Steeltown, Sightseers, and Steamers

The impact of Tourism ensued from Steamships in the 19th Century

Steeltown, Sightseers, and Steamers

The impact of Tourism ensued from Steamships in the 19th Century

Olivia Hrenar

Hamilton - 2022

The 19th century was defined by greater mobility and transportation on the waters with the invention of the steamship. This invention brought many advancements to cities and communities surrounding the Great Lakes, with one of them being Hamilton, Ontario. The rise in tourism after the invention of the steamship allowed Hamilton to become a popular spot to visit, with Hamiltonians making sure to use this to their advantage. Although one might assume that tourism did not have such a big impact on Hamilton, this paper will highlight how significant the expansion of the tourism industry, made possible by steamships, was to Hamilton and its development. By analyzing primary sources that demonstrate how this invention managed to impact Hamiltonians firsthand, in addition to secondary sources, this essay will argue that steamships were crucial to the urbanization of Hamilton and were one of the main variables responsible for the rise of the tourism industry and overall popularity of Hamilton in the 19th century.

Before delving into specific steamship lines and their significance, it is important to acknowledge the rising popularity of steamboats during the 19th century. Steamboats were manufactured to contain a heavy cast iron tank that would burn coal to generate steam. This steam was then pumped into a large piston which in turn helped to generate movement of the ship.1 With this design in place, in addition to being able to navigate shallower waters, steamships were more efficient in comparison to sailboats, appealing to everyone who sought comfort and an economical means of water transportation. After learning that the steamship had been invented, the government of Hamilton made the decision in the 1820’s to cut a canal through the beach strip, allowing for the creation of a new port that would facilitate the traffic of ships entering Hamilton.2 Improved harbours prompted steamboat traffic, which in turn motivated steamship companies to consistently ameliorate the design of the steamship itself, since it was rapidly gaining attention and business from port towns.3

Steamship lines were also key in the development of Hamilton, as steamships originating from the United States of America were able to travel to Hamilton through the Oswego branch of Lake Erie. Local steamship lines increased the number of tourists within Hamilton and thus enhanced Hamilton’s economy.4 In his 19th century tour guide, John Disturnell discussed the importance of Hamilton’s steamships and tourism industry. Disturnell noted that there was a steamship line running from Niagara and Hamilton to Toronto and Kingston.5 He highlights that while steamers America and Canada ran from Hamilton to Brockville, sightseers could view Hamilton’s astounding geographical position and both its natural and artificial superiorities.6 Steamships of different classes travelled from Hamilton through to Toronto, providing an enjoyable mode of transportation for everybody, regardless of socioeconomic status.7 Furthermore, a common advertisement in newspapers in the 19th century was that of the Banshee; a steamship that ran from Hamilton to Toronto.8 Another famous steamship chartered towards the end of the 19th century was the Chippewa, as it was the largest steamboat that had been built in Hamilton thus far.9 1867 was a prominent shipping year, with steamship lines being advertised from Kingston all the way to St. Catharines, many of which included stops in Hamilton for tourists and business owners looking for opportunities.10.


Figure 1: Macassa Steamship, 1890.

Figure 1_ shows a steamship, the Macassa, entering a port in Hamilton in the late 19th century, highlighting the ship’s structure and popularity.11

As steamships became a common form of travel, the increase in tourism associated with these ships prompted the urbanization of Hamilton and directly contributed to the amelioration of the area. With the ever-increasing popularity of steamships, the advantages of Lake Ontario became recognized by many, allowing for places like Hamilton to expand their commerce, attractions, and agricultural businesses.12 For example, Hamilton newspapers advertised the need for buildings for the Hamilton Steamboat Company, as tourism was increasing in Hamilton.13 In 1866, The Hamilton Evening Times advertised that steamships would become a means of delivering mail to and from Hamilton, further providing room for urbanization.14 Due to the amount of publicity steamships were receiving, and the tourism that came from that, Hamilton architects often disputed renovations of buildings in Hamilton, including the Hamilton Public Library, which ultimately prompted tourists and civilians, who were often arriving via steamship, to see the final product after so much commotion was produced over these buildings.15

Steamships and the tourism they brought pushed Hamilton to urbanize, but steamships were much more influential than that. In the late 1840’s, Hamilton was one of the three places in Ontario to be formally considered as a town, since it was highly populated due to the urbanization prompted by tourism and steamships.16 Between the years of 1852 and 1856, the economic value of Hamilton doubled.17 By 1850, Hamilton was rapidly increasing its tourist and business sectors, which were both directly being influenced by the popularization of the steamship which allowed Hamilton to become more accessible to travelers.18 In 1872, a steamship company in Hamilton advertised a gathering to launch two new steamships, and partnered with a railway company to do so, demonstrating how businesses would expand and further add to Hamilton’s urbanization.19 Another example of urbanization can be seen through Hamilton Blast Furnace Co., as it created business for steamship owners and provided jobs for Hamilton residents in 1896.20

Tourism prompted by steamship travel was prominent in Hamilton throughout the 19th century. As previously mentioned, Hamilton’s architects played a big role in the tourism sector, as they were responsible for building the attractions that people would travel across the Great Lakes, often via steamship, to visit. An important tourist attraction in the Hamilton area was the Tuckett Tobacco Factory, which was specifically built with an architectural design meant to attract tourists.21 The owner of the factory also had ties to the Catholic Church, making the attraction even more appealing to religious tourists seeing that the Catholicism was a highly respected and common religion in the 19th century.22 Another prominent tourist attraction was the Bell Telephone Building that the architect James Balfour designed with an eclectic style that was pleasing to the eye.23 Architects would compete for the artistic rights over renovations and additions of buildings in Hamilton, especially since these buildings were praised in the local newspapers and by tourists.24 Further advertising these attracts also led to an increase in tourism by encouraging tourists to travel far and wide to see the final product of the buildings. Additionally, Hamilton had many other hotels, churches, and buildings that were specifically designed by architects to be pleasing to the eye, while also providing luxurious housing for wealthier tourists to see, which would further incline them to settle in Hamilton.25


Figure 2: Grand Opera House Hotel, 1880.

Figure 2, is of the Grand Opera House which was a popular hotel in Hamilton. The hotel had a unique design and building structure that was attractive to Hamiltonians and outsiders.26

Hamilton was also very strategic in promoting tourism through advertisements in the newspaper, trusting that positive word would spread from prior tourists back to the habitants of their towns of origin. Reporters and tourists would board the steamships that made stops in Hamilton, and followed by detailing in their writing how beneficial the ports and buildings were to North America.27 In 1853, The Daily British Whig noted the low fare rate of steamships which assisted in attracting tourists of all classes to attend events being held in Hamilton.28 After the War of 1812, tourists would attend a northern tour on steamships which brought thousands to Niagara and outer regions, including Hamilton, to view how peaceful and calming life was after the war.29

Middle-class workers from Europe and other parts of North America thought that retreats into the wilderness of Hamilton would be advantageous for their health, using steamships as their primary mode of transportation.30 In the 1840’s, agricultural fairs were held in Hamilton and in other cities that were on the same steamship routes.31 In the 1860’s, the same agricultural fair was limited to only the areas of London, Hamilton, Ottawa, and Toronto.32 These fairs allowed for the accumulation of tourists within these areas over the years, which ultimately enabled the invention of the steamship to become a practical means of transportation for tourists, since it was relatively new and delivered tourists to exciting destinations.33 In other words, steamships provided new technology and luxurious trips to reach destinations that would promote fun activities which helped families escape the structure of their daily working life.34 The luxuriousness of steamships inclined tourists to board them, specifically for the beautiful cabins and complimentary food.35 Hamilton’s waterfronts saw many galas, such as that of May of 1867, where citizens and tourists cheered for incoming steamships while admiring their beauty.36 Given the development of Hamilton and the expansion of the tourism industry, it is event that Hamilton was successful in accommodating the rapidly increasing rate of tourism, thanks to architects and steamship companies that provided buildings and events worth travelling for and a mode of transportation to get there.

To conclude, the invention of the steamship will never be forgotten, as it was imperative to the development of Hamilton and the legacy that the present-day city carries. Steamships were in some cases luxurious modes of transportation that were affordable to most families, locally and internationally. Steamships greatly supported the urbanization of Hamilton while promoting the expansion of the tourism industry which then led to further attractions being built in Hamilton by talented architectures. The popularity of steamships near Hamilton, and the tourism industry that they helped to flourish, was frequently advertised in newspapers which reiterate the significant role that steamships had on Hamilton, its citizens, and its economy.

  1. Maurice Smith, Steamboats on the Lakes (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2005), 11. 

  2. Ken Cruikshank and Nancy B. Bouchier, “Blighted Areas and Obnoxious Industries: Construction Environmental Inequality on an Industrial Waterfront, Hamilton, Ontario, 1890-1960,” Environmental History 9, no.3 (2004): 467.

  3. Benjamin Louis Ford, “Lake Ontario Maritime Cultural Landscape,” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2009, 159. 

  4. Janet Dorothy Larkin, Overcoming Niagara: Canals, Commerce, and Tourism in the Niagara-Great Lakes Borderland Region, 1792-1837 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018), 90. 

  5. John Disturnell, Tourist’s Guide to Niagara Falls, Lake Ontario, and St. Lawrence River Also a Guide to Lakes George and Champlain; Ottawa and Saguenay Rivers (New York: J. Disturnell, 1857), 45. 

  6. Disturnell, Tourist’s Guide, 60. 

  7. Disturnell, Tourist’s Guide, 46. 

  8. Ivan S. Brookes, Mackays Wharf: The story of a shipowning enterprise in Hamilton (Hamilton, 1989), 8.

  9. Brookes, Mackays Wharf, 28. 

  10. Brookes, Mackays Wharf, 9. 

  11. Figure 1: Charles Schriber Cochran, "Macassa Steamship," Photographic Print, Local History and Archives, 1890,

  12. Ford, “Lake Ontario,” 362. 

  13. Jean Rosenfeld, “James Balfour: A Victorian Architect from Hamilton, Canada,” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1991, 67. 

  14. The Hamilton Evening Times, Sept. 4, 1866, accessed through,

  15. Rosenfeld, “James Balfour,” 128. 

  16. Ford, “Lake Ontario,” 134. 

  17. Disturnell, Tourist’s Guide, 47. 

  18. Brookes, Mackays Wharf, 4. 

  19. Brookes, Mackays Wharf, 13. 

  20. Brookes, Mackays Wharf, 32. 

  21. Rosenfeld, “James Balfour,” 69. 

  22. Rosenfeld, “James Balfour,” 69. 

  23. Rosenfeld, “James Balfour,” 71. 

  24. Rosenfeld, “James Balfour,” 128. 

  25. Disturnell, Tourist’s Guide, 50. 

  26. Figure 2: “Grand Opera House Hotel,”Postcard, Local History and Archives, 1880,

  27. Larkin, Overcoming Niagara, 178. 

  28. The Daily British Whig 22, no. 143 (Kingston, Canada West) June 18, 1853, accessed through

  29. Patricia Jasen, “Native People and the Tourist Industry in Nineteenth-Century Ontario,” Journal of Canadian Studies 28, no. 4 (1994): 11. 

  30. Jasen, “Tourist Industry,” 5 

  31. Michael J. Broadway, “Urban Tourist Development in the Nineteenth Century Canadian City,” The American Review of Canadian Studies 26, no. 1 (1996): 90. 

  32. Broadway, “Urban Tourist,” 9. 

  33. Broadway, “Urban Tourist,” 9. 

  34. Broadway, “Urban Tourist,” 9. 

  35. Brookes, Mackays Wharf, 21. 

  36. Brookes, Mackays Wharf, 13.