Joni Mitchell, Canadian songstress, has written some seminal works in her time, not the least of which is “Big Yellow Taxi.” “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, ‘til it’s gone.” A salient and poignant reminder that too often we do not see what is of enduring value right in front of our noses.
Much of late has been made of the heritage “issues” facing Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: what to protect, what to relinquish, and what to really hunker down and fight for.
Ultimately, all heritage fights are about preserving a tangible asset that has proportionately defined the evolution of a community and its character. These things profoundly represent what and where we’ve come from.
It goes without saying that some items are more important than others. In the face of natural growth and development, we do have to discriminate. We must choose the most significant that best reflects our changing history.
One outstanding architecturally-defining structure that needs a fight, right now, is the Hamilton, Ontario’s Burlington Canal Main Lighthouse, which is more commonly known locally as the Beach Canal Lighthouse. In the simplest of terms, this decaying building and adjacent lighthouse keeper’s home, scrunched up beside the Lift Bridge operations tower and Eastport Drive on the Hamilton Beach Strip, are on the verge of collapse.
Rudimentary efforts to protect both these items from the elements with plywood sheeting and fences are clearly failing. It also looks as though raccoons have gotten into the backend of the lighthouse keeper’s home, although the beer can debris suggests another kind of intruder.
It needs to be stated again and again: this important landmark, the Burlington Canal Lighthouse, has shaped this end of Lake Ontario’s development for well over two hundred years. That is no small thing in historical terms.
As it is now, this sorry, dilapidated, fenced-in site is the first identity marker of Hamilton that travelers and trade merchants see when entering the city by water. These abandoned buildings stand in the foreground, the car cacophony of the bridges rages in surround sound overhead, and the steel mills bellow smoke and fire in the background.
Talk about an image problem - but it doesn’t need to be this way.
Originally built of wood at a height of 40 feet in 1838, the whale-oil lit lighthouse was a beacon for the frigate and steamships passing in and out of the Hamilton Harbour and Burlington Bay via the newly dug Burlington Canal which was officially opened in 1832.
On July 18, 1856, the steamship Ranger chugged into the canal. Hot sparks blew from its engine chimney onto the shore. The resultant ember fire eventually destroyed the wooden lighthouse, the canal ferry, and two houses before the fire was subdued. A temporary lighthouse was quickly assembled to assured continued safe passage into the harbor, and then, in 1858, John Brown, a seasoned stonemason, was hired to construct a permanent white dolomite limestone structure on the south side of the canal. The Burlington Canal Lighthouse is identical to another that Brown designed and built on Christian Island on Canada’s Georgian Bay.
Standing five stories high, the walls of the Burlington Canal Lighthouse are, at the base, five feet thick. Overall, the stonework is stable, but it still needs a lot of work to bring it, and the lighthouse keeper’s quarters, back to any semblance of their former functional selves.
During its operation for over 100 years, coal, instead of whale-oil, was used to light the beacon. The light was visible from miles out on the lake. It was a welcoming and familiar signpost into one of Lake Ontario’s best natural harbors. The Burlington Canal Lighthouse was officially closed in 1968, a mere 45 years ago.
It has been in slow decline ever since.
But, not all is lost just yet. Ten years ago, in 2003, two forward-thinking individuals from the Hamilton Beach Community organized a meeting to attempt to save the lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper’s home from oblivion. Thirty-two people turned out. It’s been a slow uphill battle ever since.
Over the past decade, only 200 interested citizens from all around the Golden Horseshoe region have joined the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group, donating their time, money, and professional expertise. This group is certainly moving in the right direction, but it is evidently not enough, especially when time is increasingly of the essence for these buildings.
In 2004 the owner of the site, the Canadian Department of Public Works and Government Services, basically fobbed off the “surplus”’ property to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. In 2006, the DFO removed the accumulated bird guano and the remaining lighthouse lens from the tower. They boarded up the doors and windows of the keeper’s house with plywood. Three years later, the Department of Public Works and Government Services rescinded their offer to the DFO and refused to hand over title to them or the non-profit Beach Canal Lighthouse Group. In other words, this property continues to swill around in limbo on federal-provincial-municipal backwaters as a lamely identified place of historic importance under the Ontario Heritage Act. In 2007, the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group received a plaque indicating this status from the City of Hamilton. Big deal!
The fact remains, the City of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada has not taken full ownership of this property as it should. The lighthouse deserves the same attention, investment and “tourism” rehab as Dundurn Castle received that made it one of Hamilton’s most recognized landmarks. In fact, with the worldwide popularity of lighthouses, a restored and open-to-the-public Burlington Canal Main Lighthouse would probably draw more tourists than the large Dundurn home that is called a castle.
There remains hope. A re-energized committee at the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group is trying, again, to re-engage both the public and civic elders to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for the lighthouse. There is still some time to save this sturdy pillar (albeit in need of serious restoration) that represents the waterfront origins of the City of Hamilton and the area’s regional history.
All Canadian citizens around the Golden Horseshoe region - and beyond - must band together to reiterate that they do know what they’ve got before it is all gone. A full-on restoration of ‘The Canal Lighthouse would be BEST, regardless of the current inhospitable location.
Ergo, Hear ye! Hear ye! - Get involved, donate, learn more about this unsung piece of local history, bookmark the following link to the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group, www.bclg.ca and please, open your wallets and give generously. Remember Joni’s wise words ...we really won’t know “what we’ve got, ‘til it is all gone.”
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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