Part 1 of a two part series on Hamilton’s bowling lane history
Bowling has changed a lot over the years in Hamilton. In 1873, Dundurn Castle’s new owner, Senator MacInnes, converted a long narrow potting shed into two bowling alleys. In 1936 it was turned into a snack bar and a fire damaged some of the alleys which were under the floor. The area is now used for offices.
The Ocean House, 1875-95, with a bowling alley, was built in Saltfleet Township’s side of the canal. The Brant Hotel, 1900-17, in the Nelson Township side of the canal, also offered bowling, and the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club, 1891-1915, also had a bowling alley.
MacDonald’s on the second floor at 66 James St. N., had four lanes and the Brunswick Bowling Club opened in 1920 at 112 James St. N. In the early 1900s, alleys were installed in the Post Drill Hill, now the armoury on James Street. About 1912 they were removed and the space is now a military supply store. In 1907 the Commercial Club at James and Vine opened followed, in 1909, by the Y.M.C. A. In 1924 it was Connaught on John St. N., and others were soon to follow including the Iron Duke, Lister, Central, Bulmer’s, Robinson’s , etc., most in downtown Hamilton. One of the most unique in the 1920s was the Albertonian Lanes in the basement of an apartment building on Maplewood and Albert, near Gage Park.
Before Canada’s Centennial in 1967, Martin’s, Grand, Crown, Queenston Bowl, Skyway Lanes, Lucky Strike, Mountain, Sherwood, Eastdale, Bar Don, Robert’s, Sportsman, Mohawk, Bowlero, Hamilton Centre Bowl, Bol-O-Drome, Pla-Mor, Cinderella, Ottawa, Westdale, and others boosted the Hamilton lane total to over 450. With new ownership some names changed. For example Cinderella to Kenilworth to Handley, Lister to Olympia, Connaught to Midtown. In the 1950s the bowlers had to inspect the alleys to make sure no nails were protruding. If they were, a hammer was used to pound them down. The main entrance to the Tivoli Alleys was 40 feet down one lane.
When these alleys opened pin-boys were recruited to set them up for as little as two cents a game. The pin-boys were known to move from one place to another for as little as half a cent a game extra. If they didn’t show, the owner or manager had to take over and move from the pit to the front desk if a customer came in. The bowler would have to wait until the substitute “pin-boy’ was back in place. If you wanted a snack, the choices were limited: Potato chips, chocolate bars, soft drinks. Later some places featured sandwiches, hamburgers and hot dogs. Some alleys had pin ball machines, pool tables and for the tobacco chewers, spittoons. Bowling came a long way from 1875 to 1967, and more and bigger changes were to follow.
Another big change was in the size of the leagues. One prime example was the Stelco Thursday Seniors League at Skyway Lanes. It was 24 teams of five men each with a long waiting list. Now it is 18 teams with no waiting list. The Westinghouse League, also at Skyway, had 12 teams of five men each. It folded last year with only 17 bowlers left. The City Tenpin league had 24 teams with five men each. Now it has eight teams. In the 1940s this league had some interesting rules such as “no pins may be conceded” and do not stand beside another bowler and “give the grip of “Royal Order of the Goose.”
In the 1920s, bowlers had to make sure all the pins were white. At one time most leagues were men only or women only. Now 90% of all leagues are mixed.
One of the most important changes was the introduction of automatic pin-setters to solve the problem of absent or slow pin-boys. Since five and ten pins were rolled on the same lanes, the owners had to choose between the two games to accommodate the automatic setters. The first was Hamilton Centre Bowl in 1962 with 48 lanes of ten-pins. Over the next 30 years, they all changed over with many different modals being used.
And no longer will you have to convince a fellow bowler or spectator to keep score with paper and pencil. How many bowlers now know if the score on the over-head colour screen is correct?
The menu has also improved with some places having a full service restaurant, complete with alcohol. No more hiding booze in a spare bowling bag. At one time on Sundays there was no sporting activity, including bowling until Don Watson and others worked hard to changed that. Many places have separate rooms to host birthday parties and separate enclosed lanes for private functions. The names have also changed, from bowling alleys, to bowling lanes, to bowling centres to family entertainment centres. At some of these entertainment centres, bowling is third in popularity after restaurants and arcade facilities. In the U.S. some locations have dance floors, putting greens and one has added a car wash to boost revenue.
This summer Splitsville on Stone Church Road had a dance floor over four lanes.