Paul Wilson: Close the bridge and have a picnic – mayor says it's awesome idea

The High Level Bridge on York Boulevard, with big views on both sides, is the perfect place to have a picnic. If we could just do something about those 30,000 vehicles that use it every day.
Patrick Bermingham is CEO of a fourth-generation company that does business around the world. He also has dreams about bridges. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

The High Level Bridge on York Boulevard is the prettiest place in Hamilton.

The view to the east is the harbour — sailboats, city skyline and, yes, factory stacks. To the west, Cootes Paradise, all green and good.

And then there’s the span itself, properly called the Thomas B. McQuesten High Level Bridge. That graceful arch, those four tall columns of stone. For more than 80 years, it’s been the city entrance that makes Hamilton proud.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to take in all this beauty. Cross the bridge in a car and the view’s over in a flash. Bike or hike across, and the roar of traffic is always a distraction. More than 30,000 vehicles cross the High Level every day.

But Hamilton industrialist Patrick Bermingham has an idea. It’s a simple one, a good one.

The High Level Bridge was built in 1932 and has been making Hamilton look good ever since. (Aaron Segaert/

Close the bridge, he says. Just for an evening. Then let the people take over. Let them bring their picnic baskets and enjoy the peace, the panorama and, the Gods permitting, a sunset.

Bermingham is full of ideas. He has to be. He is CEO of a company that bears his family name, located at the foot of Ferguson, by the harbour. It’s been around for four generations.

They build foundations for tunnels, bridges, structures all over the world. There are 170 employees and the company is growing. A few years ago, it looked as though the company would have to move, but it found space on the old Lakeport Brewery property and is staying right here.

He dreams of bridges

Bermingham, 53, wanted it that way. Hamilton is his town. "But we don’t often make a public declaration of love or appreciation for our city," he says. "A Ticat game may be as close as it comes." The banquet on the bridge could be another opportunity.

Bermingham has been having bridge dreams a long time. He has this theory. A stream is symbolic of life rolling on, never stopping. But when you’re on the bridge over that stream, time is suspended.

On his 50th birthday, he suspended time a little. He had half-a-dozen guests to his property out in Mineral Springs and dinner was served on a wee bridge over a stream.

Now it’s time to do it on a big bridge. Bermingham thought he should "test the waters" and last month invited Mayor Bob Bratina to join him for breakfast on the High Level Bridge.

Propped on the mayor's chair, a favourite image – from the 1994 Around the Bay Road Race. (Poster by Catherine Jeffrey)

There were just the two of them, a little table on the bridge, with eggs Benedict and orange juice in champagne glasses. Bermingham knew Bratina was a runner, and the Around the Bay Road Race has closed this bridge many times.

We reached the mayor yesterday. "It’s an awesome idea," he says over the phone. With that, he reaches for a poster of runners crossing the High Level Bridge, snaps a picture and e-mails it to us.

Bratina suggests closing the bridge would be a good way to mark summer solstice, June 21 next year, a Saturday, and that the picnic could run from 7 to 11 p.m.

Bermingham is fine with that. "I see covered tables, and food and Chinese lanterns, and people arriving from Dundas by canoe."

Dinner in the middle of Queen

He know this can work. A few weeks ago, neighbours held a dinner right in the middle of Queen Street, south of Aberdeen, a stretch that’s closed for construction all summer long. About 100 showed up, hitching their tables together for a long table. There was free ice cream.

The city had nothing to do with that neighbourhood party. And Bermingham says the city wouldn’t have to do much for a High Level picnic either, just reroute traffic.

"We’ll stop and enjoy our city," he says. "We’ll have a sip of that view and then let the cars back on."

There is one other matter.

Swans love the peaceful waters around the High Level Bridge. Maybe they deserve a place in one of its long-empty niches. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

The bridge was the brainchild of Hamilton’s T.B. McQuesten, provincial minister of highways. It was constructed in 1932 with those three-storey columns, each with a large niche, or cavity.

As the bridge was being completed, McQuesten contacted four prominent Hamilton families about whether they’d like a bronze statue in the niche. Turns out all four were Presbyterians and an uproar ensued. The niches have been empty ever since.

Bratina would like to see them occupied. Maybe, he says, there could be a contest. Bermingham is not keen on that idea. He’d like the people of Hamilton to get a chance on picnic night to get their picture taken in a niche. Then leave them empty.

There’s another option, one suggested nearly 30 years ago by the late Gil Simmons, a North Ender who fought hard for this city:

"Please, no heroes," she said. "The trouble with even the best heroes is that their fame fades. New generations stare blankly at old statues.

"In the niches, let there be four sculptures, each different, complex, rich realistic compositions of animals, birds, fish, reptiles, plant life — symbolic of the living things beneath the bridge."

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.