By Robyn Gillam
On the north east corner of Mary and Ferrie Streets stands a funny little house. It has no front walk, its porch is too narrow to stand on and it has an unusually sturdy cast iron fence. There are no signs of life in the concrete back yard. Still, there is a cute little attic window and the house is about the same shape and colour as the one next door. However, appearances are deceptive. This is not a house.
Closer inspection of the building reveals a sign identifying it as a City of Hamilton Facility and giving a number to call to report “irregular activities”. There is nothing inside but some junction boxes and a large computer screen. This building is a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) regulator and its construction dates back to 2012, when the city was upgrading the system.
CSO is a water treatment and management system peculiar to downtown Hamilton, where the existing 19th century infrastructure that discharged mixed sewage and storm water into the bay and Coote’s Paradise was modified to avoid contaminating them during heavy rainstorms. CSO management diverts the water into large underground tanks where the sewage is separated out and sent to the main water treatment plant. Since 1988, the city has constructed underground storage tanks, especially around the harbour to help clean it up. There are three of these huge structures under the North End at James and Guise Streets, Bayfront Park and Eastwood Park.
In 2010, North Enders discovered that controls for the system were to be located in small concrete sheds, two of which were to be on Ferrie Street, as well as at Burlington and Ferguson. One of them was going in the front yard of the house on the south -west corner of Mary and Ferrie.
People wondered if there was some less intrusive looking alternative possible. When the house on the north corner became vacant, the company building the structures and Councillor Farr agreed to replace it with a purpose-built structure that blended with the existing streetscape. The full sized building also removed the need for another station at Ferrie and Ferguson.
The building at Mary and Ferrie is an interesting twist to people’s desire to imaginatively interpret their surroundings. The neighbours were able to persuade the city to build something that corresponded with their ideas about where they lived. The utility building really does look like a house and it often fools people driving by who don’t look too closely. It also seems to particularly attract children. Shortly after it was built, some youngsters tried trick-or-treating the house at Halloween. Even after they realized it wasn’t a house, the kids stayed interested. A neighbour complained about them drawing on it with chalk and there are white hand-prints on the front, some of them mysteriously high up. Should this be reported as irregular activity? Perhaps, but it does show the funny little house is something that can stimulate the imagination.
The author would like to thank Sheri and Shawn Selway for their assistance in researching this article and gaining access to the building. For more on the CSO strategy, go to https://www.hamilton.ca/city-initiatives/our-harbour/combined-sewer-overflow-storage-strategy. We want to hear how your favorite North End landmarks stimulate your imagination.