Submitted by Brian Roulston
For many years from the early 1890s, Simon James Driving Park (also known as James Track), a 1/2 mile oval equal in size to Flamboro Downs, staged three races a day in both thoroughbred and harness racing during the summer. Racegoers would board special trains leaving from the railway station on King Street, and would get off near the track on Barton Street, located approximately, across from The Centre on Barton. James Track also hosted the yearly Barton Township Fall Fair. It, like other fall fairs of the time, included farm animals, domestic foodstuffs, grain crops, agricultural demonstrations, and farm machinery. The Barton Township Fall Fair would become the South Wentworth Fall Fair.
On February 11, 1906, the owner of the racetrack, Simon James, and his new, ambitious business partner and manager, Samuel L. Robertson, declared their intention to build and open Hamilton’s first amusement park named Maple Leaf Park. In addition, for the official opening on Victoria Day 1909, it was revealed that the first-ever “Greater Hamilton Exposition” would take place and run through June 5th. The Greater Hamilton Exposition was an endeavour to showcase Greater Hamilton, its products, and its industry. There would also be demonstrations of the city’s manufactured products.
Maple Leaf Park would be larger than many of the amusement parks in Toronto and Buffalo. The proprietors believed there would be no reason to go outside of the city to places like La Salle Park or Lakeside Park in Grimsby to get their amusement park fix. The park would have the newest and most popular attractions from across the continent, such as the immensely popular figure 8 Ferris wheel called Katzenjammers Castle,and the best entertainment, carnival foods, and midway games of the day. The Maple Leaf Amusement Company, which was primarily made up of American businessmen, would later advertise itself as Hamilton’s Coney Island.
It was the first truly beautiful spring day of the year, the sun was shining, flowers were in full bloom and the temperature was balmy. A steady stream of people and cars poured down Barton Street from both directions hours before the park’s grand opening scheduled for 3:00 that afternoon. However, because of the construction of the street car rail line along Barton, automobiles were parked on both sides of the street along Sanford Avenue and then eastward along King Street. It was the largest movement of passengers that Hamilton Street Railway ever had at this end of the city up to that day. An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people from Hamilton, Toronto and the surrounding area pushed past the amusement park gates.
A monster size Union Jack flag was raised some 200 feet to the top of a steel tower overlooking the amusement park’s entrance while John Inglis McLaren, Hamilton’s 39th Mayor (1909-1910) complimented the amusement company on its auspicious debut in his opening day speech. Other notable Hamilton and Barton Township representatives spoke in approval of Maple Leaf Park as well. After the opening day remarks the famous 13th Regimental Band played Canada’s national anthem.
General admission to the grounds would set you back a dime and that included the Jone’s Handicap Bicycle race, which was solely restricted to local cyclers. It would be a 13-mile event that would begin with one circuit around the racetrack to the Beach Canal and end with a final lap around the James Track oval. Runners from Brantford also finished their marathon there. A shorter-distance marathon, which began in Ancaster and geared toward young adults, ended at Maple Leaf Park as well.
Maple Leaf Park also featured harness racing, thoroughbred racing, chariot racing, and Roman Standing Start races. All of these races, together with the bicycle competitions, would take place throughout the summer, up until Labor Day.
A second wave of visitors to the park that evening enjoyed the beautifully lit amusement park grounds, which were illuminated by 50,000 lights. Additional concerts were performed by the 13th Regiment and 91st Bands. Guests were treated to the Kemp Sister’s Big Wild West Show which featured trick riding, bronco busting and sharpshooting all the while a cowboy band played in the background. The Hamilton Kennel Club hosted an exhibition of 266 dogs of different breeds.
Through the summer of 1909 companies such as International-Harvester, Sawyer-Massey and Grand Trunk Railway employees from Stratford held their corporate picnics at Maple Leaf Park. The Ancient Order of Hibernians of Toronto’s five branches hosted by far the largest picnic, with 2,200 members arriving on exclusive charters of the steamboats MACASSA and MODJESCA.
Every weekend, Maple Leaf Park advertised various, occasionally outlandish, performances to draw visitors. Among the entertainment options were Adgie and her Lions, Enoch-the Man Fish, the New Maple Leaf Band, high-flying shows, Arabic acrobats, wrestling competitions and a monkey circus for the children.
The midway’s attractions included a carousel, a miniature steam railroad, a shooting range, and multiple ice cream shops.
Maple Leaf Park was an astounding success on that Victoria Day weekend and appeared destined to become a popular destination in the city for many years to come. Unfortunately, the weather that year was chilly and wet, neither of which are great conditions for attending an amusement park. Visitors also did not want to be inconvenienced by the Barton rail line construction, which lasted throughout the season. Fewer people came through the gates as the summer dragged on. As a result, Maple Leaf Park struggled with covering the costs of its entertainers and other operational expenses.
Finally, the closing weekend, and the long Labor Day weekend arrived, and Maple Leaf Park put on a particularly strong performance. Although attendance had improved that weekend, it was already too little, too late. Maple Leaf Park Amusement Company made an effort to present the best possible face by announcing that they will be introducing new attractions and rides for the next upcoming season. Maple Leaf Park would never reopen, and the South Wentworth Fall Fair was held for the last time a couple of weeks later at Jacks Track.
In the spring of 1910, both the racetrack and amusement park properties were sold to residential developers for $25,000.