For the next three or four weeks Hamilton will be a beautiful picture to catch the eye of the lover of nature. The trees are budding, and the wealth of foliage and green lawns add to the beauty of the scenery. Painters are hard at work brightening up residences and business houses with fresh color, and the householders are doing their part in cleaning alleys and gathering up the rubbish that collect in the streets and back yards. These vernal days “belonging to youth, the spring of life,” makes the old young again and fill all hearts with gladness. How easily one jogs through life when spring flowers fill the air with perfume, the song birds make sweet music, and the weekly income is a guarantee that the comforts of home will be provided. There is another side to the picture, when sickness or misfortune hides the sunshine from the heart, and the outlook is anything but cheering. But we will not dwell upon that phase of life; rather look at the brighter.
Half a century ago Hamilton was a theme that inspired the pens of old-time dreamers. The Great Western had been completed from the Falls to Detroit, but we had no railway between here and Toronto, traffic and passengers from this city to Montreal and Quebec and the intermediate points depending on the daily line of steamboats for transportation. It was in the days before the waterworks, and when the gas lamps in the streets were turned down at the hour of midnight, the belated night owl having to grope his way home when the moon was off duty. Read what a fancy pen was drawn then by a writer : “Hamilton, from its geographical position, its peculiar natural advantages, and through the indomitable energy and enterprise of its citizens, has, within the past few years, made rapid advances toward becoming the chief commercial city in Canada.” The town had less than 12,000 population, and its principal business was supplying the retail market in the country west and south. Hear the dreamer again: “But a few short years have passed away since the site on which now stands the crowded city, with its stately edifices and its elegant residences, its thronged streets, and its marts and factories teeming with life and business activity, was a dense forest, the hunting ground of the Indian, and the home of wild animals and beasts of prey.” What a vivid imagination it was that drew that picture, for there had not been anything wilder than a squirrel in this vicinity for at least a quarter of a century before that description was written. “It was not many years ago that the waters of our beautiful harbor, which now bear upon their bosom magnificent steamships and vessels of every grade, bringing to our port the treasures of other lands, and conveying to eastern markets the products of the west, were calm and unruffled, save when the red man launched his bark upon the blue expanse, or when lashed to fury by the angry tempest.” Now there is a bit of rhapsody that should be perpetuated in our school books that the youth of coming generations may know what the early historians thought of the sparkling waters of the bay, that in after years furnished ice to make ten cent cream soda for a densely populated city. Fancy the stately edifices on King street half a century ago, when the now beautiful Gore park a mud hole and the old town pump at the west end of it. The history before us was equal to the pen of Munchausen.
But here are some solid facts the writer has handed down that will interest the old-time Hamiltonian. “Hamilton was laid out in the year 1813,” – the same year the battle of Stony Creek was fought, the memory of which has been resurrected from oblivion by the ladies of the Historical society – “but for many years it progressed slowly, so that we find, in the year 1837, the inhabitants only numbered 3, 567. From 1837 to 1841, it made no progress, the census of the latter year reporting a population of 3,446, a decrease in the four years of 121. During the succeeding four years, the population nearly doubled, and by the census of 1850, we find that the number of inhabitants had increased to 10,248. From that period, the city progressed with almost unexampled rapidity. The commencement of the Great Western railway gave an impetus to all kinds of business. New and substantial buildings took the place of those no longer sufficient for the increased amount of business, and merchants and mechanics, who had accumulated ample fortunes, employed their surplus means in improving their property. New streets were opened and handsome edifices sprang up as if by magic in all parts of the city. The population, which had reached 10,000 in 1850, had considerably more than doubled,” the writer putting the figures at 25,000; and he held out the hope that by 1860 the number of inhabitants would reach 40,000.
Hamiltonians were modest half a century ago in their desires, and a two ot three story stone or brick business house was a palace in the eyes of the old stagers. If those old boys could come back from the misty past and see the handsome blocks owned by the Thomas C. Watkins company, the T. H. Ptratt company, Oak Hall, the bank of Hamilton, the G. W. Robinson company, the Spectator company and many others that might be named, they could talk of palatial buildings. Those referred to stand out in remarkable contrast from those by which they are surrounded. But times are different now to what they were in the fifties, and business men can afford to build finer blocks. Hamilton has become a great manufacturing city, with its 55,000 inhabitants, mainly dependent on brains and muscle, making good wages and having plenty of money to spend on the comforts and even luxuries of life, there is encouragement to merchants to pull down their old stores and build larger and handsomer ones to accommodate the increased traffic.
The visit of Lord Minto to Hamilton reminds the writer of a former Governor-General of Canada. In 1846 Lord Elgin was appointed Governor-General and for some cause the people did not take kindly to him. Politics in Canada were in a chaotic condition, and an angel from heaven would have stood a poor chance in some towns unless he suited the local political element. The writer does not remember what political party Lord Elgin leaned to, nor does it matter in connection with this story. In 1847 or 1848, Lord Elgin made a tour of Canada, in order that he might learn the conditions and prospects of the country. The rebellion losses and clergy reserve question created sore spots in those days, and there was a deal of bitterness. Lord Elgin assumed the duties of Governor-General with a determination that he would be a just ruler, and with the hope that by firmness in the discharge of duty the discordant elements might be soothed and a better feeling exist. The writer then lived in London, and remembers the preparations made by those in loyal sympathy with the Governor-General to give him a royal welcome. London was a small town then, but it was surrounded by a well-settled country, and the farmers came by hundreds to see the representative of royalty. That was in the days before railways, and the royal party made the trip in private carriages, and the exact hour of arrival was uncertain. Long before the expected time the crowd had gathered out by the turnpike gate on the plank road, and there seemed to be an uneasy feeling that did not portend harmony in the reception. Finally the Governor’s party arrived and the detail of regulars received him with military honors and escorted him into town. After the formalities of reception by the mayor and council, the party adjourned to the house of Postmaster Goodhue for luncheon. In the afternoon the Governor and Mr. Goodhue went out for a drive around town, and then pandemonium broke loose. The taverns had been doing a prosperous business, and as a result all respect for the royal representative was drowned in whiskey, and the maudlin crowd began hooting and yelling at the Governor and using all kinds of epithets. To this time the Governor’s trip through Western Canada was an ovation, for he had been treated with the courteous consideration due his office, but this sudden and unexpected turn of affairs completely took him by surprise, and orders were given to the coachman to drive to Mr. Goodhue’s house at once. The crowd followed and a riot was imminent, the better element of the town protesting against the cowardly acts of the mob. In the hope of calming the exited people, Lord Elgin presented himself on the front porch of Mr. Goodhue’s house and tried to make a speech, but they would have none of it, and they yelled and hooted all the more. Some level-headed man in the Governor’s party saw a Highland piper on the outskirts of the crowd, and the thought came to him a diversion might be made by getting the piper on the porch alongside of the Governor. He acted promptly, and the piper was taken in at the back door, ushered through to the front, and to the astonishment of the Governor as well as the crowd, the skirling of the bagpipes was heard. In less than five minutes, the anger and hooting of the mob was turned to cheers, and then all wanted to shake hands with the Governor. Lord Elgin was a diplomat, and readily accommodated himself to the changed conditions. He made a short speech, and the crowd separated. The next morning when the vice-regal party was leaving London, the people cheered and thus redeemed the town from the disgrace of the day before. That was not the first time that the wild notes of the bagpipes had turned defeat into triumphant victory.
Lord Elgin’s term of office in Canada was a stormy one, and no doubt he was rejoiced when the hour for his departure came. On the 25th of April, 1849, terrible riots occurred in Montreal, terminating in the burning of the Parliament house. The parliament had passed the rebellion losses bill, which was the cause of the disturbance.
In the summer of 1856, there came to Hamilton from Michigan a good-looking shoemaker by trade. He was of pleasant address and good habits, and soon became a general favourite among the young people. The Good Templars was a strong organization in those days, and its membership comprised both sexes. Henry was introduced and became a member of the lodge. He also joined No. 2 fire company, and it was not long before he was well-acquainted with the young people in town. Henry was of dark complexion, dreamy eyes and a good dresser, and it was not to be wondered at that he became a favourite with the girls. The truth of the matter is that he cut quite a swath, and he did it in a modest way, so that he generally carried off the prize, and the other poor fellows had to take what he left. Henry was so popular that the boys envied him just a little bit, but they did not let the green-eyed monster of jealousy weaken their friendship for him. When he was dressed in a red shirt and a fireman’s helmet, he was an ideal firefighter, and the girls had only eyes for him when No. 2 company was out on parade. But he met his fate in the person of a sensible girl who was assistant forewoman in a leading manufactory of the city. She had been looked upon as one of the prizes that some lucky fellow would draw in the matrimonial lottery, and when Henry became her recognized “steady” he received the hearty congratulations of his friends. Time rolled on till 1857, when the happy pair were united in marriage. Life’s dream was soon over for the bride, for one day Henry announced that he would go over to New York and get a job where he could make better wages, and in time he was able to start a shop of his own. That was the last his wife saw or heard of him for months. Through some channel word came back that he was about to be married to a handsome and wealthy young lady, the daughter of one of the leading business men of the town. None of his friends, least of all his wife, gave credence to the story, and it was not till it was confirmed by further evidence that any steps were taken to head off Henry in his gay career. A friend of the family was sent to the New York town, and fortunately arrived on the day set for the marriage of Henry to the merchant’s daughter, and when he told his story to the father, in the presence of Henry, the outraged father would have put Henry out of the matrimonial business for all time to come had it not been for interference of the friend and others. As it was Henry looked as though he had passed through a threshing machine by the time the father was taken off him. Henry was arrested, but as no crime could be laid to his charge, he was set free, and he quickly fled to parts unknown. Inquiry was made in the Michigan town whence he came to Hamilton, and another wife was living there. By the time Henry’s history had been hunted up, it was found out that he had three wives and two or three children to his credit, and all were living. He never went through the formality of being divorced. His Hamilton wife applied for legal separation, which was easily secured. She never married again. Some of the old boys and girls who belonged to the Good Templars will remember the story.