HAMILTON AS IT WAS EIGHTY-FIVE YEARS AGO
What subject would be of interest to the ancient residents of this industrial city, with its population of 100,000 or more, than to go back to the days when Mountain, now known as John, street was the center of the old town, and the boundary line on the east was Wellington street, and on the west the Bowery. Where was the Bowery? Some of the present generation may ask, for they never heard that Hamilton at one time had a street of that name. Why, the Bowery was what is now Bay street south, through the pasture fields to the foot of the mountain, where the family cows roamed at will during the day, to be driven home for milking when the sun was going down in the west. Some of the early iconoclasts got so refined in their ideas that they had the name changed. It was named after the Bowery in New York by some of the U. E. Loyalists who settled in the southwest part of town when it was farming land. Like many of the historic names of ancient Hamilton, it was lost in the shuffle and came out as the refined Bay street south.
In Dr. Thomas Rolph’s more than interesting book, entitled observations of Upper Canada, first written soon after he arrived in Ancaster in the year 1832 and finished in book form in 1838, when it was printed by G. Reynolds Hackstaff, in his printing office in Dundas. This book has more than local interest because of the history of the Gore District, which then comprised the territory included in the counties of Wentworth and Halton, but from the further fact that the paper on which it was printed was made in the Darnley Mills in West FLamboro, owned by James Crooks, who also owned a grist mill, oil mill, saw mills, distillery and a general store. The Crooks family were the nabobs of West Flamboro, owning large tracts of land as well as a number of mills and manufactories. About all that is left of the wealth and memory of the Crooks family is the graveyard in Crooks’ Hollow, and that is in a very neglected state. Old Rip Van Winkle said, after his long sleep in the Catskill Mountains. “How soon are we forgotten when we’re gone.” A visit to the large majority of country graveyards, and not far from Hamilton either, is proof of old Rip’s trite saying.
In the year 1834, the town of Hamilton had a population of 2101, when the amount of town revenue, including police taxes, was $1080, and the expenditures nearly the same. That sum nowadays would hardly pay the salary of the cheapest clerk employed in the city hall. The county of Halton was the most important part of the Gore District, having eighteen townships, while Wentworth county had only seven townships. Ancaster was then the most important township in Wentworth county, with a population of 2664, 14, 732 acres of cultivated farm land, 23, 774 uncultivated, and an assessed value of $166, 892. Hamilton had only 841 acres of cultivated land and an assessed value of $35,964. Read what Dr. Rolph had to say about Hamilton eighty-five years ago, and then go up on the mountain top on a clear day and see what a grand industrial city it is today.
“There are few places in North America that have increased more rapidly, or stand in a more beautiful and advantageous situation than the town of Hamilton. In the summer of 1833, my constant evening’s walk was from Mr. Burley’s tavern to the bay shore, distant about a mile. There were then but two houses between the tavern and the bay front, now it is one continued street, intersected by side streets, branching in both directions. The main street of Hamilton of Hamilton is of noble width, and has been constantly improving by the erection of spacious brick buildings, and must become, ere long, a splendid one. The court house is a fine stone building, at present unenclosed, but if the improvement in contemplation, relative to the jail, should be carried into effect, it will render it an object of greater beauty and more utility. Several excellent houses have been erected; a Catholic and an Episcopal church are in course of building; two noble taverns, both fronting the bay, are completed; a large stone brewery on the bay shore is in operation, perhaps the best in the district, and the splendid mansion of A. N. McNab, Esq., commanding the entire view of the lake and bay, is unequaled in the province. It is a most extensive building, beautifully designed and elegantly finished. It is called Dundurn, from a place of that name in Scotland belonging to the ancestors of Mr. McNab. To the indefatigable exertions of this able, spirited and enterprising gentleman is infinitely indebted. Both in and out of parliament, his exertions have been unceasing in the promotion of its welfare, and it must prove a source of the highest gratification to him to behold Hamilton, in the establishment of which he has been so actively engaged, assume an importance and celebrity not inferior to any town of the same standing in North America. On the mountain overhanging Hamilton are two fine stone mansions belonging to J. M. Whyte and Scott Burn, the former surrounded by an excellent and extensive park fence, and both embracing most comprehensive views of the lake, Burlington canal, Toronto harbor and a splendid woodland valley immediately beneath them.
“The population of this town when taken, as we learn from the town assessor, in September 1834, was 2101, and when taken in the year following, in May, 1835, it was 2600, showing an increase of 500 in seven months – the population is now probably about 3000. The census in 1833, as taken by the town assessor was about 1400. The amount of the town revenue in 1834, including police taxes, is $1080, and the expenditure nearly the same.
“The amount of the town revenue in 1835 showed a very great increase in the wealth and prosperity of the town.
“It is probable more buildings will be put up in the ensuing summer than has ever before been put up in the town. Several of our more opulent merchants are making preparations to erect large brick buildings in King street. The contractors are taking advantage of the sleighing by removing the old frame houses to clear the lots for some permanent buildings.
“The town of Hamilton is the district town at which the assizes and quarter sessions are held. It returns a member to parliament. Hamilton has a literary society, at which scientific, philosophical and political questions are discussed. The debates are well sustained, and it will doubtless prove an excellent school for training young barristers in the habit of extemporaneous speaking. Mr. Cattermole, the author of a work on emigration lives in the town. I have ever been accustomed to speak of both men and things as I feel, and being fully persuaded that Mr. Cattermole was a faithful friend to this province in his efforts to further emigration, I regret and am surprised that his claims to its consideration have been altogether and most unaccountably overlooked. A medical society has also been formed and I trust the time is not distant when it will have a public hospital. The Gore Bank, which has been chartered, is now established at Hamilton, and must prove of great advantage in promoting its still further improvement. From time to time, it has been in agitation to connect Hamilton with Lake Erie by railroad, forming the nearest and quickest connecting link between the two lakes. The proposed route was to Port Dover on the shores of Lake Erie. Its practicability and utility may be seen by the engineer’s report. But could it be possible to carry a railroad to Brantford, to connect the London and Western District with Lake Ontario, it would be the route for both goods and passengers from the extreme territory of Michigan and the western states. The arguments and excitement it has produced by which the respective routes are sustained show the general interest taken in what may some day prove possible. As a proof of the great trade which Hamilton carries on through the Burlington canal in one week during the month of July, in the present year, and from one of the four wharves in Hamilton, was shipped 17,000 bushels of wheat worth $1 per bushel.
“Besides the district school Hamilton has several private seminaries most respectfully conducted. There are three newspapers published in Hamilton – the Gazette, the Journal and the Free Press – and it is scarcely too much to predicate that it will become one of the most flourishing and beautiful towns in Canada. In February, 1836, there were races on the bay three days consecutively, and on April 8th, two steamboats arrived at Burlington canal with passengers from Toronto, who were conveyed to Hamilton in stages over the ice, a distance of seven miles.”