May 17th, 2022
Chateau des Quatre Vents - Hidden Jewel on Queen East

Q1. Who created the original plans for the Port Lands area? (P8)
Q2. Where was Toronto's "Great Marsh" and why was it called that? (P7)
Q5. How was the mouth of the Don River altered and when did this happen? (P9)

Toronto’s Precious Port Lands

View Toronto from a Different Perspective

Directly due south of us you can walk or a bike along the waterfront in the area known as the Port Lands and enjoy a particularly interesting perspective on the city. Toronto’s Port Lands continue to emerge from their industrial past into a playground for recreation as well as business, arts and culture. Stop and shop at one of the new food markets, watch and play soccer, launch a sailboat at one of several clubs, dine at a restaurant in a century-old building – it’s all now available within minutes to us. Although many reminders of the past, such as old warehouses and historic ships remain, Toronto is gradually gaining back some of the vibrancy of its waterfront – and will keep doing so as work on development of our Port Lands continues.

Reclaiming our Magnificent Shoreline

When early pioneers settled in the Town of York in the late 18th century (the City of Toronto, today), the waterfront along Lake Ontario. Apart from it being green, with trees, one of the most noticeable features was the mouth of the Don River, which opened up into Lake Ontario in a very large area known as “the Great Marsh”, around Ashbridge’s Bay. Early maps from this time show that the shoreline (which at that time) extended much farther north than today. A noticeable feature were several sandbars which were formed as sand was eroded from the Scarborough Bluffs. By the early 1800's the longest of these bars extended nearly 9 kilometers south-west from Woodbine Avenue, through Ashbridges Bay and the marshes of the lower Don River, forming a natural harbour between the lake and the mainland. The sandbar eventually became separated from the land and became the Toronto Islands.

Long before the settlers arrived, Native People from the area had regarded the location as a pivotal “Carrying Place”—or overland portage, because it was a junction point of land and water routes. There were trails running northward from the shoreline, along the river routes, and connecting to other rivers such as the Rouge, and north to places like Lake Simcoe. As the Town of York grew, the harbour clustered around the east (the area we know as Parliament and Front). It was used for transportation and recreation. Numerous wharves were seen scattered along the harbour. The first of these, Cooper's Wharf, is described by some as the “Union Station and Pearson Airport” of its day. Everyone and everything arriving at York had to go through Cooper’s Wharf. It had on it a General Store and a Shipbuilding slip. All that remains of this historic place today is a long road by that name between Loblaws and the LCBO at Lake Shore Boulevard.

Reclaiming Land from the Lake and Marshes

By the time York became Toronto, Toronto’s waterfront area was dotted with small factories and a variety of local industries and commercial activities. Various piers lined the Toronto shoreline so boats could easily dock and unload their cargo. Within a decade, the harbour held over 30 wharves and piers. Many of the factories, like the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, and the Polson Iron Works, built their own wharf or dock.

As early as 1818, residents and Toronto’s city officials were already worried that Toronto’s once pristine waterfront and beach would be lost because of all the activity along the shoreline. This resulted in a Royal Patent that created a walkway or public “Esplanade” from Peter Street to Parliament so families could still stroll at their leisure and enjoy the fresh lake air.

Sir Henry Pellatt, Beaches Landowner

There is another Beaches/Casa Loma connection. The owner of Chateau des Quatre Vents, Mr. Murray, originally bought the land for the house from Sir Henry Pellatt, the same romanticist and industrialist who commissioned Casa Loma. Besides purchasing the land on which he built Casa Loma, Sir Henry had a large piece of land on top of the cliff for his own summer estate. Part of that land he sold to William Murray. Sir Henry did build his own summer home on the rest of the property, but unfortunately this home burned to the ground in a fire in the early 1920s; this is about the same time when Sir Henry went bankrupt. Part of this land is where the R.C. Harris public utilities and water works is located.

But commercial and industrial activity continued to grow, particularly with the arrival of the railways in 1850. The city, particularly the railways, needed stable land along the shore to build tracks. They looked to the marshy lands to the south east of downtown – the mouth of the Don and the area around Ashbridge’s Bay. They realized that if the land could be reclaimed, that is, filled in with dirt and debris, there would be more space for tracks and buildings.

The waterfront we now know, including our Port Lands, was thus created through lake-filling activities undertaken by the railways, major industries and the Harbour Commission. Various kinds of dirt and debris taken from the construction in the expanding city were used. Timber cribbing was placed around the perimeter of the area to be filled and the fill used included sewage, municipal waste, material from construction sites and material dredged from the harbour bottom.

The first “filling in” of the waterfront happened in 1850’s when a-100 foot landfill strip was created. The new land accommodated the Grand Trunk Railway. The Grand Trunk was originally to build its line across Queen Street and it took an act of Legislation in 1857 to transfer the land to the railroad giving it the right of way along the harbour.

As more railways and industrial activities grew in Toronto, more and more of the marshier parts of the harbour—our Port Lands especially to the east—were filled in.

One of the biggest projects was filling in the land around Ashbridge’s Bay or what was known then as the “Great Marsh,” and the ongoing work to alter the shoreline so it was more suitable for railway tracks.

In 1912, the Port Lands industrial area was expanded again. The Toronto Harbour Commission’s Waterfront Plan of 1912 was one of the most ambitious redevelopment plans in the city’s history. The plan called for dredging the harbour to a depth of 24 feet, and using this dredged fill to create land for industrial, commercial, and recreational uses. The installation of modern piers and construction of warehouses—all linked with rail lines and roadways—would now accommodate the larger shipping vessels expected after the opening of the Welland Ship Canal. This was also the time when 1,000 acres of new land was created by closing the Don mouth and diverting it into Keating Channel.

The project, including the reclaiming of land, continued into the 1950’s. Since the first “filling in” there would be five major landfill projects in total.

Railways and Port Lands: an Interconnected History

The railways continued to have a tremendous influence on how our Port Lands were developed. With increased rail construction, Toronto became linked to Montreal, Quebec, the Atlantic colonies, and the United States through the Erie Canal. Soon the city became the main railway hub in Canada West, which meant that Toronto overtook all other cities in Canada, except Montreal, in business, industry and commerce.

Toronto’s first train station was established by The Grand Trunk at the corner of Front and Bay in 1855. The railway shared the facility with the Great Western Railway. The station was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1904 and replaced with Union Station in 1927.

Rail lines also criss-crossed our Port Lands. By 1912 railway lines entered the Port Lands District south of Keating Channel, and by 1914 the earliest lines, which were temporary and moveable, transported construction materials around the District.

A rail line once ran down Munition Street, and the Toronto Street Railway System operated a line on Commissioners Street to Cherry Street. Villiers Street had a line down the middle of two paved roads with spur lines built to various industrial buildings so it was easier to ship and receive goods.

The Dark Age of the Port Lands

The network of rail lines leading in and out of the city as well as to factories and loading docks resulted in a very industrial and unattractive Port Lands area for Toronto for several decades. Ships would arrive with coal and lumber, which would stay in huge piles until picked up by rail and taken to places such as the refinery on Berkeley Street. Smoke and grime billowed out from the factory smokestacks, making the buildings dark with soot and the air dirty and unhealthy. The area was no longer a place of recreation. No one strolled down the Esplanade; in fact, the historian Pierre Berton, called the Esplanade of the time “the most toxic street in Canada.”

In the 1960’s, many of the older buildings and warehouses along the waterfront and Port Lands were demolished to make room for new buildings and roads—it seemed that we had given up on our Port Lands. The land was contaminated and unattractive to developers. Most of it was transferred back to the city in the 1990’s to be cleaned up and redeveloped.

Transforming our Waterfront Again

Today, Toronto’s waterfront is on its way to becoming one of the great waterfronts of the world and a spectacular gateway to our city. In November 2001, the three levels of government established Waterfront Toronto (then known as the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation) to oversee all aspects of the planning and development of Toronto’s central waterfront. The multi-million dollar project involves cleaning up and redeveloping the now mostly publicly-owned land so that it’s turned into a significant community for residences, new business and recreation. The newly revitalized area would contain various kinds of housing and rental properties, schools, daycares, libraries, parks and recreation centres. The project is expected to take 25 years to build and will create approximately 40,000 new residences when complete

Part of the plan is to move the mouth of the Don River once again through the middle of the Lower Don Lands between the Keating Channel and the Ship Channel. The changes to the river mouth would provide the flood protection necessary to enable development. It would also make the Don River the centerpiece of new mixeduse neighbourhoods and parks and green spaces. Most importantly, it would make the Don River a major feature of Toronto’s waterfront once again.

Filming in the Port Lands

In recent years, the Port Lands have become known mainly for their film and media activity. Film activity is common because of interesting locations, several bridges, and the ample studio and storage space. The Pinewoods Film Studio (formerly Filmport), for example, boasts an 11- acre facility with 7 sound stages near Commissioners Street and the Don Roadway. It’s one of the most comprehensive purpose-built film facilities in the world and has attracted many big name Hollywood movies such as the James Bond films and Total Recall. Cherry Beach Sound is another area business that's useful for media producers, offering post-production audio services alongside their mainstay work, music production.

Hollywood North and Today’s Distillery District

Because of its many historic Victorian buildings, the Distillery District has become another favourite film location in Canada. Over the years, more than 1700 films and television shows have used the site, including “Chicago”, which transformed the oldest building on site, the Stone Distillery, into Chicago’s Cook Prison for Women. Many people, who loved the show Road to Avonlea, will also recognize the Distillery District transformed into the lanes and buildings of an old town in Prince Edward Island.

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