The Construction of the Hamilton Waterworks System

A Solution to Hamilton's Cholera Epidemics of 1832 & 1854

The Construction of the Hamilton Waterworks System

A Solution to Hamilton's Cholera Epidemics of 1832 & 1854

Sofija Djuricic

Hamilton - 2022

In the early nineteenth-century, the port city of Hamilton saw the need to prioritize city cleanliness due to the fatal onset of two cholera epidemics. Originating in India in 1817, cholera developed as an infectious diarrhoeal disease with symptoms as acute as dehydration, to consequences as severe as death.1 The citizens of Hamilton quickly became familiar with the disease’s severe consequences in its first encounter with cholera in June of 1832 when hundreds of citizens died as a result of the arrival of immigrants in overcrowded, abysmally filthy ships on the transatlantic journey from Western Europe to Hamilton Harbour.2 To essentially save the lives of Hamiltonians and further prevent the risk of another epidemic occurring, government officials and civic leaders united to develop sterile measures. While the local government set out new by-laws for citizens to follow on an individual basis, civic leaders created the city’s first community waterworks to sanitize unclean waters. Despite the disease’s negative repercussions, it brought the construction of the Hamilton Waterworks, a system that would put an end to the city’s deeply rooted uncleanliness and ultimately forgo the tragedy associated with cholera. This paper will explore the ways cholera entered the port city, the proposed solutions of the epidemic that the city took on, and the characteristics of the Hamilton Waterworks system which led to the city’s success in containing the spread of cholera.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Hamilton Harbour experienced rapid developments in infrastructure that would essentially doom its citizens decades later. The harbour initially served as a passageway for canoes or shallow boat drafts to pass. However, after an act passed in 1832 to build a navigable channel between the beach strip and Lake Ontario, known as the Burlington Bay Canal, the harbour began allowing for larger ships to enter the city (Figure 1).3 This act was an economic tactic, as citizens could create shops along the shorelines, allow for greater freight entry, appoint more jobs, and welcome more tourism into the city. Strategically, the construction of the Great Western Railway Dock had occurred at the same time to

Figure 1: Burlington Bay Canal Sketch by J.G. Mckay, 1875

transport passengers and trades within the city by rail. However, the timing of construction was poor as immigrants, who were infected by cholera, were able to travel into the city more efficiently during a period in which a global pandemic was unfolding

British, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants attempting to escape the peak of political, social, and economic turmoil in Great Britain, soon arrived through the canal on June 23, 1832.4 With a glimmer of hope at seeking a better life free from oppression, immigrants travelled by ship and under poor conditions consisting of rationed water supplies, food shortages, stormy weather, and sickness across several water routes.5 The absence of regular hygienic practices on overloaded ships allowed the rapid spread of cholera. Immigrants were discharged from ships at the Great Western Railway Dock at the head of Lake Ontario as it allowed for immigrants travelling through the Burlington Bay and Hamilton Harbour to be dispatched from their ships safely.6 Government officials became readily aware of the health risks that these incoming vessels posed to the city. With ships constantly arriving through Hamilton Harbour and Burlington Bay, the government believed that separating infected immigrants from citizens upon arrival would be the quickest way to minimize the transmission of cholera.7 On the first arrival of immigrants, the Lieutenant Governor set out a resolution:

The Lieutenant Governor requests that you will take immediate measures for causing all vessels bound for the port of the Burlington Bay or Hamilton to be visited by a person authorised by the Board of Health in order that the infected person on board may be disposed of as the Board may think fit.8

Despite this proposed resolution, an estimated number of 142 citizens died from cholera over the course of June through late September.9 Its large-scale impact did not come as a surprise as Hamilton served as a heavily utilized port. Additionally, larger ships passing through the now deepened canal meant that larger groups of people were entering and could no longer be handled effectively. According to Hamilton historian, Margaret Houghton, a newspaper estimated that, “100 immigrants arrive[d] every week through the port city.”10 Cholera made a second visit on July 1st, 1854 and took an estimated number of 533 lives over the summer season.11 The port continued to welcome vessels of immigrants fleeing from their countries and it became increasingly clear that the immigrants were not entirely at fault for the return of this disease.

Since immigration throughout the port continued to occur while cholera lingered around the city, human contact was no longer the primary cause of the disease. Hamiltonians realized that although the port served as an immigration channel, it also served many other purposes that contributed to the filthy environment. Health boards appointed in lower Canada such as within York, Montreal, and Hamilton set out to identify a plan of action to clean their cities.12 In Hamilton, poor waste disposal practices and polluted waters within the bay and harbour caused unsterile conditions. Due to a lack of a true waterworks system, Burlington Bay and Hamilton Harbour were seen as convenient places to dump waste and raw sewage. Waters were consistently being polluted by cargo, debris, and ship ballast while passengers were entering and exiting the newly constructed port. The problem with this was that both bodies of water drained into Lake Ontario, the city’s source of drinking water, which thus heightened the spread of cholera.13 In addition to the lake, five wells were being used throughout the nineteenth century to supply water to citizens, which also posed potential risks to the contraction of cholera. Vulnerability to contamination from open sewers connecting to Hamilton Harbour was discovered across five wells, four being identifiably dispersed throughout the city: James-Cannon Street, Gore Park, King-MacNab, and the original Market centre.14 Evidently, contaminated water was flowing aimlessly throughout the city. Citizens reported several complaints about the linkages between wells, privies, and cesspools as the town did not have a water system that would allow them to receive purified waters.15

In hopes of relieving citizens from their current conditions, on December 20th, 1853, the city’s engineer, William Hodgins, submitted a proposed water supply that anticipated drawing water from the Hess Spring, the Ancaster Creek, Burlington Bay, and the Grand River instead of from the wells connecting to open sewers. Despite his efforts to provide citizens with a water supply, his report was dismissed and was not published because the government could not fathom financing such a high-cost system. However, the city became inclined to accept proposed solutions to a waterworks system after cholera returned for a second visit on July 1st, 1854. Newspapers began to publish advertisements for a public water supply proposal competition by the Committee on Fire and Water that would be judged by T.C. Keefer, the consulting engineer of the Montreal Waterworks system.16 To highlight the importance of the construction of a waterworks system, the city offered premiums to proposal winners. On September 18th, 1854, an advertisement in The Hamilton Spectator announced, “Specifications and estimates of the three successful competitors for premiums offered by the City Council for the best mode of supplying the city with water; together with the report thereupon of T.C. Keefer esquire.”17

After roughly four months of evaluating submissions, in January of 1855 Samuel McElroy was awarded first place, while second place was awarded to David Murray, David Ryall, and Thomas Smith, and third place to William Hodgins.18 Collectively, the group of winners all incorporated drawing water at the head of the Burlington Bay from different reservoirs, with McElroy’s submission supposedly allowing for a greater capacity of water to be pumped throughout the city. Although Keefer awarded the contestants with their premiums for their efforts, he was not entirely confident in their proposals because of the water traffic and ongoing contamination in the newly constructed bay canal. City Council did not execute the construction of the contestants’ submissions as Keefer noted a “peculiar” odour and flavour of water from the bay.19 Instead, Keefer suggested sourcing water from Lake Ontario due to its domestic and industrial potential in supplying the city’s growing population, winning favour for construction from the Committee on January 28th, 1857.

Subsequently, the Committee spent the next three years following up on Keefer’s plan and constructing infrastructure that could effectively disperse a large water supply. The key characteristics of infrastructure consisted of an infiltration basin, a storage reservoir, pipes, two beam-engines, four Cornish boilers, a boiler house, fire hydrants, a coal storing shed, and most notably a pumphouse.20 His plan was similar to McElroy’s in that he wanted to utilize pumps as a major working factor to directly obtain water supply from the lake. The infiltration basin was placed on the east side of the lakefront of Confederation Park and connected to a Barton Street storage reservoir.21 Filtered water from the basin would flow through a wooden pipe under Main Street and James Street to the Gartshore pumping station located on Woodward Avenue off the shore of Lake Ontario. The pumping station’s location was vital to the proximity of the infiltration basin because the water from Lake Ontario would seep into the sand and become filtered through the basin connecting to the station. Taking into consideration the port’s high immigration rates, Keefer intended for the station to be able to pump out enough water to provide for an expanding population. Four boilers and two Gartshore engines made of cast iron were built in the pumping station with a pumping capacity of 3,300,000 gallons per day, which would equate to a clean water supply for 50,000 citizens.22 The boilers generated steam to be forced into the pumps and returned to a condenser back into water.

Following construction, on September 18th, 1860, the Prince of Wales visited Hamilton for three days and officially inaugurated the waterworks system with the planting of three elm trees at the Crystal Palace (Figure 2).23 During his visit, a fountain was installed in Gore Park, the heart of Hamilton, to celebrate the city’s success in crafting a waterworks system that could supply purified drinking water. The system underwent major changes over the next several decades as the city’s industrialization created more advanced modes of water supply. New water intakes were laid to connect the infiltration basin with the lake in 1889, 1913 and 1923, with a 60-inch steel-intake finalizing construction in 1926.24 The intakes would use two electrical pumps provided by the construction of the 1913 Ferguson Pumping Station to be able to deliver one

Figure 2: Exterior view of the Hamilton Waterworks System, 1860

million gallons of water each day, compared to the maximum 200,000 gallons by the original steam pumping station.25 Therefore, with the addition of new intakes and electrical pumping stations, the steam pumping station no longer posed as effective and stopped operation. In a 1911 report to the Chairman and Members of the Board of Control on current waterworks improvements, two Toronto civil engineers, Willis Chapman and Andrew F. Macallum, suggested that, “The old pumping station should be retained in its present condition as a monument to the men who designed and constructed your first waterworks system.”26 To display the story of cholera in Hamilton, the pump house reopened as the National Museum of Steam and Technology, making it a National Historic Site in 1977. Standing tall, the pump house represents a positive outcome that emerged as a result of Hamilton’s negative experiences with cholera in the summer of 1854.

In essence, T.C. Keefer’s Hamilton Waterworks system provided the city with a means to overcome fatal conditions brought upon by the cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1854. Being home to two large-bodies of water, Hamilton Harbour and Burlington Bay, Hamilton was always aware of the health risks associated with welcoming immigrants through their port, but never with the heavily utilized waters themselves. The 1832 epidemic caused townspeople to point fingers at immigrants for spreading water-borne disease. After cholera struck the city for a second time in 1854, immigrants were no longer the primary blame for the spread of the disease. The city’s drinking water was discovered to be a major problem, contaminated with ship ballast and other sewage and garbage, contributing to the spread of cholera. Several solutions to produce clean waters were proposed and none of them would prove to be worthy enough of being the savior to the fight against cholera. Through trial and tribulations, T.C. Keefer’s system would be the one to forever change the way that the city handled its vast water distribution. The system was undoubtedly a pivotal measure in preventing a third wave of cholera occurring, all while preserving Hamilton into what it is today - a port city surrounded by clean waters.

  1. Christina H. Chan, Ashleigh R. Tuite, and David N. Fisman, Historical Epidemiology of the Second Cholera Pandemic: Relevance to Present Day Disease Dynamics, ed. Niko Speybroeck (Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain, 2009).

  2. D. Ann Herring and Heather T. Battles (editors), “Introduction,” in Cholera: Hamilton’s Forgotten Epidemics, (Hamilton: McMaster University, 2012), 4.

  3. Figure 1: J.G. Mckay, “Burlington Bay Canal, 1875,” sketch, in Port of Hamilton Celebrates 100 Years (Hamilton, ON: Hamilton Port Authority, 2012), 15,; Rainer Baehre, “Pauper Emigration to Upper Canada in the 1830s,” in Histoire Sociale - Social History 14, no. 28 (1981): 1. 

  4. Lois C. Evans, “Immigrants and Epidemics,” in Hamilton; the Story of a City (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1970), 134. 

  5. Evans, “Immigrants,” 136. 

  6. Geoffrey Bilson, “Cholera and Public Health in Canada,” in Canadian Journal of Public Health 75, no. 5 (September/October 1984): 352-355.

  7. Margaret Houghton, First Here Volume Three (Burlington: North Shore Publishing, 2010), 19. 

  8. Bill Freeman, “A Town Called Hamilton” in Hamilton: A People’s History, (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2006), 35. 

  9. Margaret Houghton, The Hamiltonians: 100 Fascinating Lives, (Toronto: James, Lorimer & Company, 2003), 42. 

  10. Brianna K. Johns, “Changing Waves: The Epidemics of 1832 and 1854,” in Cholera: Hamilton’s Forgotten Epidemics, eds. D. Ann Herring and Heather T. Battles (Hamilton: McMaster University, 2012), 45.

  11. Houghton, First Here, 19. 

  12. Diedre Beintema, “‘From Time Immemorial’: British Imperialism and Cholera in India,” in Cholera: Hamilton’s Forgotten Epidemics, eds. D. Ann Herring and Heather T. Battles (Hamilton: McMaster University, 2012), 11.

  13. Johns, “Changing Waves,” 48. 

  14. Herring and Battles, “Introduction,” 3. 

  15. Bilson, “Cholera,” 325-355. 

  16. City of Hamilton, “Historical Highlights Celebrating 150 Years of Municipal Drinking Water,” (2010), 87,

  17. City of Hamilton, “Historical,” 87. 

  18. William James, “Hamilton’s Old Pumphouse…a sufficient quantity of safe and wholesome water…” class lecture, University of Guelph, 1988,

  19. Mark Osbaldeston, Unbuilt Hamilton: The City That Might Have Been (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2016), 11. 

  20. R, Damian Nance, “Hamilton Waterworks Pumping Station (1859-1910),” in International Stationary Steam Engine Society Bulletin 21, no. 1 (1999): 11. tation_1859-1910#fullTextFileContent

  21. James, “Old Pumphouse,” 1988. 

  22. Nance, “Hamilton Waterworks,” 11. 

  23. Figure 2: “Hamilton Waterworks National Historic Site of Canada,” 1860, Government of Canada, accessed March 2022,; Lois C. Evans, “In Confederation Year,” in Hamilton; the Story of a City (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1970), 140. 

  24. Frank Hannan, “Abstracts of Water Works Literature,” in Journal (American Water Works Association) 22, no. 12 (1930): 1673.

  25. The Corporation of the City of Hamilton, “Ferguson Avenue Pumping Station Upgrades- Hamilton, Ontario,” in Class Environmental Assessment (Hamilton: The City of Hamilton, 2009), 2-4. 

  26. Willis Chipman and Andrew F. Macallum, “Report No. 1 on Waterworks Improvements,” in CIHM Microfiche Series (Monographs) (Toronto: Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions, 1966), 11.