By Brian Roulton
Sometime during the early 1900s, a community with about 100 boathouses made mainly of tar paper and corrugated iron in various shades of decay popped up along the south shore of Cootes Paradise, not much more than a stone’s throw away from Burlington Heights. This community was interchangeably referred to as “Shacktown” or “The Boathouse Community.”
The upper society of the day viewed the inhabitants as squatters, lazy and rough. City planners also viewed them as a problem as they stood in the way of making the area attractive, moral and orderly, in other words, a Beautiful City: Utopia. The city even went so far as to having a contest for making the area beautiful. The winning design featured a park with bandstands, fountains, boulevards, a zoo and an art gallery.
Many of those who settled in the community were unskilled workers who were not qualified for any meaningful jobs. Shacktown residents enjoyed excellent access to fresh water fishing on the bay and catching turtles, muskrats, beavers, squirrels, rabbits, deer, ducks and other wildlife found in the marsh. The Shacktown residents managed to etch out a small living by selling their catch to area restaurants and by trading furs.
Much of the area’s bad impressions of its inhabitants stemmed from the rough crowd of regulars that often gathered at the local hotel in Cootes Paradise. They were said to be heavy drinkers, illegal poker players and gambled on blood sports. While there were squatters and transients among them, most of those who lived in the area rented or leased their land from area farmers, the City of Hamilton or the TH&B (Toronto-Hamilton & Buffalo) rail line.
On September 30th, 1932 TH&B who was originally “given” the land by Crown Grant handed the land along with the leases or rents over to the city. This partially paved the way to the Aviary Sanctuary and the Royal Botanical Gardens as we know it today.
It was also the beginning of “The War on Squatters” where social and political leaders including town planners, nature conservationists and moral reformers tried to drive Shacktown residents from their homes. Some left willingly without a fight. However, most never budged for several years after the depression. Today Shacktown is nothing more than a faded Hamilton memory. (It is the subject of a novel The Fishers of Paradise by Rachael Preston.)