observations and opinion
On March 30th at the Hamilton Around-the-Bay Road Race, the oldest running event in North America, my old high school friend Bruce ran five 30 kilometer circuits in a weekend, to raise money for the local St. Joseph’s Health Centre. I never saw him at the race because he was, of course, out running all the time (unlike me, who barely ran at all). But like many fans, I tracked his progress. His saga took him five times around the Bay, and five times across this landmark bridge:
Late Saturday night, as he ran one of his five circuits round the Bay, he posted this on Facebook to let his followers know how he was doing:
At the time, the Lift Bridge was in sight for me too, across the water at my hotel in Burlington:
If you look closely at that photo, you will see the Loch Ness-like hump of the Skyway Bridge and in front of it, the stubby “twin towers” of the Lift Bridge. The Skyway is daunting and huge. But the Lift Bridge is more humble, more lovable. I spent my early boyhood near or on the orange structure and just seeing the words “lift bridge in sight” in Bruce’s status update, stirred my heart.
If you have crossed the Lift Bridge, by car or even better on foot, you get a weird experience of suspension in space. When I was little, going across the Lift Bridge brought a brief flurry of excitement – looking outwards or looking down at the water below, you would wonder: will the bridge stay in place? Or is this the time its ribbed steel platform suddenly sags under the weight of Buick Wildcat? What if the road bed starts to go up while I’m on it? Will I roll off the end? Such were the worries of at least one boy. Happily, the bridge never sagged and never jumped out of place.
The Lift Bridge, which to me has always been orange and tough and cool, straddles a man-made channel. I’m not sure how many people can say they started out life on an isthmus. But I can, and “isthmus” was a word I learned early, to accurately describe the long skinny stretch of land that enclosed Hamilton Harbour and linked the cities of Hamilton and Burlington. The Beach Strip, as it shall always be known, started out as a sandbar and haunt of the local aboriginal peoples. Europeans populated the area beginning in the 18th century but didn’t make much of the Beach Strip until they carved a canal through it. That opening allowed boat traffic to migrate from Lake Ontario into Hamilton Harbour (and vice versa) which of course, enabled the City of Hamilton to become an early industrial behemoth in the first half of the 20th Century. You can get all the details on wikipedia, of course.
The Beach Strip had some amazing natural advantages. First, it had beaches on two sides (lake and harbour) which attracted cottagers in the early 20th century. It is hard to imagine how lovely it must have been out there, on hot summer days when the lake and bay waters sparkled in the sunlight and the cool breezes slid in across the sandbar. Humble and more impressive houses were erected along both beaches, although facing the lake was always the preferred location. It must have been magic, once.
But fate, politics and commerce had their big fat fingers pointed at the Beach Strip by mid-century and things slithered downhill. Hamilton was too successful at making steel and other things, pushing millions of tonnes of dirt into the air above the Beach and pushing huge amounts of cargo through the little canal from harbour to lake. To get from the south to the north end of the strip, you had to go across that canal they’d dug for shipping traffic. That required a bridge.
A lift bridge is an incredibly simple thing based on the magic of counterweights. Vertical towers stand at opposite sides of the channel. Between them sits a horizontal bridge. That horizontal road bed rises, as heavy weights at each end are lowered. A ship appears on the horizon, the bridge goes up (slowly), the ship passes underneath (slowly) and then the weights are raised, gently – and slowly – lowering the bridge platform back into place.
The operative word for all of this, charming and wonderful as it may have been, was “slow.” If you happened to be on either side of the channel when the bridge went up, you could look forward to a long wait while boats coming from, and going to, interesting places cruised by under the raised bridge. It was the need for speed which might have made the Lift Bridge obsolete and which, in the 1950s, required the building of another bridge: the fabulous Skyway. If you’re a bridge fan, as I am, you will marvel at the great curving bow of the Skyway as it bends upwards, creating a tall arch under which the most impressive ore and cargo ships could serenely pass. By the time I came along, the Skyway had already been a landmark for a long time. This mammoth structure literally cast a shadow down on our little house and I have often joked that my early days were like those of Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall”, who grew up under the roller coaster at Coney Island.
By then all the charm had been rubbed off the Beach Strip. I am quite sure that to say you lived there, to anyone who did not, meant that you were either poor, or rough, or unlucky. That’s not to say all my neighbours were any of those things, and no offense is intended. But the truth is, the Beach Strip was not a fancy part of town when I grew up there and, having just visited it a couple of times this weekend, it still isn’t fancy. It was poor, under a bridge and buffeted by walls of bronze-coloured cloud that oozed out of the city’s factories. Nobody really wanted to be there.
I know people who go “home” to the places where they started out life, and their bodies come alive with it. They smell the trees, they breathe in the breeze, they saunter into familiar shops, they go to the houses and yards where their parents raised them. For me and likely other refugees from the Beach Strip, none of that happens. The air was never welcoming. The Beach Strip, if you’re lucky, is the place you left. It is better now, but the trees are mostly gone and so too, are many of the houses. Not even our beloved lilac bush is still standing. The only fish I ever caught – an ugly and diseased carp that I hauled out of the polluted water beside the Lift Bridge, was buried under that lilac. I knew we couldn’t eat it, but figured it must be safe for lilac trees. And it was. We had lovely, fat, fragrant lilac blooms back then. It was the prettiest thing in my world, the lilac on the front lawn.
In the backyard, behind our cramped, converted cottage, stood a tall dead tree, white and ghostly and grim. As a boy I spent hours and days out at that tree, carving an opening into its trunk, then digging out a hole big enough to climb into. I longed to disappear inside that tree trunk – and I did. Not long afterwards, one hot summer night when I was eight, my mother and I left. Eventually we found a better neighbourhood, where I met kids like Bruce. But my secret tree house on the Beach Strip stood for some years more until it, like everything else, was pulled down.
I hope not to sound nostalgic for Lagoon Avenue. If our house at Number 17 were still standing, I imagine staring at it warily like Jean Valjean contemplating a return to leg irons. I hated that hot little house, its two bedrooms squeezed onto one side, its blazing overhead kitchen light, its unfinished back stairway. Every memory is of a hot, bright, loud, cramped box. Those memories are faded but the sour stench of them still lingers, like the damp smell after a fire. When in Forest Gump the beloved girl, Jenny, returns to the childhood shack where she was abused, she showers the ruin with rocks. Nothing so terrible happened to me at Number 17, but I understand how Jenny felt. I am glad that goddamned house is gone and that no other kid has to live in it.
But I am also glad the Lift Bridge still stands. It climbs and grinds with the magic of giant motors and wheels, cables taut and strong. It is a minor architectural marvel, all the more for not yet having been destroyed. You can still walk or drive it, still sit forever while it climbs and descends, and if you are lucky enough to have a boat, you can sail under it. Hell, you can even run across it (if you’re in the 30K race, that is). It is a beautiful relic.
I was happy to see the Lift Bridge this weekend, its towers like ancient sentinels guarding the entrance to the Bay. I was happy to cross it, to hear the hum of the steel road bed under my tires. I was glad that the Lift Bridge towers gave Bruce a welcome sight as he tromped his 150 kilometers of epic running around the Bay. And I hope that when everything else is erased from the Beach Strip – as it assuredly someday will be – the Lift Bridge will still rise and fall, as the sun climbs out of the lake at dawn, and sinks behind the Bay at dusk.
P.S. you may still be able to contribute to Bruce’s fundraising effort. Click here to try, or just make a donation to the St. Joseph’s Health Centre. Thanks.