People nowadays say the route of the Great Western railway through Hamilton was a mistake, and that the track should have been built so as to come into the center of the city, but when the line was surveyed more attention was given to the importance of water transportation than now, and it was not until two or three years after the line from Niagara Falls to Detroit that Hamilton and Toronto were connected by rail. The Great Western was intended for a purely western road, and it had its own line of steamboats from Montreal, which touched at all intermediate points. In those days Hamilton was a great wholesale market for dry goods, groceries, hardware, etc., for Western Canada and the steamboat line was a valuable asset to the Great Western. And what a delightful way it was to travel in summer months, and what little tourist travel there was fifty years ago from the United States through Canada came by way of Hamilton and down the lake to the Thousand Islands and the St. Lawrence river to Montreal, and then across to La Prairie and over that twelve or fourteen mile railway t St. John’s The Great Western steamboats were floating palaces, and it was a luxury to take a trip on any one of them. This probably was the reason why the line was run where it is, for certainly it could have diverged a little southward, avoiding the deep cut through this city and the costly construction between here and Copetown. The construction of the road between Dundas and Copetown was more costly for the short distance than three or four times the length on any other part of the line. In order to expedite the work, it was necessary to get a locomotive on the Copetown section so as to work toward Hamilton, but as no track could be laid to the Falls, a locomotive was brought from Montreal. It having come across the ocean from the manufacturers in the old country to that city by steamboat, and the contractors here unloaded it, and with eight white horses hauled it up James street and out the Dundas road and on to Copetown. It was a gala day in Hamilton, and but little attention was paid to business while the distinguished stranger to Canada was passing through the city. This was the first view that a majority of people had of a railway locomotive. Fifty years ago locomotives were but small affairs, compared with what they are now, and it was not much of a job to handle one and transfer it ten or twelve miles on the wagon road. The construction of the line between Hamilton and Copetown was very costly, and for years, the landslides were dangerous to travel and expensive to keep cleared away.
Early in the last century, when Hamilton was not much more than a name and a location on the government map, there came from the other side a regular specimen of the Down East Yankee. He was a cabinet maker by trade, and being handy with tools, he was kept busy in the summer months in the building and in the winter, when it was too cold for outdoor work – and the winters were cold even this part of Canada three quarters of a century ago – he made up a cheap kind of furniture, for early Hamiltonians did not have much money to spend on Luxurious appointments in their homes. Being an industrious man and knowing the value of a dollar, he had all the work he could do besides giving employment to a number of hands during the busy seasons. Farming lands and town lots could be bought for almost a song, and as money was scarce, our early Hamiltonian exchanged his labour for land and lots, and in a few years made a respectable showing on the assessment rolls. A reference to the tax collectors’ books of fifty years ago would show that the man referred to in this brief sketch was one of the solid men and that his early purchases had been profitable investments. The land that he bought by the acre 75 years ago is now the most valuable business property in the city, and today would sell for a higher price per foot than a half dozen acres cost then.
People used to be older forty or fifty years ago than they are now, for a man or woman who had turned the half century mark was transferred to the old list. Nowadays a man or woman of eighty years feels insulted if called old, and one can see them any pleasant day in the summer scorching on bicycles up and down King street and dodging the street cars and teams as they make the turn at the corner of King and James streets. There is nothing like nursing the fire of youth and putting off old age till it comes time to lay down and die decently, so as not to become a burden to the world or keep the younger generation too long out of their prospective inheritance. Think of the long years King Edward had to wait before he could wear the crown. However, the children of an old Hamiltonian did not wait for him to die to get the estate divided and each get his or her portion. In the year 1862, the treasury of Hamilton was in a very depleted condition and unable to meet the payment of interest and bonds due British creditors. As this was a matter of only forty years ago, the history may be fresh in the minds of younger Hamiltonians. The city was brought to the verge of bankruptcy and wanted an extension on its indebtedness, so that it could catch up and get a fair start, but the British creditors were heartless and demanded the pound of flesh. It is true that money was scarce about that time, for it was in the second year of the civil war in the United States, and the stress of hard times across the Niagara river was felt here. That, too, was in the free trade days, when Canada was the slaughter market for all kinds of manufactured goods, and as there was but little work, the people had no money to pay their taxes. The manufacturers in Hamilton used to close down in January to take stock to find out how much poorer they had become during the year, and the shut down ran into February and March very often. What a difference now, under a protective tariff, when manufacturers can hardly spare the time to take stock!
When John Bull gets after his debtors, it makes but little difference whether they belong to the great Canadian branch of his family or some pesky little South American republic like Venezuela, the cash must come. John had no mercy on Hamilton in its calamity, and he instructed Sheriff E. Cartwright Thomas to levy on the tax books and the household furniture in the city hall out of which to make part of the debt. Thomas Beasley was city clerk, then as he had been from time immemorial, and is still custodian of the records, and, he, acting of James Cummings, one of the most level-headed businessmen in Hamilton at that time, secretly removed the tax and other record books to keep them out of the way of the sheriff. It was thought at the time that Mr. Beasley had taken the books with him over to a sulphur springs watering resort in New York where he went to spend a few weeks till it would be too late to get service on him, but the books were all the time in an old safe belonging to the city, which was stored in the Buchanan, Harris and Co.’s building on the corner of King and Catharine streets. The sheriff did start to sell at public auction the furniture in the city hall, and the first thing offered was the picture of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, which hung over the mayor’s chair. This was knocked down to B. B. Osler, Q. C. for 15 cents. Then the row began, the loyal people of Hamilton objecting to having her majesty’s portrait sold by a bailiff, and had not the sheriff postponed the sale, there would have been a riot on his hands in less than five minutes. The sheriff threatened to put Mr. Beasley in jail for contempt in refusing to hand over the tax books, but the genial Tom laughed at him and told him to fire away.
To get back to our old Hamiltonian and his property, it was generally supposed that the creditors could levy on every bit of property in the city and sell it to make the amount of the debt, and the old man felt very uneasy lest he should lose all that he had accumulated in the thirty or forty years preceding. His children played upon his fears, and persuaded him to deed over to each one a portion of the real estate, and when the scare was over, he would get it back again. This he did, and before the ink had hardly time to dry on his signature to the deed, one block of buildings was mortgaged to a money lender in Toronto for $5,000. When the old man learned of that transaction, he turned what he had left into cash, and with some $20,000 in gold, he bade Hamilton farewell and went to Detroit. But the old fellow had not yet got to the end of the string, for he fell into the hands of a woman at whose house he boarded in Detroit. She claimed to be a war widow; that her husband had been killed in the army and that she was in sore distress. Our Hamiltonian had his sympathies aroused, and, it is said, made love to the widow. He had forgotten Tony Weller’s advice to his son Samuel, to beware of the vidders, and there is where he missed it. She persuaded him to make over to her all his wealth, and then she would marry him and when the transfer of valuables had been made, the husband of the supposed widow returned from the war, and, of course, it was all off, the old love taking precedence of the new. The old man was left penniless in a strange city, and was too proud to let his condition be known to his friends in Hamilton, and it is said that he finally ended his days in poverty in Detroit.