It Happened in Hamilton First. Ten only-in-Hamilton events that helped put the city on the map for all the right reasons. Skip to main content
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It Happened First in Hamilton

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We look at 10 only-in-Hamilton events that helped put the city on the map for all the right reasons.

By Helen Powers

Everything happens for a first time and Hamilton was the setting for some very interesting occasions never seen before in Ontario, Canada, or the British Empire. These events were unique, created by Hamiltonians whose motivations included an obsession with chess, expression of freedom, and in one case – an evil deed.

  1. LABOURING FOR CHANGE

Canada’s Nine Hours Movement league began in Hamilton in 1872 and expanded across southern Ontario and Quebec by workers who wanted a nine-hour workday. The city hosted a protest parade that didn’t quite convince employers, but the workers’ concerns did eventually land on political agendas. The league founded the Canadian Labour Union, a precursor of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, which formed a decade later.

  1. WRITING A NEW CHAPTER 

In Stoney Creek, the beautiful Erland Lee Museum is a Carpenter Gothic Revival style farmhouse that was home to the Lee family for well over a century. In their dining room, in 1897, the first-ever chapter of the Women’s Institute was created. The original mission to bring together local, isolated, rural women grew to international affiliations advocating for social, environmental, and economic change around the world.

  1. BRANCHING OUT

In 1851, Hamilton’s Mount Olive Lodge No. 1  became the first Canadian branch of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons. This organization was created in the U.S. by Prince Hall, specifically for African Americans. Historians note that involvement in the lodge was an important part of Hamilton’s Black community, which numbered about 600 people in 1861. 

  1. GOING THE DISTANCE

Once the Bell Telephone Company formed in 1877, Hamiltonian Hugh Cossart Baker Jr. soon established Canada’s first commercial telephone service. Some say his motivation was providing friends with telephones so they could all discuss their passion for chess. The city’s first telephone exchange – also the British Empire’s first – opened a year later and Hamilton hosted the Empire’s first commercial long-distance line in 1879.

  1. FILM’S FIRST DIVA

Flo Lawrence, known as the first celebrity movie star, was born here in 1886. In the era of silent movies, actors’ names were not shared with the public. However, Lawrence’s prolific work – over 250 movies – gained her recognition and significant pay. But her fame was boosted in 1910 when her death was faked and, soon after, the industry’s first publicity tour revealed her to be alive and well. 

  1. TRAFFIC LIGHTS, BIG CITY

Almost 100 years ago, in 1925, Canada’s first set of traffic lights was installed at King and Main streets, the criss-crossed intersection known as the Delta in the east end of Hamilton. As an extra warning to drivers, the amber light cycle included ringing bells. But the noise was especially irritating to nearby residents, so that feature was soon eliminated. Hamilton’s second-ever traffic lights were installed at Cannon and James streets. 

  1. BIRTH OF TIMMIES

It’s well known that the first franchised restaurant of NHL player Miles Gilbert Horton, a.k.a. Tim Horton, was established on Ottawa Street North in 1964. As the company grew, Horton’s role expanded from licensing his name to having hands-on involvement. It is said he even helped to build some business locations, including the restaurant in Hamilton’s Westdale neighbourhood. 

  1. HANG TIME

Here’s a gruesome historic first: Hamilton’s first documented murder case was that of Bartholomew London back in 1801 and his guilty wife was the first woman ever hung in Upper Canada, now known as Ontario. Mary Osbourne London had an affair with a farm employee and the pair made several botched attempts on poor Bartholomew’s life before his unfortunate demise. 

  1. PUTTING THE CANADIAN IN TIRE

In 1922, the founders of the Canadian Tire Corporation, brothers John and Alfred Billes, bought a business in Toronto called Hamilton Tire and Garage. With car ownership growing they did well and, in 1934, Walker Anderson opened the company’s first associate store at Main Street and West Avenue in downtown Hamilton. The Billes brothers insisted it not be called a Canadian Tire store until it proved successful. It’s still there.

  1. THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

No, we’re not talking about those historic invasions. More recently than 1812, an American sports and entertainment company announced that it was launching its first ever Canadian project at Hamilton’s FirstOntario Centre in the core. The major construction makeover will begin in 2023 overseen by the Oak View Group’s newly launched Toronto division and it aims to provide a mix of amenities for a live-work-play experience similar to the Distillery District in Toronto. Plans for the area  include turning the aging arena into a state-of-the-art sports and concert venue.

Curran CGS
Judy Marsales

Judy Marsales