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Secret World – Hamilton’s abandoned Memorial Garden

March 2021

The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) is a celebrated 2,422 acre nature sanctuary straddling the border of Burlington and Hamilton, at the tip of Lake Ontario, in the Golden Horseshoe area of southern Ontario.

Officially established in 1941, through the over decade-long efforts of Thomas B. McQueston, Chair of the City of Hamilton Board of Park Management, the RBG consists of several sites situated closely together; a mixture of horticultural displays and protected natural forests and wetlands. The glacial carved landscapes extends from the lake up to the Niagara Escarpment plateau.

The natural lands or nature sanctuaries of Royal Botanical Gardens include some of the most significant wildlife and native plant areas in Canada. 

One site connected to the RBG is the long-abandoned and forgotten Memorial Garden, also known as the Sunken Garden.

The long-lost Memorial Garden was part of an ambitious campaign in the late 1920s to beautify York Street, also known as King’s Highway #2, which served as the northwestern entrance to Hamilton. Designed by the husband-and-wife team of Howard and Laurie Dunnington-Grubb, it opened around 1929, and was later incorporated into the RBG after its founding in 1941.

Located just north of the Thomas B. McQueston High Level Bridge over the abandoned Desjardins Canal, the Memorial Garden remains hidden behind a row of trees lining York Boulevard. It can be accessed by one of two remaining stair cases that lead down into a surreal, secret world.

While it was once full of flowers, surrounding a long pond with fountains, it’s now a crumbling ruin that is slowly being consumed by trees and vegetation.

Memorial Gardens was a popular spot to sit and relax or to take wedding or other special formal portraits. With lily ponds, hedges, the geometrically precise layout of walks and flower beds, it resembled the grounds of some French chateau.

It provided a beautiful and serene contrast to the sad story of the small plot of land beside it. Commemorated by a stone and plaque placed in 1926, it’s the long-forgotten final resting place of soldiers who defended Burlington Heights, as the area was known, during the War of 1812, and cholera-stricken Irish immigrants who came to Upper Canada in the mid 1800s.

The construction of the Chedoke Expressway, now known as Highway 403, which began in 1963, and the widening of York Street, later re-named York Boulevard, in 1976, reduced the size of the gardens. The popularity of Memorial Garden declined as a result, the RGB greatly the maintenance of the gardens beginning in 1974.

When all maintenance eventually ceased, the gardens became an overgrown and crumbling ghost of the past. With no signage to advise car and pedestrian traffic along York Boulevard of its existence, the abandoned Memorial Gardens was forgotten by many Hamiltonians.

It’s unknown if Memorial Gardens, which is still owned by the RBG, will ever be restored to the original Dunnington-Grubb vision, if David Galbraith, the Head of Science at the RBG, had his way, the long-lost Memorial Garden would absolutely be revived.

Galbraith does acknowledge that it would be a difficult site to maintain, and with the tight-budgets of today, it won’t happen any time soon.

Sources: https://www.thespec.com//life/2016/05/09/paul-wilson-secret-garden-slumbers-at-city-s-front-door.html, Ontario King’s Highway 6/403 – Chedoke Expressway / Alexander Graham Bell Parkway (wikimapia.org), Ontario Highway 403 – Wikipedia, Vintage Hamilton – Posts | Facebook, The garden that grew from a gravel pit | Maclean’s | JULY 20, 1957, Old Pics Of Hamilton – Page 11 – SkyscraperPage Forum.

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.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/secret-world-hamiltons-abandoned-memorial-garden/

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