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Frozen Through Time: Cootes Paradise Marsh

January 13, 2022

By Christie Brodie, Interpretation Projects Coordinator, Royal Botanical Gardens.

People have long enjoyed visiting Cootes Paradise Marsh in the winter. The frozen marsh has been a site of recreational activity and business pursuits since Hamilton’s early years.

Historical Image of Skating on Cootes Paradise
Princess Point has long been the spot for winter recreation and is still the best place to launch onto the ice.

At the turn of the 20th century, the ice on Cootes Paradise inspired two goals: a vigorous game of shinny and income from ice harvesting. While we still see many visitors engaging in a game of hockey, the practice of ice hauling is a thing of the distant past.

group skating and playing hockey at princess point -
Princess Point, 2021
Historical Image of Hockey on Cootes Paradise
Princess Point, 1960s

Our Arboretum was once a farm owned by the Rasberry family. In 1864 they built the house that still stands today. Along with a dairy farm, they operated an ice cutting business. Elva Rasberry, one of the daughters, kept a journal that gives us a glimpse into their history. In the winter of 1912 when she was a teenager, she wrote that her brother Ward, “bought a cutter for himself,” so that he too could contribute to the family business.

Ice harvesting was common in the area, not just on Cootes Paradise Marsh, but also in Hamilton Harbour. Big blocks of ice were sawn and collected then stored in a hay-insulated barn so it would last all summer long. Why harvest ice? Before modern refrigeration as we know it today, ice was sold to be used in “ice boxes” through the warmer months to keep food from spoiling.

Ice Harvest on Hamilton Harbour
Harvesting ice on Hamilton Harbour was a tough and dangerous job that required careful planning.

Conservation staff at RBG have long known the benefit of a thick layer of ice as it is used for transportation of project supplies. Hauling material for conservation work, such as the Christmas tree berms, is significantly easier when it doesn’t have to go by boat.

Though from the surface the ice may appear calm, still, and frozen solid, Cootes Paradise Marsh is an extension of Lake Ontario. As such, it ebbs and flows constantly, especially when there are large fluctuations from the lake, and drastic changes in weather. This can lead to thin ice areas, large cracks, and broken-up ice.

Image of Ice Heaving on Cootes Paradise
Ice heaving in the Desjardins Canal.

Today, Cootes Paradise Marsh remains one of the most picturesque places to skate on a natural ice surface. If you’re hoping to lace up your skates and go for a glide, be sure to visit our skating webpage for information on access and ice safety.

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