‘Ghost Landscape’ Installation Tells Story of Woodlands Park’s Role in Hamilton’s Labor History

Behind the first Woodlands Park station, a group of members of the Stelco union, Steelworkers Local Lodge 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 1946, the spirit is still alive, even though many of our veterans are dead and gone… They fought for social justice and for workers’ rights. 76 years later, we are still leading the fight,” he read.

Bill Mahoney began the unveiling of Ghost Landscape by reciting a poem he wrote about Hamilton’s labor history and the struggles of the 1946 strikers. Beside him is Sarah Sheehan, project manager for Ghost Landscapes. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

The 1946 struggle was an 81-day strike organized by Stelco workers in 1946, which led to the demolition of Woodlands Park as it once was – a Victorian park in the center of the Landsdale and Gibson neighborhoods with many trees .

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 Grants program.

The goal of the Placemaking program is to enhance public spaces with projects that showcase the unique histories and qualities of Hamilton neighborhoods.

Ghost Landscape is a lesson in the working class history of the city.

It features large photos of Woodlands Park before and during its demolition in 1947 on the park’s chain-link fences and behind the fire station, which is also tied to the park’s labor history.

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

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

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

Sheehan said that 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 industrial action.

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

A group of older men carrying white flags stand in front of a banner stating
The Stelco Steelworkers Local 1005 union gathered behind the Woodlands Park fire station. According to the Workers Arts and Heritage Center (WAHC), the fire station itself is tied to the labor history of the park. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

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

It was the city’s first action against the labor movement in the park.

The Stelco strike in 1946

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 Steelworkers Local 1005, a union representing Stelco workers. He said Hamilton’s soldiers came back from World War II and went back to the steel mills, where they worked 14 to 16 hour days and had six to seven day work weeks.

He said the steel mills had no safety measures, « no benefits and low wages, so the workers organized back then 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 weren’t for the 46ers’ sacrifices, the living standards of the workers today would not be the same.

Steelworkers Local 1005 was founded in 1946, at the end of the four-month strike.

The destruction of Woodlands Park

Sheehan said the park was razed just before steelworkers could celebrate May Day, 1947, also known as International Workers’ Day.

At the time, the city said the park was undergoing « upgrading » – they removed almost all the trees in the park and dismantled the fountain at its heart, leaving a large unshaded field.

Wells said the trees were deliberately removed to make it uncomfortable for workers to congregate and to make it easier for police to clear the park.

A banner covered in black and white photos of felled trees is tied to a chain-link fence on a sunny day.  In the background, 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 park, » he said.

Today, Woodlands Park still bears some of its past wounds, even with recent improvements. This year, Hamilton rockers Arkells worked with Ward 3 Councilor Nrinder Nann to deliver an $80,000 upgrade to Woodlands Park’s multipurpose surface, turning it into a « quality » basketball court. professional « . The city plans to open a wading pool this year.

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

Laura Farr, candidate for Ward 3 council and representative of the Gibson and Landsdale community planning team, was at the opening of Ghost Landscape.

« It’s still just a big, huge empty open space, » she said, adding that the park has a lot of potential to become a hub for the neighborhood again.

The Ghost Landscapes installation is part of this transformation.

« It shows you the past so we can respect and honor 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 have lived here. »


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