Away back seventy years ago, when Wentworth and Halton counties were united under one county government, and Hamilton was the judicial seat of the two counties, William A. Stephens, a tiller of the soil over in Esquesing township, a young Irishman gifted with the divine afflatus, but by profession a humble tiller of the soil, was summoned to spend a week in Hamilton as a juryman. It was while solving great legal problems that were hurled at the unfortunate jurymen by the legal lights of those days that his soul became inspired to soar into the land of poetry and forever immortalize this beautiful city, which tradition named Head of the Lake, this name finally degenerating into the more prosaic Hamilton. Stephens tells the story that along in the third decade of the last century, while taking tea at the home of a female friend in Hamilton, he was speaking in glowing terms as only a poet can speak of the charming view from the top of mountain, when his lady friend suggested that he ought to write a description of what he had so much admired. He took the hint, and the next morning he visited the mountain at sunrise. It was a glorious June morning, and with a soul glowing with enthusiasm, he began to write what was first intended to be a short poem for the columns of a newspaper or magazine, but when he found that his muse had taken possession of him and was resolved upon an aerial flight, he gave old Pegasus the freedom of reign and the result was a poem of 122 pages, divided into four books. Out in the village of Selkirk, over in Haldimand county lives Dr. G. C. Derby, a practitioner of the electropathic school of medicine, who is the owner of this rare book of poems, and to him the Muser in indebted for a peep into the inspired treasure. It would delight the soul of the readers of the Spectator were we to give the poem in full, but the reading of it as a whole must be reserved for a few choice souls who could fully enter into the theme with the inspired author. But we will transcribe from the sacred volume a verse here and there to give the reader a glimpse into the paradise that is pictured:
O Muse’ what art thou? Strange mysterious sprite
Who first invoked thee from the realms of light?
Not so bad as a starter. But wait in patience, for along comes the British Queen, “ a floating palace from the olden world.”
You vessel, lately seen upon the verge
Of distant vision sweeps along the lake
And now comes nearer, leaving in her wake
A track of waves upon the trackless deep,
While all around the tumbling billows sleep.
She nears yon sandy rampart which divides
The lake and bay, two near-approaching tides,
Thro’ which a steamboat channel has been made
O’er which a navigation bridge is laid.
With sudden jerk, the boat bell rings,
And round the bridge upon its pivot swings.
What finer description could the inspired poet give of Hamilton’s future summer resort as it is now developed under the management of Lord Hanna’s commissioners, Eli the First and Czar Morden? But see the British Queen as
She enters now the bay, where in their pride,
The floating navies of the world might ride,
And there defy the fiercest winds of heaven
That o’er in rags have flapping canvas riven,
A sheltering port which nature kindly gave
From her own wrath the trembling bark to save.
The boat comes on, and as it nears the goal,
Away the carriages and wagons roll
To meet the passengers a mile or more
From King street to the intercepting shore.
Upon the wharf obsequious waiters stand,
To take your travelling bag, and bowing bland
To all they see of fashionable grade,
“You go, sir, do you, to the Promenade.”
And others, while their ready coaches range,
“You go, sir, to the Hamilton Exchange.”
One carriage stops at the Promenade hotel,
Where viands wait your appetite to quell,
While semi-Africans with craniums curly,
Obsequious wait on all the guests of Burley.
How many Hamiltonians now living can remember the British Queen, the Hamilton Exchange, or the Promenade hotel? Probably that venerable printer, William Cliff, may recall the early steamboat and the hotels, but the number whose memories run back seventy years is very few. What a charming picture the old poet gives us of the British Queen as she came steaming up the bay and lands her passengers at the wharf at the foot of John street! The present generation of Hamiltonians know naught of the thrill of pleasure that gladdened the hearts of the old-timers when the whistle sounded, announcing the approach of the daily steamboat with its dozen or more of cabin passengers, and its decks loaded with people who would not pay for the luxury of a seat in the cabin. But the poet changes his theme, and here is his pen-painting of our mountain. Read it carefully, for it is the essence of a dream that every Hamilton boy and girl of the past century indulged in.
Between the mountain’s base and distant strand,
Upon a sweeping range of table land,
The town of Hamilton in beauty lies,
Beneath the glory of the morning skies:
A picture drawn by man’s industrious powers,
Within a mountain frame that round it towers.
But by its mountain frame sublime and vast,
The town is so insignificantly cast,
So far God’s work transcend the works of man,
Far as the breezes from a lady’s fan,
Transcendent are in majesty and pow’r
By mightiest hurricanes that ever tore
The rooted monarchs from the mountain’s brow,
While all around the leafy legions bow.
When from the summit of the mountain’s height
From the valley vision bends her flight
The town seems smaller than it would appear
If you behold it from a point more near.
If to advantage then, you’d see the town,
Come half way up or else go half way down.
The scene changes, and from the towering mountain’s height, the poet drops down to the more prosaic. What architect could draw a truer picture of Hamilton’s temple of justice:
See yonder edifice of square-hewn stone?
Is it not lovely, tho’ it stands alone,
Surmounted by a tower and tin-capped dome,
The felon there awaiting judgment lies,
While o’er his head the dreaded court that tries
Now sits in judgment, justly to decide
Of innocent or guilty – oh how wide
Apart are these extremes, and yet how near
They sometimes meet when all the case you hear!
A jealous husband was on trial for murdering a man named Rossiter, whom he suspected of having stolen the affections of his wife. The poet tells the woman’s story to save her husband from the gallows:
“Of that dread night when Rossetier was slain,
I lay awake rack’d with the toothache pain,
And thro’ that night my husband from my side
Did never go until the morning wide
Had grown to day. His could not be the blow
That fell’d the victim. He a murderer ? No !
Great God of Heaven, no! tho’ misery came,
Led by misfortune on my man’s name
None ever dare to fix the brand of guilt or shame!”
The devotion of the wife failed to touch the heart of the judge, and he told the jury that her story was prompted by love, not trith. The result was that the husband was convicted of murder, and one dark, gloomy morning he was hanged from a gallows on the front of the old court house. But it was not he, after all, who committed the murder, for another prisoner, overcome by remorse, confessed that it was he who plunged the fatal knife into Rossetier’s back. The poet then return to the descriptive work, and here is a few samples “
The jail and courthouse you above were shown,
And from the text a long discourse has grown
The marked house may next your eye command,
And how the church between it and the strand,
A handsome structure, whose ascending spire
Seems a solar radiance all on fire.
There are three other buildings whence arise
Of prayer and praise to heav’n the sacrifice,
May gospel truth, forever brightly beam
Within their walls, the glorious gospel theme
Be sounded loud – loud may hosannas ring
In heavenly song to heaven’s Eternal King.
Now from these buildings to the left you turn,
And see the kingly castle of Dundurn.
Built by a bold, aspiring Speculator,
A lawyer colonel, yes, and something greater
Who, while McKenzie Navy Island swayed,
Commanded our irregular brigade,
Where bravely brandishing his bloodless rapier
The gallant speaker won the title, Sir Napier.
Near his you see another building rise,
The fruit of bold commercial enterprise.
A massive structure, elegant and plain,
Where opulence and comfort jointly reign,
If at this place you would admiring tarry,
To ask the owner’s name, ‘tis Colin Ferrie,
A wealthy ground proprietor in fee,
And also a member of P. P.
And superintendent of the paper mine,
High priest of Mammon’s temple, at whose shrine
The gold and silver offerings are paid,
And paper prayers and promises are made.
Some other buildings worthy of my song,
But they would make my story too long.
Upon the mountain’s base beneath our feet
Embowered in woods you see his rural seat
Whose name is given to the town
A scattered village then was Hamilton
When first I saw it some ten years gone.
And so the poet revels in descriptive verse, but we have given the most salient rhapsodies, and leave the reader to imagine the closing stanzas. The poet complained that no local newspaper had ever published his poetic story of Hamilton, so he had it printed in book form, that future generations might have the benefit of it.