Hamilton

'Ghost Landscape' installation tells story of Woodlands Park role in Hamilton's labour history

Ghost Landscape is a heritage installation in Woodlands Park meant to educate visitors on the park's ties to Hamilton's early labour movement. The impact Hamilton workers had on the park that can still be seen today.

City demolished Woodlands Park, a meeting place for workers, in 1946 after an 81 day strike at Stelco

USW Local 1005 president Ron Wells said the union history in Woodlands Park is one of sacrifice by the early striking workers, and sabotage by the city. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

Behind the first station in Woodlands Park, a group of Stelco union members, the USW Local 1005, gathered with their white flags, and listened to member Bill Mahoney read a poem about the men who founded their union.

"From the struggle of '46, the spirit still lives on, though many of our veterans are dead and gone…They fought for social justice, and for workers rights. 76 years later, we still fight the fight," he read.

A man and woman in black shirts stand in front of a large poster that says "The People's Park, 75 Years Later". The man is pointing and speaking passionately. The woman beside him is listening intently.
Bill Mahoney started the Ghost Landscape unveiling by reciting a poem he wrote about Hamilton's labour history, and the struggles of the 1946 strikers. Beside him is Sarah Sheehan, the project lead for Ghost Landscapes. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

The struggle of '46 was an 81-day strike held by Stelco workers in 1946, which led to the demolition of Woodlands Park as it once was — a Victorian park at the centre of the Landsdale and Gibson neighbourhoods with plenty of trees. 

The union members were gathered for the unveiling of Ghost Landscape, a photo and audio installation in Hamilton's somewhat forgotten, historic Woodlands Park, as part of the city's placemaking grant program. 

The purpose of the placemaking program is to enhance public spaces with projects that highlight the unique histories and qualities of Hamilton's neighbourhoods. 

Ghost Landscape is a lesson in the city's labour history. 

It features large photos of Woodlands Park before and during its demolition in 1947 on the park's chain link fences, and on the back side of the fire station, which is also tied to the park's labour history. 

Ghost Landscape also has an audio track that plays outside of the park's washrooms, which features archival interviews with Wally Mack and Burt McClure, two Hamiltonians who witnessed the historic labour movement events that took place in the park. 

Dr. Sarah Sheehan is a writer, heritage advocate, and resident of the nearby Landsdale neighbourhood. She is also the project lead behind Ghost Landscape.

Sheehan said Ghost Landscape is meant to commemorate the destruction of Woodlands Park in 1946, and to explore the meaning of public space and who controls it.

Sheehan said in the early 20th century, the park was known as "The People's Park" and it was a frequent meeting place for steelworkers to organize strikes and union actions.

The Workers Arts and Heritage Centre, a Hamilton based heritage group, compiled a history of Woodlands Park on their website. The website shows the deep connection between Woodlands Park and the labour movement. 

A group of older men with white flags stand in front of a banner that reads 'Woodlands Park: Ghost Landscape'
The USW Local 1005 Stelco union gathered behind the Woodlands Park fire station. According to the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre (WAHC), the fire station itself is tied to the park's union history. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

On May 1, 1932, according to WAHC, 10,000 people gathered in Woodlands Park to march to Stelco and form a picket line. They were violently forced to disperse by firemen working as police constables. 

This was the first city action against the labour movement in the park. 

The 1946 Stelco Strike

The events that led to the destruction of Woodlands Park began in 1946, when Stelco workers held an 81-day strike from July to October.

Ron Wells is the current president of the USW Local 1005, a union representing Stelco workers. He said Hamilton's soldiers returned from the Second World War and went back to the steel factories, where they worked 14 to 16 hours a day and had six-to-seven-day work weeks. 

He said the steel plants had no safety measures, "no benefits, and low wages, so the workers organized at the time and they went on strike."

"They didn't know if they were ever going to get their jobs back, so they were taking a real risk," Wells said, and added that if it wasn't for the "46ers" sacrifices, the standard of living for labourers today wouldn't be the same. 

The USW Local 1005 was founded in 1946, at the end of the four month strike. 

The destruction of Woodlands Park

Sheehan said that the park was levelled right before the steelworkers could celebrate May Day 1947, also known as International Workers Day. 

At the time, the city said that the park was being "modernized" – they removed nearly all of the park's trees and dismantled the fountain at its heart, leaving a vast, unshaded field.

Wells said the trees were purposely removed to make it uncomfortable for workers to gather, and to make it easier for police to clear the park out. 

A banner covered in black and white photos of trees being cut down is tied to a chainlink fence on a sunny day. In the background there is a row of houses.
This Ghost Landscape banner shows the aftermath of the destruction of Woodlands Park in 1947. (Submitted by Sarah Sheehan)

"They really ruined a nice looking park," he said. 

Today, Woodlands Park still bears some of its wounds from the past, even with recent upgrades. This year Hamilton rockers Arkells worked with Ward 3 councillor Nrinder Nann to provide an $80,000 upgrade for the multi-use surface at Woodlands Park, transforming it into a "professional grade" basketball court. The city has plans to open a splash pad this year. 

The majority of the park remains an open field, with very little shade cover for visitors. 

Laura Farr, Ward 3 councillor candidate and representative from the Gibson and Landsdale Community Planning Team, was at the Ghost Landscape opening. 

"It's just a big, huge open empty space still," she said, adding that the park has a lot of potential to become a hub for the neighbourhood again. 

The Ghost Landscapes installation is part of that transformation. 

"It shows you the past so we can respect and honour it and learn from it," Farr said. "Knowing that history is really important, and [so is knowing what] the park has meant to so many different generations of people who lived here."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cara Nickerson is a CBC reporter based in Hamilton. She can be reached at cara.nickerson@cbc.ca.

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