Register Wednesday | May 12 | 2021

Steeling Beauty

Confronting the state of Canada’s industrial heartland

“Where are you?”

“At the mouth of the Sherman Inlet, where it empties into the bay.”

“What do you see?”

“It’s all white with snow. I’m standing in a row of tall poplars at the shore and can see what look like coyote tracks going down the embankment and across the bay. Three tugboats are locked in the ice, and a couple of barges.”

“Anything else?”

“A flock of geese flying over, landing on the frozen water of the inlet, behind me.”


“And to the right the black and brown and grey of the stacks and sheds of the steel industry…”

Last winter I was asked by the CBC to describe the possible beauty of an industrial landscape. The interview took place in Hamilton, early on a Saturday morning while most of the city slept but the factories of metal-making were awake and working. A rumble and hum filled the air, punctuated by clanking. Smoke was being sent up and, at the top of one Mordor-like stack, a fire writhed and gyrated. It looked liquid, alive.

A friend who heard the broadcast later asked why I would want to approach the topic at all and suggested I was trying to make friends with my shadow side, the steel industry being a metaphor for my own “belching chimneys.” When writing my recent book about the beauty of Hamilton’s setting, I avoided dealing with the industrial zone along the shoreline of the bay because it felt too grievous. No area of the city was more sensuous than the shoreline, with its narrow inlets of water tonguing the fingers of land that poked into the bay. And no area has been more brutally violated, a fact reinforced by the many smokestacks shooting their daily dose of toxic substances into the atmosphere above the city.

So my friend had a point: I didn’t tell the whole story. If I was to be anything more than a shill for the tourist bureau, I knew that one day I’d have to own up to the dirtier truths of this city that I love, but that I sometimes hate to love.


We make things here. We’ve always made things. From iron and steel to railway cars and automobiles (Studebaker) and elevators (Otis). From farm machinery (International Harvester), sewing machines (Singer) and refrigerators (Westinghouse) to screws, nails and wire. We’ve made shoes and textiles, soap and detergent, chemicals and candy. Lifesavers. Proctor and Gamble. We once boasted about being the Birmingham of Canada, the Pittsburgh of the North.

We’ve made things here in part because we’re so close to Toronto. No two major cities in the country grew in such close proximity. Early on, political power went to Toronto, home to the larger, ruling British population, while Hamilton powered its growth with boatloads of entrepreneurial Scots, and Americans fleeing the revolution.

Hamilton’s industries first set up shop downtown, but moved bayward when the railway was built along the shoreline. There were obvious advantages to be exploited: factories were located on the points of land between inlets; the inlets served as boat slips and the points as piers. In the mid-nineteenth century, bragging rights for a bright future went to places with the most coal-smoking chimneys, and Hamilton had plenty to brag about. As western Canada opened up and markets grew, the factories became larger and more numerous still. Gradually the inlets were filled to accommodate them, and when that wasn’t enough, the bay itself began to be filled.

Today, a quarter of the bay has been buried to provide 1,800 acres of real estate for steel and other industries. Of the original shoreline, only three inlets remain: Sherman, Land’s and Stipes. Stipes divides Stelco and Dofasco, the two major steel companies that have helped alter that shoreline. In 1885, ten years before the company that would become Stelco built its first plant between two of the inlets, the Hamilton Spectator reported other hopes for the site:


A scheme is on foot to build a fine summer hotel on Huckleberry Point, about two miles east of the city. It is one of the most beautiful spots in the country, is covered with a magnificent grove of maple trees, and in its immediate vicinity are a number of extensive inlets where the water lilies most do congregate.

Not many water lilies congregate now. In fact, when you drive between Toronto and Niagara Falls, there isn’t much of our former garden state left to see. The highway follows a sandbar that separates lake from bay, lofting traffic high over the canal that connects the two, providing the classic view of Hamilton, the heavy industrial landscape of stacks and smoke.

Factory-building blossomed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when the Canadian government imposed protective tariffs that made it desirable for Ameri-can firms to open branch plants here. The upshot today is that our waterfront makes what Toronto’s waterfront boasts—the structural steel supporting its condominium towers, the five appliances in each unit. Here, at least, no one can easily be fooled into thinking that our North American way of life comes at no cost to the environment, or to ourselves.

But like every other manufacturing centre in North America, we’re not making as much as we used to. A global economy, with its cheaper foreign labour, has meant that, over the past twenty-five years the city lost half its manufacturing base. The latest company closing came last December—an appliance maker. Eight hundred employees were out of a job, including my next-door neighbour, who had worked there for two decades. As a result, there are many empty buildings and 3,400 acres of brownfield sites, all looking for new life in a city that finds itself half in denial, half wondering if this isn’t the greatest opportunity that’s come its way in a century.

These brownfields are the ugly, open wounds of our former glory. Their legacy comes in the form of solid and liquid waste, the heavy metals, chemical solvents and plumes of gas leaking from tanks that fester underground. Both Birmingham and Pittsburgh found themselves in situations similar to the one Hamilton is in now, the former losing its manufacturing base, the latter its steel industry. Over the past twenty-five years, both have managed to reinvent themselves as centres for technology, health science and services. They did this in part by transforming their brownfield sites into new housing, parks and retail development. Hamilton is starting to catch up.

The new beauty for industrial has-beens is in remediation: broadly speaking, digging out and sending the contaminated soil for cleaning (very expensive), trucking it to a hazardous landfill sites (less expensive) or containing and capping it (a bargain). Cities in the United States and Britain are helped by federal programs, but nothing similar really exists in Canada. Municipalities are on their own. Hamilton has initiated a program with tax incentives to cover the cost of cleanup. It’s a model other cities in the country are copying, and it’s also beginning to pay off. This year, twenty-five sites are close to being sold.


So where are the three inlets in this scenario?

Sherman Inlet has been designated a brownfield site and is owned by the Hamilton Port Authority, which has plans for its remediation and development into a park. It’s part of the Authority’s attempt to improve its civic image after a century of authorizing freewheeling industrial development.

Land’s Inlet offers a broader picture of the issues involved. Its dry valley bed snakes a kilometre into the city and is home to abandoned buildings, a roofing company, large dogs who bark maniacally behind fences, and the former Stelco Nail Factory, which was recently purchased by Hamilton Health Sciences to be reborn as a medical facility.

Land’s Inlet is a landscape shattered on two fronts, geographical and human. It was the site of a plastics recycling firm that was set ablaze almost ten years ago. Firefighters spent the better part of a week putting down the black and orange hydrocarbon monster that the arson released into the atmosphere. The water they sprayed on the flames pooled into a bowl of toxic soup that corroded the stainless steel of the fire trucks parked there, before draining into storm sewers that follow the path of the inlet and empty into the bay. The Plastimet site has since been cleaned up, capped, and is now a park.

Some consider that green carpet of grass a cover-up of a different kind. “I feel like I’ve been lied to,” one neighbourhood resident told an interviewer, when officials persisted in downplaying the immediate and long-term hazards of the fire. No inquiry was held, though the fire was the worst of its kind to take place in Canada. “I figured I’m a taxpayer, they’re taking care of me. What’s bothered me most is that the dream is gone. That little bubble has burst.” Her burst bubble, and the burst bubbles of others like her, has led to the formation in the last decade of citizen watchdog groups like Environment Hamilton, Clean Air Hamilton and Stackwatch.

The third remaining inlet, Stipes, lies at the dirty heart of it all: a long slip of water separating Dofasco and Stelco. You can only catch a glimpse of it from the road, and to get anywhere near its water you have to drive almost to the gates of Dofasco. I did that once, and before I had slipped the car into park a guard came up and said, “You should go now.” His overprotectiveness made me wonder what they had to hide in there, and how I could find out.


Both steel companies used to offer tours, but these ended twenty years ago. I explained my desire to a friend one day as we drove around town in his van full of watering cans and garden tools. Peter is a born Hamiltonian. He delivered bread with his father in a horse-drawn truck in the bad old days of the late fifties and sixties, before provincial legislation was passed regarding factory emissions. The iron oxide in the air would make the bathwater run red when he washed his hair. These days he has the contract to maintain both companies’ office greenery. “I was just in Stelco, and I’ll be in Dofasco tomorrow,” he said.

The next day I served as his apprentice. After watering plants in the quality control building, which lies within Dofasco’s gates, we drove slowly up West Perimeter Road, over the filled-in bay and along the tree-lined channel that some maps name Stipes Inlet, but that the company-issued site map calls the Ottawa Street Slip. Stelco lay opposite. The companies have been able to expand into the bay only because the Hamilton Port Authority made water lots available—portions of the bay itself that the companies could then “reclaim,” a euphemism for landfilling and building on.

We drove past the slab storage yard, where blocks of steel sixteen feet long, three feet wide and eight inches thick are stacked eight high. Past a street dubbed Iron Way, we turned onto By-Product Road, beyond which lay black mountains of piled coal. The coal feeds the blast furnaces, and the pyramids of it are Hamilton’s version of condo development, complete with prime, waterfront views. Falcons are tethered to posts that line the perimeter of the point to scare off the seagulls that used to snow-cap the coal and docked ships.

Left on Coke Plant Road, around the loop of West Intake and East Intake Roads, and onto Blast Furnace Road. There were pickup trucks, dump trucks and vehicles you’d never see off-site, like slab carriers—huge mobile tunnels, three tires to a side (wheels twice the height of a van) with a cab riding above and a set of claws between the wheels for carrying steel slabs.

And everywhere, men. Men dwarfed by the geometry of production: buildings, stacks and exposed piping. Men rebuilding Blast Furnace No. 2. Men working in a semi-darkness, revealed by open doorways. No one paid us the slightest attention. I was glad, because we were now in deep and my inner falcon was scaring me shitless. Peter, meanwhile, happily followed every road and every gap between buildings that appeared road-like. His enthusiasm surprised me, since his earlier comments on having to work in this industrial neck of the woods were visceral and unequivocal. “I hate it here,” he said. “It’s ugly. It stinks.”

We came upon the Bayfront Bistro, a one-storey, windowless structure that looked like a ship container. He slowed to a crawl on Mason’s Alley as we passed a sign that read “Danger Sudden Steam Clouds,” to see if we could get caught in a steam cloud. Next, we stopped to watch a machine probe with its business end a huge, tipped-over cauldron glowing orange with heat. If this were Mordor and we were hobbits, we might have flung the ring there.


Steel-making is notoriously polluting. One of the benefits of a global economy is that much of this industrial pollution is now being created elsewhere. Hamilton and Pittsburgh have been replaced by cities with names like Jiangyou and Benxi, both in China. In fact, seven of the ten most polluting cities in the world are in that country alone. As a whole, China sends 50 million tonnes of pollutants into the air a year, while Canada sends 4.5 million. Though Peter’s hair no longer runs red when he washes it, the stacks that surrounded us still cough out 1,000 tonnes of toxic pollutants such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides, hydrochloric acid, chlorine gas and mercury (to name a few).

Industry is therefore the main source of particulate matter in the air that we Hamiltonians, and all those who live downwind of us, breathe. The stack from Stelco’s sintering plant is in the top ten nationwide for dioxin emissions. Concerns about respiratory illness and cancer have dogged Hamilton for years, and now comes a new twist. After studying mice kept downwind of the industrial district, researchers at McMaster University wrote of “an urgent need to investigate the genetic consequences with exposure to chemical pollution through the inhalation of urban and industrial air.” You are what you breathe.

The loss of manufacturing prowess has given us the luxury, so to speak, of cleaning up old sites and improving the industrial process. Obviously, there’s still a long way to go, especially in light of another recent report, this one from Pollution Watch, that tells us toxic air and water pollution in Canada as a whole has increased by 50 percent between 1995 and 2002. In Hamilton’s case, the desire for cleaner air and water also coincided with a 1987 report from the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes, which cited Hamilton Harbour and forty-two other locations as “areas of concern.” In order to get the harbour off the list, cleanup was required on a wide number of fronts, from discharges into the harbour to shoreline aesthetics. A remedial action plan was put together, and the Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC) was created. The council is comprised of “stakeholders”: citizens, municipal politicians, Port Authority personnel, scientists and representatives from both Dofasco and Stelco.

I happened to attend a BARC open-meeting a few months ago. Participants included all of the above plus a good number of interested community members. We were asked to describe our vision of the bay’s future. I was prepared to offer a post-industrial scenario, with housing and parkland replacing the stacks and smoke, but was surprised to discover how little appetite existed for replacing the industry or even badmouthing it for damaging the environment. The plan was to have the harbour delisted by 2015. By 2002, they were halfway there. For a body of water that many considered near death, success was rapid and unexpected. Everyone in the room had worked hard for twenty years to get where they were now and were more than willing to continue finding non-confrontational ways of moving toward the common goal of cleaner water and air. A bunch of visionary pragmatists. I had to admire them.


Back on West Perimeter Road, Peter parked the van and we stepped out. Lined along Stipes Inlet were a few pine trees and a path that meandered atop a narrow, undulating mound of soil. The path was cinder; the pines, short and gritty. We came to a set of wooden stairs that took us down to water level, where we watched the carp jump. There were many jumping carp. The Skyway Bridge, which provides the classic view of Hamilton’s industry, fit perfectly into the frame made by the mouth of the inlet. Some folks see a sensuality, a dark muscular attractiveness in that view.

But with a brownfield site, it’s what’s hidden that matters. The harbour is in fact a geographical sink. One small outlet drains it into Lake Ontario. Stuff tends to settle on the bottom rather than be carried into the lake by currents. Stelco and Dofasco have cleaned up their act substantially, though both still discharge enough quantities of heavy metals and chemicals into the harbour to earn them a Pollution Watch national ranking of 112 and 195, respectively. But the problem here—the problem that won’t go away, figuratively or literally—is the buildup of toxic sediment on the bottom of the harbour.

Peter and I were standing above one of two hot spots. Under our little landing, Stipes Inlet contains what one scientist has described as “the motherlode of PAHs.” The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are in the coal tar, which is a remnant of coking operations. Carcinogenic and toxic to human and aquatic life—except, seemingly, carp—these underwater treasures include cyanide, copper, nickel, zinc, cadmium, lead, iron, manganese, mercury, arsenic, ammonia, phosphorus and benzene (to name, again, only a few).

The second hot spot, Randle Reef, lies at the mouth of the Sherman Inlet, where this story began. The decade-long struggle to decide how to remediate that underwater site provides a window into the monumental challenges facing efforts to delist the harbour. At first, the reef was to be dredged out. Expense, fear about disturbing the site and protests from Stelco workers (who would have to breathe dioxin-laden fumes when the dredgings were burned clean in their sintering plant) changed that. The current plan is to build a wall around the reef, dump toxic waste dredged from other harbour locations on top of what’s already there and cap it.

Hardly the ideal solution, and not everyone is happy with it. Some argue that the group effort behind BARC can’t completely deal with these bigger problems of harbour pollution because of the conciliatory nature of the organization. Plus there are concerns that the vested interests of the industry will prevent the harder, more expensive choices from being made.

The scale of Hamilton’s environmental damage doesn’t leave much room for ideas of beauty. If there is a beauty, perhaps it’s invisible, present in what you don’t see. Perhaps an aspect of it can even be found in imperfect, conciliatory nature that also drives BARC. Peter’s complaints are less vociferous these days, as he meets more and more of the people who work at the plants and in the offices, some of whom he has known since school days. “It’s like a village,” he told me. As with many Hamiltonians, his response is complicated by the fact that the steel-making landscape is an authentic place, problematic as that place continues to be, and that the two companies have been weaving themselves for generations into the fabric of city life.

But as we left the steelworks, he pointed out a Canada Customs board that hung on the back of the gatehouse. It was a sign requiring all non-Canadians to check in with their passports. Meant for foreign sailors, it confirmed our feeling that we’d been made alien to our own natural environment, at least in this part of the city.

Peter went on to tend the lilies in Dofasco’s head-quarters for the rest of the day. I took the roads home. If there had been a shift change, I would have found myself in one of the streams of traffic that leave the steelworks then. Long lines of cars and trucks that fan out, each vehicle following its familiar path as though travelling up the former watercourses that once fed the buried inlets, each seeking its own particular source in city or countryside.

There is, I suppose, a kind of beauty in that too.