Garrison Garnishings – Reclaiming Unloved History At Fort York

By Andrew Stewart, originally published December 9, 2009

What lies beneath tells the hidden history of the Fort

The place near the foot of Bathurst Street that we call Fort York was known for most of its history simply as the Toronto garrison or the Old Fort (as distinct from the New Fort, which was built in 1841 — the only structure of which survives being Stanley Barracks). The walled fort we see today within Fort York National Historic Site contains one of the largest collections of War of 1812 buildings in North America. It is this brief period of investment in military infrastructure that Fort York’s seven original buildings, dating to 1813-16, recalls today (other buildings from this time of war and its aftermath, built to house hundreds of soldiers, are gone). Many other buildings, built inside and outside today’s walls throughout the nineteenth century, also did not survive.

Some of them burned down, like the handsome 1815 Georgian brick house that dominated the Parade Square until 1869. Others like the Rebellion-period barracks (built 1838) were, astonishingly, torn down in the early 1930s, following the rationale of returning the site to its “historically correct” appearance as a War of 1812 fort. This decision ignored the site’s later history – more than a century of building and engineering in tune with the crises and alarms of especially the 1830s and 60s, described in Carl Benn’s Historic Fort York: 1793-1993.

Blame it on progressive vision – seeing the fort as a “period piece” rather than the honest mess of barracks, cookhouses, guardhouses, gates (and messes) that it was. To be fair to the visionaries, by the 1920s the fort was being mauled to oblivion by transit, railways and industry. A strong, simplifiying vision of what the fort could be was probably required to rescue it. Ironically, it may have been a burst of modernism that, in the 1930s, propelled the fort towards the clean lines and walls of its War-of-1812 future. A will to rid cities of their Victorian accumulations was gaining momentum. It’s a pity that an unprogressive conservative policy of inaction, which had characterized much of the fort’s previous hundred years of history, could not have prevailed a short time longer.

Fortunately, not all is lost. Much of this history, unloved in the 30s, went to ground – where it remains safe today. Fort York is one of Canada’s largest urban archaeological sites, its valuable potential mired in clay. The inhospitable substrate on which the fort was built – waterlogged, even salty, making it hard to find drinking water – led to an unremitting campaign to improve conditions. As drains were laid, fill was continually added to the ground surface, never subtracted, thereby allowing the past to remain safely buried. The commandant’s house, later a soldiers’ bararcks, that was destroyed by fire in 1869 happily collapsed in on itself. Undisturbed to this day, its site represents an archaeological vault.

This fall, an archaeological investigation was carried out west of the fort, on the proposed site of the new Fort York Visitor Centre. The exploratory dig produced evidence of another forgotten episode in the fort’s history. From 1868 until the great cleansing of the 1930s, the Ordnance and Supply Yard complex of buildings stood in what are today’s parking lots at the south edge of Garrison Common.

Gun storage shed in the Ordnance and Supply Yard on Garrison Rd west of Fort York, 1899 (Fort York Library Photo Collection Number PC 1899.4. Source: City of Toronto Archives, Box 150735-3 No. 3, Larry Becker Collection Fonds 70, Series 327 Sub-series 1)

A set of enormous wooden sheds for artillery and military supplies (see historic photo) and an office building were set around an open yard on the south side of Garrison Road, the whole enclosed by a stockade-type fence. The road itself, leading to the New Fort, was described as “totally impassable” in 1841 because of its “stiff yellow clay” when wet. The problem was solved by macadamizing its surface (stone was reduced to two-inch pebbles and rolled into a clay surface, canted precisely to effect proper drainage). Our archaeological investigation showed this problem was solved differently in the Ordnance and Supply Yard. Here, the ground enclosed by buildings on three sides was paved with split boulders (the local, soft shale) and then covered with Lake Ontario beach gravel. This “engineered surface” was exposed in a few places during the exploratory dig, enough to establish the fact of its survival and integrity (see recent photo).

Supply YardBase of the engineered surface in the Ordnance and exposed during 2009 archaeological dig

With this much known, I can conceive the possibility of exposing the yard completely – recovering it as a landscape feature. Archaeology need not always be a technical recording exercise leading to a dusty shelf. Buried features that are intact (surfaces, foundations, even entire structures) may be uncovered and used creatively in the revitalization of brownfield sites. The opportunities lurk just beneath the surface – we only need to seize them.

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