by Robyn Gillam
This Summer, I took the train to Rochester. From Aldeshot, I traveled back past the Desjardins Canal and along the shore of Burlington Bay, via the CN rail yards, past West Harbour Go station and right through the North End and East Hamilton, on down the Niagara peninsula. We passed the Welland canal, where Great Lakes ship traffic bypasses Niagara Falls. After a detour to Buffalo, the train followed the south shore of Lake Ontario, letting me off at Rochester, across from Prince Edward County.
I thought about how this train trip mirrored phases of development in transportation and industry that produced our neighbourhood and how it is changing.
Hamilton is located at the extreme southwestern corner of Lake Ontario, where streams, marshes and rivers drain into Burlington Bay. Human communities have hunted and farmed here for thousands of years, but in the early 19th century European settlers subdivided the land and planned the development of mills on waterways and canals. In 1824, they dug a canal between Burlington bay and Lake Ontario, creating the port of Hamilton and the North End. Separated from the city by swamps and ravines, it was originally only accessible through John and James Streets.
The North End was further developed by railway access and manufacturing, drawing European immigrants. Then in the late 1800s came the steel mills, which expanded and flourished up to the 2000s. Today demand for industrial labour is shrinking and other kinds of work, not dependant on water, rail and manufacturing are still emerging.
The North End has been home to the people who work here and in the adjacent industrial lands. The ravines and swamps have replaced by streets, docks, railways and roads, as well as factories, warehouses, houses, businesses, places of worship and community centres. These are constantly changing. Neigbourhood streets are lined with every type of house and dwelling from 19th century cottages to the latest semi-detached homes.
Hamilton is still one of the major ports on the Great Lakes, where agricultural products are once more important. Newcomers still come to settle in the North End, but with shipping becoming highly automated and fewer jobs in manufacturing, local work is harder to find. Many now commute elsewhere, by car or public transit instead of walking or cycling to work.
On a summer evening North Enders still socialize on their front porches and children pedal their bikes down mostly quiet streets. You can walk around Bayfront park and along the Bay trail or hang out on Pier 8 for roller skating and a coffee, or fish anywhere along the water, and, if you have a boat, you can sail. The North End has the best doughnuts in southern Ontario, as well as hidden community gardens and, possibly, bootlegger caves. However, the neighbors who have lived and worked together for nearly two centuries are what make it work. Bridges have been built between the North End and the rest of the city, but they have also been removed. We need rebuild these bridges both with the city and each other in a way that improves life for everyone and helps keep our neighbourhood the unique and wonderful place that it is.