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Fishing for a Future

Fishing by Indigenous communities and settler communities was an important part of the local economy. The fish provided essential nutrients and contributed to a healthier diet. The ancient land trails and early Loyalist settler patterns show that this area was rich in fishing resources. However, as industry grew, toxic wastes were simply dumped into the streams and bay, thinking that there was an endless supply of fresh water. That kind of thinking was short sighted and the fish became contaminated. The fisheries, the place where fish spawn, were contaminated or destroyed. The wetlands became wastelands. A 1943 provincial investigation estimated that 70 million gallons of industrial waste and 25 million gallons of residential sewage entered the bay every day, much of it untreated. (“Provincial Expert Presents Report on Pollution of Bay,” Hamilton Spectator, 23 December 1943) In our time, we have seen a turn in the course of events, as we have come to realize the environmental costs have human consequences. In this section of the trail we will look at what has been done to restore the healthiness of the water.

19th Century Pollution

In the 1860s, John William Kerr, the fisheries’ inspector for western Lake Ontario, reported that fish caught in the Sherman Inlet tasted of coal oil, which was emitted from two refineries at the water’s edge alongside the railway tracks. Kerr estimated that about 360 gallons of sulphuric acid also ran into the inlet every week. (Hamilton Public Library, Special Collections, John William Kerr Diaries, April 1866)

In 1886, the Board of Health found at one sewer outlet that “an accumulation of the most disgusting and filthy matter, which was being covered with earth.” (Hamilton Board of Health Minutes vol. 1, 20 September 1886.) Even the ice which was harvested from the Bay in winter became increasingly polluted. The city had to restrict where people could cut the ice, moving them far from the known sources of pollution. In 1923, the Hamilton Health Department declared that the Bay was unsafe for swimming. At the same time, planners pushed for areas that were aesthetically pleasing, and morally uplifting. Many people still fished in the waters.

“The hideaway places on the waterfront [in 1924] where the boathouse colony was located offered a major resource for Hamilton’s workers who fished, hunted, and boated around Burlington Bay [Hamilton Harbour] and the Dundas Marsh [Cootes Paradise]. Hunters revelled in the water’s bounty, with its fish, turtles, ducks, and the other wild life of the area. Local inns and taverns catering to the sport hunting fraternity were well known for specialty game dishes like roast duckling and turtle soup. Much more game from the area, however, found its way onto the dinner tables of Hamilton workers who sought to feed their families with cheap, easily accessible foodstuffs.” (Nancy B. Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank, The War on the Squatters, 1920–1940: Hamilton’s Boathouse Community and the Re-Creation of Recreation on Burlington Bay)

Preserving Wetlands

Van Wagner’s marsh north of the QEW and the Red Hill marsh south of the QEW are remnants of the extensive wetlands and marshes that were once found here.  Significant amounts of earth fill were needed to construct the QEW Expressway interchange.  Collaboration between ecologists and engineers led to this unique solution – the necessary materials were found on site and … truck loads of fill were excavated and were taken for the interchange.  The resulting excavated area became a wetland supplied with water from the Red Hill Creek and backwater from Lake Ontario via Hamilton Harbour.

Flood Control Stewardship

The Davis Creek Flood Control facility like the Greenhill facility upstream is part of the engineering design to manage the runoff of over 65 sq. kilometers which flow through the Red Hill Valley.  The new design uses smaller sized box culverts to control flood water and protect local properties from flooding.  It allows for fish and wildlife movement through the valley and moves sediment downstream.  In a 100 year storm, a large volume of water equal to … swimming pools is held back reducing downstream flow rates.

Ice fishing in 1792

The snow was about ten inches deep on the ice. Here I saw several Indians of the Messessagoe nation fishing for pickerel, mashanogy, pike and other kinds of fish,” Peter Campbell, an English traveler in the Hamilton area, 1792.