Paul Wilson: The new souvenir of Hamilton - $2,500 turtles

The Gage Park fountain, which began gushing in the 1920s, has been out of commission for several years now. But the maintenance work will be finished this spring and soon you'll be able to buy a memento of this watery east-end artpiece. Start saving now.
The governor general himself came by to switch on the Gage Park fountain in 1927. It has fallen on hard times since. (

Four years ago a cage went up around the Gage Park fountain, that beautiful limestone water sculpture designed several generations ago by John Lyle – the same architect responsible for the High Level Bridge in Hamilton, and Union Station and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto.

Fountains can be fussy. They need attention. The one in Gage Park needed a full overhaul.

This spring, $600,000 later, the work will finally be finished.

This kid was riding the Gage Park Fountain turtle in 1949. Maybe he wants to stop by now at Tourism Hamilton and buy one. (Local History and Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

The fountain was switched on by the Governor General himself in 1927, part of Canada’s 60th-birthday celebrations. Children splashed, dogs lapped, grown-ups marvelled.

Lyle had worked the Escarpment itself into his design. It provided the backdrop for the fountain, and for the cascading waters that coursed from it along an elegant channel that flows towards Main.

The fountain was pretty as a postcard – and ended up on many.

Hard times

Conservator Therese Charbonneau with plaster-of-Paris mold of a fountain turtle. She's on the second floor of the Lister Block, and one floor below you'll be able to buy a turtle of your own. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

But over the past few decades, the fountain has fallen on hard times.

Part of it is age, aggravated by well-intentioned misdirections in maintenance.

Were there vandals in the 1920s? There sure are today. The fountain gets covered in graffiti over and over again. So city crews – and who can blame them– kept covering those f-bombs with non-permeable paint.

But that traps water within the limestone. Put it through enough freeze-and-thaw cycles and the stone begins to fall away.

And the water wasn’t gushing right anymore. Those pipes are old.

So the fence went up and Therese Charbonneau went to work.

She’s the city’s conservator on this project. She’s rescued many other pieces of Hamilton’s history. Statues, paintings, uniforms from the Great War.

Money was short

She began by poring through the archives. The fountain was made possible by a $20,000 gift from Eugenia Gage, who wanted to honour her parents. But Charbonneau learned that back in the ‘20s, the project was overbudget.

People do awful things to the turtles at Gage Park. (City of Hamilton)

So instead of going for Queenston limestone, they settled for the cheaper Indiana variety. And the records show that one official declared, "It’s going to deteriorate."

The Gage fountain now has an entirely new bowl. It is Flint Hill limestone, good and dense, hauled in six sections from the States.

Digging out that old bowl gave workers a chance to examine the pipes, and they were shot. So the piping is all new.

Fountain tall again

While this work was underway, Charbonneau heard there was something in the city’s Chedoke yard she might want to see. There she discovered a beefy carved-stone cylinder, Beaux Arts cherubs dancing around it. It stands maybe four feet high.

Turns out it had been removed from the Gage fountain in the 1980s. They were having trouble getting water to reach the top, so someone figured shortening it might help. In fact, the problem was more likely the bad pipes. So the fountain is now back to its original height.

This restored turtle looks just the way he did back in 1927. (City of Hamilton)

And then there are the critters. At the base of the fountain’s column are four bronze ducks. Long ago water shot from their mouths. Now it will again.

And most beloved of all, the four bronze turtles. They spit water too. Kids sit on them, and that’s OK.

But others cover them in graffiti, and the city keeps coming by with gold paint. Some hack at the turtles and try to lop off their heads.

And though it’s not easy, a turtle has been stolen more than once. (One that went missing in 1996 did nag at someone’s conscience – it showed up mysteriously one day that fall at City Hall.)

So the odd replacement turtle has been made through the years. And others have been restored.

Love at first sight

Charbonneau had one of the turtles at her home lab last year. A friend spotted it.

"He fell in love with it," she said. "He couldn’t believe how beautiful it was." He wanted one for his garden.

Turned out there were two other friends who did too.

Charbonneau made no promises. She would have to check with the city. And besides, she told her friends, it will be expensive.

After all, there would be the mould to make, from plaster of Paris, with a latex liner.

Then, at The Crucible, a fine-art foundry in Tweed, they use the laborious "lost-wax process" to create the turtle.

Finally, it takes the custom touch of Brett Davis at the Age of Bronze in Newmarket to give the turtles the rich, brown patina.

It turned out the cost was $2,500 per turtle. Charbonneau's friends went for it. They are delighted with their new pets.

Tourism Hamilton got wind of this. They’ve been looking for new items to sell at their Lister Block visitor centre. On the shelves, postcards and bags and t-shirts and pins. But there was not one reptile.

So a display model is now in the works. Tourists wanting to take home a turtle should check with their airline, though – these bronze beauties weigh 50 pounds.

You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.