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Thomas McQuesten
The man behind Niagara Parks
By John Bacher

nature
The Oakes Garden on Niagara Parkway.
In the early 1990s the wise Iroquois elder and public intellectual John Mohawk gave an impassioned plea against gambling as the supposed savior from the industrial decline of Western New York. Answers to the problem, he pleaded, could be found in the impressive investments in public infrastructure made across the Niagara River in Canada.

Although Mohawk’s wisdom was broadcast on public television, his warnings were not heeded and a gambling craze soon engulfed both sides of the Niagara River. Part of the reason his message was ignored is that few know the story of the astonishing figure behind the public investment that propelled Ontario’s tourist boom for the fifty years before casinos—the statesman, ecologist, and lover of public art, Thomas Baker McQuesten.

In carrying out his deeds of massive public gardens, artistic bridges, public sculptures, historic museums and protected forests and wetlands, McQuesten followed carefully the biblical teachings instilled by his mother Mary: to be “as innocent as doves, but as cunning as serpents.” Such a pattern of doing good by “stealth” characterized his remarkable public career, beginning when he was first elected to Hamilton city council in 1913, and ending when he died on January 13, 1948.

While McQuesten failed in many of his political battles, and compromised in more, what is astonishing is the great sum total of his accomplishments. In just thirty-five years he was able to wield public power as a city councillor, parks commissioner, and provincial cabinet minister, combining a love for architecture and art with a deep respect for nature.

McQuesten’s accomplishments are even more outstanding when compared with the meagre results of his political contemporaries, and when the difficulties his family faced in bringing them to fruition are understood.

McQuesten’s immediate family, while esconced in the elegant home of his distinguished industrialist grandfather Calvin, lived in genteel poverty. McQuesten’s university education, which allowed him to become a lawyer, a position he skillfully used to cultivate his political base, was paid for by savings from the teaching salary of one of his sisters, Ruby. Tragically, as soon as he graduated, Ruby fell ill with tuberculosis and died five years later. Ruby was unable to live to see McQuesten’s great accomplishments, which she had encouraged and envisioned.

His mother Mary’s critical role in shaping McQuesten into a remarkable public figure has been well illustrated by her biographer, Mary Anderson, who describes her as a “female Moses who led her children out of the wilderness with a strong moral code and guiding hand and made them a great family.” Part of this guidance was—in the words of an obituary tribute—her “love for beauty that was large enough to be spread out and influence the appearance of a great city.”

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The Oakes garden pergola.
McQuesten was also helped by Mary’s network of high-minded Liberal party female friends who were active in what was then the biggest lobby for city parks in Canada—the National Council of Women. It successfully lobbied the Ontario government for legislation to create municipal parks commissions. Once they established such a body, the municipalities had to dedicate one percent of their tax-generated revenues towards parks. The Parks Commissioners were not councillors, but were appointed by them to supervise park development and management.

McQuesten’s eight years on Hamilton City Council saw many defeats, but one great victory: to persuade the council in 1917 to acquire sixty-five acres of Gage Park, situated in a spectacular location below the Niagara Escarpment.

During his painful early political debates, McQuesten was fortunate to have as a role model in his early battles the now-retired councillor Thomas Morris. He had been able to persuade the Hamilton city council to create parks along the escarpment, formerly stripped of virtually any tree cover in the “ambitious city.”

The creation of the Hamilton Parks Commission meant that Thomas McQueston could focus on the creation of greenspace without being distracted by the complex tasks of a city councillor. This task was helped by his family’s involvement in one of Canada’s first environmental groups, the Hamilton Bird Protection Society, which is now named the Hamilton Field Naturalists.

Together the four surviving McQuestens living in Whitehern (McQuesten; his brother Calvin, a Presbyterian minister; mother Mary; and sister Mary Baldwin) would attend meetings of the Hamilton Field Naturalists. Their meetings were held at the Hamilton Public Library, right around the corner from their Whitehern home. During this time Reverend Calvin was the club’s president.

One of McQuesten’s most difficult achievments as a Parks Commissioner was to persuade the City Council to purchase the Red Hill Creek valley as parkland in 1929. The result was the vast King Forest Park, which stretches from the Niagara Escarpment to Lake Ontario. Until it was recently desecrated by the Red Hill Creek Expressway, the park was an important corridor for migrating birds.

Another of the nature-loving family’s achievements that has better survived the political ravages of time was the creation of the Royal Botanical Gardens. It has expanded to become the world’s largest botanical garden.

The RBG’s holdings have been ecologically restored to, in some aspects, a more pristine condition than when the institution was first established. Measures to restore its degraded bio-diversity have included a complex barrier to exclude carp from Cootes Paradise, and the re-establishment of wild rice and water lilies.

Before the McQuestens embarked on their campaign, the vast 2,000 acre wetland of Cootes Paradise, which became the core of the RBG, was viewed by Hamilton councillors as a fine source for a garbage dump. The RBG’s importance to McQuesten was made evident a few months before his death, when he spent a few hours in its Rock Garden, before being driven to the hospital.

Creating the RBG involved a major confrontation with the Hamilton Gun Club, created by the entrepreneur Nelson Long. To challenge its influence, Calvin McQuesten invited the leading Canadian naturalist of the period, Jack Miner to speak to the club. Miner was a great hit and spoke to a packed audience, proclaiming that Cootes Paradise had enormous potential as a bird sanctuary.

McQuesten followed up with a highly skilled press campaign, which effectively exploited Hamilton’s rivalry with Toronto. He invited the Toronto Star reporter R. C. Reade to view his plans for the RBG.

Reade was quite enthralled by the concept of a great Canadian botanical garden. He wrote a Star article that proclaimed “Hamilton Shows Toronto How.” Reade’s praise of Hamilton’s demonstration of “superior virtue” in having a vast botanical garden enshrined the RBG in the hearts of the city’s voters.

Becoming a provincial cabinet minister and MPP as a result of the Liberal sweep of 1934 gave McQuesten the power to enhance and entrench his Hamilton accomplishments, but they soon became dwarfed by his colossal deeds around the province. While a cabinet minister, at one time serving in three portfolios (Public Works, Highways, and Municipal Affairs), McQuesten also served on three provincial commissions (Ontario Hydro, the Niagara Parks Commission, and International Bridge Commission).

As a triple portfolio minister and commissioner, McQuesten was better able to achieve his lofty artistic and ecological goals. He could not just set broad policy guidelines, but also actually administer public works to ensure that their final results were aesthetically pleasing.

McQuesten’s role as Hydro Commissioner increased the revenue of the Niagara Parks Commission by his insistence that the Sir Adam Beck hydro plant pay water-use fees. Being on both the bridge and parks commision helped him build both a spectacular Rainbow Bridge and a well-designed entrance plaza. The plaza was itself beautified by its close proximity to the Oakes Garden Theatre and the Carillon Tower.

The garden theater’s awe-inspiring blend of French and Japanese floral display, was constructed by the talents of another of his creations, the Niagara School of Horticulture. Its massive hundred acres of blooms now form the basis for the Niagara Botanical Gardens.

The Niagara School of Horticulture, which McQuesten believed was urgently needed to train park supervisors, had been discussed by the Parks Commission for twenty years. It was developed by his close associate Matt Broman, who, following his election defeat in 1944, directed the development of the RBG and later served as a consultant with the Hamilton Parks Commission.

McQuesten’s skill as builder of beautiful bridges was in vivid contrast with the previous Conservative dynasty’s construction of the Peace Bridge, viewed widely in Buffalo today as an eyesore. Those who hope to have it replaced by a suspension bridge, could, if they were aware of it, cite the fact of the magnificent bridge of this style McQuesten built across the St. Lawrence River. While not able to artistically embellish the Peace Bridge, he did his best to beautify the entrance, constructing Mather Park, a project financed by an American philanthropist.

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The Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton.
McQuesten was the only Minister of Highways in Ontario to use the department’s budget to support the arts and culture. He understood that sculpture, which would be impossible to fund publicly, could be disguised as construction work. With even greater audacity he had Fort Henry in Kingston restored through the work of road construction crews. The home of the native chief, Joseph Brant, was turned into a museum on the pretext of altering the design of the Queen Elizabeth Highway.

Conservative politicians saw through some of McQuesten’s efforts to promote art and culture. Conservative Party leader George Drew attacked his restoration of Fort George and Fort Henry as a “disgrace.” He estimated that their expense could build forty-eight fighter planes. Similar attacks were made on the lion statue that graced the Humber River bridge in Toronto and the rowers on the Henley Bridge in St. Catharines. His efforts to line the QEW with trees also drew Conservative fire.

McQuesten’s love for beauty did not cause the Liberals to go down to defeat in 1944. What was significant was that the party heavily rejected his bid to become leader, after the departure of Premier Mitch Hepburn. Fatally, it instead chose as Premier Harry Nixon, whose right-wing views were quite out of keeping with the radical tenor of the times.

What is distressing is how—following McQuesten’s death in 1948—his massive effort to use the power of the provincial government to celebrate history and beautify the landscape has not been replicated. Even worse, many of his bold creations, such as King Forest Park and the Sunken Gardens of McMaster, have been despoiled or wiped out.

Fortunately some positive achievements since McQuesten’s death have built upon this legacy. The RBG, for instance, played a major role in the protection of the Niagara Escarpment and now provides a home for the Bruce Trail Association. Hamilton’s spectacular Lake Ontario Beach strip’s preservation as a naturalized park is another of the realizations of his goals of the city plan he worked on in the last years of his life. Zoning, which he attempted in vain to bring to Hamilton in 1919, became a normal part of life in time. One of the few islands of publicly owned parkland on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, Charles Daley Park, was assembled out of lands that McQuesten originally purchased for the QEW.

The puny scale of these ongoing improvements is underscored by the greater resources that governments now have at their disposal. This problem and the desecration of the family’s work were well captured by a letter Calvin wrote to the Niagara Parks Commission. He complained that they “were not capable of adding anything to the great monuments which stand in my brother’s memory.”

Calvin’s complaint was provoked by the decision of the Niagara Parks Commission to build a tourist shack that blocked the view from the Oakes Garden Theater of the Niagara River. Under Conservative control, the Parks Commission ignored him; however, under the Liberal government of David Peterson, the offending structure was eventually removed.

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The Oakes Gardens, an interior view.
Niagara’s descent into gambling epitomizes how our era has taken on much of the narrow greed that the reformers of the Progressive era, epitomized by the McQuestens and the Roosevelts, challenged and changed. To suggest schemes of reforestation, wetland creation, and artistic public works on the scale that Thomas McQuesten was able to implement, in a spirit similar to the New Deal, is today considered insanely impractical—this in view of the serious magnitude of climate change and contemporary threats to the loss of bio-diversity.

One hopeful sign, however, of the continuing power of the McQuesten legacy is the work of the RBG. This is an institution that the visionary planner effectively directed from the grave by his appointment of the key managers and directors in his last years of life. While it is the norm for bio-diversity in the world to decline, this is not the case here. It has been accomplished by the surprising combination of engineering and botany that distinguished his reforming work.

While in most of the world, frog species are declining as a disturbing barometer of environmental degradation, at the RBG the grey treefrog, Northern spring peeper, and wood frog have returned. It is also facilitating the restoration of the trumpeter swan, which the gun club members that fought its creation helped to wipe out in Ontario.

The nearly doomed bigmouth buffalo and greater redhorse fish have returned to the waters of Cootes Paradise. Rare birds, such as the Virginia Rail, Black Tern, Least Bittern, and Pied Bill Grebe, are similarly returning as marsh vegetation is restored. Rare plant species, such as the Big Bluestem grass characteristic of prairie habitats, are perpetuated using the same controlled burns used by native Americans to enhance bio-diversity since the end of the Pleistocene.

McQuesten’s legacy shows that it is possible to have bold and beautiful responses to the challenges of our era. His family’s mastery of democratic techniques for the public good of being surrounded by beauty can still work today if taken up seriously as role models in our own era.

John Bacher is a writer and activist living in Toronto and St. Catharines, Ontario.


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