The Beach Canal Lighthouse has languished for decades. We need to act now to save this unique waterfront structure before it falls down.
By Margaret Lindsay Holton
Published August 26, 2013
Limestone Lighthouse on the Canal, circa 1840
Canadian songstress Joni Mitchell has written some seminal works in her time, not the least of which is Big Yellow Taxi. "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." A salient and poignant reminder that too often we do not see what is of enduring value right in front of our noses.
Much of late has been made of the heritage issues facing Hamilton: what to protect, what to relinquish and what to really hunker down and fight for.
Ultimately, all heritage fights are about preserving a tangible asset that has proportionately defined the evolution of our commonly held civic character and uniquely local cultural identity. These things profoundly represent what and where we've come from.
It goes without saying that some items are more important then others. In the face of natural growth and development, we do have to discriminate. We must choose the most significant that best reflect our changing history.
One outstanding architecturally-defining structure that needs a fight, right now, is the Beach Canal Lighthouse.
In the simplest of terms, this decaying building and adjacent lighthouse keeper's cottage, scrunched up beside the Lift Bridge operations tower and Eastport Drive on the Hamilton Beach Strip, are on the verge of collapse.
The lighthouse and cottage are scrunched between the Skyway and Lift Bridge on the Hamilton side of the Beach Canal
Holes in the mortar, caked-on rust, plywood cover-ups, rickety wiring and a high security fence currently define the Lighthouse today, once the bright beacon of entry to the harbour
Rudimentary efforts to protect both these items from the elements with plywood sheeting and fences are clearly failing. It also looks as though raccoons have gotten into the back end of the lighthouse keeper's cottage, though the beer can debris suggests another kind of intruder...
The run-down Lighthouse Keeper's Cottage - roof rotting, paint peeling, overgrown ivy, and current beer can repository
Some cynics would suggest that perhaps this decaying state personifies the Canadian Federal and Ontario Provincial governments' hope that these buildings will just quietly fall down, thus saving demolition and dismantling costs.
A soiled, cracked and fading information signpost near the lighthouse amplifies this perception.
That any level of our Government would allow this site to just disappear is clearly a tragic and mammoth historical loss for us all.
It needs to be stated again and again: this important landmark, the lighthouse, has shaped this end of Lake Ontario's development for well over two hundred years. That is no small thing in historical terms or our history.
As it is now, this sorry dilapidated fenced-in site is the first identity marker of Hamilton that travelers and trade merchants see when entering the City by water. These abandoned buildings stand in the foreground. The car cacophony of the bridges rages in surround sound overhead, and the steel mills bellow smoke and fire in the background.
Talk about an image problem - but it doesn't need to be this way.
Consider this: The Province of Upper Canada was created under the Constitutional Act of 1791. The British Crown appointed a young military officer, John Graves Simcoe, as lieutenant governor of this nascent nation state. He was a successful military man, abolitionist, husband, father and eventual founder of York (aka Toronto).
Initially, Simcoe set up the colonial capital at Newark, or, what is now known as Niagara-on-the-Lake, on the south side of Lake Ontario.
Over the next decade, his regiment, the Queen's Rangers, constructed the two primary arterial roadways through the dense bush that would define the province for centuries to come: Yonge Street from Lake Ontario up to Lake Simcoe (yes, named after him) and Dundas Street from Toronto to London, Ontario.
During his early years in this burgeoning colonial settlement, he, his young family and military entourage would travel the existing overland 'native' trail along the Lake Ontario beach strip. They went back and forth from "enemy exposed" Newark near the American border to the safer military fort around the lake at York.
It was on one such occasion, while Simcoe and his wife, Elizabeth, were admiring the waterfront landscape, that he decided to establish the Kings' Head Inn on what was then known by the local aboriginal people's as daonasedao or "where the sand forms a bar".
Not only was this a convenient and enchanting stop-off point for the long and bumpy four-hour carriage ride from York to Newark, but also the Inn served, at various stages, as a military trading post and Government House for the growing British colony in the years ahead.
Elizabeth eventually wrote glowingly of how the Kings' Head Inn was "beautifully situated" on the beach strip.
Looking north-west from Kings' Head Inn location on the beach strip, with the Niagara escarpment in the background, circa 1795
Fast-forward 200 years. All that remains of this beguiling moment in Canada's young history is a provincial plaque somewhere on a northern trail at the back-end of the eponymous hot-dog and hamburger joint, Hutch's, on the lake. That's it.
The original two-storey, two-winged wooden building that constituted the Kings' Head Inn was destroyed in a fire by American troops in 1813. Over time, the land and property were eventually absorbed into the overall development of the area. And so goes local history.
All that remains of the King's Head Inn is a wooden pub sign - and, at that, it is a reproduction. The original pub sign has disappeared. The handsome oak replica is now in storage in the attic at the somewhat forlorn historical museum, the Joseph Brant Museum in Burlington. It is not visible to the public.
It's worth noting that this Burlington community museum is a reconstruction of the original homestead of Mohawk chief and British captain Joseph Brant Thayendanegea (1742-1807).
Brant was awarded 3,450 acres of land at the 'head-of-the-lake' in 1798 by Simcoe, acting as the representative of King George III, for his services to the British Crown during the Seven Years War and the American Revolution.
The land grant was awarded to Joseph Brant just five years after the King's Head Inn was ordered built by Simcoe.
On my request, the museum curator kindly supplied me with this backside image of the Kings' Head Inn pub sign. It's a beautiful re-created portrait of King George III.
John Graves Simcoe was in service to his King, George III
Notably, there are lots of other Kings' Head Inns pub signs online via Google Image Search.
Alas, there is no image online for the for the very first Kings' Head Inn pub sign of Upper Canada, and the young nation state of Canada. Sadly, the Joseph Brant Museum hasn't even included it in its listings with the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN).
All in all, the sign - and the Kings' Head Inn - are out of sight and thus out of mind. Gone.
This local structure of historical note has been lost and all but forgotten, except by the oldest historical association in the Golden Horseshoe area, the Head-of-the-Lake Historical Society, founded in 1899.
This society still uses the fine painted portrait of King George III from the backside of the King's Head Inn pub sign, in miniature, for their society's crest.
The Beach Canal Lighthouse is en route to a similar fate.
Originally built in wood at a height of 40 feet in 1838, a mere 44 years after the Kings' Head Inn, the whale-oil lit lighthouse was a beacon for the frigate and steamships passing in and out of the Hamilton Harbour and Burlington Bay via the newly dug Burlington Canal, which was officially opened in 1832.
On July 18, 1856, the steamship Ranger, chugged into the canal. Hot sparks blew from its engine chimney onto the shore. The resultant ember fire eventually destroyed the wooden lighthouse, the canal ferry, and two houses before the fire was subdued.
A temporary lighthouse was quickly assembled to assured continued safe passage into the harbour, and then, in 1858, John Brown, a seasoned stonemason, was hired to construct a permanent white dolomite limestone structure on the south side of the canal.
The Canal lighthouse is identical to another that Brown designed and built on Christian Island on Georgian Bay.
Christian Island Lighthouse and Beach Canal Lighthouse, both built by John Brown in the early 1800s
Standing five stories high, the walls of the Beach Canal Lighthouse are, at several points, a few feet thick. Overall, the stonework is 'stable', but it still needs a lot of work to bring it, and the lighthouse keeper's cottage, back to any semblance of their former functional selves.
During its operation for over 100 years, coal was used to light the beacon instead of whale-oil. The light was visible from miles out on the lake. It was a welcoming and familiar signpost into one of Lake Ontario's best natural harbours.
The Beach Canal lighthouse was officially closed in 1968, a mere 45 years ago. It has been in slow decline ever since.
Today, a automated electrical beacon on the end of the south side pier on the canal guides the lake traffic in and out of the harbour. Meanwhile, that stalwart old stone lighthouse continues to slowly fade, like the Kings' Head Inn, from public memory.
But not all is lost just yet. Ten years ago, in 2003, two forward-thinking individuals from the Hamilton Beach Community organized a meeting to attempt to save the lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper's cottage from oblivion. Thirty-two people turned up.
It's been a slow uphill battle ever since. Over the past decade, only 200 interested citizens from all around the Golden Horseshoe region have joined the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group, donating their time, money and professional expertise.
This group is certainly moving in the right direction, but it is evidently not enough, especially when time is increasingly of the essence for these buildings.
In 2004 the owner of the site, the Canadian Department of Public Works and Government Services, basically fobbed off the 'surplus' property to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
In 2006, the DFO removed the accumulated bird guano and the remaining lighthouse lens from the tower. They boarded up the doors and windows of the cottage with plywood.
Three years later, the Department of Public Works and Government Services rescinded their offer to the DFO and refused to hand over title to them or the non-profit Beach Canal Lighthouse Group.
In other words, this property continues to swill around in limbo on federal/provincial/municipal backwaters as a lamely identified place of historic importance under the Ontario Heritage Act.
In 2007, the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group received a plaque indicating this status from the City of Hamilton.
The fact remains, the City of Hamilton has not taken full ownership of this property, as it should. The lighthouse really deserves the same attention, investment and tourism rehab as Dundurn Castle.
Hope remains. A re-energized committee at the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group is trying, again, to re-engage both the public and civic elders to take responsibility for the lighthouse.
It, and the lighthouse keeper's cottage, do not have to got the way of the Kings' Head Inn. There is still some time to save this sturdy pillar, albeit in need of serious restoration, that represents the waterfront origins of the City of Hamilton and our regional history.
Hamiltonians, Burlingtonians and all Canadian citizens around the Golden Horseshoe region must band together to reiterate that they do know what they've got before it is all gone. A full-on restoration of The Canal Lighthouse would be best, regardless of the current inhospitable location.
Perhaps a lend-lease could be established with the City of Burlington? If they absorbed some of the restoration costs, maybe the Province and Hamilton would permit a relocation of the lighthouse and cottage into their ambitious design for the City of Burlington Beachfront Park.
Perhaps it could be relocated to a position of prominence in Bayfront Park, or integrated into the Haida dock site under the auspices of the Hamilton Harbour Commission. Or it could be moved to a mountain location at Chedoke so that the illuminated lighthouse could preside over the City.
Or maybe an enterprising, forward-thinking entrepreneur/developer would integrate the lighthouse and cottage into a funky recreation of the Kings' Head Inn....
Needless to say, more must be done now to save this unique waterfront structure before it falls down.
Ergo, Hear ye! Hear ye! - Get involved, donate, learn more about this unsung piece of local history, bookmark the following link to the Beach Canal Lighthouse Group, and please, open your wallets, give generously: http://www.bclg.ca/.
The Lighthouse really does need our energy, attention and money. Now. Remember Joni's wise words, or else we really won't know what we've got until it's all gone.
Credit notice: All black & white photographs are from the 'PreView' Archives of the Hamilton Public Library. Colour imagery is by Margaret Lindsay Holton, except for the Christian island lighthouse image, courtesy of Google Images. The Kings Head Inn pub sign image was supplied by the Joseph Brant Museum and is used with their permission.
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