Hamilton

High treason, 106-year-old bottle of ginger beer: Ancaster dig reveals secrets from 1812

While preparing to build the brand new Ancaster Memorial Arts Centre workers and archeologists have discovered a key piece of Canadian history linked to high treason, the War of 1812 and a 100-year-old bottle of ginger beer.

The site played a key role in the War of 1812

Archeologists are working on a dig on the site of what once was Ancaster Memorial Public School land on Wilson Street. (Josh Skinner )

While preparing to build the brand new Ancaster Memorial Arts Centre workers and archeologists have discovered a key piece of Canadian history linked to high treason, the War of 1812 and a 100-year-old bottle of ginger beer.

"I've never seen anything like it," said archeologist Steve Brown.

He's working on the excavation on the site of what once was Ancaster Memorial Public School land on Wilson Street. 

Before that it was the site of the Bloody Assize during the war of 1812, where 19 men were charged with high treason, and 15 were sentenced to death. They were found to have aided the enemy against their own neighbours.

This well-preserved ginger beer bottle from Pilgrim Bros & Co that was found on the site. (Stephen Brown)

Soon the site will become an arts centre, thanks to $3 million worth of provincial funding announced last November, with a 450-seat theatre, a separate studio theatre, a gallery and multiple rooms for art, theatre and dance. 

But, all that will have to wait. 

Despite all of this history, Brown knows that this dig can't go on forever. It's been 10 weeks already. He's hesitant to give a rock solid date or deadline. He says "I feel for the developer that we are not able to close, but until all of the material is out of the ground, we're kind of stuck."

This is the issue, Brown says, with archeological digs in urban areas, often there are many layers of history that need to be uncovered.  "There's so much going on and so much randomness, it's very difficult to predict. The hard part about archeological digs is that they don't care about city budgets and timelines" he says. 

A photo of what remains of the basement of a Hamilton apothecary from 1857. (Josh Skinner )

The dig has uncovered two structures that were on Wilson Street: an apothecary and a tin shop. The apothecary dates back to 1857, and is extremely well-preserved for a structure that is older than Canada. It's "better than my basement" Brown says. The area surrounding the apothecary is littered with glass from medicine jars and pieces of tobacco pipes that would have been common back then.

Lauren Bederski, another worker on the site, has been keeping track of discoveries. That includes a perfectly preserved bottle of ginger beer. "The pilgrim, it was a 1912 ginger beer that was brewed in Hamilton" said Bederski.

Pilgrim & Co. was a brewing company in Hamilton that ran from 1848-1912. Some preserved bottles from the company have sold for as much as $700 online.

Archeologists also found a french drain system which drew water from both buildings on the main strip of Wilson as well as the sewer drains. Brown describes the drain as "a clue that potentially shows that the buildings were built by the same person" due to the interconnectedness between the drain, the buildings and the sewers.

Clay pipes that were used in the 19th century to drain water. (Josh Skinner )

The site is also attracting the attention of people living in the area. 

"The residents have loved dropping by and learning a little bit about their history," Brown says. "We want to finish but the problem is that we just keep finding stuff."  

When asked if there's any chance there's more to discover about the site, Brown said "I hope not. It's actually been a pleasant, if challenging, site with a lot of complexity and weirdness. It's cool."

About the Author

Radio Guy. Toronto raised me but I love small towns.

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