macaroni factory called Naples took it over until 1979. After that the building sat decaying with a leaking roof until a Martial Arts School moved in and renovated some of it. In 1993 a computer company bought the building but it went bankrupt after only a year.
Today it is known as the Ontario Workers Art and Heritage Centre and it has been a National Historic Site of Canada since 1990. It is an excellent museum commemorating the history of area workers through exhibits and art.