* Please note that this article was written in 2017
As you drive in along the tree-canopied, winding road that leads to the now picturesque clubhouse, the first thing you notice is the lushness of the whole environment. It’s gorgeous. The second thing you notice is the number of people. All ages. All sizes. All enjoying themselves. In the park. Doing things recreational.
Golfing. Hiking. Rock climbing. Jogging. Walking the dog. Picnicking. Using the zip line from the top of what serves as the ski and snowboarding hills in the colder and whiter of our seasons. Sailing toy boats in the enormous pond that’s fed by the waterfall flowing over the edge of the Niagara escarpment. All at the same time. All at the same place.
This is Chedoke Park. It has become one of Hamilton’s most loved outdoor jewels, located in Hamilton’s southwest, nestled under the escarpment.
In a recent National Geographic Traveller article, Chedoke Park was called, “The Niagara escarpment’s most remarkable public recreation space.” Pretty impressive. This is one of those rare cases where reality doesn’t conflict with the marketing. Hamilton got this one right. Exactly right.
Chedoke Park is both old and new. It began in 1896 as the original site of the Hamilton Golf and Country Club. The Beddoe Course was added in the 1940s. Mayor Vic Copps opened the ski hills in January 1964.
The ski hill closed in 2003. Wasn’t making money. What it had been doing for years was teaching kids how to ski. How to be outside in the winter. How to have fun in the snow.
In 2009, some City Councillors again said the City shouldn’t be in the golf course business. They wanted to sell off the asset. The ski lift and lights were removed in 2009.
In February of 2015, our then newly-elected Mayor said she had a bigger, more inspiring vision for the old Chedoke golf course site. “For me, it had been the place where I learned to ski with my parents. Although I don’t play golf, at least not very well, it was also a place of both manicured and natural beauty. It was one of Hamilton’s jewels”, she told the Spectator. “I thought it was time to make Chedoke a place that was accessible for all Hamiltonians, not just golfers, although I had no intention of taking their golfing away. I wanted it to be another example of why we’re the best place in Canada to raise a child. In fact, I think Chedoke Park makes us the best place in Canada to act like a child too”, she added wryly.
When faced with expected resistance from some members of Council, the Mayor didn’t flinch. The concerns, perhaps not unexpectedly, were focused on cost, competing priorities, past experiences on the same site, accessibility. Some said the waterfront parks were enough; that Hamilton couldn’t afford so many recreation areas. That green space simply wasn’t a money-maker. One Councillor suggested the land be sold to a developer and the proceeds be used to rebuild the other half of the stadium that hadn’t been rebuilt for the Pan Am Games as well as a 5-storey parking garage to the south of the stadium.
“The north stands need to be of the same quality as the south stands”, said the longtime Councillor. His view was echoed by Ti-Cat ownership. But for all of the nay saying, it was clear the Mayor stood firm. A local blogger started a campaign in support of the Mayor’s vision called ParkNotParking. Thousands of citizens signed up and also showed up at meetings where the plans for the park were discussed.
At a critical Council meeting in March of 2015, with the majority of the gallery filled with citizens who supported her vision for Chedoke Park, the Mayor made an impassioned plea. “I believe we need to do what is best and what is right for all Hamiltonians. No other city in this country has this wondrous asset. No other city is able to combine all-season recreation into one space that sits within the heart of the city. A public asset, I might add, that’s accessible by public transit.“
The crowd in the public galleries was inspired. Some of the Councillors who had been sitting on the fence were quick to read the tea leaves and voted to support the transformation.
It was a narrow victory, with only 9 to 7 voting in fa- vour of moving ahead. Over the next 2 years, the 200 acres (80 hectares) that had been known as the Chedoke Municipal Golf Course was transformed into Chedoke Park. By way of comparison, Hamilton’s Gage Park is 71 acres, the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris is 55 acres, the Boston Common is 50 acres, St. James Park in London is 58 acres, and Toronto’s High Park is 400 acres.
Perhaps the most significant decision was to remove the Martin course, one of the two 18-hole courses. The Beddoe course was maintained and enhanced, as was the existing Clubhouse, which now features a large rooftop terrace with amazing views over the park and of the city. Re-purposing one of the courses freed up almost 100 acres of land for other purposes. One of them was to create a short 3-hole course for the exclusive use of those learning to play golf. While some adults use the short course to learn the game, it’s mostly kids who seem to keep the “learning” course booked solid. The “Clubs for Kids” program that asks golfers to donate single or sets of clubs to the kids has been a huge success, ensuring there are always golf clubs available for kids whose families can’t afford them. A similar campaign, NiceSkates, collects new or used ice skates and makes them available to all so they can skate on the huge pond that serves as an ice rink in the winter for both learners and practiced skaters. It has become very popular; seemingly no matter how low the temperature drops, nor how strong the icy winds blow.
What’s old is new again at Chedoke Park too. The ski runs have been rebuilt with one of them for the exclusive use of snowboarders. While the weather can be a bit tricky in terms of snow thanks to global warming, new snow making equipment has made that slightly less of an issue. According to a mother of two, “I’ve found the ski hills in the heart of the city to be really convenient for my kids. When they come home from school, often we’ll drive over here for an hour of skiing, and then head home for dinner. Where else can you do that inside a city?”
A skier who’s works downtown and lives in Stoney Creek adds, “Look, it may not be Whistler, or even Blue Mountain, but it’s still fun to be outdoors skiing or snowboarding and be only minutes away from where you live and work. Kind of amazing, if you ask me. I come here during the week just to keep myself in shape for the skiing I do in other parts of the country when I’m away on vacation.”
Chedoke Park also features a large, man-made pond on what were once two of the holes of the Martin course. It has been designed to make getting to the water’s edge accessible to all. A small, pond-side business rents miniature remote-controlled wooden sailboats that have become very popular as much with kids as with their parents. The pond is fed directly by the natural waterfall that plummets from the edge of the escarpment just west of the escarpment stairs that are still very popular with joggers and walkers. “I just love the sound of the water hitting the rocks below,” says one regular visitor to Chedoke Park. “It’s peaceful and exhilarating at the same time. And I can get here by bus. I come as often as I can.”
This is in addition to the somewhat hidden reservoir that collects runoff from the escarpment and is used for irrigation and watering of gardens.
The 2.7 km long Rail Trail, which existed before the creation of the park, is now even more popular, perhaps because of the access points that have been added to various sections of the park. You can now enter the Rail Trail from the park and vice versa. Not only that, but the escarpment stairs provide easy access to the park for many people on the Mountain.
Chedoke Park has also become very popular with people who work at the McMaster Innovation Park, which has expanded significantly over the past 5 years. One scientist who works at CanMet, a federal government lab, says, “I don’t live far from here, so I walk to work. I work in a building that has been designed to foster interaction with my colleagues. Chedoke Park provides a remarkable additional space to do some deep thinking, whether it’s by myself, or on a walk with a few of my colleagues.
Sitting under a 100-year old oak tree with 3 other scientists and talking about an idea less than 3 minutes from our lab is an incredible gift. We feel very lucky to have such a place to go.”
One of the more innovative elements of the changes made at the park was to form a public/private partnership with a local greenhouse operator. PureGreens was selected to build a greenhouse on the grounds of the 51-acre former CP rail yard that was acquired by the city in 2015 with funding provided through the provincial government’s GrowGreen plan where the province will provide up to 60% of the funding for the expansion of parkland within city boundaries. That acquisition made Chedoke Park over 250 acres. The contract allowed PureGreens to build greenhouses on the old rail yard with the stipulation that they donate 10% of their yield to the Hamilton Food Bank, as well as to provide children’s programming to help city kids learn about growing and harvesting healthy food. PureGreens is a commercial operation, selling its produce to local supermarkets and at the Hamilton Farmer’s Market.
PureGreens’ CEO says that it has been a remarkable beginning. “This is a great example of how business and civic government can do greater things together than we can separately. Our business is successful and our contribution to the community is just as measurable. I’m very proud to be part of this innovative solution.” PureGreens uses about two thirds of the old CP site.
The other part features what the City calls “Children’s Museum Too.” Think of it as a sequel to the original and very popular Children’s Museum still operating in Gage Park. The museum structure consists of 12 CP railcars donated by the company when they sold the land to the City. The railcars have been creatively configured and combined by a local architect who was very happy to work on the project. “The railcars not only provide a link to the original use of this site, but they also provide users with a unique space in which to participate in kid-oriented programming. They really love being here.”
“From my perspective, this combination of greenhouse and Children’s Museum ticks all four of the boxes related to our Vision statement,” says the Mayor. “Best place to raise a child, promote innovation, engage citizens and provide diverse economic opportunities. Not sure how much better an example you can have than this one.”
The City’s public art program is also evident at Chedoke Park. While still in its early stages, with many more pieces already in the works, two dramatic pieces of art have been integrated into the park. These are in addition to the artist-designed benches that are spread throughout the park.
Accessibility was part of the design vision from the very beginning, ensuring paths and park features are accessible to those with disabilities.
As we finish our tour of Chedoke Park with the Mayor, she looks pleased. A couple has just come up to her and introduced their 3 children to the Mayor. The mother of the children said, “This is the Mayor who imagined what this place could be and didn’t stop until it was built. I hope each of you will be inspired by her strength.” The Mayor looks a little choked up by the whole exchange. As she is having her photograph taken with the family, she says, “Well, my day has just been made. Thanks so much for your kind words. And for bringing your whole family here to enjoy this amazing park.”
As if that weren’t enough, the latest edition of the National Geographic Traveller comments, “Whether at the foot of the mountain or at the edge of the harbour, Hamilton has a unique combination of recreational spaces for its citizens to choose, all within minutes of each other, and all connected by public transit. The latest addition is Chedoke Park, one of the Niagara Escarpment’s most remarkable public recreation spaces. Hamiltonians are justifiably proud of this latest addition to the city’s natural amenities.”
Yes they are.
GRAHAM CRAWFORD owns and operates Hamilton HIStory + HERitage, Hamilton’s ﬁrst storefront museum. He is also the 138th Chairperson of the Hamilton Club. firstname.lastname@example.org