History of Burlington traced through historic grave-sites


Ottawa is the nation’s capital and the place of interment for many of Canada’s elite, but Burlington takes a backseat to no city in the A sign marks the United Empire Loyalist Burial Site on Plains Road in Burlington. country when it comes to historic gravesites. Sir Allan MacNab, who was Prime Minister of the Canadas from 1854 to 1856 before Confederation, is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, which was opened in 1875 and contains the remains of close to 75,000 people.

Ferguson Blair, the first President of the Privy Council of Canada, is buried in a fenced-off plot at St. Luke's Cemetery in Burlington

Ferguson Blair, the first President of the Privy Council of Canada, is buried in a fenced-off plot at St. Luke’s Cemetery in Burlington

Rev. Brother Alfred Dooner has written about MacNab’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. A Protestant, MacNab became a Catholic in 1862 the day before he died when Bishop John Farrell, the first Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton, visited Dundurn Castle, where he lived. MacNab had asked to see the Bishop, who heard his confession, baptized him and received him into the Church. MacNab’s second wife, Mary, was a devout Catholic and convinced her husband to convert. His body was first put into the ground at Dundurn Park, but in 1909 it was transferred to Holy Sepluchre.

Queen Victoria knighted MacNab in 1838 for his efforts in helping to quell the forces of William Lyon MacKenzie in the Rebellion of 1837. He also brought the Great Western Railroad to Hamilton and founded its first bank. Stephen Davis, a land surveyor, is a direct descendant of William Alexander Davis, a Loyalist who came to Canada from the U. S. and was laid to rest in the Union Burying Ground on Plains Road East in 1834 It is the graveyard of United Empire Loyalists, who came up from the U.S. because they wanted to stay loyal to the Crown. They were wealthy people, who had their plantations destroyed by revolutionaries south of the border. Peggy Armstrong, a member of the Burlington Historical Society, said oldtimers in the City refer to it as the ‘Brick Cemetery On The Plains’. A brick wall separates it from a large outdoor mall, where Fortinos, IKEA and Sears stores now exist. “They were all well educated and successful people,” she said. Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, considered the first permanent resident of Burlington, transferred the land to the Davis family and Stephen still has the deed. Thomas Ghent, another Loyalist, who came north after the American Revolution, also is buried there.

The Ghent family had brought seeds from North Carolina, which they planted in Burlington, turning the area along what is now Plains Road into productive fruit farms. At present the small burying ground is owned jointly by the Davis family and Peter Fisher, who also operated fruit farms in Burlington. Davis said the tiny, fenced-in graveyard still accepts burials “If you can prove you’re part of any of the families who were interred there originally, you can be buried there too,” he said. Davis said he and his children will eventually be buried there. “There is still lots of room, we have at least 80 spaces,” he said. The City of Burlington wanted to take over the burying ground in the early 1990s, believing it was abandoned. Then they discovered it was privately owned. “We probably would have given it away to the City, but if we did they would likely make new rules, like not allowing any more burials,” Davis said. The owners have a small fund, which they have invested in T-bills, to try to keep up the appearance of the cemetery.

However, the brick wall around it is 160 years old and tree roots are beginning to heave it. Davis said he has had quotes as high as $100,000 to fix it. Andrew Gage, who donated the property on which Knox Presbyterian Church was built, is buried there also. St. Luke’s Anglican Church, on Ontario Street, was completed in the fall of 1834. It is the final resting place of Fergusson Blair, who was appointed the first President of the Privy Council of Canada on July 1, 1867 by Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A MacDonald. Sadly, Blair was in the job for less than six months before he died in December of 1867 at the age of 52, The Ferguson family plot is enclosed by iron railings and includes an historic plaque, as a result of the efforts of former Burlington MP Bill Kempling, who was an avid historian.

Joseph Brant’s body was interred in St. Luke’s until 1850 when it was removed to the Mohawk village on the Grand River. The land for Greenwood Cemetery was donated by John Waldie, who was Member of Parliament for Halton from 1887 to 1891. Waldie, who is buried in Greenwood, donated all the books for Burlington’s first library and left an estate of $9 million when he died. Burlington also was a political deathbed, of sorts, for two Canadian Prime Ministers. Prime Minister Joe Clark, at 39 the youngest PM in Canadian history, was guest speaker for a luncheon at the Burlington Golf and Country Club in 1979 when he was called back to Ottawa for a vote that very night in the House of Commons, which eventually led to the defeat of his Tory government. Two Conservative MPs were out of the country and another was in hospital at the time, which made it imperative that Clark be in the House for the vote, which the Tories lost 139-133. In the next federal election in 1980, the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau were returned to power.

Burlington also proved unlucky for former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, who succeeded Brian Mulroney as head of the country. She attended a Tory rally at the Polish Legion Hall on Fairview Street, only a few days before her party suffered a crushing defeat at the polls on Oct. 25, 1993. Campbell lost her own seat and the Conservatives were left with only two Members of Parliament as Jean Chretien and the Liberals swept into power For John Diefenbaker, however, Burlington was a good luck charm. In June of 1957 Diefenbaker, then leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, made a campaign stop at the Estaminet Restaurant on the lakeshore, where he signed the guest book and later threw out the first official pitch to open the local minor baseball season. Just days later, he was elected Canada’s 13th Prime Minister.

Dennis Gibbons

Providing a Fresh Perspective for Burlington and Hamilton.

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