Welcome to the PortCities Project

Student-Led Research on Great Lakes Maritime and Coastal History

Kimberly Monk

Port2Port - 2022

This public history project arose from a simple but important aim, which was to promote the importance of Great Lakes maritime and coastal history. The scarcity of courses in Canada devoted to this subject has meant that students are rarely introduced to the region’s human history, from the perspective of water. And yet, our extensive waterways define our history and contribute to a wide range of themes, addressing how water and its connections continue to breathe life into the region. Compelled by the relative lack of ‘soggy’ historical scholarship, coupled with increased access to digital resources during the COVID pandemic, I proposed the design of a new course and, within this, a digital history project.

In September 2021, the Department of History at Brock University, welcomed the first intake of students to HIST 2F00 Great Lakes Maritime and Coastal History. This full-credit course explores the economic, cultural, and environmental histories of the regions' waterways from Indigenous and later European settlement through to the present, tracing interactions between geography, natural resources, and the mobilities of people and materials. The PortCities project is the principal assessment for this course: a multi-part assignment to develop skills in researching and writing public history, while examining a topic on Great Lakes port history. Introducing students to the wealth of primary and secondary documents that can help to reconstruct the legacies of our lakes and rivers, above and below the waterline.

Why Port Histories?

Port histories provide an essential record about a region’s historical development while drawing connections between land and sea. Bridging themes including geography, transportation, recreation, environment, health, industrial and cultural heritage, ports exist at the intersection of the humanities, social and natural sciences. Researchers in Europe have been promoting port studies since the 1970s1 , while more recent work links key topics and issues with historic and modern port towns and cities.2

Despite the value of these remarkable ‘liminal’ places, port histories have received little attention by modern Great Lakes scholars. Yet, we have much to learn from these spaces. What can we say about the regions’ historic port landscapes? How can we reconnect cultural heritage at modern port lands? How are Great Lakes ports, as entrepôts on the Atlantic – Great Lakes route, shaped by material history? These are some of the questions highlighting the importance of addressing our historic and contemporary past; to explore the legacies of inland seas and their vital role to supporting community and economic development.

Encouraging Public History

There has been an increasing number of public history projects evolving from student coursework over the past 15 years.3 PortCities endeavors to both follow and lead in contributing to the body of public history. Engaging our HIST 2F00 students in experiential learning through project work, while sharing these histories with broader audiences. Experience that will expand their transferable skills, including critical thinking, research, communication, and technology, as they move from a research topic to seeing the published product. Through characterizing the Port of Hamilton, toward reengaging the region’s maritime and coastal history, this project contributes to their professional abilities while also contributing to public education.

The Port of Hamilton 2021-2022 Project

The focus for the inaugural project was the Port of Hamilton – to recognize the recent partnership arrangement between Brock University and the Hamilton and Oshawa Port Authority (HOPA). The human history of the Port of Hamilton begins with Indigenous settlement 12,000 years ago, navigating through the period of French exploration and early British settlement. Its 19th century port history explores dichotomies of the port landscape as a hub of industry and technology, while also as a space for leisure and amusement. While in the 20th century, the port served a critical role for manufacture, as well as staging and mobilizing for global conflict, transforming the landscape with positive and negative consequences. Today, increasing demand for an integrated port network on the Great Lakes has led to new infrastructure and waterfront developments at Hamilton, which is now the largest port in Ontario.

Project Support

The 2021-2022 essays were reviewed by two excellent teaching assistants, Ms. Trudy Tattersall and Dr. Brian de Ruiter, providing support to students in their research and writing skills. Ms. Miria Pelletier provided editorial assistance, ensuring the critical elements of the essay were checked and corrected. Mr. Manan Patel implemented the design of the website, uploading and managing content and ensuring user accessibility.

PortCities, 2022-2025

The PortCities project will continue to build on this first group of essays, connecting Hamilton with the histories of other Great Lakes ports. Our current port-of-call is Toronto (2022-23), in which student have begun to research their individual projects. Our PortCities Toronto project will be discussed in the next blog post, detailing the process for our students, project topics, and our research partner, while considering revised approaches to the 2022-23 content.

In 2023-24, we will navigate “home” to the Niagara region and focus on the network of ports that have supported shipping across the Peninsula, including Port Dalhousie, Port Colborne, and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The release of the Niagara PortCities project coincides with the bicentennial of the first sod-turning on the First Welland Canal, in November 1824. We then anticipate either Kingston, the earliest port on the Great Lakes, or Buffalo, to begin our examination of American inland ports for 2024-2025.

  1. The following research works are included for students to review and understand the value of ports in global context: Jarvis, Adrian.  "Port History: Some Thoughts on Where it Came from and Where it Might be Going." In Harbours and Havens: Essays in Port History in Honour of Gordon Jackson eds. Fischer, Lewis R. and Jarvis, Adrian. International Maritime Economic History Association, St. John’s Newfoundland, 1999: 13-34. Also, Palmer, Sarah. “History of the Ports.” International Journal of Maritime History 32, no. 2 (May 2020): 426–33. 

  2. The Port Towns and Urban Cultures group, at Portsmouth University, and the Centre for Port and Maritime History at Liverpool John Moores University, regularly contribute to port studies, and were inspiration for the PortCities project. 

  3. Within the Department of History at Brock University, faculty and students have contributed to both Acadian and Sport History.