Living in the Cultural Landscape of Chedoke Estate, Hamilton

Willowbank
Feb 6, 2017 · 4 min read

In conjunction with my Cultural Landscape Fellowship, being a student at Willowbank has provided me with another exciting heritage opportunity: acting as a live-in intern for the City of Hamilton at Chedoke Estate. For my second blog post, I will be examining this site, located on the mountain brow, as a cultural landscape. Its many layers reflect important eras in Hamilton’s history, from Indigenous heritage, a connection with historically significant Hamilton families such as the Southams, to its contemporary ownership by the Ontario Heritage Trust.

Chedoke Estate is currently comprised of an early stone manor house (known as Balfour House) and a coach house located on what had been large picturesque grounds. The property was acquired in 1834 by William Scott Burn, who completed the original manor house in 1836. A significant addition was added in the 1850s and the property had changed hands several times before being purchased in 1909 by Gordon Southam, editor of the Hamilton Spectator.

Long before occupation by European settlers, an Early to Middle Iroquoian village dating to c. A.D. 1350 had been located on the site. Pre-contact artifacts have been found at Chedoke Estate, which is currently a Registered Archaeological Site. In addition, according to local traditions and early writings, an Indigenous burial ground was once located close to Balfour House. An 1863 news article stated that bones found were relocated to the southeast border of the site. Unfortunately the opportunity to substantiate these claims through an archaeological investigation has been lost due to the Chedoke Park Ravine sub-division, which now occupies this space. This shows the importance of considering traditional knowledge and oral histories in learning about the intangible cultural heritage of a site, not simply using conventional research methods.

In 1910, Ethel May Southam (sister of Gordon) married St. Clair Balfour and moved into Chedoke Estate. The Southam family had been owners of one of the oldest and largest cross-media group owners in Canada. In addition to the Hamilton Spectator, by 1932 the Southams also owned the Ottawa Citizen, the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, the Winnipeg Tribunal and the Vancouver Province. This close tie to a family that strongly influenced Canada’s early media is only one aspect of what makes the site historically significant. Another prominent early owner of Chedoke Estate was Charles Brydges of Great Western Railway, Grand Trunk Rail and the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was the third owner from 1853 to 1870 and was likely responsible for a number of major additions and alterations.

St. Clair Balfour passed away in 1959 and his wife Ethel in 1976. The eldest Balfour daughter, Wilson Balfour Baxter, resided in Balfour House until her death in 2013, thus the Balfour-Southams represent the longest family ownerships of the site. In 1979, the last generation of Southam descendants donated the site to what is now the Ontario Heritage Trust.

The Ontario Heritage Trust’s role, simply put, is to preserve our built and cultural heritage. In an agreement with the City of Hamilton, it is the City’s responsibility to develop, maintain, preserve, administer and supervise Chedoke Estate. As a student intern, I have the opportunity to learn from City staff in the Tourism and Cultural Division about the practicalities of maintaining a heritage site. Although my internship is mainly related to research and policy, living on site provides a first-hand view of assessing any maintenance concerns or deterioration of built heritage assets. Without having a caretaker of sorts at the house, it would be difficult to act immediately on any emergency situations such as a plumbing leak, which could be so detrimental.

A final layer that I am continuously learning more about is the natural heritage of the site. In addition to the untouched vegetation, the peaceful sound of Upper and Lower Chedoke Falls, and the beautiful view over Hamilton and the surrounding area from the Escarpment, I am lucky to have seen many different animals that have made the grounds their home. There is the groundhog which, if you get too close, will climb high in the apple trees that were once part of an orchard, the rabbits that one must be aware of when driving into the site, the hawks circling above and the many other birds in the courtyard and shrubbery surrounding the house. My personal favourite is the fox that can be seen every so often ambling along the Escarpment.

As heritage professionals, we sometimes have the tendency to overemphasize our built heritage. While Balfour House itself is clearly an important part of Chedoke Estate, there are many other facets to explore.

I would like to thank the City of Hamilton for providing me with insightful reports which have formed much of the basis of this post. Especially helpful were a 2009 Condition Assessment by George Robb Architect and a 1988 Architectural and Historical Report by Unterman McPhail Heritage Resource Consultants and David Cuming Associates.


This piece, and the corresponding photography, was produced by Chloe Richer, a Second-Year Willowbank student and the 2016–17 Cultural Landscape Fellow.

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