New Arrivals

Industrialization & Immigration in the Hamilton Harbour

New Arrivals

Industrialization & Immigration in the Hamilton Harbour

Easton Boone

Hamilton - 2022

The City of Hamilton is a unique location within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), particularly being a crucial port of call on Lake Ontario. As a stopping point, it can be extrapolated that present-day Hamilton plays a key role in the movement of goods throughout Lake Ontario. According to the Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority, Port Hamilton itself transports tens of millions of cargo each year with an approximate value of over two billion dollars per year.1 This statistic causes one to question how Hamilton Harbour became such an important place for exportation and transportation in Lake Ontario. However, Hamilton’s importance within the Greater Toronto Area was a result of a culmination of various factors after the establishment of Hamilton Harbour proper.

This essay will thus argue that Hamilton’s placement as a shipping center within the GTA in the mid-to-late nineteenth century was the result of industrialization throughout the Great Lakes region. Consequently, this industrialization created a demand for general laborers which allowed the Irish immigrants of Hamilton’s Corktown district to integrate themselves within the city’s economy through public works projects despite being marginalized. Beginning in the nineteenth century, this essay first discusses the purpose behind the construction of Hamilton Harbour and its impacts on business throughout the city proper. Moving from this period, the early industrialization of Hamilton during the mid-to-late nineteenth century is analyzed in conjunction with legislation and geographic surveys to gain insight into how industrialization promoted the expansion of Hamilton Harbour throughout this period. Finally, from a socio-economic perspective, this paper discusses the impacts that industrialization had upon the Irish living within the Corktown district of Hamilton and how it shaped the lives of these new arrivals.

The establishment of the village of Hamilton in 1813 began as a difficult affair due to its relatively unimpressive ecology. In his transcription, Ivan S. Brookes paints a clear picture of early Hamilton as a village which did not have the advantages that many other pioneer towns had.2 Primarily a swampy forest without a source of flowing freshwater, the Hamilton area could not benefit from the rustic cotton industry during the end of the eighteenth century nor could it benefit from maritime trade routes due to its unattractive positioning away from Burlington Beach. In its early development Hamilton was therefore only a small farming community with minimal business interactions between farmers and small-time merchants. However, the turn of the century brought war to the cities and villages of Southern Ontario after the outbreak of war with the United States in 1812.

With the destruction of Niagara and York townships in 1813, Brookes explains that the Canadian government wished to establish a better supply-line between the villages of Lake Ontario and the larger trade centers throughout the St. Lawrence River to minimize economic disasters in times of war.3 After the War of 1812, the expansion of maritime trade in Lake Ontario was highly desirable for two reasons. First, the development of harbours along Lake Ontario would not leave trade routes up and down the St. Lawrence River undefended and could provide the Canadian military with defensible positions along Lake Ontario without fording ground. Conversely, the maritime trade generated in these harbours would provide the small villages and cities of Lake Ontario with easy access to goods from overseas via trade routes traveling along the St. Lawrence River. With the clear advantages that maritime trade presented, the introduction of steam navigation in Lake Ontario at the end of the war only served to further exacerbate the need for a harbor within the Hamilton area.

Seeking to follow-up on this economic opportunity, the government of Ontario authorized the construction of the Burlington Canal on March 19, 1823, and the project started in 1825.4 Brookes illustrates how the preliminary construction of Hamilton over the preceding five years began to provide surrounding villages with a multitude of business opportunities. For example, one of the first modifications to the original plans of Hamilton Harbour came in the form of the Desjardins Canal, which began construction in 1826.5 According to Ozanian, this addition to the Hamilton Harbour turned the village of Dundas into one of the leading ports and trading centers in Lake Ontario during the early nineteenth century.6 Although still relatively small, the town of Hamilton was incorporated in 1833 and a census taken in 1845 tallied the population of Hamilton to be 6,475.7 Throughout each of their texts, the narrative provided by Ozanian and Brookes describe the construction of Hamilton Harbour as a facilitator of economic development, however, this process was slow and costly to the people of Hamilton as their labor only truly came to fruition during the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

Ozanian’s geographical study cites the establishment of the Great Western Railway as being a catalyst to the expansion of the Hamilton Harbour as the city of Hamilton became an important point for trans-shipping cargo from train to ship.8 Ozanian states that by the mid-nineteenth century there were at least six individual wharves dedicated to the commercial shipping of various goods throughout the Great Lakes.9 Brookes describes the period from 1850 to 1856 as the “Boom Town Days” and this sentiment is reflected in the many alterations and pieces of upkeep which had to be tended to in order to make Hamilton Harbour an attractive area for business. In his 1857 account, Edward Hodder, Commodore of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, describes such phenomena along Lake Ontario as he writes about how the city of Hamilton began to make alterations to the Burlington Bay. Hodder notes that several repairs and additions were made during 1856 to make the waters surrounding the Port of Hamilton safer and more accommodating by both raising the water level within the Burlington Bay and adding more piers and wharves to the port itself.10

Following the formal establishment of Hamilton Harbour, the city of Hamilton itself began to grow and change to accommodate the new business arriving in the area. With the arrival of the Great Western Railway, the city of Hamilton experienced a surge in industrial development along the coast of Lake Ontario. Ozanian discusses the utilization of industrial land in the Hamilton Harbour in the mid-twentieth century and categorizes the land-use by two different industry types: heavy and light. Generally, heavy industry refers to the processing of bulky goods with a large force of unskilled laborers while light industry requires less bulky materials with a smaller force of more skilled workers.11 According to Ozanian’s surveys, industries within the Hamilton Harbour mostly participated in heavy industry due to the south shore’s advantageous proximity to the main rail line of the Great Western Railway and the city of Hamilton’s limitless supply of a ready labour force.12 However, with Ozanian’s study being a contemporary analysis of the geographic development of Hamilton Harbour, little insight can be gained on how exactly the city of Hamilton encouraged the establishment of heavy industry during the late nineteenth century.

Middleton and Walker examine legislation and public records to study industrial development in the city of Hamilton from 1890 to 1910. Following a pattern laid-out in the previous analysis, the industrial development of Hamilton Harbour was part of a much larger wave across Ontario where municipalities along Lake Ontario sought to attract new industries with lucrative policies such as lower taxes and lower water rates. According to Walker and Middleton, during the three decades between 1890 and 1910, the municipal government was active in formulating policy which would be conducive to the development of manufacturing facilities in the harbour.13 Already a shipping center in southern Ontario, much of the business conducted along Hamilton Harbour during the late nineteenth century was related to the movement of goods across Lake Ontario. To support this assertion, The Daily Spectator illustrated the importance of Hamilton's shipping business in their compilation of statistics regarding the imports and exports of Hamilton titled the Yearly Statement of Imports and Exports from the Port of Hamilton.

Throughout the table provided by The Daily Spectator in 1857, there was a vast difference between the amount of imported goods and the amount of goods which were exported out of Hamilton. For example, according to the table, Hamilton’s total imports were two to three times higher than their exports which indicates that much of their industry relied on the buying and selling of goods.14 In these statistics, the intent to trade and ship goods through importation is indicated by being titled as a good paying out a certain percentage (e.g. goods paying 15 per cent) and, according to values presented in the table, representing a large sum of Hamilton’s economy with manufacturing only playing a small role within it. Smith’s Canadian Gazetteer exports from the Port of Hamilton in 1843 and 1844 indicated that Hamilton Harbour made a good portion of its money from the shipping of staves manufactured by the West India Company alongside processed boards of lumber.15 Therefore, it can be concluded that Hamilton’s economy primarily relied upon shipbuilding in its early development and transitioned to maritime shipping industries as the town established itself as a proper city.

Over the next two decades, the importance of Hamilton’s shipping industry did not wane, as it continued to play a key role in facilitating the city’s economic development. However, desires to expand the industry within Hamilton began to take root in the late nineteenth century. Walker and Middleton illustrate this by compiling a table of the occupation of city councilors serving between 1890 to 1910. During this period, around 20-30% worked as merchants while around 25-26% percent worked as manufacturers (see Figure 1).16

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Figure 1: A survey of the occupation of Hamilton City Council Members from 1890 to 1909

Although seemingly uncorrelated, the authors explain that the lack of working-class representatives on Hamilton City Council hints towards the dominance of business within the municipal government and conversely within the entirety of Hamilton. Therefore, the stimulation of manufacturing within Hamilton would have certainly created more jobs, but it never truly surpassed the economic powerhouse which was the Hamilton shipping industry. However, by taking more of a statistical-based look into the economics of Hamilton, only a few bits of information can be learned regarding the effects of industrialization. Holman provides insight into the social aspects of Hamilton’s industrial economy by recounting the experience of recently immigrated Irish people living within the city. According to Holman, the term “Corktown” describes the ethnic Irish Catholic community which comprised a series of clustered neighborhoods within the southeastern region of Hamilton covering (see Figure 2).17

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Figure 2: Andrew Holman’s map of Hamilton’s Irish Catholic community

Throughout his thesis, Holman describes how the Irish of Hamilton played a key role in developing its infrastructure with many residents of Corktown working in public works as labourers for both railway and canal construction.18 This method of employment, however, was quite unsustainable as these positions were low-paying and used by governments to give employment to newly arrived immigrants until they were able to integrate themselves into the economy. Seeking to continue the expansion of Hamilton’s public works, the Gore Emigrant Society was established by many of the most influential men of Hamilton in May of 1832 to employ the Irish immigrants of Corktown as well as hopefully attracting more immigrants to the city of Hamilton for employment.19 During this period, many Irish men and women performed basic work at the docks of Hamilton, aided in building up infrastructure for the city, and maintained these pieces of infrastructure through snow-shoveling as well as performed other pieces of upkeep.20

By relying on these seasonal industries, many Irish families faced financial insecurity throughout the 1830s and with the onset of economic depression in Upper Canada during 1837 Irish Catholic families became desperate for employment. Following the trend of other Upper Canadian laborers, Holman describes how Irish Catholics canal laborers began to migrate to areas such as Michigan and Illinois to find work during the summer or permanently if the economic conditions called for it.21 Alternatively, Irish Catholic families turned to familial economic strategies which were predicated on fathers and their older sons brought in funds through wage labor whilst women and children raised livestock and maintained gardens.22 By tapping into wage economies and keeping themselves afloat through an extra-market, the Irish Catholic community of early Hamilton lived a life of subsistence and hardship while also playing a vital role in the socio-economic structure of Hamilton. However, the lack of evidence concerning the participation of the Irish community in more skilled trades questions whether they were intentionally gate-kept from these positions due to socio-cultural perceptions or whether their economic position in Hamiltonian society prohibited them from seeking proper education.

In conclusion, Hamilton Harbour was a site for much expansion during the early-to-mid nineteenth century. After its establishment in 1813, the Hamilton area was an unattractive village which was slowly modified and altered overtime to accommodate trade routes which would travel across Lake Ontario. During the mid-nineteenth century, the already maritime trade laden city began to expand its economy with the arrival of the Great Western Railway which brought more opportunities for shipments across Lake Ontario. However, with the expansion of industry along the southern shore of Hamilton, many groups such as the Irish of Corktown began to be marginalized as workers due to their lack of experience in the fields of manufacturing. To facilitate further insight, more research should be conducted into the social experiences of Irish Catholic immigrants in Southern Ontario in efforts to understand why Irish Catholics were unable to break out from the lower classes in Hamilton’s economy. In summary, it can be understood that the arrival of industry during the mid-nineteenth century served to only expand the maritime economy of Hamilton which led to the city becoming an important part of Lake Ontario’s maritime shipping industry.

  1. Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority, “About Hamilton,” Port of Hamilton, accessed November 12, 2021, 

  2. Ivan S. Brookes, “Chapter 1- A place called Hamilton,” in Hamilton Harbour 1826-1901 (The Estate of Ivan S. Brookes).

  3. Brookes, “A place called Hamilton.” 

  4. Ivan S. Brookes, “Chapter 2- Public Works and Private Enterprise,” in Hamilton Harbour 1826-1901 (The Estate of Ivan S. Brookes).

  5. Sona Ozanian, “A Geographical Study of the Development of Hamilton Harbour” (MA thesis, MacMaster University, 1957), 34. 

  6. Ozanian, “A Geographical Study,” 34. 

  7. WM. H. Smith, Smith’s Canadian Gazetteer: comprising statistical and general information respecting all parts of the upper province, or, Canada West; distance tables ... principal towns ... the leading features of each locality ... with a mass of other desirable and useful information ... the whole collected from the best authorities ... with a map of the upper province compiled expressly for the work, in which are laid down all the towns and principal villages (Toronto: H. & W. Rowsell, 1849), 75. Accessed through Canadiana, 

  8. Ozanian, “A Geographical Study,” 34. 

  9. Ozanian, “A Geographical Study,” 34-35. 

  10. Edward M. Hodder, The Harbours and Ports of Lake Ontario (Toronto: Maclear & Co., 1857), 24-25. Accessed through HathiTrust Digital Library, 

  11. Ozanian, “A Geographical Study,” 54-55. See Figures 12A to 12H. 

  12. Ozanian, “A Geographical Study,” 55. 

  13. Diana J. Middleton and David F Walker, “Manufacturers and Industrial Development Policy in Hamilton, 1890-1910.” Urban History Review 8, no. 3 (1980): 22, 

  14. “Yearly Statement of Imports from the Port of Hamilton in 1856 and 1857,” The Daily Spectator (January 21, 1858). 

  15. Smith, Canadian Gazetteer, 77. 

  16. Middleton and Walker, “Policy in Hamilton,” 23-27; Figure 1: Middleton and Walker, “Policy in Hamilton,” 24. 

  17. Andrew C. Holman, “Corktown, 1832-1847: The Founding of Hamilton’s Pre Famine Catholic Irish Settlement,” (MA thesis, MacMaster University, 1989), 36; Figure 2: Holman, “Corktown,” 38. 

  18. Holman, “Corktown,” 54. 

  19. Holman, “Corktown,” 57-58. 

  20. Holman, “Corktown,” 61-63. 

  21. Holman, “Corktown,” 71-72. 

  22. Holman, “Corktown,” 72-73.