UNTIL THE mid-1850's, the citizens of Hamilton depended on wells, springs, or creeks for their water supply. There were several creeks running through the city, but these were beginning to dry up as more and more land was developed into building lots. Those living near the bay used that water while others sank wells on their own property.
During the early 1850's, there was increasing concern that the waters of the bay, as well as the water drawn from wells in the city, were becoming polluted and unfit for domestic consumption. Many felt that a major cholera epidemic in the city was made more deadly because of the unsanitary water supply.
Hamilton was poorly regarded by fire insurance companies, who felt that the fire brigade was severely hampered by having to draw water for fire-fighting purposes from wells.
In 1854, city council decided that, for sanitary and safety reasons, it was necessary to call for plans and specifications of a permanent water system for the city of Hamilton. The winner of the prize awarded for the best set of proposals was Thomas C. Keefer.
Keefer named three possible sources of water for the city. Water could be brought to the city by gravitation from the Ancaster area or it could be pumped to the city from either the bay or Lake Ontario.
A Board of Water Commissioners was legislated into existence in 1856, with Adam Brown chosen as its first chairman. The board was given the mandate "to examine, consider and decide upon all matters relative to supplying a sufficient quantity of pure and wholesome water". As the costs of the Keefer proposals were staggering for a city of 25,000, a spirited debate raged over how much of the system could be afforded; Despite strong opposition from many individuals and groups, the water commissioners were determined to build the best water works system possible. In January, 1857, Mr. Keefer was hired by the city of Hamilton to oversee the implementation of his plans. For the next three years, water mains would be laid throughout the city, while a major pumping facility would be constructed near lake Ontario to pump lake water to a reservoir located on the side of the escarpment in Barton Township east of the city.
On Saturday, May 14, 1859, as construction was nearing completion, the Water Commissioners visited the Water Works to monitor the progress of the project. At the Engine House, (now the Museum of Science and Technology, Woodward Avenue), the machinery was nearly all in place and the walls of the handsome stone building were up, but the roof had yet to be put in place and the huge chimney that was planned was yet to be constructed.
Leaving the Pump House, the party proceeded to the reservoir along track of the main pipes. A 30-foot right-of-way for the pipes had been purchased by the Water Commissioners. As the route went through some beautiful countryside, a Spectator reporter, who was on the tour of inspection, suggested that another 30 feet beside tire pipes be purchased so that a road could be built: "We hope the citizens will see to it that the chance of obtaining this line of road will not be lost sight of, as it would certainly be the most delightful drive to be met with anywhere,"
As part of the celebration of Queen Victoria's birthday, May 24, 1859, the Water Commissioners organized a public display of the new water works system's capabilities. At 4 p.m. a large party of dignitaries proceeded to the court house square where the first stream of water from the new city hydrants was turned on. As the artillery band, under the leadership of Peter Grossman played God Save the Queen, the stream rose fully 87 feet in the air.
The assembly then moved over to the vicinity of King and John streets, where another hydrant was tested. The Hook and Ladder Company of the Fire Brigade elevated two ladders in the middle of the street and demonstrated how a stream of water could reach the top of the highest building in the city.
On July 22, 1859, the Water Works were put through a comprehensive series of tests for the manager and directors of North British Assurance Company to prove the capacity of the new system for fire-fighting purposes: "The jet in the Gore was playing, while at the same time, no less than six streams were thrown from three hydrants in the vicinity. A large number of citizens were present and all appeared much gratified with the display."
A reporter for the Spectator visited the Pump House on November 7, 1859, and called the engines, installed by the Dundas foundry, under the direction of John Gartshore, to be the "largest of their kind on the continent, they are so compact, and their various parts so elegant, that as one looks at them at rest, he wonders how so much strength can be sleeping in so small a compass."
The Water Works were completed, and were officially inspected by the Water Commissioners on January 22, 1860. A Spectator reporter, who accompanied the tour of inspection, described the operation of the Gartshore Pumps as follow, "The massive machinery, the power of which is astonishing, moves with the regularity of a clock, and with but little more noise. The immense fly-wheels and walking beams seem to feel the importance of their motive power, so deliberative and solemn do their movements appear. While the powerful machinery is working, not the slightest jarring or trembling in the building can be felt, such is the strength and solidity of the bearings and walls of the engine room."
Later that year, on September 19, 1860, as part of the Royal Tour of Hamilton by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), the Hamilton Waterworks system was officially inaugurated.
In the Water Commissioners' address to the Prince, Adam Brown read the following: "The engines to which your Royal Highness is directed are specimens of Canadian workmanship, the most powerful and highly finished of their kind in the province. The fact that a city of 25,000 inhabitants has carried to completion an undertaking of such magnitude, shows that protection of life and property from fire, sanitary considerations, and social comfort, are as well understood and as highly appreciated here as in larger and older communities."
One hundred and twenty five years later, the Gartshore pumps, still housed in their original stone building, provide interested citizens with prime example of the wonders of nineteenth century steam technology, as applied to the needs of an urban water works system.
The pumping operation at 900 Woodward Avenue is open year-round for public viewing. Public hours are Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. The pumping station is closed Saturday.