Saturday, 18 June 2011

1905-11-11 Saturday Musings

Saturday Musings Spectator November 11, 1905
About two o’clock on the morning of August 30, 1858, an alarm of fire was sounded for a small house fire on Catharine street. It was an incendiary fire, for it had been started in the weather-boarding. The hose company was prompt in getting there and laying out a line of hose, and the blaze was soon extinguished. The fire had the effect to draw the department to Catharine street, and while the hose was still stretched out on the ground from the hydrant to the building, a second alarm pealed out. This time it was the Catholic church on Park street. It took the firemen nearly half an hour to reel up the hose and run to the second alarm, and in that time the fire in the church had made good headway. It broke out under the stairs that led up to the gallery and soon burst out of the windows, along the eaves, and up the steeple. The heat prevented the ringing of the bell in the church tower, and this delayed the giving of the alarm. The old church was built of lumber, and the interior fittings being of the same material, the organ and the spire were soon enveloped in flames. It was a costly illumination for the blaze lit up the whole city. His lordship Bishop Farrell, saw that there was no hope of saving the building, so he directed Harcourt Bull, the editor of the Gazette, who was a member of the hook and ladder company, and a few firemen to the place where the safe was with the altar plate and sacred vessels, and it was moved, but not until the safe was so heated that the vessels could not be handled without gloves. By this time, the hose company arrived and connections were made with the hydrants in the neighbourhood, but the fire had gained such headway that the sacred edifice was doomed. All that could be done was to save the school building adjoining the church, not so much as a pane of glass being broken. The people had to look on while the church was burning, notwithstanding the new waterworks system poured in streams of water. The bell tolled its own requiem as the steeple came tottering down. Just before the fall of the belfry, the lofty cross on its top made a magnificent spectacle, like the pillar of fire we read of in Bible history. There was no insurance on the property, which included valuable paintings, the bishop’s chair, and the fine organ. The loss was estimated at between $15,000 and $20,000.


After the fire, it was the desire of the Catholic community to build a cathedral on Upper James street, on the lot known as the Priests’ Field. It was donated to the church by Father Gordon for a cathedral site, and it was a fine location. Corktown was the home of the Catholic population and it was a far walk from there down to the foot of Park street. Bishop Farrell, however, decided that the church should be rebuilt on the old site, and that ended the discussion. The Irish in those days were proverbially rich in children but poor in purse, and their fellow citizens of other denominations generally went to the rescue and gave liberally toward the building fund. A public meeting was held in the hall of the Mechanics’ Institute, which was presided over by the bishop. On the platform were the mayor and a number of gentlemen, lay and clerical, of other denominations. A number of short speeches were made, when on motion of the mayor of the city, a subscription was opened for the purpose of building a new church. A goodly sum was raised at the meeting, and a committee was appointed to solicit subscriptions throughout the city.


No time was lost in clearing away the debris and beginning work on the erection of the new cathedral. On Sunday, Oct. 9, 1859, the ceremony of laying the cornerstone took place, in the presence of between 3,000 and 4,000 people. The services began at half past ten in the morning and were not finished till half past two in the afternoon. A temporary altar had been erected at the south end of the church, where Bishop Farrell, assisted by the Very Rev. E. Gordon, Rev. A. Carayon, Rev. Mr. Holzer, Rev. Mr. O’Reilly, and the Revs. Mehutt and Sherry, of Hamilton, conducted the service. In the cornerstone were deposited American and Canadian coins, a copy of the Spectator, and a document in Latin and English, reciting the events of the occasion. The cornerstone was laid by Bishop Farrell, and the Rev. Mr. Edward Maginnis delivered the sermon. Father Gordon, assisted by Revs. Carayon and Mehutt, celebrated high mass. The people were liberal in their contributions, over $1,000 being collected.


In connection with the burning of the church, some imaginative newspaper correspondent in Toronto sent what he called a “Romantic Story,” to the New York Times, in which he told of a “beautiful girl, the only daughter of a most respectable and loving father,” who, having entered a preparatory society in the church, fell in love with a young man, who in a spirit of revenge, because the young lady was not permitted to see him, set fire to the church. The story was so skillfully constructed that a number of Canadian papers copied it, among others the Montreal Pilot, the editor of which gravely said that the facts stated might be the means of discovering might be the means of discovering the incendiary.


One Sunday morning, about three o’clock, a few months before the burning of the Catholic church, the fire alarm called out the department to a fire in the east end. The location was on West avenue, below Cannon, where three new frame houses were in the course of construction. But few houses were built in that neighbourhood at the time, and the three mentioned were isolated, standing out alone. There were no sidewalks , and the roadways were the open fields. The new houses were open and filled with shavings and other combustible matter incident to the building. One of the houses had been fired, and it was but a few minutes till the flames lit up the sky in the east. By the time the firemen got there the building was beyond salvation, and as there was no water for the engines, the men fought the fire and kept it from burning other houses. While the firemen were at work, another alarm was sounded and Chief Hugh Boyd and the department had a run for the west end. Near the Catholic church was a carpenter shop, filled with inflammable material, and this had been set on fire, no doubt with the intention of the flames getting such headway that the whole block would be endangered before the arrival of the firemen. Incendiarism was rife in Hamilton about that time, and there was no question but that both fires were the work of the same gang.


The old-time bakers in Hamilton were about as wicked as bakers run generally, and to save the bread eaters from short weight the council in August 1859, passed an ordinance providing that “all loaves hereafter sold must be quartern loaves of four pounds; and half quartern of two pounds. No allowance will, in future, be made for short weight in flat loaves called (ILLEGIBLE) bread.

The old-timers of half a century ago will remember the Gore as it was in those days, a dumping ground for the stores on King street. It was a sorry-looking place, and although efforts were every year to have something done to improve the condition, the city council was not certain of the (ILLEGIBLE) by which the city owned the Gore, and did not deem it advisable to extend any money on it till the legal cobwebs had been brushed away. Mr. Robb, a civil engineer, submitted a plan for the proposed ornamentation of the Gore, which in addition to a fountain was added a clock tower on the site of the old town pump, facing James street. The clock tower and fountain were not to be at the expense of the city, for private individuals guaranteed the necessary funds. Robb’s idea did not take with the council, so the clock was allowed to run down. A number of schemes were proposed to turn the mud hole into an ornamental park. One was to have the waterworks commission take the park under its care, and expend $1,200 in beautifying it; another was that from appropriation made to each of the five wards in the city for streets and sidewalks $400 be applied to the park. There was great contention, especially as the Prince of Wales was expected in 1860 and there was a desire to have the work done so that the Gore would be in a presentable condition. Finally the title to the Gore was established, and then the improvements began. The fountain in the centre was a donation from the Bank of British North America, and the drinking fountain was the gift of Archibald Kerr, a retired merchant, who was then living in Scotland. When it was decided to redeem the Gore and turn it into a park and flower garden, Adam Brown, then chairman of the waterworks commission, wrote to Mr. Kerr, suggesting that he perpetuate his name by donating a drinking fountain to take the place of the old town pump. Mr. Kerr promptly sent back answer that he would gladly pay the cost of it. The upper part of the fountain was cast at a foundry in Glasgow, under the direction of Mr. Kerr, who gave it his personal attention, and was shipped to Hamilton. The fountain in the centre of the park, presented by the two banks was modeled by Meakins and Sons and cast at the Gurney foundry. It was designed by engineer Robb. Adam Brown and his fellow commissioners carefully invested the money appropriated by the city and the donations by the citizens, and today the Gore park is evidence of the generosity of some of the men who lived in Hamilton in 1859.


Talk about Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop (ILLEGIBLE) not in it with the auction rooms of that veteran crier Tom Burrows, whose life history almost runs parallel with the history of this city. Not that Tom is an old man by any means, for he is as frisky as a young colt and is up-to-date in everything except that he lives in the memories of the past. Ask him about men and things of 50 years ago and he has the answer at the end of his tongue. But about that old curiosity shop of his, one can find almost anything there from the old brass candlestick and the tray and snuffers to the modern gas and electric fixtures. Evidently the old man hates to part with any of his treasures, for if you go through his rooms, away off in a nook will be some ancient piece of furniture, probably made by “Hickory” clark when he came to Hamilton early in the ‘30’s, and had his cabinet shop on the corner of John and Rebecca streets, which was afterward converted into a theatre. The old boys and the old girls will remember that theatre when John Nicholson, of Toronto, was the manager, and when Couldock and Denman Thompson and Simcoe Lee and Charlotte Nickinson, and many others who were famous in those days and since, strutted their brief hour on stage to go hence like ships that pass in the night. And then Hamilton had its ambitious young amateurs who were competent, in their minds, to take any part from Macbeth down to the characters in Box and Cox. Old people are garrulous when the dreams of the past are resurrected, and the writer of these musings must not forget that he started to tell about Tom Burrows’ old curiosity shop. Keep to the text, Old Muser; keep to the text. It is not the purpose of these reminiscences to give a free puff to Tom Burrows. Bless you, the old man doesn’t need it, for as long as he lives that old curiosity shop will live and people will go to him with their joys and their sorrows, and he will continue to be the great auctioneer that learned his business under Thomas Best more than half a century ago. It is not in the old furniture and bric-a-brac that the curiosity shop excels, for in the thousands of sales he has conducted in this city, he has picked up rare books and copies of old newspapers that have long since passed from the memory of the oldest inhabitant. Once the old man undertook to catalogue and take stock of what was stored in that old curiosity shop, and after working for days in making up a list, he came to the conclusion that the job was an endless one and that the game was not worth the candle, so he gave it up and concluded that when he was safely stowed away at the end of York street, his children and their children might have all they wanted in dividing up the stuff among them.


The other day Mr. Burrows came across a venerable copy of the Hamilton Free Press, probably the only one that is in existence. The date of the paper is Aug. 4, 1836. It was a new paper for it is volume one, number 5. The advertisement of the paper reads, in part : “The Free Press is published at Hamilton Gore District, U. C., on Thursday of each week by ___ Smith, editor and proprietor.” The subscription price was one pound a year payable either in advance or at the time each number was delivered. Single papers, 5d. There were but five short local advertisements in the paper, which is evidence that the business men of those days had not learned the value of the priners’ ink. It was four pages of five columns to the page. Charles Durand, then a young lawyer, who died recently in Toronto, was an editorial and poetic contributor to the columns of the Free Press. The Gazette, owned and edited by the father of the Rev. George Bull, and the Express, owned by Solomon Brega, were then the recognized organs of the Tories and Reformers. The Free Press was a follower of William Lyon Mackenzie, the instigator and leader of the rebellion of 1837. We shall make further use of the Free Press in these Musings.

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