In the final quarter of the Eighteenth Century, a great migration took place as a result of the American Revolution. The migrants consisted of those whose desire to remain under British rule had brought upon them persecution, as well as confiscation of land and belongings; those, like the Pennsylvania Germans who wished to live in peace, without the sabre rattling of the new Republic, and others who could be classed as adventurers and opportunists, lured by the offer of free land in Upper Canada.
Making their way over the forest trails of Pennsylvania and New York, the migrants reached the Niagara River and crossed onto British soil. As they received their land grants these people spread out over the Niagara Peninsula and many located around the Western end of Lake Ontario. Here they discovered Burlington Bay, a fine body of water in the shape of a triangle with its apex to the North. The base of this triangle, six miles long, was heavily indented by inlets into which discharged the creeks that drained the forested plain sloping gently upward to the Niagara Escarpment in the South. This shore, from its Eastern end, where Red Hill Creek entered the Bay, was generally low, and in places, swampy for a distance of four and a quarter miles, after which it rose slightly to form a low promontory ending at the foot of present Bay Street. From this point, the shore turned south into a broad cove which extended almost to the future line of Queen Street. Beyond here, the shore curved and ran northward along the base of a huge gravel bar for a mile and a half to the junction of Beasley's and Grindstone Creeks, in the North West corner of the Bay. From this corner, the shore ran East North-East for approximately five and a half miles, mostly steep-to, and gullied by a few small creeks.
The East side of the Bay was formed by a sand bar, four miles long, known as Burlington Beach. About three quarters of a mile from the North end of the Bar, a shallow, crooked outlet entered Lake Ontario. Among those who settled around the Bay was George Hamilton, (1787-1835), son of Robert Hamilton (1750-1809), the founder of Queenston. He was a prosperous merchant and in 1792 was appointed to the Legislative Council of Upper Canada.George Hamilton's farm was situated below the Escarpment and about a mile and a half south of the Promontory mentioned before. Many settlers had located on the high ground above the Escarpment, and the Northern half of the plain, bordering on the Bay, was taken up and being cleared for farming.
George Hamilton sub-divided part of his farm into village lots, which, as a result of his masterful salesmanship, were soon taken up. This was a singularly unattractive place for a village. It was separated from the Bay by dense swampy forest and, it lacked the other great advantage enjoyed by many pioneer settlements - a good stream to turn the wheels of industry. It was situated on an existing trail through the bush. With this meagre item on the credit side of the ledger, its growth must be slow indeed. It would be a place where the weary traveller might find a tavern where he could rest himself and his horse; where nearby farmers could barter their garden produce for some of the imported necessities on the shelves of the general store, and where any industry would be "cottage industry", to the accompaniment of the clicking of the spinning wheel and the thump of the loom.
The first merchant to locate in the village of Hamilton, as it was so designated in 1813, was William B. Sheldon, who had a store in the vicinity of King and John Streets. Since there was no road between the village and the Bay, and since shipmasters were not likely to use the natural outlet, which could be blocked by gravel during Easterly gales, it was necessary for cargo and passengers to be landed on Burlington Beach. Therefore, Sheldon had to build a storehouse on the Beach, where he could receive his imported goods, which came from Oswego and Montreal. At this point, every item, whether it be a box of tea, a hogshead of sugar, a bale of cloth, a cask of wine or a keg of nails, had to be brought ashore in a small boat and stored, prior to being hauled by horse over the primitive road to the village, a distance of about 10 miles. This may sound pretty crude in this age of sophisticated communication and transport, but let us look to the East and see what took place before the cargo reached the Beach.
After a voyage of six weeks or more, across the Atlantic, cargo would be unloaded at Quebec and then carried up to Montreal in small sailing vessels, or as time went on, in river steamboats. From Montreal, it would be hauled in wagons to Lachine and loaded in Durham boats. The earliest attempt at improving navigation on the Upper St. Lawrence had been undertaken in 1700 by the Sulpicians, who began to deepen the little R. St. Pierre to Lac St. Pierre, so as to provide 18 inches of water for the canoes of the fur trade. The purpose of this work was to shorten the portage around the Lachine Rapids, but unhappily the funds ran out and the tiny canal was never finished. Its remains were later obliterated during construction of the first Lachine Canal.
The Durham boats sailed up Lake St. Louis to Cascades where they ascended the first of the Haldimand Canals, which had been built in 1783 and made passage easier around the wildest parts of the Cascades,Cedars,Split Rock and Coteau Rapids. The canal at Cascades, had been rebuilt in 1806. This series of small canals were used until 1845. The boats then had clear sailing up Lake St. Francis to the foot of the magnificent and turbulent Long Sault. From this point, the site of the present city of Cornwall, a twelve-mile-long portage led up river to Dickinson's Landing, where boats could again be used. Passage of the Farran's Point,Rapide Plat,Point Iroquois and Galops Rapids was effected by muscle power supplied by men and oxen, and the boats could then sail up to Prescott,Brockville or Kingston. From these ports, sailing vessels took the cargo and passengers to any place on Lake Ontario.
This business brought considerable wealth to the forwarders of Montreal and Brockville, much to the displeasure of merchants in the Lake country, who had to pay for all this trans-shipping. Furthermore, the numerous portages rendered pilferage of cargo relatively easy and the fast water of the upper rapids made the capsizing of boats an ever-present possibility. Hence, to Sheldon and his fellow merchants, the receipt of damaged or pilfered shipments was a way of life. Nor was there any guarantee that the shipment would reach its ultimate destination.
One positive outcome of the useless war of 1812/1814 was the realization that a better line-of-supply was an absolute necessity. Both the Military and the Business Community agreed. From the Military standpoint, the St. Lawrence Route was objectionable in that it followed the International Boundary from Lake St. Francis, all the way up to Lake Ontario. It is true that no enemy ambush did take place along this section of the River, but this was probably due to the fact that no roads existed in that part of New York State, and that the Invaders did not choose to try their luck with the Rapids.
The infant village of Hamilton was spared when the enemy forces were turned back at Stoney Creek, a few miles to the East. At the end of the war, both Niagara and York were blackened ruins, while Kingston with its garrison and its Naval Dockyard, with their large military payrolls, came out on top. Consequently, the immediate post-war years in Niagara and York were concerned with rebuilding, while at Kingston the citizens were faced with the prospect of getting along with a little less Government Money.
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This volume is copyright The Estate of Ivan S. Brookes and is published with permission of the Estate. The originals are deposited in the Special Collections of the Hamilton Public Library.