VIDEO: How Hamilton promoted tourism to Americans in 1954

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Published February 1, 2022 at 9:59 pm

Almost seventy years ago, Hamilton was the “vacation playground of Ontario,” with a nary a smokestack in sight.

Or so the chamber of commerce would have had you believe.

Hidden in plain sight on YouTube, with just 85 views in the last 20 months, is 15½ minutes of cultural artifact gold. In 1954, the civic chamber of commerce in Hamilton produced an earnest-to-a-fault video entitled, “Welcome, Stranger,” which was “a portrait of Hamilton’s colourful, scenic setting and its pleasant way of life.” The promotional video, photographed by Bochsler Studios, follows “the Visitors,” a family comprised of a couple and their two young daughters, as they take in Hamilton’s sites and attractions.

Content warning: the film contains outdated and culturally insensitive language. René Robert Cavalier de La Salle, the first European explorer to reach the region, is referred to as gazing “upon the wilderness that would become Hamilton,” without any mention of Indigenous peoples. Hamilton is situated upon traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas.

An outdated term for Inuit also appears. In that era, Inuit tuberculosis patients were treated at a sanatorium on Hamilton Mountain. Many created art pieces from soapstone and paper. (Historian Shawn Selway has written a book about that period, titled, “Nobody Here Will Harm You: Mass Medical Evacuation from the Eastern Arctic, 1950–1965” (Wolsyk and Wynn, 2016).

Overall, there are some markers that make the video a well-preserved time capsule of post-war, mid-20th century Hamilton, while perhaps tipping the hand about what the city would try to conceal from outsiders. For instance, even though the steel industry was much larger at that time than it is today, the industrial smokestacks in the north and east ends of the city are  nowhere to be found. Neither is another ubiquitously Hamilton sight, Tim Hortons, although that might be due to the small fact it wouldn’t be created for another decade.

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The pitch appears directed to Americans. That is drawn from descriptions of “this Canadian version” of football, and the knowledge that the region saw plenty American car traffic before the construction of interstates and 400-series Ontario highways.

Some highlights:

Some early exposition by the narrator, Michael Fitzgerald, is laid over a police officer directing traffic on King Street West. Cars are headed in both directions, east and west. It would not be until two years later that King and Main, along with a number of other streets, became one-ways virtually overnight. Critics say that led to a declining, ‘drive-through’ downtown, which has only begun to rebound over the last two decades, especially since James Street became a two-way street again in the mid-2000s.

King Street West would not become a one-way street until 1956.

Right off the hop, after stopping at a tourist information booth was flying the American flag and the British Union Jack (Canada’s flag until 1965), the Visitors head to the Royal Botanical Gardens. They are right on time to catch the “famous rock garden is at the height of its midsummer beauty, with masses of petunias, wild roses, tiger lilies and flowering shrubs.”

The “family” crosses a rock bridge in Royal Botanical Gardens. “But it’s not for Mother,” the narrator states.

Presumably, every promotional moving picture ever made to hype up Hamilton has started with shots from the Royal Botanical Gardens. It would not come as a shock if there was a bylaw about this on the books.

Next, at Dundurn Castle, child performers Nancy and Janice Poag might not have been wowed by the museum’s Louis XIV clock.

But then they got a load of the stuffed two-headed calf.

Dundurn Castle once contained a stuffed two-headed calf. Everyone came to see it, from miles around, apparently.

As Hamilton Monthly once put it, the two-headed calf was “a grotesque sideshow addition that had nothing to do with the history of the ‘castle.’ ”

Pro tip: for authentic, taxidermied two-headed calves, head to the Huron County Museum in Goderich. It has two, or four, depending on your outlook.

Later, the Visitors boarded The Lady Hamilton for a two-hour cruise around Hamilton Harbour.

At that time, the Burlington Skyway bridge was under construction. It opened in 1958.

Hamilton Harbour, before the Burllngton Skyway bridge was completed and opened.

The following day, the Visitor family split up, with one daughter hitting up the Hamilton Farmers’ Market to buy cherries for a picnic lunch at Webster’s Fall. Dear old Daddy Visitor and another daughter went out to see the Hamilton Tiger-Cats run through “early-season training,” where players in full black-and-gold game uniforms ran through some plays without any defence.

Around the 10:50 mark, Tiger-Cats great Bernie Custis is visible, wearing No. 99. Three years earlier, Custis, whose name now graces a high school across the street from Tim Hortons Field, had become the first Black quarterback in the modern era of North American pro football, although he was later moved to running back.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats players practice in 1954. Bernie Custis, No. 99, appears at far left.

At that time, the Tiger-Cats, Montreal Alouettes, Ottawa Rough Riders and Toronto Argonauts were members of the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union; the eastern teams had yet to fully merge with five western Canada franchises to form the CFL.

Scenes from a Tiger-Cats game, complete with a dressed-out marching band and baton-twirling drum majorettes, also make an appearance.

A picnic lunch and a visit to the Art Gallery of Hamilton later, the visitors were ready to leave.

The closing scene involves driving up Hamilton Mountain for a view of the city looking east toward Lake Ontario.

Even though it is a 68-year-old video, some protective instincts might kick in at seeing a a child sit on the hood of a car, so close to the cliff, and with both adults several metres away.

Then as now, it is tough to beat the view from the top of the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton.

Then again, no one was leaning over a railing to take a selfie.

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