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History of the Bay

Explore how the Harbour has changed over time

It is incredible to imagine that Burlington Bay – Hamilton Harbour’s previous name – was “perhaps as beautiful and romantic a situation as any in the interior of America, particularly if we include with it a marshy lake which falls into it, and a noble promontory that divides them.” This was the description of the bay by British surveyors in 1813 in a report back to London called Topographical Description of Upper Canada.

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Elizabeth Simcoe

Elizabeth Simcoe was the wife of the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe. Elizabeth was an accomplished artist and travelled throughout Upper Canada producing sketches and watercolours depicting scenes, including this incredible early colonial view of Coote’s Paradise Marsh.

Environment degrades, industrial pollution

The conditions of Hamilton Harbour reached the peak of degradation by the mid 20th century. The health of the environment was overwhelmed by human and industrial waste as the landscape was utterly transformed by humans.

Bayfront Park, Pier 4, Waterfront Trail

The Lax Brothers purchased water lots in the west harbour in the 1960s and began to fill in that area for future land uses. This infilling continued into the 1980s, and by the 1990s those plans for industrial uses had evolved into what would become Bayfront Park.

The subsequent impacts of human activities on the bay, however, have been exceptional and devastating. By 1862, the Hamilton Spectator was commenting that “the refuse from the coal oil refineries, which is emptied into the Bay, is having a very deleterious effect upon the fisheries at the Beach. It is said that the water, on certain mornings, is covered for a considerable distance with oil and the effect has been to drive away the fish from the Beach.” The editors further stated that, “the subject is not without difficulty” – an observation that underscores an important fact about the evolving conditions of the bay, and that human activities have had a long history and an overwhelming influence.

By 1955, the nuanced view of the editors from the previous century, that “it would be inexpedient to place restrictions on the operations” of a nascent industrial economy but also “disastrous” to the local environment was gone. “The cesspool of the bay was part of Hamilton’s growth and prosperity,” stated the paper at the time, so “let’s have an end to the nonsense about how tragic it was that the bay ever got that way. It got that way because Hamilton was – and is despite the handwringers – a great industrial city.”