by Robyn Gillam

In late March of 2011, as Prairie-based grain handling company Parrish and Heimbecker was building its new shipping terminal, two remarkable structures appeared that changed the port skyline.

They were large, hemispherical and pink.

They were, in fact, Monolithic Domes, miracles of construction made of an inflated hemispherical cloth reinforced and made permanent with rebar and sprayed concrete. Both simple and efficient to construct, as well as environmentally friendly, the domes provide space for 30,000 tonnes of grain storage each (enough to fill one “laker” or lake-going cargo ship) and,  unlike conventional grain elevators, can handle a variety of wet and dry grain types.

However, the economic importance of the grain terminal and marvels of engineering are not top of mind for most observers.  The storage tanks are often referred to in the neighbourhood as “the breasts of Hamilton,”or “the Dolly Partons.” On Pier 8, which provides the best view of the tanks, I saw a group of young men laughing so hard, they practically fell over. Other visitors to Pier 8, when asked to comment, typically stare at them for a few seconds, chuckle and mutter about “boobs.”  The tanks often appear in the works of artists painting the port industrial lands.

The ulterior significance of these storage domes is pretty obvious on an afternoon in the taproom of the Collective Arts Brewery, located right next to the P&H grain terminal.  To the barman, they are “the big boobs.” One customer notes that “the boobs” can be seen all the way from the York Bridge;  another, who lives close by, described how seeing them in the distance was a comforting sign she was close to home. Only one employee, when asked what he thought about the domes, said, nothing because they were just structures.

Clearly, the creators of the Monolithic Dome design were not thinking about parts of the human body when they created these extremely practical, environmentally sound structures. Officially, they are coloured “beige” and are not necessarily constructed in pairs. However, the shape and colour of the domes, and the fact there are two of them, to many suggest the female body parts mentioned by our informants.  While they may have amusing associations with sexuality, they can also be comforting, maternal symbols, that can serve as a landmark to guide you home.

As “the breasts of Hamilton,” the Pier 10 grain storage domes have become part of local lore in a few short years. They are a good example of how people create meaning from the landscape and structures around them in a way that transforms the place they live into a home. The North End is an old neighbourhood with many important landmarks. We would like to record the stories that people tell about them. What is your favourite North End landmark and what does it mean to you? Send us your ideas about them so we continue this series in the Fall.

The author would like to thank Larissa Fenn of the Hamilton Port Authority for her help in researching the grain terminal.