Outsiders snicker at its mere 360-foot escarpment and jeer at its very name. But to Hamiltonians it’s THE Mountain, and they worship it with an almost inexplicable passion

FRANK CROFT July 18 1959


Outsiders snicker at its mere 360-foot escarpment and jeer at its very name. But to Hamiltonians it’s THE Mountain, and they worship it with an almost inexplicable passion

FRANK CROFT July 18 1959


Outsiders snicker at its mere 360-foot escarpment and jeer at its very name. But to Hamiltonians it’s THE Mountain, and they worship it with an almost inexplicable passion


WHEN THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR called western grain elevators ugly, in a recent editorial, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix countered with a body blow. It made some slighting remarks about the "mountain"; the injury was aggravated by the Star-Phoenix omitting the capital M and putting the word in quotation marks. The Spectator got Up off the floor and managed to gasp,

so'ni.rfJi* th/1 tbl* city has filings, and we say hannv ,hS fc?m '\me to timeBut we’d be very hheuSlar’Phoenix would reciprocate the movinTÍ f by caPItahzing our Mountain and reoving it from those derisive quotation marks.”

Such exchanges between Hamiltonians and th&t; IT, t tb®icountry are nothing new. Perhaps th. f®Cret °/ Hamilton’s love for its Mountain lies i. ts hundred years’ war with the rest of Canada t&t;

maintain that it is a Mountain and should be called a Mountain. Nobody laughs when a Montrealer calls Mount Royal “the Mountain” (which it isn’t) but Hamiltonians look warily for a stranger's smile w'hen they speak of their Mountain, though they know' very well that it isn’t a mountain at all. Sometimes there has even been internecine strife. About ten years ago a group of quislings started a movement to call the Mountain “Hamilton Heights.” They w'ere quickly shouted down and the city again closed ranks in defense of its Mountain.

A Hamiltonian will grudgingly admit that his Mountain is part of an escarpment which never

rises more than three hundred and sixty feet abqVe lake level in its southern section in the Niagara Peninsula, although it does jut to a thousand féet when it reaches Georgian Bay. But in making fhat admission he’ll feel that he is betraying a boyhbod article of faith, for he remembers that it once towered above him, as real a mountain as Santa Claus w'as a person.

I hough gouged by railway lines and access roads, the Mountain has for generations been the Matterhorn for junior mountaineers. Sherwood Forest for young outlaws, a wilderness to be explored by budding Champlains. The mountain side is an open page of three hundred and fifty million years of geological history. Here the amateur geologist can scramble over it reading the story of the retreats and advances of several ice ages.

He can see the traces of many water levels from

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The old favorite When You and I Were Young Maggie was composed on the brow of the Mountain

the absence of factory chimneys with their unhealthy exhalations. Even as recently as 1956 the demand for homes on the Mountain was so much greater than the ability of builders to put them up that nearly two hundred houses from the lower city were purchased, put on floats, and hauled up the Mountain to their new locations. It was the largest mass movement of houses in Canada. The sight of so many dwellings crawling up the Mountain side was probably the weirdest seen since Swedenborg took the Swedish navy overland at the siege of Halden.

During the many years when the Mountain formed a natural barrier between the city at its base and the open country on top, city dwellers regarded the people who lived back of the biow as a race apart. "Apple knockers’ was the term generally applied. This attitude may not have been fully justified but there were certainly many who found in the lofty isolation of the Mountain top an opportunity to give their individualism full play. John Dickenson was such a one. He was a member of the Legislative Assembly and pioneer of hydro-electric development in the Hamilton area at the close-of the last century. When his company was criticized for allegedly reaping exorbitant profits Dickenson bitched up his horse and galloped up and down Upper James St. tossing out handfuls of dollars bills to show that he wasn't greedy for money.

And there were the Colquhouns. They were not eccentric but they certainly were different. E. Alexander Colquhoun was mayor of Hamilton sixty years ago. He had four daughters who liked to give parties. Invitations were generally for the early afternoon; the guests arrived to find the blinds drawn, the lamps lit, and the clocks stopped, and the parties were launched free from any inhibitions of time.

Fifty years ago bird watching wats not accepted as the normal hobby it is today; it was a sign of eccentricity. But it was a serious and fascinating occupation for Robert Owen Merriman. who was one of Canada’s outstanding ornithologists. A cripple from boyhood, he seldom moved from his garden on the Mountain top. From 1910 to 1934 he kept detailed diaries from which he compiled exhaustive records of the mating, nesting, and feeding habits of one hundred and thirtynine species of birds. Most of Merriman’s diaries are now owned by the Royal Ontario Museum.

Everyone was writing sentimental ballads a hundred years ago, but George Johnson, a country school teacher from just over the Mountain brow, was one of the few w'ho produced a ballad that lived. His When You and I Were Young, Maggie is still a favorite throughout the English-speaking world. The Maggie of the song was Maggie Clark, whom Johnson married in 1864, but she never became “faded and gray” as the song says. She died at the age of twenty-three. The

song was written when Johnson was eighteen, the year they became engaged. Johnson explained that it was meant as a picture of the long and happy life they hoped to live together.

James Jolley was a pioneer Mountain-

top resident and he certainly must be counted as a pioneer in public relations. Jolley owned a harness factory in the city at a time when only one road, a toll road, gave access up the Mountain. Jolley hired a gang of laborers and spent four

years, from 1865 to 1869, blasting and chopping at its limestone face until a creditable road had been built. He offered it as a free road to everyone, and the gesture was not lost on the Mountain-top farmers who were among his more im-

portant customers. Jolley not only gave the community a free road but donated the limestone taken from the project for various buildings in the city. A few years after the road was completed Jolley turned it over to the city as a gift.

Every few years Hamilton titillates the country with a spectacular murder, and the trail of investigation often starts on the Mountain’s wooded slopes, when small boys stumble over a corpse. In the spring of 1946 the butchered torso of John Dick, a bus driver for the Hamilton Street Railway, was found in this way. The subsequent trials of his wife, Evelyn, a sharp-featured, vacuous-looking girl of twenty - four, was required newspaper reading in this country for nearly tw'o months. Evelyn was convicted of murder at her first trial but was allowed a second trial when her defense argued that the crown had been allowed to put in inadmissible evidence. At the second trial she was acquitted, but later was given a life sentence for having murdered her baby and encased it in cement. She was paroled last year.

Another classic out of the dozen or more murders which have been committed on or near the Mountain slope was that of the Barton Girl, so named because she was found on that part of the Mountain situated in Barton Township. She was never identified. The Barton Girl intrigued the entire continent fifty-five years ago. She was young, beautiful, and her expensive clothing bore the names of exclusive Philadelphia shops. By her appearance she was unmistakably of good family. But she was found dead on Hamilton Mountain with a bullet through her head, and no one ever admitted knowing or even seeing her. The Burton Girl was taken to the city morgue where she was viewed by ten thousand people. Each visitor was admitted on a police permit only, after proving to be a bona fide seeker of a missing relative or friend. They came from all over North America. Was one of those who came her father, husband, lover? ft is hard to believe that not one of those numbers recognized her, but they gave no sign, and the mystery has never been solved.

The Jesse Masters “murder" also had a Mountain setting. It was a dramatic case, but because it happened in the early part of the nineteenth century it has been forgotten. James and John Young, uncle and nephew, were arrested for the murder of their hired man, Jesse Masters, on information supplied by a neighbor, John Sheeler. Sheeler had told the police that the Youngs had called him over to their farm one night and confided that they were going to murder Masters and burn the body in their charcoal pit and that they might need his help. He said that he had accompanied the Youngs and Masters to the woodlot at the bottom of the farm, then withdrew and waited while the Youngs had dragged the struggling Masters to the charcoal pit and death.

Sheeler offered to give crown evidence and was granted immunity from prosecution. Masters had disappeared at about that time and police found some charred bones in the pit; but they couldn't find a doctor who would swear that they were human bones. When the crown concluded its flimsy case, Mr. Justice Hagerman dismissed the jury and discharged the Youngs. Although the authorities threw Sheeler’s story out of court, neighbors were not so ready to reject it. The Youngs found themselves suspected and avoided by everyone. James Young decided that life wouldn’t be worth living unless they could clear themselves.

James had fifty-six pounds, his life savings. He gave twenty-five pounds to

each of his nephews. That moment in the farm kitchen when James Young handed out the money and said “find Masters” must have been as dramatic as the scene in James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald office forty years later when the famous editor ordered Stanley to “find Livingstone.” The younger brother worked his way along the north shore as far as Montreal; John struck out along the south shore into New York state. Both boys continued the search long after their money had run out, working their way.

John w'as returning home defeated when, on the ferry dock at Buffalo, N.Y., he saw Masters waiting to cross to the Ontario side. Masters heard John’s amazing story and readily returned with him. Sheeler was convicted of perjury and sentenced to one hour per day in the stocks for an indefinite period. The sentence was given in April and terminated in October, 1830. Sheeler was the last culprit in British North America to be pilloried.

A tragedy of a different sort which occurred seven years ago provided a grim illustration of just what a natural wilderness the Mountain is, even though it cuts through a large city. David Mikeyook, a sixty-year-old Eskimo who had been

brought from his Arctic home to the Mountain Sanatorium for treatment for tuberculosis, disappeared one October day as soon as he had been given walking privileges. He was wearing pants over his pyjamas and a dressing gown. For nearly two months he kept himself alive and hidden on the Mountain's face, eluding constant search parties. Mikeyook’s only sustenance was the small game he managed to snare. He was found, dead, by the inevitable small boys, late in November. Medical evidence showed that he had been dead only three or four days when found. No one can know' why Mikeyook pitted his stone age cunning against his new and strange environment. It may have been a desperate bid to find his way back to the Arctic, and home. It may have been the traditional act of sacrifice by w'hich an aged Eskimo, no longer able to w'ork and hunt, will wander away rather than become a burden to others.

But these grim episodes are not necessarily what Hamiltonians think of when they think of their Mountain. They think of it as a protector and a refuge. Its cool retreats in summer give solace to anyone who can walk a few blocks or has a couple of bus tickets. It can be scaled by

any of four flights of wooden stairs, with convenient rest platforms, up which the Sunday stroller may toil, pausing momentarily as he ascends to turn and see the slowly enlarging panorama below. Hamiltonians w'ho have roamed the world and found no place better return to their Mountain and search for the initials they carved in the two-by-four staircase railings when they were youngsters. They don’t always find them, for the parks board sometimes replaces these railings. In any case they can recall the old incline railways, two of them, which used to shuttle their cable-drawn, platformlike cars up and down the Mountain side, each car large enough to take a wagon and team. It was a nickel a ride for pedestrians; two bits for a load of hay and, later in the course of human progress, two bits for an auto plus a nickel a head for passengers. Those incline railways were almost a national institution. Visitors came to Hamilton just to ride on them; picture postcards of them sold not only in Hamilton but all over the country.

In 1911 Valentine and Sons Publishing Co. of England reported that their cards of the incline railways were the third most popular in Canada, exceeded only by their postcards of Niagara Falls and Lake Louise.

There were also postcards of the Summers’ Theatre, perched right on the brow above the central part of the city. Whole families would ride up on the platforms to see summer stock while cool Mountain breezes played through the open windows. Older Hamiltonians remember the night forty-five years ago when the theatre burned to the ground. The conflagration, against a blackened sky, looked to the people below like a rage in heaven. And they remember how, in the days when most people really splurged on fireworks for Victoria Day, the rest would scramble up the Mountain at dusk and watch the rockets, Catherine wheels, roman candles and other fireworks, which made the entire city look like a pool of pyrotechnical madness.

The Mountain is not only the best place to see Hamilton from, but the finest sight to be seen from Hamilton—a treeclad wall that breaks the rectangular monotony with which most cities are blighted.

Describing the Mountain’s physical features or recounting its history doesn’t come close to explaining how Hamiltonians feel about it. No one who has not lived under, near, or on the Mountain can be made to understand. One can sometimes sense this meaning in the tone or expression a Hamiltonian will use when speaking of the Mountain, rather than his words.

I was one of a group of newspaper men who were on hand when the Hon. H. H. Stevens launched the election campaign for his Reconstruction Party in Hamilton in 1935, Controller NoraFrances Henderson was a member of the welcoming committee the afternoon Stevens arrived. He said some nice things about Hamilton whereupon Miss Henderson asked him if he didn’t think the Mountain, then a huge random heap of spring foliage, didn't offer a beautiful contrast to the city proper.

“Did you say ‘mountain’?” the visitor asked. Then, with a twinkle, “Yes, indeed, but you must remember Miss Henderson, that coming from Vancouver, as I do. I — ”

“My dear Mr. Stevens,” she interrupted, “you are no doubt thinking of mere mountains. I speak of The Mountain.”

And in the ring of her voice you could not only hear the capital M but also a capital T. it