Student history project highlights Ontario port cities for public

Despite their historical value, ports have received little attention from Great Lakes scholars. A new digital public history project by Brock students aims to change that.

“Port histories provide an incomparable record on settlement, trade and the development of major towns and cities,” says Kimberly Monk, Instructor for HIST 2F00 Great Lakes Maritime and Coastal History. “The aim of the PortCities project is to explore the historic and contemporary importance of Great Lakes ports.”

The first port to be featured on the website is Hamilton, with students researching a wide range of themes connected to the port, including geography, transportation, recreation, environment, health, industry and culture. Monk chose Hamilton as the first port in recognition of Brock University’s partnership agreement with HOPA Ports (the Hamilton and Oshawa Port Authority).

Eric Kelusky chose to focus his research on Niagara’s connection to the port of Hamilton by looking at the Lock 3 register of the Second Welland Canal. The register documents every ship passing through the lock between 1854 and 1885, including the ship’s name, the type of ship, the cargo it was carrying, its port of origin and its destination.

“Lock 3 was in St. Catharines and located near where the bridge crosses Highway 406 from Glenridge to St. Paul Street and adjacent to part of the Shickluna Shipyard,” says Kelusky.  “The register allowed me to develop a very detailed picture of the shipping trade at that time and enabled me to sort through every individual ship that was going to or from the Port of Hamilton in those years.”

Much of the register had already been transcribed by past students of HIST 3M61, but Kelusky still had to cross-check historical records and correct errors in the transcription.

“This is an interesting example of a historical project that is substantially enhanced by technology developments,” says Kelusky. “This was not a project that could have been easily done in the 1970s when I first went through Brock as an undergraduate.”

The website is a group effort, bringing together Brock students and subject experts. Research assistants helped prepare the 27 featured student papers. Concurrent Education and History student Miria Pelletier edited the papers and second-year Computer Science student Manan Patel provided web design for the project. Myron Groover, Archives and Rare Books Librarian at McMaster University Library in Hamilton, provided guidance to students on finding and using archival sources.

“The students gained great experiences finding and analyzing primary sources about Hamilton’s history through this project,” says Brian de Ruiter, one of the course Teaching Assistants who, along with Trudy Tattersall, guided the students through the process of researching and writing public history as well as peer reviewing each other’s work.

The website’s launch is just the beginning for PortCities. Monk plans to add other Great Lakes ports to the project in the coming years, with students working on Toronto this year and Niagara’s historic ports in 2023-24 to coincide with the bicentennial of the First Welland Canal.

“My teaching and research in Niagara are committed to raising awareness of the historic environment, to educate and inform local communities while encouraging positive changes that support our natural and cultural heritage,” says Monk. “I hope students will see value in this project and might also appreciate our working ports beyond their traditionally perceived commercial roles.”

Learn more about the project on the Port Cities website.

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