He built a bridge in Hamilton, and three connecting Canada to the United States. He opened the Royal Botanical Gardens. And most significantly to students, he spearheaded McMaster’s move from Toronto to Hamilton. And yet now, 84 years after his death, Thomas Baker McQuesten is largely forgotten by the city he helped to shape.
Mary Anderson is hoping to change that.
“It’s wonderful to be able to tell the world what [Thomas McQuesten] did,” she said in an interview last week.
Anderson, who holds a PhD from McMaster in English, has dedicated her work to bringing the story of the McQuesten family back into the spotlight. She has written two books and three plays on the subject, and was presented a McMaster Alumni Hamilton Community Impact Award on Sept. 25 for her efforts.
The inspiration for this work came from a visit to Whitehern, the former McQuesten estate that has since been converted into a museum. Upon reading a sample of the letters the family had written, Anderson changed her focus of study from Irish poetry to the McQuesten family’s writings.
“[I was] entranced by them for their literary quality, for their depth of knowledge of history and science and city, Ontario politics, everything.”
With the help of a dozen students, she worked to digitize the 4000 letters the family had written. The content of the letters is now available online, along with a some photos from Whitehern’s collection.
Her most recent book, Tragedy & Triumph: Ruby & Thomas B. McQuesten, released in 2011, takes the content of those letters and tells the tale of the McQuestens’ lives, from the family bankruptcy, to Ruby’s premature death, to Tom’s political career.
She said the book wrote itself and described it as a “labour of love.”
While dramatic, Anderson feels the story of the McQuestens is also significant to the city. In recognizing Thomas as the “forgotten builder,” she feels Hamilton can solidify its sense of identity.
“Hamilton is so resistant to promoting Hamilton…[it] doesn’t know it’s important,” she said. But Anderson and McQuesten agree that the city is important, and that McMaster is a major part of that.
“Our whole development has been along mechanics lines,” McQuesten wrote in a letter, as found in Anderson’s book. “Hamilton has become too much a factory town. [McMaster] is the first break toward a broader culture and higher educational development.”
As a proponent of the “city beautiful” philosophy, Thomas McQuesten also aimed to improve the appearance of Hamilton through the establishment of parks, believing that if people were surrounded by natural beauty, it would inspire morality, making them better citizens.
Anderson is happy to be receiving an award for her work, but explains she would be involved in the community no matter what.
“It’s what I do,” she said of her community outreach. She is a member of the Hamilton Historical Board, Hamilton Arts Council, and the Tower Poetry Society.
Her Alumni Hamilton Community Impact Award is one of three awarded this year, presented at the Art Gallery of Hamilton on Sept. 25.
The other recipients were Dr. Jean Clinton, for her work in public and non-profit health intiatives, and Laurie Kennedy and Dr. Dyanne Semogas from the School of Nursing, for their leadership in the McMaster Student Outreach Collaborative.