The year is 2019 and you’re walking past a house you go by every day. This particular house is clearly vacant so this time you decide to dive a bit deeper. After a bit of wandering, you find yourself in the living room. The newest thing in the room is dated 1956. The bed is made but covered in dust; pillows once fluffed now lay flat and stiff. The 1953 Hamilton-made Westinghouse stereo system is still plugged into the wall. “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” sits on the phonograph. Memories and questions, thrill and excitement, all mount up within you. You think to yourself: “This. Is. Incredible.”
This is why I explore! Taking nothing but photographs, it’s my mission to document the life, history, and current state of a location before it’s wiped off the map. This is what’s known as urban exploration.
While some may refer to it as urbex, urban spelunking, or infiltration, the idea remains the same—it’s the physical exploration of an urban setting. Mind you, as this is not limited to abandoned buildings, as it may seem. Your local mall, hospital, office building—they all have “off limits” areas. It’s about getting out (or in), and exploring what’s around you to capture and recollect a time gone by. Or, just discovering how a building functions. There’s nothing quite like exploring our past than physically standing in the midst of history.
When I started exploring, the year was 2006. Hamilton still had a ton of beautiful vacancies, such as The Royal Connaught Hotel, The Lister Block, Lyric Theater, Tivoli Theater, and so on. The possibilities were endless. During that time I learned a very simple set of rules—rules I still strongly follow to this day. If urban exploring is something that may be of interest to you, then please take note.
Rule #1) No breaking or damaging of said building to gain access. If it’s previously been broken, then it’s fair game. Other than that, consider what you’re doing as break and enter.
A good example of this first rule being broken is evident everywhere while exploring. Kicked-in doors, smashed windows, breaking cinder block walls—do not do this! Martin’s Bowling Alley is a good example of the latter problem as at some point, vandals broke into the bowling alley by smashing away a cinderblock wall.
Yes – the actual wall of the building was smashed to gain access. Don’t make somebody have to pay to repair a building due to your curiosity.
Rule #2) Do not destroy, break, damage, steal, or vandalize any part of said building.
A great example of this second rule being broken is Scott Park Secondary School. Although it’s gone now, replaced by Bernie Custis Secondary, at one time while this mammoth sat vacant, vandals broke into the school and proceeded to turn on all fire hoses, faucets, and pipes. This ultimately led to approximately $1 million in damage. This is NOT what urban exploration is about!
Far too often people dub themselves as “urban explorers” when really their goal is to break into places for the sole purpose of vandalizing, partying, or even sleeping in abandoned buildings. These bad actors make it more difficult for true explorers to just explore and take photos. All in all, when dealing with a true urban explorer, we mean no harm. We pack our bags with camera gear and set out to document the life cycle of buildings.
The locations for great urban exploring in Hamilton is a long list but here are some of my highlights.
The Tivoli Theatre
A masterpiece of a theater; a relic of Hamilton’s own theater scene. Built in 1924, it served as a vaudeville theater until the 1950s when it changed to motion picture. It did return to vaudeville in 1995 and remained that way until the facade threw in the towel and collapsed onto a busy James Street North. Many revival attempts have been made since, all falling through except for one. The current plan for an integrated condo tower seems at a standstill, however.
The Darnley Grist Mill
This site is not abandoned; it’s a ruin to which you can explore. The ruin is off an old grist mill, built in 1813 to feed the soldiers of the war in the area. It suffered a few grain explosions over the years of use, which led to its abandonment in 1943. After another fire, the site was eventually turned over to the Hamilton Conservation Authority.
Consumers Glass Co.
Once upon a time stood a jarring sight on Gage Avenue; quite an iconic eyesore formally known as Consumers Glass Co. The massive glass factory closed in 1997, and although the site was demolished in 2015 for a parking lot, that parking lot didn’t happen and the site was not fully redeveloped. Today, behind a long and tall chain-linked fence lays a very large, empty concrete pad. And under that pad is the entire basement of the former glass factory. For whatever reason, this was not caved in when the building came down in 2015 and to this day is structurally unsound in some areas. Very little remnants were left behind, but all in, it’s really cool to explore.