The Industrial Revolution in Hamilton

Impacts of Industrial Development and Pollution on the Environment of Burlington Bay

The Industrial Revolution in Hamilton

Impacts of Industrial Development and Pollution on the Environment of Burlington Bay

Lily Piccolo

Hamilton - 2022


When considering the Great Lakes and its waterways, an issue of utmost importance is their environmental health. When considering this system and how environmental changes have impacted it, a location of great significance is the Hamilton Harbour area of Lake Ontario, known in the 19th century as “Burlington Bay.” Initially a small waterfront community, Hamilton experienced a period of rapid and large-scale expansion in the 19th century which stemmed out from the Bay’s shores. Burlington Beach, a strip of land between the Bay and Lake Ontario, was also a site of development during this time and would become significant when considering both the causes and effects of environmental change and damage. The industrial development around Burlington Bay during this time would result in significant changes within and damage to its immediate and surrounding natural environment. The study of both primary and secondary sources reveals how extensive this change and damage was, the driving forces behind it, and how both forces and their consequences were viewed from historical perspectives compared to more modern perspectives. This paper will examine historical evidence of water pollution in the Bay to illustrate how early industrial pollution negatively affected the marine environment while also considering contemporary and modern perspectives on this subject.

Development of the City of Hamilton

At the start of the 18th century, the Burlington Bay area was not formally settled, and was only inhabited periodically by groups of Indigenous peoples. However, within less than a century, a community of settlers of mostly European descent began to develop along this part of Lake Ontario’s shore which is now the City of Hamilton. By the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and would have a massive impact on Hamilton and the Burlington Bay. Providing easy access to the shipping routes of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, industrial manufacturing centres including oil refineries and metalworking firms began to pop up around the growing port which triggered even further development since these businesses created a demand for infrastructure like warehouses and railway lines, and offered jobs, resulting in a rapidly increasing population.1 This development can be seen when comparing two bird’s eye view drawings of the Bay, one from 1876 (Figure 1) and the other 1893 (Figure 2). In this less

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Figure 1: “Bird’s Eye View of City of Hamilton, 1876.”

than 20-year span, noticeable changes occurred in the area. In 1893, the developed area extended much further from the waterfront than it previously did. In 1876, there were very few factories, easily identified by spewing smokestacks, but they stand out in the later image.2 3

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Figure 2: “Bird’s Eye View of City of Hamilton, 1893.”

During the second half of the 19th century Burlington Bay was also experienced development for recreation and leisure purposes. Around the middle of the century a strip of land within the Bay was designated as a beach, and in the following decades itt was highly promoted as a site for everything from yacht tours, regattas, and resorts, to be enjoyed by the upper classes of Hamilton and the surrounding areas.4 Historians have pointed out, however, that many viewed this beach as an escape from the city and harbourfront, as it was becoming a hot, smoggy, and unpleasant environment for those who lived and worked there.5 Thus, the Burlington Bay Beach can be seen as a representation of the way in which the area began to decline just as it developed, when considering things from an environmental perspective.

Pollution within the Bay

While the fact that Hamilton’s industrial sector was creating air pollution would have been obvious to those who observed the smoke pouring out of factories and clouding the skies which made life uncomfortable for many, much of the issues this sector was creating were within the Bay itself. By the early 20th century, the water had already been deemed unsafe for drinking, and was considered questionable for water-based recreation activities.6 Soon pollution could no longer be ignored as people with homes in the beach area reported noticing oil in the water and their complaints prompted the first study on the water quality of Burlington Bay.7 While contamination was only just being formally recognized and assessed in the 1900s, it had been building throughout the second half of the 19th century, as patterns of pollution in the Bay were developing just as steadily as the infrastructure around it was.

A study of Hamilton Harbour completed in 1993 examined how the area has been affected by pollution throughout its history by analyzing samples taken from the core at the bottom of the Bay. In this study they aimed to identify fossilized species which researchers hoped could shed light on how these species were affected by human activity driven processes of eutrophication and contamination over a span of time.8 Their general conclusion was that “accelerated heavy metal contamination of the harbour water” caused significant changes in the activity and numbers of these micro-organisms,9 but their study went into much further detail, and they were able to produce a timeline of this contamination. The core samples they took dated from 1660-1986, but they identified a part of the middle section which they deemed to range from 1820-1926, referred to as “zone B3,” with “zone” being a term used to represent the section of core. Prior to permanent human settlement in the area, Burlington Bay was deemed to be a “pristine” environment for the organisms under investigation, something which deteriorated slightly between 1770-1820. In zone B3, however, significant changes were beginning to emerge within the core samples. They concluded that their data proved that the environment was changing so dramatically that organisms were being affected and many species that were unable to adapt began to disappear, while other species, that were known to thrive under compromised conditions, began to dominate. The researchers explain how their findings for this period were consistent with water contamination such as from chemical and raw sewage stemming from the continued urban and industrial development in Burlington Bay during this time.10

The evidence presented by Yang et al. proves that the development of the Burlington Bay area in the 19th century, particularly that of the industrial type, had negative effects on its natural environment regarding micro-organisms living at the depths of its water. These effects, however, can be seen in many other contexts as well. Primary source evidence from the Government of Canada’s Department of Marine and Fisheries report for 1882 shows how the Burlington Bay environment was being altered in this period as fish populations were in decline. Particularly, the numbers of whitefish were noted to be alarmingly low, having declined significantly compared to data from 1879 and were also lower in Burlington Bay than in most of the rest of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario division.11 Secondary source accounts concur that these declining fish populations were of note, concluding that it is evident that particularly from the 1870’s onward fish in the Burlington Bay area were decreasing in both physical size and population and whitefish, in particular, were declining quickly in the Bay.12 By this point the city of Hamilton was depositing its sewage waste directly into the water of the Bay. The coal distilleries on its shores were thriving, all the while steadily polluting the water with their waste, as were many other industries,13 which continued to create a toxic mix of so much pollution that it was sometimes visible on the water’s surface.14 The correlation between industrial pollution and the deteriorating fish populations in Burlington Bay is further supported by evidence of the same negative effects being observed in other parts of the Great Lakes where industrial and city waste were similarly being introduced into the natural environments, such as in the ports of Rochester, Detroit, and Toronto.15

Long-term Environmental Effects of Development and Modern Responses

As previously discussed, development of and around Burlington Bay increased exponentially beginning around 1850 and featuring growing railway and shipping systems and new industrial factories. While the focus of this paper is how the 19th century was a defining period in the environmental history of the Bay, it is important to note that development and actions that impacted the Bay’s environment continued to occur for decades into the 20th century. In 1910 and 1912 respectively, the Steel Company of Canada and the Dominion Steel Casting Company established their Hamilton plant along the Harbour, starting a period in which steel factories would dominate the Burlington Bay. Over the next 60 years the companies grew rapidly, as did the steel process, which led to developments that would wreak havoc on the local environment. In the late 1970s it was revealed that the Burlington Bay steel industry was misleading authorities in regard to their pollution control practises, and a probe uncovered that these companies had been contributing to air and water pollution. These discoveries led to both companies being “dragged almost kicking and screaming into cleaning the Hamilton situation” and begin to reverse the century of damage and operate more sustainably going forward.16 The events of the 20th century and prompting investigation into pollution and its effects, resulted in significant attention finally being put towards examining the consequences that the 19th century development had on the Bay environment.

Writing this paper in the 21st century, it seems very obvious that the industrial development directly along the waterfront of Burlington Bay was a recipe for environmental destruction. At the time, however, the environment was not a matter of concern for neither the public, the industry owners and operators, nor the governments. The Bay Area Restoration Council concedes that incredible pollution to the Burlington Bay environment has been occurring since the mid 19th century yet was neither properly recognized nor addressed until 1985 when steps were finally taken towards remedial action to combat more than a century of damage.17 This long period of negligence all around allowed for development to impact the environment at exponential levels. With no kind of environmental regulations in place until over a century after the Bay area started to boom, waste from the city and its industrial factories entered the Bay’s water unchecked in runoff and through direct depositing of it there. In contrast, factories that still currently dominate the Bay are now required to follow legions of environmental compliance policies at the provincial, federal, and local levels, and organizations like the Hamilton Port Authority and Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan Committee work to monitor and reverse environmental change and damage.18

In addition to negligence, naivety and problematic municipal administration were also factors contributing to Burlington Bay’s poor environmental health. Hamilton city planners and private businesspeople sought to capitalize from the Burlington Bay and Beach environments and brought forward further developments, such as industrial developments, which continued to take a toll on the environment. Train lines were built directly along the beach strip, complimenting a heavily travelled boating route, and every bit of vacant land was developed into summer cottages, resorts, and amusement attractions. Throughout this period, there were instances of erosion and silting, particularly along the beach strip and affecting the canal that joined the Bay with Lake Ontario.19 Unlike the clearly dirty, smoking factories along the shoreline, these developments were not considered detrimental to the environment. It is only from a present-day perspective that we can understand how human traffic alone can have a negative effect on the environment and contribute significantly to the above-mentioned processes of erosion and silting. Furthermore, boats and trains would have produced their own share of waste that would have gone back into the environment as pollutants. While it is fair to say that the environment and how much it is affected by these kinds of human activity was not something people were yet aware of in the 20th century, the negligence and capitalist mindset of those who were responsible for the environmental changes cannot be excused simply for that reason.


The Industrial Revolution instigated a boom of progress for Hamilton in the 19th century, leading to both positive outcomes and negative consequences for Burlington Bay. This period of rapid development increased jobs and allowed for a community to become a prosperous city with modern amenities that the surrounding region could benefit from. Progress, however, resulted in a significant negative impact for the environment. Once an untouched, natural landscape, Burlington Bay quickly became surrounded by factories, shipping docks and railway yards, and was a site of immeasurable human traffic and activity. These factors that were considered progress for human society, were the opposite for the environment. The waters of the Bay were flushed with contaminants that caused harm to marine life and eventually became so severe that human activity was affected. The lack of both knowledge about and consideration of the environment in the 19th century enabled development to move forward that created opportunity and ushered in expansion of the City of Hamilton the consequences of which are still observed in Burlington Bay today.

  1. Nancy B. Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank, “Blighted Areas and Obnoxious Industries: Constructing Environmental Inequality on an Industrial Waterfront, Hamilton, Ontario, 1890-1960,” Environmental History 9, no. 3 (2004), 468. 

  2. Figure 1: “Bird’s eye view of the City of Hamilton: Province Ontario, Canada” McMaster University’s Digital Archives, J.J. Stoner, 1876,

  3. Figure 2: “Bird’s eye view of the City of Hamilton: Province Ontario, Canada,” McMaster University’s Digital Archives, Toronto Lithographing Company, 1893,

  4. Nancy B. Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank, The People and the Bay; A Social and Environmental History of Hamilton Harbour (UBC Press, 2016), 27-28. 

  5. Nancy B. Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank, “‘The Heritage of the People Closed Against Them:’ Class, Environment, and the Shaping of Burlington Beach, 1870’s-1980’s,” Urban History Review 30, no. 1 (2001), 43. 

  6. Bouchier and Cruikshank, “The Heritage of the People,” 49. 

  7. Bouchier and Cruikshank, “The Heritage of the People,” 49. 

  8. Jing-Rong Yang, Hamish C. Duthie, and L. Denis Delorme, “Reconstruction of the Recent Environmental History of Hamilton Harbour (Lake Ontario, Canada) from Analysis of Siliceous Microfossils,” Journal of Great Lakes Research 19, no. 1 (1993). 

  9. Yang, Duthie, and Delorme, “Recent Environmental History,” 69. 

  10. Yang, Duthie, and Delorme, “Recent Environmental History,” 67-68. 

  11. Government of Canada, Fifteenth Annual Report of the Department of Marine and Fisheries For the Year 1882, Fisheries Statements (Ottawa: Maclean, Roger & Co., 1882), 208-209, 225,

  12. Margaret Beattie Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783-1933 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 1421-142. 

  13. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 142. 

  14. Yang, Duthie, and Delorme, “Recent Environmental History,” 68. 

  15. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 142. 

  16. “Hamilton’s steel industry from birth, to boom and beyond,” The Hamilton Spectator, February 11, 2012,

  17. Bay Area Restoration Council, “About the RAP,” accessed March 2022,

  18. Hamilton Port Authority, “Environmental Policy,” (October 2017),

  19. Bouchier and Cruikshank, The People and the Bay, 28-30.