Story by Danielle Todd
HAMILTON, ONTARIO — “If it had not been for this building, Hamilton would not be here,” our guide, Janet Oakes, explained as we began our tour of the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology.
By the 1850s, Hamilton was a key stop on the Great Western Railway, and with its natural protected harbour it was poised for industrial expansion. However, widespread cholera and high fire insurance rates held it back from growth. Early community leaders had little choice but to gamble on an ambitious and expensive water works project. More than 150 years later, the building that resulted from that decision is still standing, although instead of pumping water the property now serves as national historic site, and a civil and power engineering landmark.
The roughly 30-minute tour of the architectural gem begins with an insightful lesson into Hamilton’s industrial history. This is followed by a demonstration of simple steam-powered machines through the use a set of antique miniature engines. If you are not familiar with this technology, it’s important to pay attention because this display serves as a background to the highlight of the tour — the interior of the pump house.
Most of this facility still stands much as it did when it was finished in 1859, making it a history buff’s dream. With its thick stone walls anchored on bedrock, the building holds two 45-foot-high, 70-ton, well-preserved steam engines, once used to pump clean water into the city from Lake Ontario. While it is no longer a functioning generator, the parts are in working order and it is an impressive sight to see this vintage machine in motion. To get a taste of the arduous manual labour endured by the building’s workers, visitors can help warm up the engine by turning the 20-foot sand-casted metal fly wheel with a wooden lever.
This is the only facility of its kind remaining in Canada. As well, Oakes’ engaging and extensive knowledge of both local history and steam power give the tour life and charm.
Although it’s easily accessible from the highway, the museum is off the beaten path, in the heart of Hamilton’s gritty industrial sector. The Victorian-era water works, designed to look like a European chapel, is dwarfed by neighbouring steel plants, but stands out among them thanks to its antique smokestack. The area isn’t scenic, but it’s an opportunity to see some of the industry that has fuelled the economy of this city halfway between Toronto and Niagara Falls for well over a century.
A visit to this area is also a great opportunity to explore Hamilton’s nearby beach community. Hutch’s on the Beach, the city’s most famous greasy spoon, is near the museum, along the shore of Lake Ontario. The eatery inarguably serves the best fries in town. A meal at Hutch’s should be followed by a few scoops of ice cream from its dairy bar. Finally, a walk along the paved beachfront path, a beautifully maintained stretch of Ontario’s Waterfront Trail, is a perfect end to a visit to this underrated corner of Ontario.
MORE ABOUT THE HAMILTON MUSEUM OF STEAM AND TECHNOLOGY
Location: 900 Woodward Ave. (at the QEW), Hamilton, Ontario L8H 7N2
Phone: 905-546-4797 Fax: 905-546-4798
Admission: Adult (18-59), $6.50; Seniors and Students (13-17), $5.50; Child (6-12), $4.50; Infant (5 and under), free
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 12-4 pm