Chris Ecklund, Hamilton's No. 1 cheerleader, has spent his own money promoting his hometown as the City of Waterfalls, where 125-plus water wonders such as the one shown here are waiting to be photographed. The philanthropist, whose fleet of specially wrapped waterfall SUVs and full-size bus help take the boosterism on the road, also spends big to bring waterfalls fans an amazing lighting system that delivers 'the wow' factor at night.

Chris Ecklund's labour of love:
Transforming Hamilton from Steel Town to City of Waterfalls

Imagine more than 125 waterfalls and cascades to explore and photograph — all in a single city!  

Thanks to the marketing efforts of businessman and philanthropist Chris Ecklund, the secret is out about Hamilton and the natural water wonders uncovered there amid the stunning landscape of the Niagara Escarpment. In fact, Ecklund’s “City of Waterfalls” initiative has caught the imagination of waterfall enthusiasts around the world, while helping to rebrand Hamilton as a city of beauty where nature plays a starring role.  

Ecklund’s image makeover of Hamilton as the “Waterfall Capital of the World” fits nicely with the city’s own efforts to redevelop the West Harbour waterfront on Lake Ontario, revitalize the downtown and nurture a burgeoning art community, all while moving toward an economy that no longer relies on the steel industry for its economic survival.  

Hamilton for years had been saddled with an image as an industrial eyesore, with smokestacks spewing pollution over a waterfront that was more scrapyard than parkland. Slowly, the Steel Town nickname is disappearing. Hamilton residents are seeing themselves in a new light, and so are outsiders.  

“Changing Hamilton’s image is the main thing — it’s why I started the City of Waterfalls initiative — and that’s happening,” Ecklund tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “There’s been an increase in visitors to the city, and the majority of the people coming here on waterfall day trips are from the GTA. It’s been absolutely incredible.”  

Along with a website promoting Hamilton’s waterfalls and cascades — it’s a mega hit, just recently receiving its millionth pageview — Ecklund, born and raised in Hamilton, has taken his City of Waterfalls promotion on the road with his very own “waterfall fleet” of SUVs and a full-sized bus, all wrapped in waterfall photo artwork.  

The bus, which also boasts an Internet satellite dish, is described as “a mobile command centre and perfect medium for spreading the word of Hamilton as the waterfall capital.” In what Ecklund refers to as March Madness, the bus was on the road for 16 days in early 2010, travelling to trade shows in Toronto and area. Everywhere the bus goes, it attracts a crowd.  

The publicity is paying off.  

“I know several families who’ve moved here because of the waterfalls,” says Ecklund, who says the falls are the lure that is helping to open eyes and minds to what Hamilton has to offer. Once they see the real Hamilton, he says, they’re hooked.  

Lighting up the falls at night

“When they come across the Skyway, all they see is industrial,” he says. “That’s only five per cent of our landmass. What they don’t see is the 12,000 acres above it of conservation lands. They don’t know about our waterfront, or that the Bruce Trail runs in our backyard, or that our house prices are so affordable — all the secrets of Hamilton are there to discover. And when they see our 87 portable spotlights that light up the falls at night, it’s unbelievable to see their faces.”  

Ecklund’s powerful lighting system — he’s equipped with 2.2 billion candlepower — caused a stir back in January when some people spotted strange colourful lights in the sky and phoned a hotline in British Columbia to report a UFO sighting. But that was just Ecklund turning on the lights at Chedoke Falls in Hamilton’s west end, so waterfall fans could take dazzling night photographs.  

It’s that kind of zeal that has got the 40-something Ecklund somewhat in the bad books of the Hamilton Conservation Authority, which in 2007 released an official inventory of the city’s waterfalls and cascades. The report, which outlines the criteria for what can be considered a waterfall, ranked the waterfalls in three categories — excellent, good or satisfactory — based on the visual appeal of the waterfall and surrounding area; the wow factor; and accessibility.  

Sandy Bell, the conservation authority’s manager of design and development, agrees Ecklund has “done a lot” to promote Hamilton as the City of Waterfalls and has “done it on his own time and on his own dime.” As a conservation authority, however, Bell said consideration must be given to protecting both resources and private property, something he says Ecklund doesn’t do when he promotes outings to waterfalls where there is no public access.  

“We’ve made a list of 30 main waterfalls that we’ll be promoting to the public and improving access to them,” Bell says. “With the inventory project, we didn’t want a checklist of 130 waterfalls for someone to get out and find them all. Many are on private property and we’re very careful about that end of things.”  

Bell also says Ecklund isn’t following the same criteria as the conservation authority when deciding what is or isn’t a waterfall that’s worthy of public attention. “He’s more of a numbers guy,” says Bell. “He’s a marketer.”  

When the report was released in November 2007, there were 96 waterfalls within the City of Hamilton’s borders on the list and four in neighbouring Burlington that made the cut because of shared creeks. Since then, more waterfalls have been found and inventoried, with “about 130” now on the revised list that will be released soon, Bell says.  

'We want to give the wow to people'

Ecklund, who says his group is “up to 140 now,”  — 126 are described at www.cityofwaterfalls.ca — doesn’t apologize for giving waterfall enthusiasts the chance to see all of Hamilton’s treasures, whether or not the conservation authority thinks they are worthy of promoting. “At the end of the day, you can’t stop the will of the people,” he says.  

As an example, he uses Troy Falls, visible from the roadway but located on private property at the far west end of Hamilton. “The best, Troy Falls, isn’t even classified by the conservation authority,” he points out. “I take classification as a rough guide. We want to give the wow to people. At Troy Falls, they’re speechless. It’s the masses we cater to.”  

Why does Hamilton have so many waterfalls? Look to the Niagara Escarpment, which runs through the middle of Hamilton, for the answer.  

The escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, is a massive ridge of fossil-rich sedimentary rock that stretches 725 kilometres from Niagara Falls to Tobermory. Its geology is just right for waterfalls. In Hamilton, the escarpment is part of the working countryside and a recreational paradise, providing outstanding vistas, trails and all those glorious waterfalls and cascades that Ecklund promotes non-stop.  

Albion Falls, a classical cascade dropping from a height of 19 metres, and Webster’s Falls, 22 metres high and the background for many a wedding photo, are Hamilton’s most popular.  

But for years, the bulk of Hamilton’s waterfalls was known only to a handful of locals, enthusiasts who, on their own, had uncovered waterfalls and cascades amid the sometimes impenetrable escarpment and started compiling their personal unofficial waterfall lists.   

Among them was Jerry Lawton. In 2000, Lawton, who had published the guidebook, Waterfalls, The Niagara Escarpment, with his photographer son Mikal, met with the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club to discuss the city’s wealth of waterfalls. He urged the club to promote Hamilton as the “City of Waterfalls” on its website, and suggested member Stephen Head, who, with Bob Nixon had already created a survey of waterfalls on the Niagara Escarpment, begin work on an inventory and mapping project, to be updated as new waterfalls were found.  

Head, with help from Brian McHattie, took on the task. They began with a list of 33 waterfalls.  

Lawton, meanwhile, took the City of Waterfalls idea public in 2001, when, in an article in the Spectator, he urged Hamilton to embrace the promotion. He also suggested how access to the waterfalls could be improved. The reaction? Disappointing. Waterfalls, it seemed, held no interest among the general population.  

For a handful of avid waterfallers, however, the searching, mapping and photographing never stopped.  

Dedicated group of waterfallers uncovers Hamilton's secret

In 2002, Joe Hollick, considered the king of waterfall hunters, published his first waterfall poster, featuring 20 of Hamilton’s finest. Scott Ensminger, a waterfall enthusiast from the Buffalo area, who in 1986 requested information from the conservation authority on waterfalls in the Hamilton area (he was given a list of 21), published Niagara’s Sisters in 2002. The following year, two books on Ontario’s waterfalls were published, both including Hamilton waterfalls.  

But it wasn’t until 2004 that Hollick approached the Hamilton Conservation Authority with the idea to research and inventory all waterfalls found within the new, bigger Hamilton, which grew as a result of amalgamation in 2001, taking in Stoney Creek, Glanbrook, Ancaster, Dundas and Flamborough, territory rich in the geological features perfect for waterfalls. At that time, Hollick had a list of 44 waterfalls. Head had 46.  

The conservation authority was interested. It used grant money to hire a project planner. A waterfall group was formed, with membership from the conservation authority, the city, the Bruce Trail, local naturalists’ club and the early waterfall enthusiasts.  

“We got involved because at the time, there were so many websites out there with conflicting information about our waterfalls, different heights etc.,” says the conservation authority’s Bell. “We wanted to do a proper job of inventorying the waterfalls. We wanted to have something that was a true depiction of what was out there.”  

The result was the inventory report, released in November 2007, that listed 100 waterfalls (now about 130) and recommended all work together to promote Hamilton as the City of Waterfalls. The recommendation had yet to reach the public.

Enter Chris Ecklund.  

“I was at a charity function and I found one of Hollick’s waterfall posters for sale,” Ecklund recalls. “When I saw that poster, I was surprised, because I only knew of two waterfalls in Hamilton — and I grew up here! I went home, I started researching and then I called Hollick and asked ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything to promote this?’ That’s when I took the bull by the horns and decided: I’ll do it.”  

Ecklund, whose philanthropy spreads wide in Hamilton, admits he’s put “a lot of staff and resources” into his City of Waterfalls initiative, though he won’t say how much he has spent so far on the website, the waterfalls fleet of vehicles, the trade shows and the travelling.  

Hamiltonians, current and expats, have nothing but praise for Ecklund and his initiative.  

'I have come to discover the natural beauty that exists around this area'

“I’m so happy that this website is available — I grew up in Hamilton and have a real affection for the place,” wetland scientist Elizabeth Kennedy writes in a testimonial from Nova Scotia. “I’ve always described Hamilton as ‘nestled between the lake and the excarpment, surrounded by wetlands and waterfalls,’ and people think I’m joking. This website is pure vindication!”  

Kelly Bucci is another fan:  

“I have lived in Hamilton for about eight years now and I had absolutely no idea that this city had so many waterfalls! I only knew of a few (Albion, Webster’s, Devil’s Punch Bowl, etc.) ... I have travelled to different places throughout Ontario and the eastern provinces and have seen such beautiful landscapes, waterways, etc. Up until this past summer, I had never really thought of Hamilton as a place of natural beauty. However, as I have started to really explore this city, I have come to discover the natural beauty that exists around this area, especially around the escarpment.  

“I am so glad to know that there are so many beautiful waterfalls. I hope to see as many of them as I can some time in the future. Thanks again for promoting the positive aspects of Hamilton and for sharing these hidden jewels with the public.”  

The conservation authority’s Bell agrees that the waterfalls phenomena — the authority has its own waterfalls website where it promotes the Top 16 to visit, along with cycling and hiking waterfalls tours and waterfalls weddings — has driven more visitors to the city’s waterfalls, especially from the Toronto area.  

One of the most visited is Webster’s Falls, which is owned by the conservation authority and which Bell describes as “one of the most spectacular,” even though it is No. 16 on the list. Webster’s Falls is also one of the most accessible, thanks to a recent donation to the authority that has given people in wheelchairs the freedom to roll up to the viewing station for a closeup look at the falls. In fact, it’s so busy there that Bell says the conservation authority is considering adding public washrooms to the site.  

What is it about waterfalls that have entranced people for centuries?  

“It’s the beauty of it,” says Bell, a photographer who has taken many a picture of Hamilton’s many waterfalls. “It’s something that’s active. The bigger they are ... people like the power of it.”  

While everyone agrees that all the city’s big waterfalls have been found, Bell says he believes there are still falls and cascades to be discovered in Hamilton.  

Search for more waterfalls continues

“They’ll be in places where people normally aren’t at,” he says, adding that the authority’s waterfalls committee is still active, going out at least once a month to investigate waterfall sightings. “And we’ve got a few really committed people like Joe Hollick and his friends and searching high and low.”  

While folks like Hollick, who have joined Ecklund in his City of Waterfalls venture, are off looking for waterfalls deep in the escarpment, Ecklund is turning to manmade waterfalls to keep the momentum going. He recently donated the materials for the city to build an artificial waterfall on York Boulevard at Dundurn Street.  

Earlier in 2010, Ecklund purchased the rights to the downtown Mustard Festival celebrating Hamilton’s other secret — it’s home to G.S. Dunn, the largest miller of dry mustard in the world. “It gives me another opportunity to promote Hamilton to the rest of the world,” he told a local newspaper about the purchase.  

Why is Ecklund spending so much time and money promoting Hamilton?  

“Somebody has to do the cheerleading,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — October 2010