Daniel Charles Gunn was a visionary, a man ahead of his time. He envisioned Hamilton as the industrial hub of Canada, if not the world. Gunn is best known for building the country’s first locomotive here in Hamilton in 1856.
Daniel Charles Gunn was born on January 31, 1811, in Woolwich, Kent, England, and died on September 19, 1876. Hamilton Cemetery serves as his last resting place. He and his parents are thought to have immigrated to Canada in 1815. On February 25, 1835, Gunn married Mary Barnum of Barton Township in a ceremony held in Flamborough Township, and he lived at 43 Main Street with his three daughters and two sons. In 1838, Gunn joined the Gore Militia and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the 3rd Regiment.
Before steamships and locomotives, Gunn was twenty-five years old when he became one of the first wharfingers (Harbour Masters) in the Port of Hamilton. He and his business partner, Michael Browne, established Gunn’s Wharf at the foot of James Street in 1836. It quickly became one of the busiest wharves along the Hamilton shoreline, with shipments arriving from all over the world. The merchandise was delivered across the community as well as to settlements in the surrounding area of the Golden Horseshoe.
Gunn retired from the wharf in 1847 and dabbled as a land agent for a short time. He bought a small piece of property at the foot of Wellington Street, where he established a small machine shop called Gunn’s Works in 1853. Gunn and his men manufactured and repaired stationary engines, farm implements, milling equipment, and, to a lesser extent, steamboats while they wintered in the bay. Gunn had built up a sizable business, and many felt he would have done well if he had stuck to what he was doing.
At the time, along with steamboats, the railway was all the rage in Hamilton, and his old buddy, Allan McNab, was nearing the completion of the Great Western Railway through the city. For the record, the first locomotive used in Canada to transport passengers and/or rail freight was the “Dorchester.” It was designed, built, and shipped from Newcastle, England. On July 21st, 1836, Charles Dickens, author of “A Christmas Carol,” was among the passengers on the inaugural journey from La Prairie, Quebec, to St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu.
Gunn convinced himself that he could manufacture locomotives right here in Hamilton and that railway corporations would prefer to buy those produced in Canada. He purchased land on Wentworth Street, adjacent to the north side of the G.W.R (CN Rail) tracks. Previously, this facility was used to build dump cars and other railroad-related heavy machinery for building the Great Western Railway. Gunn invested a substantial amount for the time, $160,000, in the building of new shops as well as the remodelling of existing ones to meet industry requirements. He opened the first locomotive plant in Canada in 1856, under the name “Locomotive, Steam Engine & Forge Works,” often referred to as “Gunn’s Locomotive.” A deeply religious gentleman who faithfully attended St. Andrews (St. Paul’s) Church, a mere stone’s throw away from his shops, his religious beliefs were a factor in his decision-making in many aspects of his professional life. The first three locomotives were named after Noah’s sons, Ham, Shem, and Japhet. When more business came his way, he gave the newly built locomotives secular names, and towards the end, he decided to use numbers instead of names to identify the trains.
Gunn and his 140-plus employees worked to design and build 16 wood-burning locomotive engines in all, with his signature towering smokestacks. Farmers supplemented their wintertime incomes by chopping and stacking wood alongside the tracks. Trains made frequent stops along the way to feed wood into the locomotive’s boilers. Engineers took delight in the cleanliness and lustre of their locomotives until coal was introduced in the 1860s. To the chagrin of engineers who took pride in keeping their engines clean and shiny, it became impossible to keep their locomotives clean; wood was also preferred for tossing through the air at the cows that frequently roamed and stubbornly stood across the tracks.
The first two locomotives would go on to become well-known. Engine number two, Shem, was the pride and joy of Gunn’s Locomotive Works. It rolled off the assembly line with great fanfare. Hamiltonians marvelled at the fact that anything like it could be built here in Hamilton. Two tests were conducted later that day for the crowd that had gathered along the Great Western Railway. The first test called for Shem to haul 8 cars up the steep incline of the escarpment. The locomotive easily beat that by pulling up 16 cars. Later that afternoon, a speed trial was conducted with just the engine and the tender. The 28-ton engine clocked in at 88 km/h, or 55 mph, a breakneck speed in those days. Ham became famous for being involved in Canada’s worst railroad disaster at the time, on June 2, 1864, over the Richelieu Bridge between Beloeil and St’Hilaire, killing 97 people and 3 crewmembers.
Gunn met, if not exceeded, the standards of the Grand Trunk and Great Western railways, as well as other rail lines operating in the country at the time, at a cost comparable to those built in England and the United States. Gunn’s locomotive sold a few engines to the Grand Trunk Railway, which went bankrupt in 1857 due to a severe slump in the economy; eight engines were ordered to be completed immediately but were cancelled while Gunn was in the midst of constructing them. With all his money tied up in those trains, he couldn’t pay his employees or creditors. He tried to sell trains to the G.W.R. and other rail lines. Unfortunately, they didn’t want to change.
Gunn paid his employees off on Christmas Eve 1857, and Gunn’s Works was closed for a good a week later. The shop was sold to Ontario Packing House in 1863. It was destroyed by fire in 1865 and later rebuilt as Essex Meat Packers.
Gunn continued to play a prominent role in Hamilton’s business community, believing that Canada should not be dependant on goods from other countries and encouraged protective tariffs for new Canadian businesses. He fostered the city’s industrial development, which until then was primarily commercial.