The other stuff that makes Hamilton great

Many Hamilton people, when bragging about our fair city, like to mention the obvious attractions, like the UN-recognized, waterfall-blessed escarpment; the art, food and real estate renaissance around James North; the waterfront mix of lovely parks and struggling industry; downtown Dundas, Gage Park, Copps Coliseum, the Farmer’s Market, the Haida battleship, etc.

However, those are not the places in Hamilton that I find most interesting. My local geographic favourites tend to be obscure and odd places.

For example, I really like the fish barrier. This wacky contraption can be seen from the Waterfront Trail and from the High Level Bridge to Burlington. It is a metal-and-concrete wall in the water between Cootes Paradise and Hamilton Harbour, built to keep invasive carp out. Fish smaller than 5 centimeters across can slip through the holes in the wall but it keeps out bigger fish (like mature carp, which would destroy all of the natural plant life in Cootes if given the chance). Since other species of big fish (such as trout, pike and perch) need to get from the Harbour into Cootes, teams of cheerful scientists work on top of the wall in breeding season, 24 hours a day, scooping up huge numbers of big fish and letting the good ones slide down a plastic tube to Cootes Paradise, while booting any carp back to the Harbour. The fish barrier is at the western end of the popular Waterfront Trail and, when the weather is nice, crowds gather to watch the joke-cracking scientists at this important but bizarre waterslide for local fish.

From the Boer War until 1928, Hamilton’s young men trained to be soldiers in Ainslie Wood. They practiced with rifles and machine guns and grenades on what is now Rifle Range Road. The shooting targets were at the bottom of the Escarpment, on man-made barriers of piled dirt and concrete. These barriers — known in military jargon as “butts” — are still there, covered by mature forest, halfway between Alexander Park and the 403. On the south side of the butts are shallow indentations in the old concrete, where young conscripts would shelter as they held up targets and bullets flew overhead. Many of these local boys would later die in South Africa or Europe, never to return to Hamilton. Today, the butts seem to be mainly used by privacy-seeking teens, as suggested by all the spray paint and crushed beer cans and plastic pop bottles with burned holes. I take my kids there sometimes and it’s educational in so many ways.

If you look up at the southwest corner of King and James, you’ll see a pair of identical, mirror-sided buildings at One King Street West – Commerce Place. You will also see that the twin towers are, halfway up each of their sides, joined together by a reflective horizontal cross-bar – making the twin buildings look like a letter “H.” You may ask, “Why did they build that?” And I would answer, “No idea.” Maybe a bowling alley? Furniture storage? Dance club? What a mystery!

Then there is what I call the tennis court of Ozymandias. If you’ve ever taken the 403 west, towards Ancaster and Brantford, you’ve seen it; though if you drive that way a lot, you have probably stopped noticing it. Directly beside the 403’s westbound lanes, on the other side from the nearby Spectator building is the world’s most decrepit and unusable tennis court. Its tall chain-link fence is sagging, rusted and covered by vines, while the concrete inside has been cracked open by dozens of small trees, plus lots of raspberry bushes. Some of the trees sprouting through the playing surface are taller than the fence. The grass around the rectangle of fencing is regularly cut, making the vegetation-filled ancient tennis court really stand out. What kind of impression does it make on the thousands of people who drive past it every hour? If it costs too much to remove it, the City should at least bring in some tourist revenue by putting up a sign on the fence that says, “Hamilton Zoo,” plus a box for donations. Travellers would pull over to the side of the highway and peer through the rusted fencing to catch a glimpse of a squirrel, a bird or maybe even a moth.

Before there was democracy in Ontario, a radical activist (living in what is now Dundas Park) named John Rolph wanted to extend the vote and civil rights. He was hated by the local elite. Railway tycoon Alan MacNab was his worst enemy. One night, MacNab and some thugs broke into Rolph’s house, covered him with tar and feathers, then chased him out of the area. They illegally seized Rolph’s property. The gates to Rolph’s Dundas home – made of fine grey stone, topped with a pair of large, decorative balls – were moved to MacNab’s house, Dundurn Castle. Rolph’s stolen gates are still there. (Another suggestion for City Hall – maybe the stolen gates should be moved back to Dundas Park, to honour Rolph?)

Have you ever been to Santa Island? Me neither. But I’ve read about it in the Spec and am fascinated by it. Officially named Neare Island, the place I call “Santa Island” is a lump of rock the size of a restaurant patio in eastern Hamilton Harbour, near the Canadian Centre for Inland Waters. To protect the nesting sites of endangered gulls, scientists are trying to keep this island free of cormorants: dark-feathered, blue-eyed birds the size of a chicken, but with bigger wings. They are a common, destructive pest in our Harbour. But how to keep them away without hurting them? Robot Santas, of course! The team of scientists – led by McMaster biologist Jim Quinn – bought a couple of motion-detecting Santa Claus figures from Canadian Tire and stood them up on Neare Island. The humanoid figures are almost life-sized, with bright red clothes and bushy beards and jolly plastic faces. When a bird approaches the island, the motion detectors make speakers in the Santas start playing Christmas carols, while the grinning Santas bob side to side, in a sort of awkward festive dance. The native gulls don’t seem to mind this, but it freaks the cormorants out, making them go elsewhere. I find it amusing to think about this pair of robots on tiny Santa Island, who are on-duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, dancing with birds to “Jingle Bells.”

That’s my Hamilton – so weird, so charming.