For centuries, Hamilton Harbour was an important part of First Nations life. Amongst the stunning natural beauty of the Harbour was abundant fish and wildlife. Even before it had been named “Burlington Bay”, the area gained a reputation for its natural charm. When John Graves, the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, and his wife Elizabeth Simcoe, visited Hamilton Harbour in 1796, they described it as a "very pretty object" having "a beautiful view of the lake with wooded points breaking the line of shore."
In 1785, Richard Beasley settled on the shores of Burlington Heights and by 1815, the area was established as a permanent European settlement. George Hamilton, who founded Hamilton, was successful in establishing a village in the Barton Township in 1833, seven years after the Burlington Canal opened to connect Hamilton Harbour to 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.
The Steel City
The Harbour was at the centre of economic and urban growth in Hamilton. The deep waters were ideal for shipping, making the expansion of industry a successful undertaking. The addition of the Great Western Railway in 1854 made Hamilton an industrial powerhouse, leading to its nickname “the steel city”. While living up to this nickname economically, urbanization and booming industrial expansion led to a neglected natural environment.
With economic development on the rise, fish populations in Hamilton Harbour plummeted to the edge of collapse. Soon, the south shore of Hamilton Harbour became unrecognizable. Canals and infill eliminated more than two-thirds of the original wetlands, protected inlets, and shallow areas. Pollution from industry and households degraded the environment further with sewage discharges, habitat loss, toxic spills, and sediment contamination. By the 1960s, Hamilton Harbour was the complete opposite of its once pristine and plentiful natural environment. Conditions became so degraded, the Harbour was infamously referred to as a stinking, rotten quagmire of filth and poisonous waste unfit for human, animal or plant life.
Healing the Bay
The visible degradation of Hamilton Harbour did not go unnoticed by residents. The community poised itself to ensure environmental stewardship was on equal ground with industrial priorities of the Harbour. In 1987, Hamilton Harbour was identified as one of 43 Areas of Concerns on the Great Lakes by the International Joint Commission (IJC). To guide the restoration of Hamilton Harbour, a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) was created in 1992.
In the last 30 years Hamilton Harbour has undergone remarkable positive change. The successes of the Remedial Action Plan and continuous efforts of stakeholders has been at the forefront of environmental progress. Delisting Hamilton as an Area of Concern still requires significant projects and monitoring of emerging issues. However, traction towards a healthier Harbour is evident. Improving water quality, healthier wildlife populations, more opportunity for public access, and the return of locally vanished species, such as bald eagles, are benchmarks to celebrate. With a healthy Harbour becoming a reality, it will soon serve industry, the environment, and citizens in renewed ways.