Historical Landscapes of Politics and Industry in Strathcona
From the Nest, Issue 13
by Chris Erl
It was early in the evening on March 26, 1878. The cool air of early spring sat over the west end as workers hopped off the new horse-drawn streetcar at Victoria Park. Their shifts over, many wearily trundled to their homes out in the relative quiet of this far-flung part of Hamilton. They had built lives around the park on simple parcels of land, hoping for fresh air and relative peace.
Then, without warning, their world shook. Gunpowder stored at the Hand Fireworks Company had met a spark from an unknown source and ignited, sending a plume of dust and smoke into the air above the neighbourhood.
A report in The Hamilton Spectator quoted a neighbour as saying, “I was entertaining some company and had just gone out to feed the pigs when, kerslam went the powder and knocked my spectacles off.”
The explosion on March 26, 1878, though not injuring anyone or causing major property damage, would not be the last at the Hand Fireworks Company. Over the 55 years the plant operated in the neighbourhood, now known as Strathcona, there would be a number of incidents, some tragically taking the lives of workers. The firm, famous for their “Burning Schoolhouse” firework, shared the community with everything from hotels and convents to model schools and cigar factories. Strathcona truly was a neighbourhood that had it all.
The Strathcona of today is a neighbourhood of similar contrasts. It is simultaneously west end and downtown, working class and gentrified, beautifully walkable and choked by cars. It is steeped in history and being quickly redefined by modernity.
As things have changed in Strathcona, let’s examine some of the neighbourhood’s historical elites and important industries.
One of the most recognizable residents of Strathcona was Sir Allan Napier MacNab, the eighth premier of the Province of Canada (in the years leading up to Confederation). MacNab’s stately home, Dundurn Castle, is still one of the most iconic landmarks in the area. The City of Hamilton came into possession of the Castle in 1899, and the level of care given to the grounds fluctuated as civic priorities shifted. The city zoo existed on the Dundurn Castle grounds for nearly 30 years at the turn of the century, but disinvestment and concerns about animal welfare saw it close in 1928. The city’s aviary, now in Westdale, remained there from 1932 to 1995.
Ellen Fairclough, Canada’s first female cabinet minister, lived on George Street as she got her start in local politics. Fairclough recounted in her autobiography how she’d spend summer evenings walking down Locke Street, debating her husband on tariff reform. As one of the area’s councillors in the 1940s, she cast a controversial vote to expropriate sections of Main Street West properties to widen that road west of Queen Street.
George Tuckett, another Strathconian, was a towering figure both in the city’s politics and industry. Before leveraging his business savvy to become Hamilton’s mayor in 1896, Tuckett was a tobacco baron who spent his early days in the business smuggling tobacco from behind Confederate lines during the American Civil War. By 1891, he had established the country’s most advanced cigar factory at the corner of Queen Street North and York Boulevard, only a few blocks north of his stately home – today’s Scottish Rite. While Tuckett’s family home remains, his factory is now where The Village apartments stand.
Tuckett’s factory was not the only industrial operation in the neighbourhood. In the early days of the 20th century, Strathcona was as mixed use as a neighbourhood could be.
Benjamin Greening’s sprawling Victoria Wire Mills sat just south of Tuckett Tobacco on Queen Street, between Napier and Peter. Greening got his start salvaging the wire and wreckage from the Desjardin Canal disaster in 1858, expanding into wire manufacturing soon after. His Strathcona plant would operate from 1859 to 1987, when the facility was sold to condo developers.
A few blocks to the west, on the north end of Victoria Park, was the Semmens and Evel Casket Company. The company produced many furniture items, though their caskets were a hit throughout the Commonwealth. Their plant closed in 1972, and the site became Strathcona Gardens senior’s residence in 1979.
Just down Sophia Street (renamed Strathcona Avenue in 1915 after students at the Strathcona School, itself renamed in 1909 in honour of the Lord Strathcona, a patron of youth military training, petitioned for the name change) was Hand Fireworks, occupying huge swaths of the community in startlingly close proximity to homes. Between 1900 and 1901, the company lost both William Hand and his partner, Walter Teale, in explosions. By 1930, the factory had moved to Cooksville.
Between housing the city’s political elites and heavy industry, Strathcona has always been a vibrant and dynamic community.
As LRT and urban intensification bring more change, it will be important for residents to remember the complex and rich history of the neighbourhood.
Too often, urban change wipes away all traces of a community’s historical development. As Strathcona – and downtown as a whole – grows and changes, reflecting on our past will be more important than ever.
Chris Erl (he/him) is a born-and-raised Hamiltonian with a passion for our city’s history and politics; presently a graduate student and researcher, he lives in Strathcona with his partner and their excitable cat, Bill