ON THE STEPS
BY ROY ADAMS
Head south on Dundurn Street in Hamilton and you will eventually reach the escarpment, a ridge carved out by glaciers many centuries ago. In front of you, going up the steep slope, are the Dundurn Steps. Originally built for pedestrians, they have now become an outdoor gym. Most of the people who use them are working out, trying to keep physically fit.
According to the Local History department at the Hamilton Public Library there were originally 7 sets of city-built stairs up the escarpment. The original locations were Chedoke Park, Dundurn Street, Ferguson Avenue, James Street, John Street, Ottawa Street, and Wentworth Street.
Currently there are 5 sets of stairs up the escarpment in addition to a privately-built set of steps. After the Jolley Cut was rebuilt, the John and Ferguson steps disappeared and their remnants were incorporated into the walkways at Sam Lawrence Park.
The Chedoke steps connect the West Mountain to the lower west city. There are 289 steps.
The original James Street wooden steps were replaced with metal steps in 1987. There are 227 steps.
The Kenilworth steps connect the East Mountain to the Escarpment Rail Trail/Bruce Trail. There are 228 steps. Before the city completed construction on the Kenilworth stairs a privately built set of steps named Uli’s Steps connected the upper and lower city. These steps were built as a retirement project by a man named Uli who spent two years on the project. They have 305 steps.
The original Wentworth wooden steps built in 1903 consisted of 6” to 7 ¼” risers. The stringers rested on cedar posts sunk 4 to 7 feet in the ground. The original staircase had 570 steps. After a rockslide in March of 1983 they were replaced with metal steps just east of the position of the original steps and they now follow the path of the old East End Incline Railway. There are 498 steps.
Again, the Local History department informs us that the original Dundurn wooden steps were replaced in the 1990s by steel steps and that there are 326 steps. Now while the Dundurn ascent has long been reported to consist of 326 steps, I have counted them now several times and I will bet my house (if not my children) that there are actually 330 steps. Here is how they break down. In the lower section: one flight of 10 steps, four of 5 steps, three of 9 steps and three of 13 steps for a total of 96. In the upper section: one of 26 steps, five of 39 steps and one of 13 steps (of which the top one is of cement instead of iron) for a total of 234. Add 234 and 96 and you get 330. In short, “326” is an urban myth asserted and copied on faith many times over. To be entirely accurate, I should add that there are, in addition, four cement steps leading to the platform from which the main body of steps proceeds. To get to that main body, however, one may go around the four cement steps, so it would be improper to consider them to be an integral part of the stairway itself. Yes, I realize that I have used up far too many words on this foible but it takes a lot of words to put an urban myth to rest. Amen. RIP.
At Dundurn the steps are just wide enough for two people to pass. Each step is punctured with 175 sharp-angled holes surrounded by little spikes that aid users in keeping their traction. The holes are an ingenious invention. Snow never has to be cleared. The first dozen or so climbers after a snowfall usually push enough snow through the holes to allow the spikes to protrude and thus for the route to be safely used.
At the lower end of the stairway the ascent is not very steep. Initially there are short flights of four steps followed by a walkway leading to another flight. Before long the flights become steeper until one reaches the really steep part where each flight has 13 steps. For people who count steps this setup is a bit of a nuisance. Eight times twenty is so much easier to calculate quickly than eight times 13, but I doubt that the designers had that consideration in mind. Down low, the steps are six inches high, near the top they become seven and a half inches. In other words the higher you go the tougher it gets. The designers seem to have had something of a sadistic streak.
The stairway emerges from the woods at the top of what is generally called “The Queen Street Hill” since that is the name of the road that cars, headed up hill, turn onto from the lower city. When one arrives at top, however, the road’s name has changed. I can never remember the new name and I imagine that I am not alone.
Just before starting up the steps there is a concrete platform with a bench to the left and a water fountain to the right. The fountain only operates in the summer and then it serves not only step climbers, pedestrians, and bikers, but also many dogs. For the past several years, some Samaritan has placed a bowl at the base of the fountain every summer for the four-legged users.
As you approach the steps you cross what was once a railway bed. The railway is now defunct and the tracks have been removed to create the Escarpment Rail Trail. If you turn right and go for a kilometer or so you come to the Chedoke steps. These steps are wider than Dundurn but shorter from bottom to top. Many people begin their workout at the bottom of the Chedoke steps, turn left when they get to the road at the top, find their way via city streets to the Dundurn steps, descend them and jog back via the rail trail to Chedoke. And, of course, there are those who do it the other way around.
Surrounding both sets of steps is wilderness. To me, it is one of the most attractive things about the experience. Those who use the steps year round, like me, get the full feel of the changing seasons. Trees budding into green in the spring with birds, including many migrants, returning with their welcome songs. In summer you can forest bathe in an outdoor basin of lush green. In fall the colours appear and, if you are a regular user, you experience every nuance of the change. In mid-winter, snow often covers the steep slope as well as the branches of the leafless trees. Snow absorbs the noise, leaving a silent natural cathedral.
Through those woods and parallel to the Escarpment Trail there is a section of the Bruce Trail, the 890 kilometer foot path that runs from the Niagara River to the tip of Tobermory. This part of the path is rocky and hilly, a sprained ankle waiting to happen unless one is careful. It seems totally redundant to me but lots of people use it.
Inevitably, after seeing each other for many weeks, the regular step climbers say hello, exchange names, stop to chat. I’ve gotten to know several of them. Fast Eddie, a one-time coach of various sports teams, is roughly 60 years of age but looks more like 40. Year around, in shorts and a t-shirt, he double-steps the entire stairway from bottom to top several times. He comes mostly on weekends. The other days of the week he goes to Chedoke, but he considers it to be too crowded on weekends and so comes to Dundurn.
Another regular is Frank, the construction guy. He shows up periodically when he is not in the far north woods doing some mega project. At one point in his life he worked in Japan and, since I taught a course there several years ago, we had fun exchanging notes about our experiences. He’s recently retired and is likely to be at the steps more often. When I told him my second floor toilet was not working well, he volunteered to come over and have a look. He fixed it but refused to take any money. Now I am, as I told him, willingly in his debt.
Sheila is a more recent arrival who has been coming nearly every day for several months. She is a one-time journalist who has diabetes and the step workouts improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin and help manage blood glucose levels. She only does the lower steps. Since, after the first ascent, I only do the steep, Sheila and I exchange small talk primarily when we arrive and when we leave. She has a very distinctive walk that is easy to recognize from above.
The steps attract people of all ages. In spring and fall students from Hillfield-Strathallen College, not far from the summit, use it as part of their gym class. University and college students (and others too) use the steps to prepare for hockey season, marathons, to climb mountains, and to backpack long-distance trails. Firefighters, preparing for their annual competition, also show up some years loaded down with equipment. There are lots of older people who find climbing steps to be more satisfying than walking or using machines in a gym. One regular, who is nearing eighty, bushwhacks a faint trail next to the steps from bottom to top to the amazement of many. There are also bikers. At the Dundurn steps they usually carry their bikes up and down on their shoulders, but at Chedoke there are gutters in which bikes may be pushed up and guided down. Dundurn doesn’t have them. It is too narrow.
All of the workout people have their own routine. Many climb to the top as quickly as they are able to do comfortably, descend at a good pace, and then do it again. Others like me, after the initial climb, only do the steep part which gives the best workout. I do a routine where, after the initial ascent, I descend 39 steps, reclimb them, descend 78 steps, reclimb 39 and so on until I am at the bottom of the steep area. I generally do about 2000 up steps in an hour.
More recently I’ve been doing high intensity intervals as recommended by Martin Gibala, the One Minute Workout guru at McMaster. From the top I descend 26 steps, reclimb them double-stepping at 80 or 90% of capacity; go down 52 steps, quickly reclimb 26, and so on. The workout that I have put together calls for 30 high intensity intervals in all, with more moderate ones to fill out the hour. One young woman who comes regularly with her dog does something similar, but ascends the steps three at a time.
I’ve been a step climber now for over 10 years. It has become an essential part of my life. For my age, I am pretty fit. Fast Eddie flattered me recently by referring to me and him as “us old guys.” He was surprised when I told him that I had him by more than a decade. He told me to keep it quiet.
Roy J. Adams is a Canadian-American academic, author, and labour rights activist. He received his B.A. degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1967 and his Ph.D. degree in Industrial Relations from the University of Wisconsin in 1973. From then until 1997 he was a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and has also been a visiting professor at 14 other institutions in 11 countries. He has published widely on comparative industrial relations, labour policy, industrial relations theory, and human rights in employment, especially on the topic of collective bargaining as a human right.