Hamilton, Ontario:
Canada's Steeltown — an Inner Beauty Behind a Gritty Exterior

by Hans Tammemagi

For years I always rushed past Hamilton — the quintessential industrial city (Canadian-style) — unsettled by the immense, throbbing steelworks that smoulder along the shoreline like a Dickensian nightmare.

But on a recent cold winter's day I decided to stop, explore, and take a closer look.

I started in the industrial sector, where the machinery of society’s underworld towered over me with flames shooting high from tall stacks, giant claws hoisting mounds of metal, and smoke trudging across a skyline punctuated by towers, derricks and vast dirty buildings. There was no mistaking the industrial might of Hamilton.

My first stop, the Museum of Steam and Technology, typified everything I was to see: below the gritty industrial veneer lies unexpected beauty and enchanting history. The museum houses the original waterworks dating from 1859. Two thundering 70-ton coal-fired steam engines and pistons — still operable today — pumped clean water throughout the city. The greatest benefit at the time was the eradication of cholera, which wrought a deadly death toll in those days. A great engineering achievement, the waterworks was a major contributor to making Hamilton prosper, a much-needed industrial asset to an evolving economy.

What astonished me, however, is that the plant is a gleaming work of art! The tall pistons are designed like Greek columns, the machinery is painted in pleasing colours and much of the machinery is made of rich walnut and polished brass.

Driving westward, I saw a dramatic transformation. The harbourfront changed from industrial to people-friendly, lined with parks, marinas and a waterfront trail that extends for miles. Two new facilities, in particular, symbolize the bold revitalization of the harbour over the past decade. The Canada Marine Discovery Centre is a striking building perched on the water’s edge drawing its themes from marine ecology, conservation and ship-building. I wandered through interactive exhibits that made the subsea world come alive.

Then, a short stroll took me to Pier 9 and the Haida, a destroyer known as the “fightingest ship in the Royal Canadian Navy” for having sunk 14 enemy boats during the Second World War. Now a Canadian National Historic Site, it offers an insight into Canada’s naval heritage, especially important in the Second World War. Dodging under long gun barrels and with multi-coloured flags snapping in the wind, I imagined the Haida ploughing through a stormy sea with guns blazing.

Next my odyssey took me to the tall office blocks of downtown. The Art Gallery of Hamilton, the third largest in Ontario and one of the oldest in Canada, anchors the city’s vibrant cultural scene. It has undergone a multi-million-dollar facelift and is a symbol and proof of the fruits of the labour of untold numbers of working class people who helped build the economic engine that Hamilton represents.

The adjacent Hamilton Place hosts big-name shows and is home to the city’s opera and philharmonic orchestra. Locke Street South — LoSo to locals — has become a funky place to shop with antique shops, cafés, and boutiques. And for nightlife, I was advised that Hess Village, which features lively bars, music, and restaurants, is the place “to hang.”

A highlight of my tour was the Royal Botanical Gardens, a rambling garden of Eden occupying 2,700 acres, the largest in Canada. Its formal gardens contain over 40,000 recorded plants, including the world’s largest collection of lilacs. As we strolled along part of the 30 kilometres of trails through nature sanctuaries and marshlands, Carl Rothfels, the Garden’s land steward, explained, “I’ve travelled around the world, and Hamilton has the most amazing natural areas.” He enthusiastically described the Carolinian forest, the marshes and the escarpment that form part of the Gardens.

Next I was drawn to a prominent mansion, Dundurn Castle, that is a Hamilton icon and a National Historic Site. The “upstairs maid” guided me through more than 40 rooms, about half with fireplaces, and explained life in the mid 1800s, or at least how it was lived by the wealthy Sir Allan MacNab, a real-estate entrepreneur and prime minister of the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada (which preceded the “Dominion of Canada” as we know it today.

Saving the best for last, I turned the car toward the “Mountain”, or the Niagara Escarpment, a long ridge whose sweeping bend embraces Hamilton. The escarpment was selected as a UN Biosphere Reserve because of its unique geology and natural life, which is protected by a string of parks and conservation areas. Thus, Hamilton contains some of the most delightful nature and topography in eastern Canada, highlighted by more than 26 breathtaking waterfalls.

My escarpment exploration started at the Battlefield Museum and Park, yet another National Historic Site. Costumed interpreters explained how the pivotal battle of the War of 1812 was fought on this rise, with 700 Britishers defeating a 3000-strong American force in a surprise night attack. As I wandered through the Gage family home and the expansive grounds, I envisioned the bloody battle and how all of Niagara would be belong to the United States today, if the outcome had been different.

I continued along the Bruce Trail through the Carolinian forest passing moss-covered boulders and delicate ferns. Soon I was at the Devil’s Punch Bowl a deep curve sculpted out of the cliff with a thin cascade of water falling delicately downward glistening in the sunshine. I was alone in paradise. Later, I hiked to Webster’s Falls and marvelled as Spencer’s Creek bubbled under the arch of an old stone bridge before tumbling over the steep cliff.

Driving homeward, I regretted not having discovered Hamilton sooner, for like Beauty and the Beast, its dual personality is often misunderstood or taken for granted. Like many industrial-base cities, there is much more to Hamilton than initially meets the eye. Its idiosyncratic charm is the product of the city’s vast natural and historical bounty and its crucial industrial heritage.

Hamilton, Ontario is a sister city to Sarasota, Florida.

When you go:

Hamilton tourism and events
For an Industrial Self-driving Guide, telephone 905-522-3003
Bay Area Restoration Council

The Niagara Escarpment and the Bruce Trail

Hamilton is one of the principal access points for this unique geological phenomenon. The Escarpment defines the landscape of the province of Ontario and is an important environmental and ecological attraction for travellers who enjoy hiking, discovering unique eco-systems, and exploring the geology of an area. It is part of the shoreline of an ancient sea that was centered in what today is Michigan. This ancient sea extended west from Rochester, New York, right across Ontario, and all the way to Michigan. From there it also extended down the west side of today's Lake Michigan into Wisconsin. When this great sea receded, water erosion and glaciation operated as the principal architects of the Escarpment.

A paradise for naturalists, the Bruce Trail is a hiking path that follows the escarpment for 740 kilometres (460 miles). It is also one of the best examples in the world of a grassroots movement to preserve the natural environment. First proposed by Raymond Lowes, a metallurgist who worked at Hamilton's Stelco steel plant, the Trail was eventually built by volunteers from the Bruce Trail Association.