Friday, 28 December 2012


What a rural old town Hamilton was away back half a century ago, and indeed it was well into the ‘60s before it began to lose its bucolic simplicity. The picture which we present today, taken in the early 60s, when the Gore was transferred from a mud hole into a beautiful park, shows a number of buildings facing on King street, east of James. Indeed there has been no great change in the appearance of the street save here and there an old store has given place to a handsome and modern business house. It may be that the owners of business houses appreciate a large income from a small initial investment to a tearing down of the old places and building costly palaces that would yield a smaller revenue in proportion to the amount invested. Here and there some of the old buildings have been handed down from the accumulator of the last century to the spender of the present generation. Take a look at the north side of the street, and the old wooden awning is much in evidence from Lawson’s corner down to the corner of Catharine street. The south side of King street for the same length is more aristocratic, being occupied by wholesale houses. About the only improvement in buildings on the north side in the past fifty-five years have been made by the Thomas C. Watkins and Stanley Mills companies.


          The picture shows a quaint old street. Until within the last dozen years or so, Hamilton did not get much of a hustle, its citizens being content to jog along in the good, come easy, God Send Sunday style, something after the manner of old Dr. McQuesten, who could not see, away back in 1843, why the Gurney brothers should start another foundry in town when the doctor and John Fisher already had a one horse affair down on the corner now occupied by the Royal Hotel. With all the natural advantages, even Bytown has beat Hamilton in the race for population, but Hamilton has the manufacturing industries, and new ones are coming in all the time since the boom started half a dozen years ago. Indeed, a few are optimistically looking toward the near future when John Hall and his corps of assessors will be able to figure a population of 80,000 without padding the rolls. Probably that will come when Col. Gibson can hypnotize the city council and make that body believe that it would be for the best interests of Hamilton to do away with that bit of park between Hughson and John and turn it over to the Street Railway for a terminal station. It would be an ideal location, and the gallant colonel has doubtless often turned the question over in his mind as to the sin and extravagances of keeping such an available bit of land for a flower garden, when the Cataract company could turn it to such profitable purpose. He could almost be persuaded to take another dollar off the price of arc lamps for street lighting for the ownership of that piece of the Gore.


          The new blood in Hamilton may look favorably on the growth of population, but the old stagers sigh for the days of the town pump on the Gore and the Arcadian simplicity that prevailed when it was the custom of a certain class of business and professional men to get as drunk as lords early in the afternoon, and after an hour of refreshing sleep, get up and at it again till the daylight did appear. Hamilton in those days had no millionaires, nor great factories, but the men worked for $8 or $9 a week, payable half in cash and the balance in orders on the stores. The wheels of prosperity for Hamilton began to revive slowly about the time that Sir John A. Macdonald declared for national policy, and it took a good many years to get accustomed to the clatter of machinery and the occasional factory that would beam up in spite of those who believed in free trade ideas, but it was not until the last half dozen years that the people began to realize that there was a bright future for this grand old town. When the Deering company from Chicago asked for a bonus of $50,000 to buy land on which to locate its shops here, the workingmen rallied at the polls and voted it down. However, there were a few wise men in the city council who prevailed on the Deerings to cast their lot with Hamilton, and they would see to it that the $50,000 was more than made up to the company. The Deerings came with their millions of capital, and thousands of Hamilton men have been making good wages for the past two or three years. The Deerings broke into the city, and today, where farmers raised what and garden truck four years ago, the land is covered with great factories, and more men are employed down there every day than comprised the entire population of the city half a century ago. The wheels of prosperity are now revolving with a velocity that makes the old stagers wonder what is to come next.


          But let’s get back to the picture of ancient Hamilton and pick out a few of the men who occupied the stores on the north side of King street. We may have gone over this route before, but in this growing city people come and go, and posterity can look back with pride on the names of the business men of half a century ago. On the corner of King and James stands out the sign of Lawson Bros. importers and manufacturers of clothing. When that firm first introduced sewing machines into their tailor shop, the men went out on a strike. Machines, they said, would ruin the tailoring business. The Lawsons occupied the corner room and the one adjoining it. T. Bickle & Son kept the drug store now occupied by John P. Hennessy. In the next store, John Courteney kept the Albert House – merchants in those days had some high sounding titles for their places of business. It was a dry goods, millinery and house furnishing establishment. The next store was occupied by Ecclestone & Bethune, confectioners. Mr. Bethune is still living in the city. The next was A. Murray & Co.’s dry goods store, and adjoining it was Paul T. Ware, watchmaker and jeweler. Following eastward was D. B. Macdonald & Co.’s show store; Watkins Bros, & Co., wholesale dry goods; T. B. and J. Harris, dry goods; W. Boise, wholesale dry goods; Winer, Moore & Co., druggists; Dick thorn occupied the store on the corner of King and Hughson streets, and in that block between Hughson and John, were Campbell, Holt and Angell’s book store; A. T. Wood, hardware; McGiverin & Co., carriage and saddler hardware; Charles Magill, dry goods; Charles Warmoil, dry goods; Mills and Wright, furriers. Many of the names have passed from memory. The south side of King street, from James eastward, was principally occupied by wholesale warehouses. The corner store was Adam Brown & Gillespie; then the Bank of British North America, the oldest bank in Hamilton; Kerr, Brown and Co. and Gordon and McKay, wholesale dry goods; Albert Bigelow, James Cummings & Co. S. G. Patto and Co., James Skinner & Co., all wholesale dealers in crockery, china and glass. Albert Bigelow was an old bachelor, and at his death, he left a fortune of about $60,000, to be divided to three benevolences, one of which is the Boys’ Home. His name should be kept in remembrance by the people of Hamilton, as he was about the only one that remembered the unfortunate in the final disposition of his property. On the corner now occupied by the Provident and Loan building was a two story frame building. The corner room was Joseph Kneeshaw’s book store and bindery, and next door was W. T. Glassco, hatter and furrier. A number of wholesale houses filled in the gap between Duncan A. Macnab’s grocery and Murphy’s checkered store. On the corner was D. McInness & Co., wholesale dry goods. There was no W. E. Sanford Manufacturing company, but the buildings between the corner of John and the Anglo-American Hotel were occupied by stores. A. W. Gage & Co., jewelers and D. B. Galbreaith & Co., grocers were in that block.


          How many of the names mentioned are even known at the present day as having been the leading business men on King street half a century ago.? How soon forgotten, even the most prominent in business and public life! It does not come amiss, even at the lapse of a half century to now and then call the roll of the men who gave business life to the city when it was struggling for existence. Fortunes were not made as easily then as now, and there was no such thing as a department store. But they were a lot of loyal old boys for the interests of the city, and they laid well the foundations for the present day prosperity. Hamilton was purely a city of shopkeepers, and its wholesalers, in every department of trade, drew business from the entire territory.

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