By Brian Roulston
Before there was a North End or a Hamilton for that matter, creeks and streams fed by hundreds of waterfalls ran from the escarpment to the lake instead of streets like Bay and James. A canopy of heavy green forest covered the lower escarpment long before high rise offices, condos and cell towers. Receding ice from the last ice age some 2.5 million years ago carved out natural inlets of water where today big concrete piers landscape our shorelines. Splash pads and water fountains now dot the area instead of swamps and bogs. Hills and patches of dry land are now parking lots, big box stores, factories or homes.
In the 1820’s early settlers created a small frontier village called Port Hamilton, the start of Hamilton’s North End. Early merchants built several small docks to handle the offloading of commercial and agricultural goods making this area the main hub of activity.
Settlers of Port Hamilton comprised of canal workers dredging Burlington Bay, sailors and farmers. These men were tough as nails and not only did these men work hard, they played hard too. They would organize horse races on Sundays, hold cock fights, gamble and were always brawling over something. The more refined, notable and wealthier settlers settled further inland to where the Gore District is today. They rarely ventured down to this area. Hamilton was then, two very different towns.
The first business in Hamilton was a chop mill located at the foot of Bay Street. Farmers with their seeds and implements supplied by the government of Upper Canada cleared land and built log shacks as homes and barns. Cattle and other livestock were scarce during those first few years. Hunting and trapping the area’s abundance of wildlife was a necessary way of life.
In time the fields, the clearings and the crops gradually grew bigger and better. Trails to the area got to the point where they started to resemble roads.
Mail came once a month (maybe) when a postman would travel through and it would cost you plenty for that letter. One room school houses in the village were active only when qualified teacher(s) could be found. Before churches were built services were tentatively held once a month, it was whenever a missionary preacher came through on horseback and were usually held in someone’s home.
The Great Western Railway (G.W.R), Hamilton’s first railway station, was built just off Bay Street on Stuart Street in 1853 this took away the focus from Port Hamilton. Sir Alan McNab the Premier of Canada West (Ontario) from 1854 to 1856 convinced G.W.R that Hamilton would be much better suited as a head office for this new railway instead of its intended location, Brantford. Once the railway opened it ushered in a new era of industry. In less than two years it became G.W.R’s third busiest railway station and already it was too small. A proposal for a new and larger station was put forward but immediately shot down by G.W.R’s board of directors. The station was then only renovated. The board ‘FINALLY’ decided to build a new station which doubled the original station’s size behind the old one in 1875. This station remained in operation until 1930 when the Canadian National Railroad (C.N) constructed the James Street Station. Both Stuart Street stations are long gone now as well as the large white stones that spelled out “Hamilton” on the hillside. Today, it’s called the Stuart Street Yard where rail cars are switched and moved around. Also along the 1875 timeline Canada Steam Ship lines brought in scores of passengers on the docks lining Stuart Street. The North End was growing rapidly with shacks basically as homes and it was still a pretty tough and gritty neighbourhood. Hotels sprung up as well as barbershops, stores, coal yards, freight yards and even brothels.
From the 1920’s to the 80’s housing improved from rudimentary log shacks to the red brick homes of today. More and more industries came to Hamilton. Unfortunately, so did pollution. Hamilton’s Harbour Front became a dirty cesspool of hazardous industrial waste. In 1993 this area underwent a massive clean-up, the results were clean and safe places to walk, ride our bikes or just sit and watch the waves roll by. This was the beginning of the North End as we know it now, a family friendly, working neighborhood.
The North End and Hamilton are both undergoing major changes with the West Harbour Development Project. Boardwalks, store fronts, green spaces, a large open air market plus the development of office spaces and 1500 residential units are just some of the projects getting underway.