Around the Head of Lake Ontario: Part 7

Go back to Part 6

From Wentworth Stairs to Dundurn Stairs

Date: 12 August 2021
Start Point: Bruce Trail/Escarpment Rail Trail at Wentworth Stairs, Hamilton
End Point: Dundurn Stairs, near south end of Dundurn Street, Hamilton
Distance Covered: 4.0 km*
Total Distance Covered: 33.9 km

*plus short distance from parking places to start and end points

All maps ©  OpenStreetMap contributors

129. Today’s linear hike is 4.0 km from its start at the intersection of the Bruce/Escarpment Rail Trail and Wentworth Stairs, to its end where the Bruce Trail meets Dundurn Stairs. If you bring two cars, you’ll park one at your previous end point at the P in Mountain Avenue Park at the top of Wentworth Stairs, and the other on Dundurn Street close to the Hillcrest bus loop by the foot of Dundurn Stairs. You’ll go halfway down Wentworth Stairs (much easier than climbing them!) until you hit the Bruce, which runs along the side of Sherman Access for a short way before veering into the woods. At the end, you meet Dundurn Stairs halfway up and go down them to your end car. Unless you fancy walking through Hamilton suburbia and reclimbing the whole height of Wentworth Stairs, there is no recommended return route on this hike.

However, there is a nice and easy side trip (if you have a car): it’s a 5-minute drive north to the other end of Dundurn Street, then left on York Boulevard, and then immediate right to a large free P at Dundurn Castle. From there you can explore several interesting sights on historic Burlington Heights.

Doing all this by public transit is more complicated. (This is Hamilton.) You can take the #12 Wentworth bus from downtown to near the foot of Wentworth Stairs. And you can get the #7 Locke bus from the Hillcrest loop back downtown. You’ll have to change buses downtown if you want to take the side trip to Dundurn Castle. Or you could walk it: it’s just over 3.0 km.

130. This is where I started, on the Sherman Access, then closed to vehicles for “rockfall protection” maintenance. That yellow “Beware Falling Rocks” sign will be the dominant motif of today’s hike. The Bruce Trail takes off into the woods by that sign on the left …

131. … but soon re-emerges and descends on a sidewalk to join Arkledun Avenue, the lower section of one of the main Mountain access roads from downtown Hamilton. The upper section is called the Jolley Cut, and takes the form of a hairpin that conveys traffic from James and John Streets downtown to Upper Wellington and Concession Streets on the Mountain. Hamilton is the biggest city by far that the Bruce Trail passes through, and, unobstructed by leaves even in summer, the view above is the most urbanized offered by the Trail anywhere on its 900 km length.

“Arkledun,” incidentally, seems to be a name unique to Hamilton. Possibly inspired by Arkle, a mountain in northwest Scotland, it memorializes a now-vanished mansion built in 1846 at the head of John Street South. As for the “Jolley Cut,” James Jolley was the Uli (see #93 above) of his day: from 1870-73 he built a public road up the Mountain at his own expense and bequeathed it to Hamilton on condition that tolls never be charged. The Jolley Cut is very steep: “Early buses had trouble in snowstorms; occasionally the driver would ask the passengers to walk, or even push the bus, until a more level area was reached”: Jacqueline Inch Carson, in Margaret Houghton, ed. Hamilton Street Names: An Illustrated Guide (Toronto: James Lorimer, 2002), p. 63.

132. The skyline of downtown Hamilton, composed chiefly of residential towers, is reasonably imposing for a city of half a million. The tower on the left is the Olympia Apartments (98 metres, 1976), the fourth tallest in the city, though seemingly taller because of its raised location only a couple of hundred metres from our viewpoint. On the horizon is the wooded slope of the Escarpment after it has made a 180 degree turn around the Head of the Lake and is heading east towards Burlington. That’s our future direction, too.

133. To gird themselves for the steep climb up the Mountain, access roads gobble up considerable tracts of real estate. The hairpin in the foreground is on the Sherman Access, the same road that we started on this hike. It normally takes traffic from Charlton and Wentworth Streets to Upper Sherman, but was closed for repair when I passed by, hence the absence of vehicles. Beneath it is the Claremont Access that takes traffic from Victoria Avenue (disappearing toward the Harbour) to Upper James Street, the main north/south drag on the Mountain. The smooth patch of green at left and the parking lot to its right are in Corktown Park, the western end of the Escarpment Rail Trail.

Corktown is one of Hamilton’s oldest neighbourhoods, settled largely by Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine of 1845-52. Why was it called Corktown when most of the immigrants came from the counties of Kerry, Limerick, and Clare? Marjorie Freeman Campbell has an answer: “As Cobh, port of the city of Cork, was a leading embarkation point it seems probable that Corktown was named for the last Irish city homesick eyes had rested on” (A Mountain and a City, p. 172). There’s a Corktown of a similar vintage in Toronto too.

134. This is the view down a 2 km section of Wellington Street from Main Street East (that crosses it at the Tim Hortons sign at bottom left) as far as the grain terminal at Pier 10 on the Harbour. The lower city between the foot of the Escarpment and Burlington Street, the northernmost major east/west thoroughfare, is only about 2.5 km from north to south. Torontonians have a difficult period of mental adjustment when they come to Hamilton: they have to get their heads around the fact that here Lake Ontario lies north, rather than south, of downtown.

135. This cluster of tall buildings is at the heart of downtown Hamilton. The black tower (103 metres), third tallest in the city, is part of the Lloyd Jackson D. Square complex that includes a hotel, indoor shopping mall, and market. When completed in 1972 it was named Stelco Tower and contained local offices for the Steel Company of Canada, then Hamilton’s largest employer. Stelco had angered its Hamilton base by moving its corporate headquarters to Toronto four years earlier, so the branding of the tower may have been an exercise in PR damage limitation. After a roller-coaster series of booms and busts, Stelco still operates in Hamilton, but at a capacity much reduced from its 1970s peak. The tower is now called 100 King Street West, and it’s still an office building.

136. (Zooming in.) The Art Deco/Gothic Revival Pigott Building at 36 James Street South was Hamilton’s first skyscraper (64 metres, 1928). Designed by Bernard Prack (1881-1962), its stepped-back tower was modelled on the American Radiator Building (1924) in New York City. Originally an office building, in 1996 the Pigott was converted to an upscale condominium with 110 apartments. The Hamilton-based Pigott Construction Company was responsible for many prominent buildings in Hamilton and beyond, including some of the original buildings (1929-30) on the campus of McMaster University, Westdale Secondary School (1931), the Cathedral of Christ the King (1933, see #140 below), and the first Burlington Skyway (1958). In Toronto, Pigott built the first expansion of the Royal Ontario Museum (1933), and the original three buildings of the Toronto Dominion Centre (1967-68).

137. Here where Arkledun crosses over the Claremont Access, look above that tanker truck …

138. … and you’ll begin to understand the problem of keeping the roads open between Hamilton’s lower city and the Mountain. The Niagara Escarpment is a very active geological feature, considering its age. It’s eroding backwards as lower strata of soft mudstone are eaten away by weather … and crumbled by the vibrations from passing tanker trucks. Then the harder dolomite cap, no longer supported, falls down, sometimes in great chunks. This process has been going on for millions of years and will continue for millions to come. Concrete retaining walls are no match for it. Really, this is a city that requires expert geologists perpetually on call to establish how best to deploy road maintenance resources.

139. Where the Bruce makes a U-turn and dives under Arkledun to join the Claremont Access, sits this charming group of stone buildings. As Rock Castle, it was a thirty-room Picturesque Gothic mansion built in 1848 by the owner of a foundry; it was later renamed Rannoch Lodge, but “Rock Castle” is what has stuck. Now it’s squeezed between a tower block next door and a steep drop-off. It has survived because the insurance company who bought the land it stands on in 1969 was allowed a zoning concession in return for donating the building to the City of Hamilton. As 95 Arkledun Avenue, Rock Castle is now a private residence as well as a small number of separate apartments.

140. As the Trail climbs alongside the Claremont Access, the mouth of the wooded Dundas Valley comes into view. The edifice at left is the Cathedral Basilica of Christ the King, seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton. It was designed by the Hamilton architect William Russell Souter (1893-1971) and built by the Pigott Construction Company (see #136 above). A sliver of Cootes Paradise can be seen at centre right. The white domed building at upper right is a Sikh temple, the Gurdwara Shaheedgarh Sahib (1974) on Old Guelph Road in Dundas. Two very different religious traditions have taken advantage of the unusual topography here at the Head of the Lake. They have built their temples on prominences away from the urban centre in order to capitalize on the mystique provided by distant views.

141. A panoramic view of Hamilton’s skyline, with Hamilton Harbour stretching away behind. Hamilton’s tallest building, Landmark Place (127 metres, 1974) is at right. In 2018 a height limit of 94.2 metres was imposed on Hamilton skyscrapers, representing the putative height of the Escarpment in this area. Its intent was presumably to preserve views of the Harbour from the Escarpment. It is currently unclear whether this policy is actually being enforced, as Hamilton’s second tallest and most recent skyscraper, the Marquee Residence at 20/22 George Street (104 metres; the second tower from the left), was completed in 2020.

142. This bird was perched in a bush by stairs leading down from James Mountain Road. It was quite aware of my presence, but was curious enough to stick around long enough for me to photograph it. It’s an adult male house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), with a huge bill for its size and a head seemingly dipped in red ink. These birds were natives of southwestern North America, but were marketed to New York City pet stores as “Hollywood finches” in the early 1940s. As they were wild birds, their sale was then banned by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (see #115 above), so the pet dealers simply released them to avoid prosecution. They were first spotted in Ontario in 1972 and since then have done a fine job of colonizing the entire province. They are one of the few birds that can outcompete the house sparrow at bird feeders.

143. Here exposed strata at the top of the Escarpment form a wall that runs alongside the Bruce Trail as it descends from James Mountain Road to Beckett Drive.

144. Here the Bruce crosses Beckett Drive, the extension of Queen Street in the lower city that provides access to Garth Street on the Mountain. This is the dodgiest pedestrian crossing on the HOLO loop, and one of the most dangerous on the entire Bruce Trail. You have to scurry across the road and through that gap in the wall opposite fast enough to avoid being hit by traffic speeding around blind curves from both directions. There are no sidewalks on either side of Beckett Drive, so you have little choice: cross here … or go back the way you came. Time to install a crosswalk, perhaps?

145. This is today’s end point: Dundurn Stairs. As the blaze indicates, the Bruce Trail passes under them … but that’s for the next hike. This time, let’s climb aboard the Stairs and go down them to our end car.

Side Trip to Burlington Heights

146. You can view some of the highlights of this scenic and historic location in a couple of hours, though you’ll need a lot more time to take in everything.

147. Dundurn Castle (top image) is an Italianate neoclassical mansion, the finest domicile of its period in Canada. Built of stucco-covered brick, it was completed in 1835 for Sir Allan Napier MacNab (1798-1862), a prominent figure in early Hamilton history. As a teenager MacNab fought in the War of 1812, and later he had a major role in suppressing the Rebellion of 1837 led by William Lyon Mackenzie. At least in his earlier career, MacNab was a diehard Tory, a supporter of the Family Compact and an opponent of political reform towards responsible government. He made a fortune in land speculation during the rise of Hamilton to prominence at the Head of the Lake, and built Dundurn Castle with the proceeds. From 1854-56 MacNab served as joint premier of the Province of Canada, representing Canada West (i.e., pre-Confederation Ontario). The mansion was bought by the City of Hamilton in about 1900 and has subsequently been restored to its appearance in 1855, i.e., during MacNab’s premiership. Guided tours are available and recommended; (bottom) the drawing room on the main floor.

148. There are several other buildings and sites of historical interest on the south end of this narrow, 30-metre-high sand and gravel bar, the strategic significance of which is still evident today. What was formerly the gatehouse to Dundurn Castle is now the Hamilton Military Museum (above), worth a visit if you are interested in the War of 1812. This end of Burlington Heights was settled by Richard Beasley (1761-1842), one of the first white inhabitants of the district: the plaque (right) marks the spot. During the War of 1812 the Beasley property was turned into a depot to supply British troops and their First Nations allies. Three lines of earthworks were raised to defend it. It was from an encampment here that the surprise attack on American forces was launched on 6 June 1813 at Stoney Creek (see #84 above), culminating in the victory that may well have settled the future of Canada.

149. Across York Boulevard from the Dundurn Castle parking lot is the main entrance and gatehouse to Hamilton Cemetery. The oldest public cemetery (1847) in the city, it contains the graves of many local notables. Near this spot there is a memorial to the politician and townsite developer George Hamilton (1788-1836), for whom the city is named and who was responsible for its establishment at the Head of Lake in the 1820s. A circuit of the cemetery makes a very pleasant stroll on a fine day, and there are visible remnants of the earthworks of 1812 to be found among the graves.

150. At the north end of the Cemetery is a high-level bridge carrying York Boulevard over the Desjardins Canal. The bridge offers spectacular views over Hamilton Harbour to the east, and (especially) over Cootes Paradise to the west (top image), with the town of Dundas just visible at the far end. Unfortunately, busy Highway 403, running close to the shore in the foreground, tends to shatter the illusion of rural calm. (Bottom) During cold winters the shallow waters of Cootes Paradise freeze solidly enough to support a few brave (or foolhardy) skaters.

Go to Part 8: Dundurn Stairs to Filman Road