The humidex is to hit the mid-30s for each of the next few days, so now is a fine time to reach into the mailbag and pull out a note from reader Linda Valconi:

"I thought you might know what happened to the green drinking fountains that I remember downtown. There is a fountain in Eastwood Park, but sadly it runs dry.  Are there any still around?

"During the last heatwave, I heard that the Sally Ann was giving out bottles of water and I wondered if all the fountains were retired."


The Kerr Drinking Fountain was installed in Gore Park in 1860 and wetted whistles for generations. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

Linda, you hit a topic close to my heart. Though some won’t go near them, I slurp from the sidewalk fountains every chance I get. They’re downright civilized.

But these are not good days for the drinking fountain. At the peak, back in the 1930s, there were more than a hundred around the city. Today, we’re down to just a couple of dozen.

Hamilton’s first drinking fountain was a beauty, a stone sculpture complete with lions’ heads and multi-spouts. It sat at the James Street end of Gore Park.

Kerr gave Hamilton a fountain

That fountain was a gift from Hamilton merchant Archibald Kerr. They installed it in 1860, for the visit of the Prince of Wales.

Kerr perhaps made good use of that fountain himself, as he and brother Thomas had a fine row of buildings right on the south side of Gore Park. These are the very buildings, erected in the 1840s, that many are trying to save from demolition right now.

In 1914 Hamilton’s medical officer of health pushed for the installation of public drinking fountains around the city. It’s said they were the first in Canada.


A Hamilton paperboy gets a drink at a genuine 'shorty green.' (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

And they were designed and made right here in Hamilton. They were short – 30 inches – and they were green. And they came to be known as Shorty Greens.

For years, they were made by Jack Babcock, a self-taught metal spinner who had a shop on Oak Avenue. He made the shiny basins by spinning copper and brass and plating them with chrome.

And for half-a-century, the man who installed the fountains was city plumber Walter "Scotty" Reilly. I spoke to him once, 20 years ago. He believed the shorty green was a marvel.

Cold water every time

"The design is perfect," he said. "In the centre of that shiny dish is the ‘rose.’ From the middle of it, the water bubbles, all day, all night. Place your mouth into the bubbler and get cold water every time."

That was the early ‘90s, when there were still about 80 drinking fountains. But only 34 were the ever-bubbling shorty green. The rest were the new style, with a button to press to get a drink. That did save on water.

And now there are no shorty greens.


These two 'shorty green' fans wouldn't have dreamed of buying water in a bottle. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

Ross Bint, with the Hamilton Water division of Public Works, comes up with a map of the outdoor drinking fountains in Greater Hamilton today. It shows 23.

To the west, there’s one in front of the library in Ancaster. To the east, on Ottawa North at Edinburgh. In the heart of town, a favourite of mine, at Main and James.

Bint says newer communities often don’t offer the sidewalk slurps. Mississauga, for instance. He says there are several reasons for that.

Fountains aren't cheap

First, there’s the perceived health issue. You know, germs. But if you put your lips only on that stream of crystal-clear Hamilton water, there’s no problem, right? "Right," says Bint.

Second, drinking fountains are expensive. Buy the unit, run in new water and sewer and perform the installation and Bint says you could be getting close to $10,000.

And then, he says, there’s maintenance. Vandals love drinking fountains. They smash them, cut them, plug them. And, this being Canada, the fountains have to go inside for the winter.


A family from yesteryear gets a drink at the Kerr fountain in Gore Park. Today they'd leave the park thirsty. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

If an existing fountain no longer works, it does get repaired or replaced. A new one just went in at the top of the Wentworth stairs. It has a nice new option – a chamber for filling your water bottle.

But Bint says there aren’t likely to be many expensive new drinking fountain installations. "A lot of residents like to see them, but the answer is a steady no."

The city, however, should make at least once exception. Gore Park, where they turned on that Kerr fountain for the thirsty more than 150 years ago, now has no drinking fountain at all. It’s our downtown desert. | @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.