By Mark McNeil
Stories are like strands of DNA that are passed from generation to generation and help define the essence of a community.
Just as a person’s potential is influenced by genetics, so is the destiny of a community forged by historical events. Just as scientists have engaged in a genome project to better understand how the human body works, The Spectator has been engaged in a 170-year journalism project to probe all aspects of Hamilton.
And through it all, certain strands of past experience stand out as being particularly important. They are stories that shook and rattled the city, erupting from pages of the paper to be remembered vividly for decades to come.
What follows are 12 of the biggest local stories covered in the pages of The Spectator over the past 170 years. They are events that moved the ground, defined the Hamilton personality and delineated the city’s image. In most cases they are critical moments that transported the community out of a former innocence.
No doubt, some readers will challenge some or all of the inclusions on the list. But think of it as a talking point.
What do you believe should also be included? What are the big events of the past that linger with us today?
Send an email to email@example.com and we will return to the subject later this year as we roll out a series initiatives to acknowledge The Spectator’s and City of Hamilton’s 170th birthday. They both began in 1846, the city in June, and The Spectator in July.
See the front page gallery here, or scroll down for the stories.
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Desjardins railway disaster
March 12, 1857
Fifty-nine passengers onboard a Great Western Railway train from Toronto to Hamilton were killed when an axle broke as the train was crossing the Desjardins Canal Bridge. The train left the tracks, pushed through the side railings, and crashed into the frozen waters below.
The tragedy left the community reeling and remains one of the worst railway disasters in Canadian history. Several prominent people died including Samuel Zimmerman, who was described by The Spectator at the time as a “renowned railway contractor and banker, whose name for years has been known as a household word in the mouth of almost every Canadian.” The train was the most celebrated technology of the era. It was creating prosperity and laying the groundwork for nationhood. But the crash demonstrated that technology can sometimes have horrific consequences as well.
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Hamilton goes bankrupt
The city was less than 20 years old when the bottom fell out. It was in hock for $2 million, mostly because of unsuccessful investments in railroad bonds it bought to try to turn the city into a major railway hub. But creditors wanted their money — and the city threw up its hands in bankruptcy. The sheriff hosted an auction of everything from the mayor’s chair, to desks to fire engines. A Spectator reporter described spectators at the event as looking “like chief mourners at a funeral … the very picture of sorrow, they gazed upon the scene and all but wept as each article came under the hammer.”
A city so young going bankrupt could have knocked the wind out of future growth. But through some canny moves by various civic officials, the impact was mitigated and the city managed to get back on its feet. Citizens were dissuaded from bidding, leaving open the opportunity by a former mayor James Cumming to purchase the chattels for next to nothing. He, in turn, loaned them back to the city. An effort by creditors to collect debt through a surtax to taxpayers was scuttled when the tax rolls went missing.
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Violent HSR strike
Widespread violence and vandalism erupted during an HSR transit strike after managers tried to keep the system going. Streetcars and other transit property were severely damaged in stone-hurling incidents, as were other vehicles that were caught in the fray. It all came to a head. On Nov. 24, 1906, at 7:15 p.m. Mayor Biggar and Sheriff Middleton stood on the steps of City Hall on James Street North and read the Riot Act before an unruly mob.
The incident stands out as the worst example of the loss of law and order in the city and one of only two times the Riot Act has been invoked in Hamilton. The other time, in 1855, led to a quick dispersal of a crowd, and widespread mayhem was avoided. In 1906, after the declaration was read in the midst of the HSR strike, a force of 15 officers and 162 cavalry members charged into the unruly crowd with swinging clubs and fixed bayonets. Scores of people were injured and 32 people were arrested. Thankfully, no one was killed.
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Raid on Dieppe
Aug. 19, 1942
A total of 582 members of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry took part in the infamous botched assault of the French coastal city of Dieppe that was heavily fortified by the Germans. In the end, 200 Hamiltonians (197 from the RHLI) died with nearly 300 taken wounded or taken prisoner.
The controversial attack led to the worst ever loss of life of Hamiltonians on a single day. The event is commemorated every August at Dieppe Veterans Memorial park on the Beach Strip. And each year fewer and fewer veterans survive to attend the ceremony. Last year there were three. To this day the failed attempt to grab a foothold on Hitler-controlled Europe is hotly debated. Many see it as an ill-planned suicide mission. Others note that the horrible raid was a necessary first step to set the stage for D-Day two years later.
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Disappearance of Rocco Perri
Gangster Rocco Perri has been described as the Al Capone of Canada. With his common-law wife Bessie Starkman, he built a bootlegging and underworld empire that frequently erupted into violence. They lived like royalty in the city, and hobnobbed with the local elite because prohibition was not particularly popular in Hamilton. But things got ugly. Bombs exploded at their Bay Street South home, Starkman was gunned down in 1930 in their driveway and eventually, in April, 1944 Perri went for a walk and was never seen again.
Perri was the patriarch of the mob in Hamilton and Canada. And through decades of future bombings and killings, the mystery of his disappearance remains. Did he end up with cement shoes in Hamilton harbour, as many have suggested, or did he go into hiding in the U.S. as others believe? More than 70 years it’s still not known what became of Perri.
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Evelyn Dick and the torso murder
After being reported missing for several days, HSR worker John Dick’s torso was discovered on March 16 by the side of the Mountain near Albion Falls. This set off a series of trials of Dick’s estranged wife Evelyn, her father Donald MacLean, and her boyfriend Bill Bohozuk. Dick was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang but the verdict was successfully appealed and she was acquitted in a second trial. In a subsequent trial in 1947, Dick was convicted of manslaughter in the death of her baby son Peter David White. His body was found by police in a suitcase encased in cement at her home. She received a life sentence, but was paroled from Kingston Penitentiary for Women in 1958. Dick’s father was sentenced to five years for being an accessory after the fact in a murder. Bohozuk was cleared of all charges.
There have been many grisly murders in Hamilton over its 170 years but people across the country became captivated by such a young, attractive woman being involved in an unimaginable, grotesque crime. As well there was prurient interest, as details emerged about her sexual adventures with prominent members of the community. But more than that there was her success at going into hiding with a new identity after her release on parole in 1958. If she was alive today, she would be 95.
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1946 Stelco strike
On July 15, thousands of Stelco steelworkers walked off the job, pressing for higher wages, a 40-hour work week and a requirement by the company to regularly deduct dues on behalf of the union. The bitter strike lasted for 81 days with replacement workers camped out at the steel company while the strike severely divided the community.
The strike is seen as one of the most significant labour-management battles in Canadian history. It was the vortex of what labour historians at McMaster University describe as working-class revolt in Hamilton that was reminiscent of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Union members at Westinghouse, Firestone and The Spectator also took to the streets that year and by mid-summer, nearly 20 per of the city’s industrial workforce was off the job. Also interesting and unprecedented was the open support offered to the strikers by the Hamilton mayor at the time, Sam Lawrence.
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Wrecking of City Hall and urban renewal
After years of long debate, the City sent a wrecking crew into downtown Hamilton and tore out more than a century of history to make way for a modernist future. Among the casualties was Hamilton’s former City Hall that was built in 1888. It was knocked down in November, 1961. In 1970 Jackson Square was built.
The loss of the magnificent stone City Hall building with a large clock tower on James Street North remains controversial to this day. Also contentious was the expropriation of businesses and homes to make way for Jackson Square and Copps Coliseum. The incident helped establish the view by some that the city does not respect its heritage and is too quick to replace historical buildings with inferior buildings drafted according to the architectural whims of the day.
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Harbour dredging scandal
On May 29, 1974, former harbour commissioner Ken Elliott, his “accountant” Reginald Fisher and three others were charged with fraud, conspiracy and uttering forced documents. Elliott was sentenced to six years and Fisher received a three-year sentence.The charges stemmed from harbour dredging contracts for which Elliott received more than hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.
The Harbour Dredging Scandal, or Harbourgate, was a national probe of dredging companies that unearthed bid-rigging and payments for unnecessary work that cost taxpayers more than $4 million. It was one of the most sensational white collar crime cases of its day in Canada with 14 months of RCMP investigation, two months of trial testimony and weeks of blustery questioning in the House of Commons. Former mayor Jack MacDonald once called the scandal a “giant black eye on the city … a national incident that was focused in Hamilton.”
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Plastimet fire disaster
July 9-12, 1997
Plastics recycler Plastimet Inc. on Wellington Street North had more than 400 tonnes of PVC and other plastics stored on site when it erupted in flames on July 9, 1997. It burned for four days spewing clouds with dioxin and other hazardous chemicals into the air. Nearby residents were evacuated for a time. People in the area were told not to eat vegetables from their soot-covered gardens and many expressed fears about long-term health consequences for firefighters and others exposed to the toxic chemicals.
The fire is remembered as the one of worst environmental disasters in Canadian history. It heightened awareness about issues with plastic storage and it led to criticism of government officials for allowing so many plastics to be stored in one location. Hamilton firefighters have argued their health was placed at risk by fighting the fire and believe the fire contributed to cancer cases that emerged over the years since.
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Super city amalgamation
Jan. 1, 2000
After years of controversial debate, and finally an order from the Harris provincial government, Hamilton adopted a one-tier system of municipal government and Hamilton, Stoney Creek, Dundas, Ancaster, Glanbrook and Flamborough were amalgamated into a super city of more than 500,000 people.
Communities that had local councils and mayors for more than a century suddenly lost their self-government, Thousands of bylaws had to be redrafted as communities joined together. Streets had to be renamed because in the new city of Hamilton there were suddenly all kinds of streets with the same name. Fire services, that used to be handled by volunteers, came under the jurisdiction of the professional Hamilton Fire Department. As well, bitterness continues over the loss of identity and many in suburban communities feel their municipal taxes should not be used to fund aging infrastructure and other age-old problems of the old city of Hamilton.
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The murder of Nathan Cirillo
Corporal Nathan Cirillo, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was gunned down while working sentry duty at the Canadian National War memorial. The event sent an entire country into mourning culminating with a funeral in Hamilton that was the biggest the city has ever seen.
After the killing, a new Parliamentary Protective Service was formed to handle security on Parliament Hill. Rules were changed to extend death and injury benefits to reservists. As well, sentries at the war memorial are watched over by off-duty members of the Ottawa Police for protection. However, the sentries themselves continue to carry unarmed weapons.
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