Historic charm enhances Hamilton’s revamped cityscape (921 words)
Hamilton’s stately heritage homes, glorious public gardens and protected nature sanctuaries remain as legacies of the visionaries who forged an architecturally significant city.
BY BRIAN HENLEY
As one of Ontario’s oldest cities, Hamilton has a distinct character and a rich historical heritage that comes to life in the tremendous stock of 19th-century and early 20th-century architecture found throughout its urban, suburban and rural fabric.
With numerous structures designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, Hamilton’s inventory of residential, commercial, church and industrial buildings reflects the growth and development of the community. The city’s unique charm is a result of its imposing and incredibly beautiful geographical footprint.
Located at the extreme western end of Lake Ontario, Hamilton is bordered by two immense, glacially formed valleys, the Dundas Valley in the west and the Red Hill Creek Valley in the east. Both are crisscrossed with a network of nature trails, Carolinian forests and sensitive wetland habitats.
The Niagara Escarpment, locally dubbed “the Mountain,” also bisects the entire length of the city, creating a backdrop (as seen from below) of parkland and rock face. From above, the Mountain brow provides sweeping panoramic views of the lower city and Lake Ontario beyond – year-round delights for Hamiltonians and visitors.
Especially interesting are the many areas where the city’s history and its geographical footprint intersect.
Although Hamilton offers a wealth of heritage sites, three in particular reflect the visionary ambitions of local luminaries who left major legacies to the city and to the province as a whole: Battlefield House Museum and Park, Dundurn Castle and Whitehern Historic House and Garden.
Battlefield Park, at the base of the Niagara Escarpment, is an apt place to see the beginnings of Hamilton’s evolution. On the grounds of this national historic site – where the famous Battle of Stoney Creek proved a major turning point during the War of 1812 – the 30-metre-high Battlefield monument is worth the climb for the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Still standing in testimony to the past, the meticulously refurbished, circa-1796 home of the Gage family features a compelling glimpse of early 19th-century Canadian life.
Rising from a nearby bluff overlooking Hamilton Harbour, Dundurn Castle is as magnificent today as it was in 1835, the year it was completed. Now a national historic site, the lavish 40-room Victorian mansion and grounds once belonged to former prime minister Sir Allan MacNab. As a major promoter of the Great Western Railway during the early 1850s, MacNab influenced the company to run a line to Hamilton from the west along the bay shoreline, just below his Dundurn estate (back then, a nearby railway was a sought-after symbol of progress and prosperity rather than a potentially noisy eyesore).
Today Dundurn Castle itself is a lovingly restored museum with original landscaping designed so as not to impede the panoramic views of the Niagara escarpment. Here and in the heritage buildings of Dundurn Park (including the Battery Lodge, now home to the Hamilton Military Museum), visitors will find costumed interpreters who shed light on the gentry’s and servant’s life during MacNab’s era.
Walk from Dundurn along York Boulevard to Hamilton’s so-called northwest entrance, a major approach to the city, to view the impact of another of the city’s innovative promoters. The dramatic “entrance project,” completed in the early 1930s to handle increased traffic with a wider road and stronger bridges, remains the legacy of Thomas Baker McQuesten.
As a lawyer, politician and devotee of Hamilton’s 1920s “City Beautiful” movement, McQuesten influenced the city to acquire huge tracts of gorgeous and ecologically sensitive parklands, thereby saving them from inappropriate development. Later he championed the effort to create the cultivated gardens and landscaped areas that eventually blossomed into the original components of the famous Royal Botanical Gardens.
Today, the McQuesten family’s former home, Whitehern – built during “Hamilton’s Stone Age” (the 1840s) of limestone quarried during construction of roads on “the Mountain” – is a fascinating living museum. It presents a vivid look at Victorian life in Canada with intimate details (documented in highly entertaining letters that tell of love, gambling and a wicked stepmother) of the melodramatic family life of the patriarch, Dr. Calvin McQuesten, who with his cousin, John Fisher, built Hamilton’s first foundry into Massey-Ferguson.
Whitehern was also home to T.B. McQuesten’s brother, Rev. Calvin McQuesten, who – as a member of the Hamilton Bird Protection Society – was inspired to protect the city’s natural environment. His legacy thrives in a coastal marsh, known locally as Cootes Paradise, that sits right on Hamilton’s urban doorstep. The marsh was named after Captain Thomas Coote, a British officer stationed at Fort George (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in the late 1700s who avidly hunted the ducks, geese and swans who arrived during migration seasons to rest and feed.
In 1927, Cootes Paradise became the first major area in Ontario to be declared a nature sanctuary where hunting, fishing and inappropriate development would be prohibited. Today the Cootes Paradise area, where facilities include the Nature Interpretive Centre and an extensive system of trails marked with descriptive panels, is an environmentally significant refuge within the Royal Botanical Gardens.
Historical memorabilia of the colourful characters who shaped Hamilton’s image are well preserved in Battlefield Park, Dundurn Castle, Whitehern and the city museums. And to further enhance visitors’ appreciation of the dramatic local history, numerous informative plaques have been placed along Hamilton’s northwest entrance between Dundurn Castle and the Rock Garden portion of the Royal Botanical Gardens, and beside walkways and stairways leading to and along the waterfront trail. On a pleasant walk, visitors can easily sense the pride and determination of the far-sighted Hamiltonians who forged the footprint of the city they loved.
Tourism Hamilton: 1-800-263-8590 or www.tourismhamilton.com
Hamilton Civic Museums: www.hamilton.ca
Hamilton Harbour Trails: www.hamiltonharbour.ca
Hamilton and Region Conservation Authority: www.hamrca.on.ca
Royal Botanical Gardens: www.rbg.ca
Canadian Tourism Commission: www.travelcanada.ca
Ontario Tourism: 1-800-668-2746 or www.ontariotravel.net
By air: Air Canada (1-888-247-2262 or www.aircanada.ca) and WestJet (1-800-538-5696 or www.westjet.com), offer direct flights to the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport.
By land: Hamilton is easily accessible by car from any direction (Toronto, the Niagara region and Buffalo, as well as the London, Windsor and Detroit areas) via Highway 403 and the Queen Elizabeth Way. Go Transit (1-888-438-6646 or www.gotransit.ca), Greyhound (1-800-661-8747 or www.greyhound.ca) and Via Rail (1-888-842-7245 or www.viarail.ca) also serve Hamilton.