Paul Wilson: Gore Park's prime minister gets his walking papers

Hamilton was the first city in Canada to erect a statue to Sir John A. Macdonald. He had to move once, after getting blamed for the death of the fire chief. Now there are plans to ask him to move one more time.
Sir John A. stands tall at King and John in Gore Park. The plan is to have him find a new home a little closer to the Royal Connaught, where restoration is just underway. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

You might have Canada’s first prime minister in your pocket right now. He’s on the purple bill, the ten.

He’s long gone, not forgotten. In Hamilton, for a few more years anyway, there is downtown’s Sir John A. Macdonald high school. 

But the tribute that matters is in Gore Park – eight feet of bronze, atop a 10-foot slab of granite. Sir John A. is wearing a Prince Albert coat, buttoned up, right hand outstretched. The morning sun warms his face. He looks to be in tiptop shape.

Good thing, because he has a big event coming up.

Sir John A. is eight feet of handsome bronze, atop 10 feet of solid granite. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Everything going according to plan, Sir John A. will be on the move. But he knows what to expect. He got told to move once before, more than a century ago.

That time it was because he got blamed for the death of a fast-driving fire chief. This time, it’s because he has a job to do.

Died in office

Macdonald was prime minister from 1867 to 1873, and again from 1878 to 1891, when he died in office. 

He liked a drink, especially brandy. Liked a good fight too. Said he to Lord Strathcona in the House one day: “I could lick you quicker than hell could fizzle a feather.” 

Some said he turned politics into a game without rules. But he did manage to get the railroad stretched across this long and lonely country. 

Sculptor George Wade works on Hamilton's prime ministerial piece in his studio in London, England in 1892. (National Archives of Canada)

On his death, the idea of a statue surfaced here right away. The money was raised and the job went to an English sculptor named George Wade. It’s said he did it cheaply to build his reputation.

He completed Sir John A. at his studio in London early in 1893. The unveiling was that fall, the first day of November, and 20,000 jammed the core. Hamilton became the first city in the country to erect a Macdonald statue. There are now eight others.

Sir John A. was planted at King and John, looking west, right in the middle of the intersection. Sounds daft, but there were no cars yet. Buggies and bicycles were usually able to navigate around the statue – and it did provide quick shelter for pedestrians trying to get out of the way of runaway horses.

The chief went fast

But there were accidents anyway. And one caught everybody’s attention. Fire chief Alexander Aitchison was rushing off to a blaze. He had a driver, but the chief usually took the reins himself anyway. They say he liked to go fast.

And on that day, April 5, 1905, he was thrown from his rig, struck the statue and died.

So Sir John A. was moved off the road, into Gore Park, looking east to John. He’s been happy there ever since.

Sir John A. always knew how to draw a good crowd. His bronze likeness arrived in downtown Hamilton in 1893. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

But there are changes coming to the park and the area around it, the Gore Master Plan.

The public has provided a great deal of input, says Le’Ann Whitehouse Seely, supervisor of landscape architectural services with the city. And one thing people want for the Gore precinct, she says, “is to have all three of those blocks feel linked.”

That includes the third and most easterly block of the Gore – the skinniest part, between John and Catharine.

Anchor needed in the east

But there’s no anchor there, Seely says. No Queen Victoria, or fountain, or cenotaph. The eastern block needs a PM.

So the proposal is to move Sir John A. across the street and call that portion of the park Macdonald Square. There would be additional greenery, seating, a small water feature. The preliminary budget for this portion of the park project is $1.6 million.

This area will also serve as a forecourt for the Royal Connaught, where the transformation from derelict hotel to smart condos is just getting underway.

The Gore Master Plan says Sir John A. would make a fine anchor for the park's east end. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

“We want to make sure we coordinate our efforts with them,” Seely says.

Downtown councillor Jason Farr thinks the prime ministerial move makes sense. “As long as there’s lots of space,” he says. “Every year there seem to be more people gathering for his birthday.”

He’s right about that. And the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission has already been formed to mark his 200th, on Jan.11, 2015. 

Whether he’s on new ground by then depends on progress at the Royal Connaught. Word is that a condo sales office is to open in a few months.  |  @PaulWilsonCBC



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