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Box 15-009 Newspaper article about T.B. McQuesten's work at the Royal Botanical Gardens
Jul 26 1962
From: Bill Lyttle, Hamilton Spectator

July 26, 1962


by Bill Lyttle, Spectator Staff1

Forty-five years ago a young lawyer and ex alderman took his seat at a meeting of the Hamilton Parks Board for the first time.

In the space of the next 10 years he led that board to Hamilton's proudest achievement-the city's parks system and Royal Botanical Gardens.

The mind that conceived tranquil grandeur in an industrial jungle belonged to the man who gave Ontario its great modern highways system, the miles of natural beauty along the Niagara frontier and the Rainbow Bridge.

That man was T.B. McQuesten, KC.


The best-known Hamilton and district testament to McQuesten's vision is the Royal Botanical Gardens.

He had a hand too, in the creation of other civic landmarks-Gage Park, Chedoke Civic Golf Course, King's Forest Park, McMaster University and Hamilton Harbor [sic].

Just as he changed the shape of Ontario while Liberal provincial minister of highways from 1934 to 1943.

But in the Royal Botanical Gardens, McQuesten gave Hamilton something unique on this continent.

The RBG was not originally visualized as the modern scientific, educational and recreational set-up it forms today.

It grew out of a McQuesten proposal at a city parks board meeting back in the 1920s.


He suggested Hamilton should buy a piece of the Dundas Marsh and some open land in Westdale to beautify the city's entrances and make the thriving industrial centre more attractive to visitors.

The idea was revolutionary for 1920 Hamilton. Opposition piled up.

McQuesten stood his ground and the city bought. The result: Hamilton's first university.

McMaster University moved here from Toronto when McQuesten helped persuade university administrators to accept the parks board's offer of free land on the Westdale site.

Still anxious to clean up the city's cluttered approaches, McQuesten took on more determined opposition when he suggested buying land around the northwest entrances.

He won another uphill fight, laying the foundation for Hamilton's-if not Canada's-most famous man-made beauty spot.

In 1929 when the northwest entrance beautification was under way- clearing out a jungle of gas stations and billboards- McQuesten saw some possibilities in some abandoned gravel pits.

Depression Job

He proposed a landscape design competition for development of the worked-out chasms. Toronto landscape architect Carl O. Borgstrom won the contest, over entries from throughout the British Empire.

And Hamilton won the Rock Gardens.

From 1929 to 1931 hundreds of men, depression-time jobless, found regular work creating a masterpiece of stone, trees, water and flowers-a Japanese print come to life.

No one driving into Hamilton via York Boulevard is likely to forget the spectacular entrance where nature and the RBG roll out the red carpet on a heroic scale for visitors.

A passing glance offers lawns, shrubbery, Hamilton Bay, the Cootes Paradise panorama-right up to Dundurn Castle's magnificent setting.

But the main stage-the Rock Gardens-puts Hamilton in the big league.

Taken Over

A first visit to the Rock Gardens on a sunny summer day is about as easy to forget as opening night at La Scala. And the Hamilton show is free.

The Rock Gardens' sister project, the Sunken Gardens at University Avenue between King and Main Streets, is another 1920-31 product-a formal European-style setting of lawns, shrubs, pools, flowers and paths.

It has been taken over by McMaster University for school expansion. The south end will disappear under a road but the rest is expected to remain some of Canada's most elegant acreage.

In less than a decade Hamilton owned a far-flung garden empire, assembled along the western marches out of land bought, donated and seized for tax arrears.

It was still in the pioneer stages in 1930 when King George V named it "The Royal Botanical Gardens."


Under direct parks board control, RBG territory grew through the 1930s.

The gardens became independent-in name at least-when the Ontario Legislature marked the 1941 centennial of England's renowned Kew Gardens with the "Royal Botanical Gardens Act," giving Hamilton its first RBG board.

T.B. McQuesten took over as its first president and held the post until his death nearly seven years later.

The act established an independent administration for the RBG but its property continued under parks board care for another five years.

Ontario graced its legislative action in 1942 by handing over a slice of Cootes Paradise north shore wilderness-now site of the RBG Arboretum-and some escarpment property at Rock Chapel, bringing the new board's holdings up to 1,800 acres.

New Concept

Two more territories came later-West Hamilton's Cold Spring Valley Trails and the Arboretum entrance-another 100 acres altogether.

In 1946 the RBG got its chance to practise [sic] the botanical gardens concept: -"a hybrid type of organization, combining some of the functions of a university, a museum and an experimental station with the informal recreational aspects of a parks system."

That was when the Gardens board started into its first independent budget-a $25,000 handout from the city's parks board-and its first employees, four professional men and a team of groundsmen.

That compares with today's staff of 47-half of them seasonal-and an annual budget of nearly $400,000.

With that original $25,000, however, the RBG launched such ambitious projects as the Spring Garden and the Children's Garden, both developed in 1947.

In 1953 the Gardens ceased to be a purely Hamilton show, although the city remains the major source of money for property maintenance.

Others Help

The Ontario government started pouring in dollars for development, research and education 12 years ago. Halton County will make history next year by adding 15 cents per capita-around $21,000-to RBG resources.

The Gardens hopes [sic] to recruit more communities to support its regional projects in Hamilton, Burlington, Dundas and West Flamboro.

Hamilton now pays nearly $150,000 a year; membership fees add nearly $7,000 mostly in individual $5 annual assessments.

Provincial grants, winter works subsidies and compensation for land surrendered to make way for road projects are the other big contributors to the RBG's estimated $370,000 income for 1965.

Industry has played a [article ends abruptly]2

1 The location of this article within the Whithern archives is unknown. As a result, it has been numbered Box 15-009 until the proper document is found within the archives.

2 The original version of this article included three photographs. These consisted of a photo of Dr. Leslie Laking, later Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens; a photo of the Hon. Thomas B. McQuesten; and an image of a landscaped garden in front of the headquarters building at the Royal Botanical Gardens.

3 Dr. Leslie Laking became the second Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens in 1954 and remained in this position until 1981. Following Thomas B. McQuesten's sudden death, Dr. Laking wrote to the McQuesten family expressing the condolences of the Board of the RBG (W8703). Dr. Laking is also the author of a history of the RBG, entitled Love, sweat and soil, A history of the Royal Botanical Gardens from 1930-1981.

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The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
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