Friday, 23 November 2012


Like a specter from the long-forgotten past, up pops an old handbill to take us back to the days when Hamilton was but a little village, had no mayor, and didn’t dream of ever having twenty-one politically trained aldermen to make its laws and spend the hard-earned money of the taxpayers on fads and things. Sixty-five years ago, the businessmen were hustlers, who went out for business for all there was to it. Had electric roads been known in those days, the old boys would have had every highway leading into the town gridironed with rails, if by doing so they could add one or half a hundred more customers to the business of the town. Guelph and Galt, and all the rich country to the northwest would have been bound to Hamilton by ribs of steel, even if had it been necessary to dump Dundurn castle into the bay to get a right-of-way. Ah! Those were the days when merchants had to keep their eyes open, and carefully look after their pennies. The pounds came later, and the old boys left a goodly heritage to those who came after them. Back in the year 1841, the business center of Hamilton was on both sides of King street, between John and Hughson, and from Hughson to James and down James to King William were a lot of smaller traders. Mills & Holton had a store in Stinson’s block, near the corner of King and John streets, and it must have been one of the forerunners of the modern department stores, for in it could be found everything necessary for the daily comforts of life. WE have an old handbill before us that is in an excellent state of preservation, that was printed by Solomon Brega, in the journal and Express office, on the 13th of July, 1841.Mills & Holton were about cutting a new business path. Sixty and seventy years ago every merchant was expected to give from six months to a year’s credit to his regular customers, and if by any chance a stray quarter slipped into the money drawer during the day it was looked upon with suspicion and doubts entertained as to its genuineness. It was always a business mystery why a shopkeeper should be expected to feed and clothe the general public upon the convenience of that dear public as to when the goods would be paid for. Indeed, even in this twentieth century, the credit system still prevails, and every now and then some shopkeeper who has not the courage to say no to deadbeats who eat up his food and wear out his clothing has to turn over his depleted stock to the sheriff to make what he can out of it for the benefit of his creditors.


          The Mills of this old-time firm was an uncle of the Stanley Mills brothers and Mr. Holton was a connection with the members of the Chipman-Holton knitting works. Stanley Mills & Co. evidently took a leaf from their long ago relative’s bank by adopting the cash system. But here the copy of the handbill; it is written with an eye to catch the trade: “New Goods and Bargains! If you want to buy goods cheap, call at Mills & Holton’s new store in Stinson’s block, recently occupied by Daniel Macnab, where will be found a well-selected and choice assortment of dry goods and fancy articles, boots, shoes, hats, caps etc. together with all the leading articles of groceries, which, from the favorable terms on which they were purchased, they flatter themselves can be afforded as low (to say the least) as at any establishment in town. We make no promises about selling goods ’20 or 25 per cent less’ than our neighbors; all we ask is an examination of our prices, and if they are not found to be as reasonable as our neighbors’ we ask no one to purchase. As we intend going entirely into the cash system, we can, with confidence, solicit an examination of our stock, not fearing an unfavorable result. Don’t forget the place, second door from the corner of King and John streets, in Stinson’s block. Our profits being so small, we do not feel enabled to keep a runner and as we have scruples about keeping one at the expense of the public, we wish particular attention paid to our location, No. 2 Stinson’s block.
                                                                                               MILLS & HOLTON
Hamilton, 13th July, 1841


          Some of the veteran volunteer firemen may be interested in knowing that Burlington No. 2 company, afterward Cataract company, was organized in April, 1845. No. 1 company was organized a little while before that date. The old engine that was built by John Fisher, and presented by him to No. 1 company, descended to No. 2, and then on down to each new company organized till it became unfit for service. That old engine was bought from Bob Raw during the carnival by Chief Aitchison and Assessment Commissioner Hall, and a few months ago handed over to the Veteran Volunteer association. It is the intention, we understand, to place it in the museum of Dundurn park, as one of the few curios that has been saved of the early history of Hamilton. The first officers elected for No. 2 company were : W. Mortin, captain; Walter Armstrong, first lieutenant; W. Lynd, second lieutenant ; John Hall, first branchman; ---Partridge, second, branchman; H. Giroulard, treasurer; G. F. Lloyd, secretary. A committee was appointed to solicit exemption from town taxes for the members of the company, and also to call upon the agent of the Mutual Insurance company for a donation of 20 pounds to help pay the cost of uniforming the company. Walter Armstrong was a prominent man of affairs in the early days of Hamilton. His only descendant, now living in Hamilton, is a grandson, who occupies a clerical position with the International Harvester company.

          In the year 1845, the first sailing steamer Eclipse made daily trips between Hamilton and Toronto, taking between for and five hours to run the 35 miles. The Eclipse called at Wellington Square and at the smaller ports between this city and Oakville. The fare one way was 7 shillings, 6 pence in the cabin, and 3 shillings for deck passage. Cabin passengers had dinner on the downward trip and supper on the return trip. The deck passengers took a lunch with them or fasted till they reached the end of their journey. The Queen was another fast sailing steamer that made tri-weekly trips between Hamilton and Toronto, the passenger and freight traffic not being sufficient to justify the daily running of two boats between the two cities. The Hamilton papers were quite jubilant when the Queen was put on the route, because of the great advantage it would be to the travelling public. James Mullin, proprietor of the Farmers’ Inn, ran an omnibus to meet the boats on their arrival at the wharf. As the ‘bus fare from the wharf up to the center of the town was a York shilling, the majority of the travelers walked and saved the shilling, so that Jimmy’s enterprise did not yield much profit.


          Early in the 40s, James Knox kept the3 Odd Fellows Recess on Hughson street, where always “could be found plenty to eat and drink.” As a warning to Hamiltonians not to go hungry while there was enough to spare at the Recess, Jimmy Knox dropped into poetry, from which was take this expressive couplet:
          “Your arms and legs they will grow limber.
           Unless well lined with belly timber.”


          A Hamilton paper that was published more than sixty years ago gives an account of an incident which occurred between this town and Dundas, which from its deliberate coolness is worth repeating. A country magistrate was walking to his home and a traveler driving along in a cutter ivited him to ride. They had not gone far when they were overtaken by another person in a sleigh, who accused the driver of the first sleigh with taking his coat from a tavern where both of them had stopped. The magistrate examined the sleigh of the man who had so kindly invited him to ride, and sure enough, there was hidden under the seat. The magistrate was in a quandary; he did not want to punish his friend by arrest and lodge him in jail, but the majesty of the law must be vindicated. Under the summary punishment act, which was then in force in Canada, the magistrate formally opened court of the Queen’s highway, tried and convicted the purloiner of the coat and sentenced him to punishment of forty lashes, save one, on the bare back. The culprit was ordered to strip off his clothing to his waist, and then the magistrate tied him to the sleigh, and with the accused’s whip administered the punishment, cutting the flesh of the criminal at every crack of the whip. After justice had been satisfied and the coat was returned to its owner, the magistrate got into the sleigh of the complainant and was driven to his house, leaving the unfortunate to dress himself as best he could.
James Counsell, mechanical instructor in the mining school of Queen’s university, Kingston, is an old Hamilton boy, who told an interesting story the other day of the building of locomotives in this city – first built in Canada. He says that in 1856 a machine shop was opened at the foot of Wellington street by D. C. Gunn, who formerly lived in Kingston. Mr. Gunn came from the old country to Canada when he was but a lad of eight years, and his parents settled in Prescott. In the course of time, he made his home in Kingston, and early in the 50s came to Hamilton, where he engaged in business as a land agent and in forwarding connected with steamboat transportation. He made considerable money, as fortunes were counted in those days. When the Great Western railway was opened from the Niagara to the Detroit river, Hamilton was the headquarters of the company’s offices and workshops, and everybody was enthused with the idea that this city was to become not only a great commercial center, but that the bay front, from Wellington street to Bay street, would be built up with manufacturing industries of every description. Here were the railway and the lake for the transportation business, and there was no place in Canada so favorably situated for future development. The men of Hamilton fifty and sixty years ago were enthusiasts, and in their sleeping and waking dreams they could see a city of 50,000 population with factory chimneys towering upward, the whirr of machinery and a busy army of well-fed mechanics, every man of marriageable age living in his own house, and no need of the kindly offices of such men as Relief Officer McMenemy to distribute charity. Hamilton was not originally intended as a town for those who were not provident for the early settlers belonged to that independent class determined to hoe their own row. It was a beautiful, dreamy city sixty years ago, and go-ahead men like D. C. Gunn were willing to bet their last dollar that it would in time become a great manufacturing center. Railroads were a new thing in Canada in the early fifties, and the Great Western was the pioneer at that time. The Grand Trunk road was building from Montreal to Toronto, and with two great roads why should this young country depend upon Great Britain and the United States for its locomotives and its passenger and freight cars? That was the question D. C. Gunn and other Hamiltonians asked themselves and their neighbors. One Hamilton man – we have forgotten his name – began to build passenger coaches, and he turned out some very fine ones; but not having the capital to compete with the car builders in the United States, they could undersell him. The railroad bought from the men who could sell the cheapest. This was the first effort to build passenger coaches in Hamilton. Free trade and limited capital made short work of the enterprising Hamiltonian, and the sheriff did the rest.


D. C. Gunn had nursed a substantial bank account in his land sales and forwarding business, but in an evil hour, he dreamed that the Canadian railway companies would buy Canadian-built locomotives if they could get them as cheap as those they had to import from England or the United States. It was a bad dream for him. He knew nothing about building machinery, for he had not been trained in the mechanic arts. In the year 1856 he opened a shop at the foot of Wellington street, hired a first-class superintendent, and sent to Scotland for machinists trained in the work of locomotive building. It was a glad sight to Hamilton eyes to look in upon Mr. Gunn’s hive of industry and see an army of about 100 men at work in all the various departments of building a locomotive. The first three engines turned out were christened Shep, Ham and Japhette – all locomotives were named in those days, and Mr. Gunn wanted to start right by going to the Good Book for names for the first-born Canadian-built locomotives. The Grand Trunk line was then ready to be opened between Toronto and Montreal, and the locomotives were bought by the company. The next two built were named Achilles and Bacchus, and were sold to the Great Western company to run between Hamilton and Niagara Falls. Mr. Gunn kept his works going for about four years, during which time he built fifteen locomotives in all. The panic that began in 1857, spreading ruin in Canada and in the United States, cut a swathe through the locomotive works, and early in 1859, Mr. Gunn had to lower his flag and retire from the field without a dollar to bless himself with. The savings of long years of industry were swept away in less than four years. Canada went out of the locomotive building business and was never able to resume it until Sir John’s National Policy gave it new life. From 75 to 100 hands were employed in Mr. Gunn’s works at from $1.50 to $1.75 per day, and toward the last, the payday was uncertain. But when the doors were finally closed, every man was paid in full and the enterprising Gunn was left with the empty bag. Besides the engines, other work was done in the shops. A pipe-testing machine for the Hamilton waterworks was made, a very powerful hydraulic press for the Canada Powder company was constructed, and other machinery was turned out.

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