About the Bay

Hamilton Harbour, also known as Burlington Bay, lies at the western tip of Lake Ontario, and is separated naturally from the lake by a sandbar. It is the largest naturally protected harbour on western Lake Ontario. Industry, commerce and residential areas, along with private and public open spaces share the 45 kilometre shoreline. Cootes Paradise, connected to the west end of the Harbour, is a 250 hectare shallow water marsh. It is the last remaining marsh in western Lake Ontario and crucial habitat for wildlife, particularly for fish spawning.

History of the Harbour

Two hundred years ago, the Harbour and its watershed looked much different,  Its creeks were pure and the Harbour was abundant with diverse fish and wildlife. Like many other places in North America, urbanization and growth in Hamilton damaged natural habitats and our community’s natural heritage. The Harbour ecosystem was severely degraded as a result of direct sewage discharges, habitat loss, toxic spills, and sediment contamination. By 1926, canals and infill eliminated more than two-thirds of the original wetlands, protected inlets, and shallow areas. The period from Confederation to the end of the First World War were the years of major growth for Hamilton as an industrial and commercial centre.
The outlet of the bay was originally a small stream that was so shallow only canoes or shallow draft boats could navigate through it. In 1823, an act was passed that approved construction of a 12 foot deep navigable channel to be cut through the Beach Strip connecting the bay with Lake Ontario. The work on the canal was a big project for the day and much of the work was done by pick and shovel. Workers flocked to the area, many of which set up ramshackle houses along the bay front which we now call the North End. Soon storehouses, barns for horses, and boathouses were built to accommodate the workers and their families. Once the canal became operational, a larger wharf for steamboats was built at the foot of James Street and smaller wharves were built along the shoreline. Hamilton now had one community that stretched south of King to the mountain and a second along the waterfront. The two communities were separated by a marsh, with James Street North connecting them.
The period from Confederation to the end of the First World War were the years of major growth for Hamilton as an industrial and commercial centre, assisted by national tariff policy and the wartime boom. Hamilton quadrupled in size. During the Second World War a strong need for steel-making and textiles arose, forging Hamilton’s image as the Steel City. Immigrants began arriving to work in textile factories and steel mills. Heavy industry was fostered in the area largely because of the geographic amenities provided by the Harbour, but also, in part, through municipal tax exemptions and tariff barriers. These factors contributed to attracting the Hamilton Blast Furnace Company and contributed to the growth of the John Birge Company- the forerunner of Stelco. Also, hydro power from DeCew Falls stimulated an electrical appliance industry centred around Westinghouse meanwhile the area also became a major canning and meat-packing centre for domestic consumption export. During this time, the environment was given low priority, if it was recognized at all, which led to many of the ecological issues we continue to face today.

Remediation of the Harbour

In the last 30 years Hamilton Harbour has undergone a remarkable change. The successes of the Remedial Action Plan and continuous efforts of stakeholders is at the forefront of environmental progress. Delisting Hamilton as an Area of Concern still requires significant projects to be undertaken or completed, including Randle Reef. Constant monitoring and assessment of Harbour ecology ensures ongoing progress. Today, the Harbour is a busy working port interlaced with environmental restoration and protection, and increasing public access to recreation along the waterfront. With a health Harbour becoming a reality, it will soon serve industry, the environment, and citizens in renewed ways.
Explore the past, present and future of our Harbour with BARC's interactive Harbour Explorer.