History of Transportation on the Great Lakes

The Development of Hamilton Ferry Services

History of Transportation on the Great Lakes

The Development of Hamilton Ferry Services

Claire Frenette

Hamilton - 2022

Ferries served an integral role in the establishment and growth of present-day Hamilton, Ontario. In providing a mode of transport that could navigate Canada’s extensive web of waterways, the introduction of ferries to the Great Lakes region catalyzed the development of surrounding coastal landscapes. Maritime channels offered efficient connections between the ports and harbours dotted around the Great Lakes, allowing quicker passage for various budding industries, which would become the driving force behind Canada’s growing economy. Indeed, these ports and harbours became essential elements to the growth of economic practices, both domestic and international— a factor which has contributed greatly towards shaping this nation into the country it is today.1 While ferries within the Great Lakes region as a whole have played a pivotal role in the expansion of maritime and coastal development, this essay will focus primarily on the Port of Hamilton, also commonly referred to as Burlington Bay, in the 19th century.2 Supporting industrialization and commercial expansion, providing Hamiltonians recreational and travel opportunities, as well as catalyzing relations with surrounding regions, ferry services have been ingrained in all facets of Hamilton’s growth, helping it become the prominent city it is today.

First introduced to the Great Lakes area in the early 19th century, ferries played an integral role in the history of the region. Access to these great bodies of water proved to be of vital importance in facilitating international relations, most notably with the United States in regard to commerce, economic growth, shipboard tourism within the service sector, and by the early 20th century, car transportation.3 Canadian maritime channels and gateways served as essential links, connecting Canada and the United States via a roadmap of waterways and creating a network for transportation between multiple points of interest within the two countries. The introduction of ferry services provided a mode of transportation that could navigate these watery highways, making them essential within the greater scope of the aforementioned shared industries, as well as to Canada's harbour and port industries.

Prior to the 21st century, the Great Lakes region was a bustling hub of waterborne transportation, with ferry and steamboat lines between ports in New York State, Quebec, and Ontario becoming major routes of travel.4 One such example took place on Lake Ontario during the late 19th century, between a port in Cobourg, Ontario and one in Rochester, New York.5 The ferry service that operated along this line had been carrying cargo across the lake for years, and it proved to be extremely economically profitable, notably within the coal trade. Located at Pier 8 in Hamilton, coal was imported and unloaded by small ferry vessels at Myles wharf and Murton and Reid’s wharf.6 However, in the early 20th century, this industry was overshadowed by the introduction of the Ontario Car Ferry Company, which initiated the exciting concept of carrying passengers and their automobiles for extra income.7 These are just two examples of the numerous purposes ferries served on the Canadian Great Lakes, as they also aided immensely in the development of the lakeside city of Hamilton, Ontario.

Commercial and industrial uses of ferries in Hamilton were a leading part of the city’s economic growth. While steamboats and other larger vessels were commonly used to haul substantial cargo across the lakes, the use of ferries was often limited to coastal and inland transportation, as it was easier for smaller vessels to navigate the shallow coastal waters surrounding Lake Ontario. In the early 19th century, the city of Hamilton was the ideal place for trade as it had direct access to prominent trading ports as well as multiple reliable water sources, including the Canadian southwestern peninsula and the St. Lawrence River.8 Commercial and industrial use of ferry ports in Hamilton can be traced back to as early as the 1840’s,9 and to this day Hamilton’s ports remain some of Canada’s most prominent in the handling of bulk commodities.10 According to a board of works report from the early 19th century, the Burlington Bay Canal, or the Port of Hamilton, underwent considerable construction to aid the passing of ferries and other steamboats, in order to facilitate trade and shipping lanes to surrounding lakes.11 Due to the importance of ferries and other marine vessels in the use of trade networking, this resulted in the expansion and redevelopment of the Burlington Bay Canal.12 By 1893, the harbour and ports of Hamilton were undergoing many changes, including the purchasing of several larger steamboats, as well as multiple ferries.13 Towards the late 19th century, ferries began to be used to transport smaller merchandise like coal from nearby coastal ports to various other ports around the bay. The use of ferries helped to fuel Hamilton’s growing steel industry, which became one of the biggest in Canada.14 Hamilton’s Industrial Revolution was in full swing, with ferries acting as a driving force for growth in industry and economics.

Despite their pivotal and pioneering role in the establishment of a productive economy within Hamilton, the ports were also home to several leisurely and recreational activities available to those residing in or nearby the city. Ferries were available for travel purposes, pedestrian services, and would often be commissioned for use in carnivals and other various events, like parading a live military band, and providing entertainment in the form of waterborne light shows.15 The Port of Hamilton became a popular channel for steamboats and ferries transporting passengers north from places like Niagara Falls, St. Catherine’s, and the United States.16 Travel guides dating as far back as 1852 can be found outlining travel information for individuals and families alike, highlighting connected waterways stretching from Saratoga Springs, New York all the way to Montréal.17 These ferry lines often had connections to other forms of public transport, like train stations, demonstrating the degree of connectivity made possible by the significant growth of Hamilton’s ferry operation in the 1840s.18

It is important to note, however, that travelling by ferry was not always a viable or accessible option in the daily lives of Hamilton’s working middle class in the 19th century. According to a traveller’s guide dating back to the 1890’s, ferry trips from Hamilton to the Northern United States could cost anywhere from 20 to 35 dollars per traveller for one-way passage19 which works out to between 530 to 805 dollars in today’s currency.20 One could argue that this is comparable to the cost of a typical annual family trip, however during this time ferry services were mainly utilized to decrease travel times on a daily basis, and therefore were much less useful as passenger vessels in their infancy. While the various travel opportunities offered by Hamilton’s ferry services were not a solution for everyone, their existence catalyzed a broader accessibility to the areas surrounding the lakeside city and served as a staple in the service sector for Hamilton's growing economy.

Towards the late 19th century, the Hamilton and Burlington Bay area began seeing a rise in the popularity of recreational and leisurely activities which was supported by the expansion of ferry services and becoming more accessible. In the 1860s, summer activities such as swimming, live music, and going out to eat became more popular.21 Due to the growing tourism and foot traffic in the area, Hamilton began its first ferry operated passenger service to and from Burlington Beach, a nearby attraction which remains popular to this day. This ferry service was implemented in 1886 by The Hamilton Steamboat Company Ltd (H.S.C.O.) and served as an attraction for tired pedestrians looking to escape the hot summer sun.22 This ferry was named the Mazeppa and was previously owned by the city of Toronto where it had operated as a travel vessel between the mainland city and Toronto Island. However, this was not the only operational pedestrian ferry on the beach strip. The SS. Hamiltonian, which was purchased by Hamilton Harbour’s commissioner in 1944, served a similar purpose.23 This ferry, also known as the James Street Ferry, carried passengers from the James Street dock to the Burlington Canal, and made daily trips to LaSalle Park.24 A particularly popular destination for Burlington citizens and tourists alike, LaSalle Park hosted numerous recreational activities including a pavilion for dancing, an amusement park, and sprawling picnic grounds.25

While there were several other ferries that became staples for recreational use in Hamilton Harbour, many of them went out of service in the 1950s, primarily due to growing economies and infrastructures in other areas of the port's marine industry.26 These industries focused on larger cargo ships, expanding the skyway bridge, and building large industrial warehouses for shipping goods,27 a sector in which ferries could not compete. However, the contribution that ferry services had in shaping present-day Hamilton should not be dismissed or forgotten. The Skyway Bridge, which was completed in 1962,28 currently remains the main artery of passage between Burlington and downtown Hamilton, and for traffic heading south to the border or east to Toronto. Prior to its completion, ferries continued to be used as the main mode of travel to cross the bay– connecting both sides of the harbour. The popular use of ferries also impacted the expansion of the Burlington Bay Canal, which is now one of the main channels on the Great Lakes for incoming cargo and shipping. Furthermore, despite ferries no longer being as commonly used for transportation, given that the nearest ferry terminals are now located in Toronto, the use of ferries for recreational and tourism use in Hamilton prevailed. The Hamilton Waterfront Beach and Harbour located at the Pier 7 boardwalk offers boat tours and day trips around the bay.29 Hamilton Harbour is also home to Theodore the Tugboat— a large scale imitation tugboat of a children's cartoon character designed to bring individuals across the bay while also serving as a popular waterfront attraction.30 LaSalle Park remains a staple along Burlington’s waterfront and despite burning to the ground in 1995, the park pavilion was returned to its former glory just two years later, and now hosts weddings and catered events of all kinds.31

Ferry services remained popular modes of transportation and shipping in Hamilton until the late 1950s, and up until this date, ferries were crucial to Hamiltonians and the city’s growing economic industry by serving as an efficient mode of transportation. For many years leading up to their decline and eventual abandonment as a means of transportation, ferries remained the only mode of travel for many individuals in Hamilton Harbour and Burlington areas, and prior to the construction of the Skyway Bridge, one of the few ways to get across the channel between Hamilton and Burlington. Ferry services provided a mode of travel, transportation, communication, as well as provided water-side entertainment and solstice during the hot summer days. Hamilton’s ferry services played an integral role in developing Hamilton as we know it today, and continue to provide both recreational opportunities and a glimpse into Hamilton’s rich maritime history.

  1. Government of Canada, “Marine Transportation,” Transport Canada, last modified July 13, 2020, https://tc.canada.ca/en/corporate-services/policies/marine-transportation

  2. Rod Millard, “Building the Burlington Bay Canal,” Ontario History 110, no. 1 (June 2018): 59, https://doi.org/10.7202/1044326ar

  3. James A. Termotto Sr., Life Beyond Here: Visiting History in The Community of Great Lake Ontario (Rochester, NY: PORTS TOURing Society & Cross Lake Lines, 2004), https://www.greatlakeontario.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/BeyondHere_text.pdf, 13. 

  4. Termotto, Visiting History, 13. 

  5. Termotto, Visiting History, 41. 

  6. Jaqueline Fisher, “WEST HARBOUR PIERS 6 TO 8 ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT CITY OF HAMILTON” (Hamilton, ON: Fisher Archaeological consulting, 2016), 74. 

  7. Fisher, “WEST HARBOUR,” 43. 

  8. Rod Millard, “Building the Burlington Bay Canal,” Ontario History 110, no. 1 (June 2018): 63, https://doi.org/10.7202/1044326ar

  9. Hamilton H Killaly, Report of the Board of Works Montreal, December, 1844 (Montreal: Desbarats and Derbyshire, 1845), 11. 

  10. Government of Canada, “Marine Transportation.” 

  11. Nora Corley, “The St. Lawrence Ship Channell, 1805-1865,” Cahiers De Géographie Du Québec 11, no. 23 (1967): 296, https://doi.org/10.7202/020728ar

  12. Killaly, Report of the Board, 11. 

  13. Ivan S. Brookes, “Chapter 16- The Iron Age, 1893,” in Hamilton Harbour 1826-1901 (The Estate of Ivan S. Brookes). https://www.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/documents/brookes/default.asp?ID=Y1893

  14. Brookes, “The Iron Age.” 

  15. Official Programme, Summer Carnival, Hamilton, August 19th to 23rd, 1889 (Hamilton, ON: s.n, 1889), https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.27528/7?r=0&s=1, 7. 

  16. Thomas Jewett, The Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company's Hand-Book for Travellers to Niagara Falls, Montreal and Quebec, and through Lake Champlain to Saratoga Springs (Buffalo, NY: Jewett, Thomas, 1853), 22. 

  17. Jewett, Hand-Book, 23. 

  18. Jewett, Hand-Book, 22. 

  19. Grand Trunk Railway Company, Routes and Fares to Summer Resorts Reached by the Grand Trunk Railway and Its Connections Including Niagara Falls, Parry Sound, Georgian Bay, Muskoka Lakes, Adirondacks, Lake St. John, Mackinac Island, Midland District Lakes, the Thousand Islands, Rapids of St. Lawrence River, the White Mountains, Montreal, Quebec, the Saguenay River, Rangeley Lakes, and the Sea-Shore: Season of 1891 (Battle Creek, Mich: W. C. Gage, 1891), https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.06925/1, Image 41. 

  20. “Canadian Inflation Calculator,” Inflation Calculator, 2020, https://inflationcalculator.ca/. 

  21. Michael Mercier, “The People and the Bay: A Popular History of Hamilton Harbour,” Urban History Review 27, no. 1 (1998): 54-56, https://doi.org/10.7202/1016613ar

  22. Walter Lewis, “Ship of the Month No. 88 MACASSA,” The Scanner 12, no. 3 (December 1979), ed. John N. Bascom, accessed through https://www.maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes.ca/GreatLakes/Documents/Scanner/12/03/default.asp?ID=s006. 

  23. Hamilton Port Authority, Port of Hamilton Celebrates 100 Years (Hamilton, ON: Hamilton Port Authority, 2012), 28, https://www.hopaports.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Port-of-Hamilton-Celebrates-100-Years-_-book.pdf

  24. Hamilton Port Authority, Port of Hamilton, 28. 

  25. “Thematic Stories - LaSalle Park (Jan 10 2015),” Building Stories (Heritage Resource Center University of Waterloo, 2015), https://buildingstories.co/bheritage/burlington/stories/lasalle/lasalle.pdf

  26. “LaSalle Park,” 40. 

  27. “LaSalle Park,” 44. 

  28. Hamilton Port Authority, Port of Hamilton, 44. 

  29. “Connecting You to the Waterfront Edge,” Hamilton Waterfront Trust, http://www.hamiltonwaterfront.com/. 

  30. “Connecting You to the Waterfront Edge.” 

  31. “LaSalle Park.”