Our Harbour

Harbour History

Hamilton Clean Harbour Program

The Pre-Industrial Harbour
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Hamilton Habour was part of First Nations life for centuries before the arrival of French explorer Étienne Brûlé in 1616.  Rich in flora and fauna[1] of all kinds, the harbour and Cootes Paradise, the marsh to the west of the harbour, were stunningly beautiful in the seventeenth-century.  In fact, by the time Geneva Lake or Macassa Bay, as the harbour had been known, was officially proclaimed to be Burlington Bay in 1792, it was already gaining a reputation for its natural beauty.  In 1813, the Topographical Description of Upper Canada characterized the harbour as “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.”

In 1785, Richard Beasley settled on the shores of Burlington Heights and by 1815, the area had inspired a permanent European settlement.   George Hamilton led the move to establish a village in what was known then as Barton Township.  He was successful in 1833, seven years after the Burlington Canal opened to connect Hamilton Harbour to Lake Ontario.

The Engine of the Ambitious City
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With its large, deep-water harbour, along with the 1854 arrival of the Great Western Railway, Hamilton was well positioned to become an industrial centre.  Railway expansion nationwide was driving demand for steel and Hamilton’s economy began to boom.  The “Ambitious City” was living up to its nickname economically, but the rapid urbanization and competitive commercial environment meant that environmental protection was a low priority.  Hamilton’s new waterworks opened in 1859, vastly improving public health issues related to drinking water and sewage, but the natural environment continued to suffer.

By the 1860s, Hamilton Harbour’s fish stocks were in noticeable decline and on the way to collapse.  Industrial and household pollution, along with dramatic infilling[2], had started to make the harbour’s south shore unrecognizable.  As Hamilton’s industrial sector thrived through the World Wars and the City’s port became one of the busiest on the Great Lakes, local citizens, organizations, media and governments began to recognize the dangers of ignoring the region’s natural heritage.  In the 1960s, the Hamilton Spectator claimed that “the Bay has been turned into a huge potential cesspool, unfit for or unacceptable to human, animal or most forms of plant life.”

The Multi-Use Harbour: The Era of Restoration
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Shortly after the Woodward Wastewater Treatment Plant opened in 1964, community support for a stronger approach to protecting the natural environment of Hamilton Harbour began building.  By the time the International Joint Commission identified the harbour as one of the 43 “areas of concern” (AOC) on the Great Lakes in 1987, the Hamilton community was ready to put environmental stewardship on equal footing with recreational and industrial uses when it came to Hamilton Harbour.  The community completed the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan (HHRAP) in 1992 as a roadmap to restoring Hamilton Harbour’s ecological health and having the harbour removed from the list of AOCs. 

Since the launch of the HHRAP, a coalition of governments, corporations and local organizations has worked diligently to restore and protect Hamilton Harbour’s natural heritage.  Projects have included new and enhanced infrastructure[3] to manage wastewater and storm water, the reconstruction of natural habitats, changes in policies and practices that affect water quality and widespread public education on the importance of a healthy harbour.  The result is noticeably and measurably better water quality, increased health in local wildlife populations, enhanced access to recreation opportunities including public swimming and the return of long-vanished fish and bird species including the bald eagle.

A great deal of progress has been made, but much more work lies ahead to restore and sustain a healthy Hamilton Harbour for generations to come.

[1] Plants and animals
[2] The practice of creating new usable land where there was once marsh or open water by dumping in rock, soil, gravel and other inert materials – much of the industrial land on Hamilton Harbour’s shore was created this way, as was the land that would become Bayfront Park
[3] The basic constructed facilities required to serve large-scale community needs – examples in this case include sewer pipes and wastewater treatments plants.