Great Western Railway Works and Lower Stuart Street

Bay Street between Stuart Street and Strachan Street West

Great Western Railway yards, 1863

The Great Western Railway’s (GWR’s) station and yards opened at the foot of the Stuart Street hill in 1854. This new facility refocused much of the commercial activity of the North End away from Old Port Hamilton at the foot of James Street North. Masses of people and tons of freight were transported in and out of the city on the railway each day. The GWR’s large docking facilities and grain elevator also created a good deal of harbour traffic.

Try to imagine the smoky, noisy scene looking west from this bridge more than a hundred years ago. Sir Allan MacNab’s Great Western Railway (GWR) was completed in the early 1850s. It served as a crucial link between New York and Michigan. It gave Hamilton access to important markets and had a huge impact on the city’s commercial and industrial development.

The GWR built large shops and leased space to the contractors who were constructing the railway, locomotives and cars. The railway supplied these workers with the steam and shafting they needed to power their tools.

At the centre of the locomotive department was the erecting shop. Here, workers assembled new engines and repaired old ones. Upstairs, skilled craftsmen made locomotive parts using lathes and planers, and drilling and shaping machines. An 1862 report described the blacksmith shop in the back as “a dark, sooty atmosphere, pierced by the glare of some 26 smithy fires, and ringing with the sound of some 60 hammers.” Workers beat out heated chunks of scrap iron with the huge steam hammer in the centre of this sweltering shop. In the boiler shop, scores of men punched, sheared and drilled boilerplate, and then riveted together the powerful locomotive boilers. They also made girders and trusses out of iron plate. These were carted away and assembled to make railway bridges.

The heart of the car department was the machine shop. In this shop, dozens of workers made mouldings, planks and other products using all kinds of woodworking machinery. These parts went to the body building shop to be assembled into new railway cars. People in the paint shop added a bit of colour as the final step.

The power for all these shops came from a 60-horsepower, high-pressure stationary engine behind the erecting shop. It travelled through an elaborate system of belts, shafts, pulleys and wheels to each shop.

The GWR shops employed more than 520 men and boys. Production in the shops peaked in the early 1870s. The shops operated for a number of years after the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) acquired the GWR in 1882, but closed for good in 1888.

Today, there is a thin patch of grass above the railway tracks on the north side of Stuart Street near Bay Street. This is all that remains of the original GWR offices. The Nine-Hour Movement marchers stopped here in 1872 to cheer the GWR for granting the nine-hour day. The jubilant railway shop workers were by far the biggest group in the parade. They represented many occupations pulled together by a single industrial concern: moulders, turners, fitters, machinists, boiler-makers, pattern makers, smiths, masons and many helpers and “lads.”

By the 1870s, the surrounding neighbourhood was filled with the families of men who worked on the trains and in the yards of the new railway. The station yards were bustling. Teamsters piled cargo destined for factories and businesses across the city into their wagons. An extra horse was often needed to get these heavily laden carts up the Stuart Street hill.

A number of factories opened around the rail yards. Many were metal shops. On Stuart Street between Tiffany Street and Queen Street North were the Hamilton Bridge Company, the Gartshore-Thomson Pipe and Foundry Company, and the Ontario Rolling Mills Company. The view along Stuart Street today still reveals this industrial past.

It is hard to believe that Lower Stuart Street was once a thriving social centre. In front of the railway station, hordes of travelers boarded the streetcars of the Hamilton Street Railway. They would be whisked up the hill towards the downtown core. By the end of the 19th century, hotels and taverns such as the Allison House, the Tremont, the Station, the Metropolitan and Roach’s lined this part of the street. Men came to drink, play some cards, shoot a game of pool or just relax. Hungry workers could have a bite at Mrs. O’Brien’s, Mrs. Parlington’s or Wall’s Lunch Rooms by the Station Hotel. After a long, hard week, scruffy workers could get a shave and a haircut at Wilbur’s Barbershop next to the City Hotel or at Joseph Marck’s Barbershop next to the Custom House.

Despite the fact that these workers had become the backbone of Hamilton’s new industrial economy, the popular entertainments on this street angered the city’s middle-class temperance crusaders. Citing reports of violence and drunkenness, a group of clergymen launched a well-publicized campaign to close down the Tremont House in 1895. The City Hotel at the corner of Stuart and Tiffany Streets lost its licence thanks to middle-class moralizing in 1911. By the 1920s, most of the hotels and taverns along here were gone.

The building on the southeast corner of Bay and Stuart Streets was once the Bayview Hotel. Opened as the Metropolitan Hotel in the 1860s, it was purchased, modernized and renamed around 1908 by William Dillon. The new Bayview boasted such features as a “commanding outlook of the Bay,” electricity throughout and a “bright and cosy” hotel bar “stocked with all the best in the liquid refreshment line.”