Location: along the shore of Lake Ontario between Burlington and Hamilton
The Beach Strip is a large sandbar lying at the western extremity of Lake Ontario. It separates the lake from Burlington Bay, a land-locked harbour of 10,000 acres of calm and protected waters. The elevation of the sand strip is no more than ten feet above the lake, while its length is approximately four miles.
Long before the first white settlers appeared in Upper Canada, the Beach was known to local aboriginals as “Daonasedao” which means “where the sand forms a bar.” There is no evidence of the aboriginals actually inhabiting the Beach, though the area was clearly visited by them for its abundant fish and game. Local tribes also met along the Beach to trade.
The Beach Strip was a very beautiful location. Its shoreline was overhung with willow trees and inhabited by herons, loons, kingfishers, swans, speckled plovers and ducks. Among the numerous fish that swam the waters were perch, whitefish, trout, sturgeon, bass and salmon. These fish proved to foster a rich fishing industry once the first white settlers came to the area.
As Hamilton was being settled, a shallow area of water connecting the lake to the bay became a portage and loading zone. The Beach also became the main trail between the settlements of York (Toronto) and Newark (Niagara-on-the Lake).
In 1794, John Graves Simcoe, who was appointed Upper Canada’s first Governor, decided to build a large two-storey frame house on the Beach, to serve as a government inn. This structure was named the King’s Head and served as a government house and inn for the area. The King’s Head was also used for military purposes, as a depot for stores and provisions as well as a rendezvous for militia and regular troops.
During the War of 1812, the Beach Strip was visited by American troops. Two American schooners landed at the Beach in 1813 and let off close to two hundred men. These men fought back the troops stationed at the King’s Head and the then ransacked and set fire to it, burning it to the ground. After this, they quickly left the area. In 1994, a plaque was unveiled at the site of the King’s Head Inn, recognizing it as a historic landmark.
In 1823, “An Act to Provide for Constructing a Navigable Canal Between Burlington Bay and Lake Ontario” was passed. This was the first canal project attempted in Upper Canada and was a major undertaking in terms of both financing and engineering. Labourers were imported by the hundreds to work as diggers at the canal.
Initially, the completed canal was only 60 feet wide. Alterations were made to allow for the passage of larger vessels and by 1850 the canal had expanded to being 120 feet in width. It was later expanded again, in 1930, to a width of 300 feet with two channels.
1830 saw the construction of a 21-foot swing bridge over the canal. A schooner crashed into the bridge not long after its construction and put it out of operation. The bridge was replaced by a scow-ferry service which continued to be in use until 1896, transporting people and animals across the canal free of charge.
A 40-foot high wooden lighthouse was constructed on the south bank of the Beach in the mid-1830’s. It was used to guide vessels into Hamilton.
Taverns and inns began springing up along the Beach Strip and visitors began to frequent the area, arriving by steamboat from Toronto. The Dynes Tavern, built in 1846, is still on the Beach today and is the oldest operating tavern in Ontario.
In the late 1850’s, a limestone lighthouse was built by the beach canal. It still stands today.
A luxurious resort hotel known as the Ocean House was opened on the Beach on May 24, 1875. It became a popular entertainment spot in Hamilton, and with its construction the Beach was well on its way to becoming known as a resort rather than a residential area. The Beach became popular for summer fun, with such activities as rowing, swimming, sailing, riding the steamers, sunbathing, strolling along the piers and boardwalks, dining, bowling and billiards. More luxury hotels were built, including the Perry House, which was built in the same year as the Ocean House. Perry House eventually burned down, but the Lakeside hotel opened on the same site only months later, in 1918.
A railway was installed in 1876. This made the Beach much more accessible to people who were not local residents. The first engine arrived on the new track on November 8, 1876.
In July, 1879, Bethel Church (Methodist) was constructed to serve the spiritual needs of the many residents on the Beach Strip. The church was a major landmark until it was demolished in 1958. Next to the church, a two-storey summer sanitarium for sick children was also built. It became known as Elsinore, a “place where women and children needing a rest could go without charge.”
By 1890, the Beach Strip had assumed the look of a well-laid-out summer resort, complete with wooden sidewalks, oil lamp posts, lakeside lawns and plenty of trees. The Royal Hamilton Yacht Club was soon built across from Ocean House, with an official opening in May, 1892. Three years later, the Ocean House burned to the ground and was replaced by a new structure, Brant House, which opened in November, 1899. In 1915, the yacht club also burned to the ground.
In 1896, an electric radial line was built, offering more and better transportation around the Beach. An electronically operated swing bridge was built across the canal, with modern sidewalks for pedestrians. At this time, the ferry service ceased operation.
An amusement park was opened on the Beach in 1903. Canal Amusement Park, as it was known, was opened by the Canada Amusement Company. The park consisted of nineteen rides by the time it closed in 1978, including a 1912 ferris wheel and a 1914 merry-go-round.
In 1905, a group of women from the Anglican Church founded the Girls’ Friendly Society Holiday House. They provided accommodations on the Beach for girls and women needing rest or a change of air and surroundings. Most of these girls and women paid, but some were given free lodgings. The holiday house was quite popular initially, but had lost its appeal to young women by 1942 and was sold.
In 1907, the province, recognizing the Beach’s uniqueness, drafted the Burlington Beach Act and established a Beach Commission government to take care of the Beach and its residents in much the same way as a municipal government would. By 1910, the Beach had become quite popular, both as a summer resort and a permanent dwelling place. People would come from miles around to spend time at the Beach and have fun. Partially to accommodate the increased popularity of the Beach, another church was built on the site in 1915.
A year later, in 1916, construction of the Beach Bungalow School was completed. This was a sure sign that the Beach was growing as a community. The building, which cost a total of $4,000 to build, was a one-room frame schoolhouse with an initial attendance of forty-five students. By 1940, this had grown to 289 students, with a staff of six. As the number of students attending the school increased, the Masonic Hall next to the school had to be used for classrooms. In 1950, the school caught fire and was destroyed. A new school, named Bell Cairn School, was built, with construction being completed in 1952. This school included eleven classrooms, a shop, a kitchen, an assembly hall, a staff room, two lunch rooms and a clinic. This school, despite being larger than the previous one, was overcrowded from the start, with 456 students in attendance upon its opening. Control of the school was transferred from the Beach Commission to the Hamilton Board of Education in 1957 and in 1972 an addition to the building was constructed. Not long after the school’s new addition was completed, enrollment in the school dropped considerably. By 1980 there were only eighty-eight students attending the school. Because of the low number of students, a decision was made in January of 1981 to close the school.
By 1916, the popularity of the Beach had already reached its peak. Whereas people had once flocked to the Beach by the thousands, with the development of new methods of transportation, such as the automobile, they were now visiting resorts elsewhere. This change caused the Beach to become less of a resort area and more of a residential part of Hamilton. Permanent homes on the Beach Strip became more popular than ever.
The swing bridge, which had replaced the ferry service some years earlier, was replaced in 1930 by a bascule bridge. The bridge connected Hamilton to Burlington and Toronto, opening laterally to allow sailing vessels through the canal. On closing its arms, the bridge provided a roadway for heavy trucks and other motorists crossing the canal. This new bridge would continue to be in service until 1952 when it was rammed by a sand boat and damaged, at which time a Baillie bridge was erected as a temporary replacement. Over the years, traffic volume steadily increased and the Burlington Bay Skyway Bridge was eventually constructed to handle the increase.
In 1943, the Beach was faced with a flood problem. This was not the first time or the last time Beach property owners would experience floods. The flooding was a result of the fluctuation of Lake Ontario’s water levels due to heavy rains and snowfalls. Many homes had their basements flooded. Carp splashed about in people’s backyards and basements and boats were used on the bayside street. At the time, the Beach was nicknamed Little Venice. Similar flooding occurred in 1947, 1952, 1954 and 1955.
On August 5, 1946, Beach War Veteran’s Memorial Park, located along the Strip, was dedicated. A grand ceremony was held which included a fireworks display and sporting events such as boat races.
In the 1950’s, traffic along the Beach Strip was a problem and residents complained about the high number of trucks which were creating a lot of noise in the area as well as unsettling fumes.
The Burlington Beach Commission was disbanded on January 1, 1957, when the City of Hamilton decided to assume responsibility of the Beach. Residents of the Beach Strip had mixed feelings over this, and many would later claim that the City did not do nearly as well a job at looking after their needs as the Commission had and that the community spirit which once flourished within the Beach Strip had dissipated.
In 1964, the City of Burlington was awarded the section of the Beach Strip north of the canal. This annexation was granted by the Ontario Municipal Board, despite the City of Hamilton’s strong opposition. This same year, two hundred women and children of the Beach barricaded Beach Boulevard at both ends, protesting the trucks which were allowed on the Beach. “The Baby Buggy Barricade,” as it became known, was effective. The following September, it was declared that trucks would no longer be permitted on the Beach Strip.
By the late 1960’s, a new group, the Hamilton Beach Community Council, had formed to take the role of protecting Beach residents rights. Their duties ranged from voicing general complaints to the City to beautifying the area and re-creating the lost village-like atmosphere.
The 1970’s began on a low note for the Beach Strip. Pollution, which had been an issue for over twenty years but had never been extremely serious, was now making headlines. In June, 1970, protesters complained of the large number of dead fish in the Beach area and of the large number of maggots and flies which were being attracted to the rotting fish. The odor along the Strip was quite upsetting for many residents. The City responded by spraying the area with malathion, a pesticide approved by the federal government which would not pollute the lake, but would help rid the Beach of its fly and maggot problem.
The problem of dead fish resurfaced the following June. This time the City responded by having work crews spend more than three weeks removing 150,000 pounds of rotting fish daily. Another major problem which was bothering citizens at the same time as the rotting fish incident was the fact that there were not enough sewers in the Beach area. Residents had been pleading with the City for years, but nothing was done about the matter. Finally, some residents sought financial aid from the federal government, for the required sewers along the strip. The federal government agreed that it would donate funds, but the City still refused to look into the matter, claiming that the unique sandy soils of the Beach made it impossible to provide sewers without incurring a great cost.
In 1973, the Beach Strip was faced with yet another serious flood problem. Water seeped up through basements, damaging property. By September, 1973, the City was seeking provincial and federal support in purchasing the homes of all the people on the Beach Strip who wished to sell their property. These homes (between forty and fifty of them) would have been very difficult to sell if the government did not help out.
The Ontario Municipal Board gave its approval to the City’s plans and in 1974 the City agreed to purchase thirteen damaged homes on the Strip. The City planned to purchase as many of the homes as possible, over a twenty year period and then clear the land and turn it into a beautiful park. This plan, despite the arguing between City officials and residents, eventually fell through and was not acted upon.
Action on the Beach seemed to be turning towards preservation in the late 1970’s. In 1976, a Spring Clean-Up campaign was organized and the Hamilton Beach Preservation Committee was formed not long after. The major aim of this group was to promote and foster better relations between the Beach Strip, the City and the Region, by affording residents a vehicle through which they could voice their complaints.
In 1976, the Dofasco steel company was to blame for covering the Beach Strip in black coal dust. Even the interiors of residents’ homes were not safe from the coal dust, and five hundred locals signed a petition protesting pollution in their area, demanding that something be done. Following this, the Minister of the Environment assured residents that the incident would not be repeated.
On January 27, 1977, a more severe reoccurrence of the black coal dust incident occurred. This time, claims were filed against two steel companies, Stelco and Dofasco. These companies were given sixty days to devise alternative methods of controlling the black coal dust and an agreement for immediate damage compensation was made.
In 1979, Interflow Systems Ltd. was charged under the Environmental Protection Act for the nuisance created by a light colour ash originating from their company which covered the Beach. Smoke concentrations from the company were so severe that visibility on the Skyway Bridge was impaired.
Hamilton City Council decided to have the Beach Strip turned into parkland and have its residential status officially sanctioned in 1983. Many residents were upset by this plan and arguments over it went on for years.
Throughout the summer months of the 1980’s, bacteria warnings persisted at the Beach. The bacteria made the water unsafe to swim in and Beach-goers were warned that if they swam, it was at their own risk.
In 1989, a number of dead and dying ducks were found along the Beach Strip. Officials believed that the ducks indicated a serious environmental problem and that the matter should be looked into further.
In May, 1992, an unidentified human arm was found washed up on the Beach by a man walking his dog. Local residents claimed that a number of strange things had turned up on the shore before but that this was one of the strangest. Police investigated the matter further.
Pollution at the Beach continued to present a problem even into the late-1990’s. In 1995, the water at the Beach Strip was reported to be comparable to black paint. This was caused by overnight industrial air pollution that landed in the water.
Despite the Beach becoming more polluted in recent years, it is a very significant cultural landmark of Hamilton and an important part of Hamilton’s history.
Hamilton Beach Scrapbooks. Special Collections, HPL.
McCowell, Lewis. Hamilton Beach In Retrospect. Summer, 1981. Special Collections, HPL.
Turcotte, Dorothy. The Sand Strip. St. Catharines: Stonehouse Publications, 1987.
Link to original article – http://epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/200/301/ic/can_digital_collections/cultural_landmarks/beach.htm