The handsome new public library building, which will formally dedicated on Monday afternoon, will be a perpetual monument to Andrew Carnegie, whose beneficent gift of $100,000 made it possible for Hamilton to erect such a building. Its location could not be better selected, for it is removed from the noise and bustle of business, while at the same time, it is convenient to residents from every quarter of the city. In its construction, it has had the careful oversight of the architect as well as the members of the library board, many of whom are practical men so that we may infer that it was built to last for ages. The building is compact and solid, and in its interior arrangements is planned after the most modern library buildings. One of its attractions will be the art gallery, the foundation of which are the paintings of William Bruce, a native of Hamilton, who won fame as an artist in foreign counties during his brief life. He was the son of William Bruce, now retired and living on the mountain top, and who is spending the closing years of his life in the study of astronomy and adding his mite to scientific research. The young artist began his studies in this city under capable teachers, and with the assistance of his father, who has natural artistic talents, he became noted abroad. Among his pictures is one of valuable historic interest, The Bathers of Capri and Snow Blind. In the art gallery at Ottawa is one of his pictures. These paintings the young artist wished to become a part of a civic art gallery in Hamilton whenever such a department was founded on a permanent basis, and the city came near losing them on account of the dilatoriness on the part of controllers and library board to decide upon founding an art hall in the new public library building. There are other valuable paintings from the brush of the young artist, as well as many of the works of Mr. Bruce. These are the foundation of what Hamilton hopes may become an art collection that will grow and be of great value to future students of our local art school. However, the writer of these musings will not follow up this subject, but will leave it to the reporters upon whom will devolve the task of not only describing the architecture of the new library, but also its interior and its art room. Monday will be a red letter day in the history of Hamilton.
Let us go back sixty years when Hamilton (in 1853) celebrated the opening of the Mechanics’ Institute building on James street. That even was a long stride ahead of the old-time library that had its home on King street west, in a black, dingy room. Mechanics’ Institutes were an ancient institution, and we read of them in Dickens’ novels. They were workingmen’s library and social recreation rooms, where the men and apprentice boys could meet in the evening to read newspapers and books belonging to the library. It was a free and easy resort, but it was conducted with due decorum so that visitors could spend a quiet evening in the enjoyment of a pipe of tobacco and some favorite book or newspaper. Probably if there were such reading rooms nowadays where young men who live lonely lives in boarding houses could spend their evenings, they might act as a drawing card against the attractions of the saloon and its sociability and pleasant surroundings. Libraries of the present day are certainly bright and attractive, but the incense of tobacco is debarred from their sacred walls. The old reading room on West King street has passed from the memory of even the oldest inhabitant, but the new institute on James street is yet remembered by a few ancient Hamiltonians. It was completed and opened to the public about the time that the Great Western railway ran its first trains from the Niagara river to this city, and the reading rooms and library were largely controlled and patronized by men employed in the Great Western shops. One of the most active of the railroad employees was David McCulloch, who was gifted with speech, and was a leader among his shopmates. Mr. McCulloch was employed in the upholstering department at the Great Western shops, and as a matter of history we might state that he helped to trim the first sleeping coach made in this country. The training that Mr. McCullough received in his lyceum days afterward stood him in hand when he entered the field of politics as a party speaker and editor of the Spectator. The old Mechanics’ Institute was a great educator in its day, to the boys and men who availed themselves of the advantages presented. There was hardly a town of 500 or 1000 population in Canada and the United States that did not have its mechanics’ institute, and connected with the library was the lyceum with its course of lectures during the winter season. The lecturers were among the ablest scholars of the day, and the lectures were on all the interesting topics, the admission price being so low that it did not require one to have a bank account to be able to buy a season ticket. There were giants in those days in the lecture field. Old Hamiltonians can recall the names of many of the finest scholars who lectured in the hall of the mechanics’ institute. One rarely ever hears of one these days.
It was an unfortunate day for Hamilton from an educational viewpoint when the old Mechanics’ Institute got into deep water, and there were not public spirits enough among the people to save it from the hands of the sheriff. When the building was opened in 1853, there was but a small indebtedness on it. The men who were interested in erecting the building gave liberally of their means in the hope that the library and reading room would be a benefit to the workingmen and boys who could not afford to own libraries of their own. Bad management in its later life substantially swamped the institute, till finally Joseph Kneeshaw took hold of it in the hope of saving something from the wreck. Mr. Kneeshaw had been engaged in the book trade and had a practical knowledge of the management of a library. It was uphill work all along the line till finally the time came when the sheriff sold the building to Isaac McQuesten to satisfy the mortgage held by him. The debt had been increasing steadily and no effort was made by the directors to stem the flood. Before the library was closed forever, A.T. Wood, who was one of the directors, and Joseph Kneeshaw offered to turn over the ten thousand or more volumes to the city providing the council would make provision to continue the library. Those gentlemen offered to pay off whatever floating indebtedness there was on the library, and thus save the books to the city. Thomas Burrows saw the beginning and the ending of the old Mechanics’ Institute, for he was one of the members at the start and was the auctioneer when the books were sold. They told a good story on the genial old auctioneer. He was selling a copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress when some man in the audience called out, “Who is the author? I really can’t remember just now the name of the gentleman who wrote it but the book is by one of the most noted literary men of the day.” “Going, going, gone” was the cry of the witty Irish auctioneer, and when the last book and the last bit of furniture were sold, the Mechanics’ Institute passed into history. The only thing by which to remember it is the official seal, on which is inscribed “Hamilton and Gore Mechanics’ Institute. Established 1839.”
The new library building will soon absorb the one that has been in existence in these later years. A few words about Mr. Andrew Carnegie, the donor that made the new library possible. He is a native of Scotland, and came with his parents to the United States when he was but a lad. As a boy he worked in a cotton mill, but being ambitious and an apt scholar, he did not long remain at the bottom of the ladder. As a messenger boy in a telegraph office, he learned to manipulate the key, and soon became an expert telegrapher. He got a position in a railroad office, and when the civil war broke out in the United States, he entered the service as a telegrapher. In whatever position he was called to fill, Andrew Carnegie always made good. After the war, he returned to railroad work, lived economically, and saved his money. He began speculating in a small but sure way, and in the course of time connected with the iron business. In less than fifty years, beginning at a very small wage, he became one of the multi-millionaires of the world. He became alarmed lest he should die rich, so he began to endow library buildings as a means of perpetuating his name, and at the same time, helping to educated the young man to a knowledge of books that they might never have had, had it not been for his liberal giving.