City of Consolation

By Andrew Stewart, originally published February 3, 2009

Archaeology in Toronto

Michael Redhill’s novel Consolation, a tale of Toronto told in two centuries, was the starting point for a group of presentations by local archaeologists at the Society for Historical Archaeology annual meeting in Toronto earlier this month. David Robertson of Archaeological Services, Inc., was inspired by this book to herd these cats into a morning’s exploration of Toronto’s past through their presentations.

The pace and scope of archaeological investigation of this city has increased since the Archaeological Master Plan was introduced in 2005 and digs have been going on all over the city. The presenters gave us some insight into the following places:

Fort York National Historic Site has stood the proverbial test of time with remarkable integrity, despite its becoming surrounded by development. The upside is that it has retained its archaeological and architectural integrity and authenticity. This was almost lost in the 1950s when it was proposed that the fort be moved south to the edge of the lake to make room for the Gardiner Expressway. The fort’s grounds contain an unbroken sequence of archaeological deposits reflecting long and continuous use of this site dating from the camp established by John Graves Simcoe and the Queen’s Rangers here in 1793. Our ability to “see” this site and the north shore of Lake Ontario would be poor indeed without Elizabeth Simcoe’s drawings.

The site of Ontario’s first legislature (located at Front and Parliament streets) contains startlingly clear archaeological impressions of buildings that were burned down during the U.S. invasion of 1813 (during the War of 1812). Despite the national and international significance of this site and these remains, the Ontario government has still not acquired all the land necessary to protect, commemorate and interpret them. Why? And will it fix this in time for the War of 1812 bicentennial, three years from now? There is no shortage of enthusiasm for the potential of this site, or ideas for its revitalization and interpretation.

An unusual window into “fashionable Adelaide Street” in Toronto of the 1830s was discovered at the Bishop’s Block – now the site of the Shangri-La condo and hotel development at Adelaide St and University Ave. Anna Jamieson of Upper Canadian summer rambling fame lived here briefly but the excavation was more revealing on the subject of how the middle classes lived back then.

The earliest recycled paper in Toronto was made from discarded rags at a nineteenth century industrial complex known as Todmorden Mills in the Don Valley (Pottery Road), where a modest complex of heritage buildings is open to the public. Archaeologists discovered a midden of objects there related to paper-making – bits and pieces that had to be separated from the rags before the cloth could be used to make paper.

The shoreline of the harbour in Toronto has moved south several times since the 1850s. This is when the first episode of “lakefilling” occurred in Toronto Bay, intended to accommodate railways in front of the city. Until this moment, the gravel path that ran along the top of the high shore-cliff, on the south side of Front Street, kept the idea of a “mall” or “pleasant promenade” or “esplanade” alive in this city. Despite the wastelands and rail-yards that replaced the original shore-cliff, which was unceremoniously hacked down by the railway builders, the idea of an attractive, publicly accessible waterfront is coming back. The vast area of lakefill between original and present shoreline contains an archaeological record of half-forgotten industry, wharfs and ships from the past century and a half – forming one of the storylines of Consolation.

Our industrial heritage is being recognized, in a way, through revitalization and reuse of complexes like the Gooderham and Worts Distillerythe Wychwood Barnsthe Don Valley Brick Works and Roundhouse Park, the new home of the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre. Yet much historical value at these sites has been lost or overlooked. What happened to the industrial equipment in the Distillery and at the Brick Works, for instance? Surely the interpretation of the distillery’s original use, using some of its machinery, would have added tremendously to the site’s cultural and retail attractions. How will the Brick Works’ industrial past be presented within the developments now under way there?

The story of refugees and escaped slaves Thornton and Lucie Blackburn and the excavation of their house near Eastern Ave and Parliament Street is best told by reading the account of that excavation and the remarkable historical research it led the archaeologist, Karolyn Smardz Frost, to in her widely-praised book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land.

Finally, global trade and local retail patterns can be tracked through artifacts that are found at the spectacular Gore Vale archaeological site in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Gore Vale was a mansion built in 1820 (demolished in 1928), the first brick house in west Toronto. Among the material at this site, importers’ marks on ceramics reveal the economic status and attributes of customers, just as your web-browsing behaviour today leaves traces for sinister internet data collectors. Archaeologists are, indeed, the mothers-of-all-data-collectors.

The Rossin House Hotel at the southeast corner of King and York Streets in Toronto, in 1856 or 1857, with construction on the opposite corner. Photo credit – Armstrong, Beere & Hime, 1856. City of Toronto Archives SC 498 – 12

Andrew Stewart has an interest in the geology and history of Toronto and has worked as a consulting archaeologist in Ontario and Nunavut. 


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