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Cops on the water: The rise and fall of the Hamilton Harbour Police

November 2016

While there are many different police services patrolling the streets of cities, towns and waterways across the country, some have faded into history as budgets are cut and policing duties are taken over by larger police services.

The Hamilton Harbour Police was a police force providing policing services for the Hamilton Harbour Commission in Hamilton, Ontario, from 1921-1986.

As a private police force, the Hamilton Harbour Police acted under the authority of the Hamilton Harbour Commission, not the Hamilton City Police Force.

Sworn in as Special Constables, the Hamilton Harbour Police initially only patrolled the water, but a Shore Patrol Division was created in 1938 to patrol the more than 620 acres of Commission property surrounding the harbour.  Both the Shore Patrol and the Rescue and Patrol Unit had their own Chief Constable, but worked together to patrol the entire Hamilton Harbour area.  The two units were amalgamated under one Chief in 1969.

The duties for the Shore Patrol included security enforcement and access control, including the jetties, and for the Rescue and Patrol Unit, safety checks of watercraft, emergency rescue operations and ensuring traffic controls aids such as buoys and navigational lights are operating correctly.

Initially Hamilton Harbour Police officers were trained in-house, but with the founding of the Ontario Police College in 1962, officers went there for their basic training and any advanced courses that were needed.

In 1953, the Hamilton Port Authority opened their new headquarters building at the foot of James Street North.  The Art Deco building, which still stands today, has become a landmark along the Hamilton waterfront.

Over the years, Hamilton Harbour Police had a variety of power boats for marine patrols, as many as five in service at one time.  In later years these included two 21 foot Boston Whalers for summer patrols and air boats, ATVs and a hovercraft for winter patrols on the ice.

Due to their status as Special Constables, the harbour officers didn’t carry firearms on patrol, although they did have four revolvers locked in a safe in the office, along with handcuffs (later described in a newspaper article as “ancient, unused and uncleaned”) for their use.  The harbour officers only had four blackjacks to share among themselves.

When the officers became members of Local 958 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in 1964, the issue of firearms and other necessary equipment became a safety issue for the officers and their union.  In one incident, two shore patrol officers responded to a call for assistance from the city police for a reported break-in in progress and ended up beating the city police to the scene.  Both officers arrested the two teenagers, one of whom was armed with a knife.

The officers also complained that they needed better equipped patrol boats, including bad-weather coverings, grab rails around the sides, heating, windshield wipers, defrosters, floor rubber mats and interior illumination.  Also among the complaints were the need for better equipment for retrieving bodies of drowning victims from the water and the fact that during the winter months, some officers were employed doing painting of buildings and repairing roads owned by the Commission.

These issues, along with pay and benefits issues, came to a head on 11 November 1966 when, after failing to negotiate their first contract with the Harbour Commission, the 18 harbour policemen went on strike in the morning for 6 1/2 hours, effectively closing the port as 200 Teamsters and longshoremen refused to cross the picket lines.  During the strike, patrols were handled by Marine Patrol Chief Howard Sager, Deputy Chief Bill Bayley and Shore Patrol Chief Jack Bye.

The beginning of the end for the Hamilton Harbour Police seems to have been on 7 January 1979, when two harbour officers were laid off, the first time that police officers had ever been laid off in Canada.  This left the police force with 18 patrol officers and 2 command officers.  Chief Frank Smith stated at the time the Harbour Police were overstaffed and not busy enough in the winter months, but later conceded that it was mainly due to the officer’s union CUPE successfully gaining wage parity with Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police, a pay raise of $3000 per man.

As the 1980s progressed, the Hamilton Harbour Commission was less interested in maintaining the police force.  In the end, it was money that killed the Hamilton Harbour Police.  The Commission determined that it could save $600, 000 per year by eliminating the police force, having spent the previous 10 years trying to find financial assistance to maintain it.

The force was disbanded on 22 February 1986.

The Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police Force, now the Hamilton Police Service, took over the harbour policing duties, while general patrolling of Commission property went to a contracted security company.

Unfortunately for Hamilton Harbour Police officers, there was no amalgamation or merger with Hamilton-Wentworth Regional, which meant they were not automatically taken onto HWRP, even though they were already fully-trained officers, and had to apply for employment.  All but 2 of the remaining 17 members (one being the Chief) expressed an interest in this option.

The Hamilton Police Marine Unit currently operates out of the former Harbour Police building at 17 Discovery Drive.

The Hamilton Harbour Commission was disbanded in 2003 and was replaced with the Hamilton Port Authority.

The Hamilton Harbour Police is gone, but the legacy of one former officer lives on in the North End of Hamilton:  Jack “Pud” Murphy.  Pud, also known as the Mayor of the North End, was a dedicated Harbour officer who would have been working right up until the day the police force disbanded if he hadn’t been forced to retire in 1971, when he reached retirement age.

Born in Hamilton in 1906, Pud was also an athlete before he became a cop.  He was a member of the Hamilton Tigers football team in 1928, when they won the Grey Cup 30 to 0 against Regina.  He was a swimmer who swam and rowed across the harbour for recreation and competition most of his life.  He skated on the harbour in the winter, which got him to the NHL.

Pud Mruphy died in September 1990 at the age of 84.  His wife of 49 years, Barbara, died 4 years later.  A few years after that, Hamilton Spectator reporter Paul Wilson put forth the suggestion that a new park along the harbourfront off Bay Street North, be named the name Pud’s Point in honour of Pud Murphy.  Hamilton City Council selected the name Bayfront Park instead.

The old Modjeska Hotel at 554 James Street North, where Pud was born, has one of Pud’s oars hanging over the bar.  It’s now called Fisher’s Pier Eatery & Sports Lounge.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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