In Search of a New Life

Emigration and the Port of Hamilton in the 19th Century

In Search of a New Life

Emigration and the Port of Hamilton in the 19th Century

Anthony Daly

Hamilton - 2022

The 19th century was a boom period in immigration for the North American population as this was where majority of the continent’s immigration arrived from across the globe in hopes of building a new life. According to Statistics Canada, during the 19th century the Port of Hamilton was the largest port in all of Canada West at the time and had been a key destination for many of the incoming immigrants.1 Approximately 80% of these immigrant families came from the British Isles such as Scotland, Ireland, and England during the 19th century where it was estimated over a million immigrants arrived in Canada.2 However, with immigration also came emigration as some families that arrived to Canada and settled within the city of Hamilton and the Port of Hamilton did not make this their final destination. The factors that caused the emigration of people through the Port of Hamilton will be the focus of this paper, specifically discussing the reasons that attributed to the emigration of people out of the city of Hamilton entirely. Industry, employment, climate, and geography are vital reasons that attract or deterred families from living and working in the rapidly growing city of Hamilton. By using sources connected to the history of emigration and more broadly connected to the Port of Hamilton, this paper will examine the quality of life of those living in Hamilton to understand why these factors can be connected to causing emigration in the Port of Hamilton during the 19th century.

The city of Hamilton was home to many successful industries throughout the 19th century. The city was lined with an interior industrial sector that sat along Hamilton Harbour which made it incredibly easy for goods and materials to be transported in and out of the country through the Port of Hamilton. While an industrial boom could attract immigrants, it could also be seen as a contributing factor to those who emigrated out of the city of Hamilton because the heavily underregulated industries had negative effects on surrounding residential neighbourhoods. In “Blighted Areas and Obnoxious Industries,” Cruikshank and Bouchier discuss the harbour-based industries such as the famed steel factories that had both positive and negative effects on the city and its population. The booming industries and accessible waterways were important to the city of Hamilton, but a lack of properly developed sewage and waste disposal systems was detrimental.3 The 19th century had dealt with serious growing pains as the need for a developed system continued to grow as fast as the city was growing, causing the industrial sector within Hamilton to become a large issue. For example, the original sewage inlet near Ferguson Street, created from the pollution runoff from a nearby soap factory, had made the area become blighted and rundown.4 Many residential neighbourhoods were purposely built close to the industries to house factory workers and their families, but because of the conditions, they were eventually abandoned. Cruikshank and Bouchier partially credit this failure to city grid designer, E.G. Faludi, as the goal was to have these homes within proximity to the factories but in the end it backfired.5

Cruikshank and Bouchier provide two more examples of pollution from the 1880’s in the Sherman and Wellington communities that were more extreme than the Ferguson Street inlet. These two incidents both ended in nuisance lawsuits being filed against the city of Hamilton in which the city lost. The same sewage runoff that had caused the Ferguson issue from the soap factory was combined with the waste from a connecting coal inlet and a tannery.6 Cruikshank and Bouchier note that the city “also diverted sewage into the Sherman Inlet, the very area where Kerr had prosecuted oil refiners and meat packers. When the city lost two nuisance lawsuits in the 1890s, it moved its sewage pipes to inlets even farther eastward.”7 This pollution caused two entire northern end neighbourhoods to become mostly abandoned and remain so for decades. Pollution issues extending into other parts of the city highlights how underdeveloped industries, during the growth and expansion of Hamilton, played a major role in emigration. With the need to develop a proper waste disposal from the factories and properly connected sewage systems for the nearby residential areas, the industries caused some people to search for a home elsewhere.

In addition to Hamilton’s industries and the pollution they caused playing a key role in emigration, employment was another deciding factor for most families when it came to finding a promising place to live during the 19th century. Some industries damaged the living conditions in nearby areas, but the factories in Hamilton were still attractive for migrants searching for work. However, outside of Hamilton, key developments were made in mining, lumber, and agriculture which also attracted waves of immigrants to different places throughout Canada West at the time.8 Hamilton was a key stop along the Great Western Railway, and since this was arguably the most important rail line in Canada at the time, it provided people with the opportunity to be transferred to these growing communities outside of Hamilton that were more appealing. As noted by Stuart, “the lumber camps tend[ed] to keep up the rate of wages for farm labourers to nearly the same as in morefertile districts of Ontario.”9 The Port of Hamilton was helpful in moving people to sections of the country that were ripe for work, benefitting the outgoing emigrants as well as the growing Dominion of Canada West. Sessional papers from 1876 give a helpful insight into the development of Canada’s industries after its confederation, specifically the mining and lumber jobs that contributed to the emigration through the Port of Hamilton and to other parts of the country.

Climate and geography were also two key factors that contributed to this emigration, as these two factors coincided in how they affected the population of Hamilton and the incoming immigrants. As mentioned earlier, many of the immigrants came from a climate that was similar to Canada’s and had a background within the realm of agriculture. The specific geographic location of Hamilton and its port is what truly helped make the city such an important piece in the act of immigration. Hamilton’s connection to the Great Lakes and to the Great Western Railway in Hamilton made it a prime destination for ships to offload. In “Climate Change and Coastal Zone Management Processes,” Taylor focuses on the unique climate zones across Canada, with a section dedicated to the Great Lakes area. Taylor makes note of the rich agricultural land to the northwest, outside of the city of Hamilton, and along Lake Ontario that was used for growing fruits such as apples, cherries, and grapes.10 This area was ultimately attractive to incoming immigrants and a reason to leave the city.

Margaret Mackay’s book, An Axle and Two Wheels: Material Culture and Memory in a Sutherland Emigrant Family of the Nineteenth Century, tells the story of the Mackay family and their immigration and emigration journeys. The Mackay family had decided to immigrate to Canada from Scotland, with plans to land in the Port of Hamilton and find land there to live on so that they could put their previous agricultural skills to proper use in Canada. Mackay notes that the family’s “goal was a township called Zorra in Upper Canada, now Ontario, where a community of emigrants from Sutherland had already been established.”11 The Mackay family had landed in the Port of Hamilton, but it was merely a passing point, as their end goal was not to live there but instead to reside in the more agriculturally rich lands north of the city of Hamilton. The Port of Hamilton was in the perfect geographic location to receive immigrants and transport them to places via ship and rail systems.12 Both geography and climate play a key role in an immigrant’s search for a home, and for many families the port was not their final destination but rather a landing spot before moving to a geographic location and climate that better suited their needs.

In summary, even with the Sessional Papers for the Assembly of Canada and previous census data courtesy of Statistics Canada, emigration throughout the entire 19th century is hard to track. However, it is evident that the industries, employment opportunities, climate, and geography of the Port of Hamilton, and more broadly within the city of Hamilton, proved to be attractive to some immigrant families and the cause of emigration for others. The Port of Hamilton acted as the gateway and landing spot for incoming immigrants and passing through emigrants, as demonstrated by the Mackay family who saw more agricultural potential elsewhere. With promising industries that were the backbone of the city and its development, also came pollution and waste disposal issues that deterred families from living in Hamilton. The Ferguson, Wellington, and Sherman communities were prime examples of how these issues caused families to re-locate to other parts of the country and find work elsewhere. Hamilton’s location on the Great West Railway and the growing lumber and mining businesses communities made the Canada West a desirable destination for those looking to relocate. While it is hard to gain a sense for emigration that happened in Hamilton during the 19th century, since greater immigration still caused the city to grow at the same time, the factors discussed still greatly contributed to families leaving the Port of Hamilton.

  1. Statistics Canada, “150 Years of Immigration in Canada,” Government of Canada, Statistics Canada, May 17, 2018, 

  2. Canadian Parliament, Sessional Papers of the Dominion of Canada. Volume 7. Third Session of the Third Parliament of the Dominion of Canada. Session 1876 (Ottawa: MacLean, Roger & Co., 1876),, 93. 

  3. Ken Cruikshank and Nancy B. Bouchier, “Blighted Areas and Obnoxious Industries: Constructing Environmental Inequality on an Industrial Waterfront, Hamilton, Ontario, 1890–1960,” Environmental History 9, no. 3 (2004): 470, 

  4. Cruikshank and Bouchier, “Obnoxious Industries,” 471. 

  5. Cruikshank and Bouchier, “Obnoxious Industries,” 486. 

  6. Cruikshank and Bouchier, “Obnoxious Industries,” 487. 

  7. Cruikshank and Bouchier, “Obnoxious Industries,” 470. 

  8. Canadian Parliament, Appendix to the fourth volume of the journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. From the 28th day of November, 1844, to the 29th day of March, 1845, both days inclusive. And in the eighth year of the reign of our sovereign lady Queen Victoria. Being the first session of the second Provincial Parliament of Canada. Session, 1844-5 (Montreal: R. Campbell, 1845), 

  9. Charles B. Stuart, “Report on the Great Western Railway, Canada West, to the President and Directors,” Google Books, accessed November 18, 2021,, 26. 

  10. Mark E. Taylor, “Climate Change and the Coastal Zone: North America,” Climate Change and the Coast, 2015, 337. 

  11. Margaret A. Mackay, “An Axle and Two Wheels: Material Culture and Memory in a Sutherland Emigrant Family of the Nineteenth Century,” Scottish Studies 37 (2017): 137, 

  12. Mackay, “Sutherland Emigrant Family of the Nineteenth Century,” 137.