Saturday, July 28, 2012

A brief history of the Don Valley Brick Works

don valley brick works
Toronto was built by the Don River and the valley it carved--literally. The substantial clay and shale deposits found in the bottom of the river valley were quarried, shaped, baked and stacked for buildings such as Casa Loma, Massey Hall and the Ontario Legislature at Queen's Park. Elsewhere in Canada, Don brick went into the Acadia Apartments in Montreal and the T. Eaton Buildings in Winnipeg and Moncton.

Thanks to fortuitous geography, the material that William Taylor discovered at the foot of Moore Park Ravine while staking out a fence for a paper mill in 1882 was absolutely perfect for construction. Within a few years, a small divot in the ground had evolved into a full-scale quarry and production facility turning out hundreds of thousands of bricks every day.

If right now you're sitting in a building built before the second world war, there's a chance the walls came from the Don Valley.

toronto don valley brick works evergreen pit
Don Valley bricks were the final step in a 400 million year process. Long before human history began, a tropical ocean covered what is now Ontario. Over eons, the weight of the water compressed the soft mud of the ocean floor into shale, a fine-grained sedimentary rock.

Fast forward an eternity or so, and meltwater from the receding Laurentide Ice Sheet that once covered much of North America had formed a river mouth roughly at the site of the brick works. With the frigid water came vast amounts of clay in the form of silt, which was perfect material for bricks.

In 1892, while working at Todmorden Mills, his father's paper factory, William Taylor was digging holes to support a fence around the edge of the property when his shovel turfed up a lump of good quality clay. Clearly a shrewd businessman, Taylor took a sample of the material to another brick works in Toronto to have it tested.
toronto don valley brick works evergreen
As you've probably guessed, the bricks were good. Within five years Taylor and his two brothers, William and George, had secured the land and started the Don Valley Brick Works and quarry to capitalize on his discovery.

As the business grew, the Don Valley Pressed Brick Company produced three types of brick: "soft mud," a mix of clay and river water, "dry press," moulded shale, and "stiff mud," a mix of clay and shale with water. The Taylors' company was the only one to produce all three types of brick at the same time Canada. The quality was considered so high that the bricks won prizes at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and 1984 Toronto Industrial Fair. Shortly after, in 1901, the Taylors sold the business to their brother-in-law, Robert Davies.

Production steadily ramped up in the early part of the 20th century, partly in response to the destruction caused by the great Toronto fire of 1904 and the new laws that followed prohibiting the use of combustible construction materials.

toronto don valley brick works evergreen pit sediment
By 1907, the packed kilns were turning out 85,000 to 100,000 bricks each day. Once cooled, the building material was loaded onto rail cars or carted out of the valley using Pottery Road. Around this time the "valley" chimney, the only one still standing, was constructed to vent one of the kilns.

The company changed hands several more times and production eventually reached a peak of 25 million bricks a year. In the 1920s, Geologist A.P. Coleman used the walls of the excavated pits and fossils gathered by workers to help trace much of the area's glacial history through the various layers of rock, producing his book Ice Ages, Recent and Modern in 1926. In the second world war, the factory employed prisoners of war housed at nearby Todmorden Mills.

Hurricane Hazel in 1954, specifically its aftermath, was a defining moment in the history of the Don Valley Brick Works. To improve safety in the wake of the deadly flooding, the Metropolitan and Toronto Region Conservation Authority acquired the city's ravine lands including the area around the quarry and kiln site. Despite a post-war boom, the brick works fell into decline and finally closed in 1984.

The disused site was first earmarked for residential use but the land was expropriated in 1987 because of its position on the Don River floodplain. Unfortunately for the MTRCA, the residential designation pushed up the value of the land significantly. Over the next few years, the gaping quarries were gradually filled in using material excavated from the foundations of Scotia Plaza and landscaped ponds were created in their place.

In 2010, after decades of dereliction, Evergreen, a Canadian non-profit organization that aims to connect nature and people, took stewardship of the site and renovated many of its historic features. As a reminder of the past, bricks still litter the surrounding hillside.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What Roncesvalles Avenue used to look like

Roncesvalles Avenue History
Approaching Toronto from the southwest about a century ago, Roncesvalles Avenue would have been the first well developed north/south strip that one encountered. Despite the expansion and intensification that's taken place in the years that have intervened, the street has somehow managed to retain the feeling of a main drag, like the kind that you find in small towns all across North America.
Bearing in mind that the city of Toronto came to be through a series of annexations of surrounding villages — in this particular case, Brockton and Parkdale — drag-like qualities of this type make perfect sense. Some of our streets really were the primary strips of smaller towns that were eventually subsumed by the big city.

Roncesvalles probably also owes some of this remaining vibe to the fact that it was once a major transportation hub and the entrance point to the city's most popular summer destination, Sunnyside Amusement Park. This was, at a certain point in time, the beginning and end of this side of the city, where people departed for suburbs like New Toronto and Port Credit on the old commuter streetcars or came to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown.

Moving northward, photos from the 1910s show that the area around the Revue Cinema near Howard Park was much the same as it is today: lined with small businesses and eateries that serviced the residential community that surrounds the street. Many of these buildings still exist, though the Revue is one of the few businesses that has managed survive the long haul (temporary closure aside).

Other landmarks worth noting from the photos below are the long lost Sunnyside GTR station, the old bus terminal (now a McDonald's) at the foot of the street, the Edgewater Hotel (now a plastered-over Day's Inn), the High Park Library (which has aged very well) and the gates to High Park Avenue, which offer a formal introduction to a street that once had a decidedly suburban feel, as Rick McGinnis eloquently points out in a previous post about the area. And don't forget the streetcars. Thanks partially to the presence of the Roncesvalles car house at the bottom of the street, these vehicles are a fixture in the images below.

Although the Polish presence on the street isn't as obvious as it used to be, there's still plenty evidence of the community today, be it through the annual festival or the handful of businesses that still line the street. Alas, this particular aspect of Roncesvalles' history is not as well documented photographically (at least in terms of publicly available images), and so exists as a bit of hole in the collection below.

Roncesvalles Avenue History
Looking south towards Queen in 1909 (Ocean House Hotel in the distance)
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Goad's Atlas, featuring Roncesvalles and Parkdale, 1910
Roncesvalles Avenue HistoryRoncesvalles and Dundas, 1910
Roncesvalles Avenue History
276-280 Roncesvalles, 1910
Roncesvalles Avenue HistoryRoncesvalles and High Park, 1914
Roncesvalles Avenue History
The lay of the land in 1914 (note that Queen ends just beyond Roncesvalles)
Roncesvalles Avenue HistorySunnyside GTR station, 1915
Roncesvalles Avenue History
The old Sunnyside bridge, 1915
Roncesvalles Avenue History
92 Roncesvalles, 1916
Roncesvalles Avenue History
228 Roncesvalles, 1917
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Track work in 1919
Roncesvalles Avenue History
South of Howard Park, 1919
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Queen, King and Roncesvalles in 1920
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Track work at the foot of Roncesvalles, 1920s
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Queen, King and Roncesvalles in 1923
Roncesvalles Avenue HistoryRoncesvalles car house, April 1923 (pre-demolition)
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Now that's track work (1923)!
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Queen, King and Roncesvalles, 1920s
Roncesvalles Avenue History
New car house under construction, June 1923
Roncesvalles Avenue History
The Revue Cinema in 1935
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Aerial view, 1937
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Queen, King and Roncesvalles, 1939
Roncesvalles Avenue HistorySunnyside, 1949
Roncesvalles Avenue HistoryEdgewater Hotel, 1950s
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Looking east along Fermanagh from Roncesvalles, 1959
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Looking west along Constance, 1959
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Looking west along Galley, 1959
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Looking east along Garden, 1959
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Looking west, 1959
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Looking west along High Park Boulevard, 1959
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Looking east along Geoffrey, 1959
Roncesvalles History
Looking east on Westminster, 1959 (check out the comments section for a cool tidbit on the garage to the left)
Roncesvalles Avenue HistoryEdgewater Hotel, 1960s
Roncesvalles Avenue HistoryEdgewater Hotel, 1970s
Roncesvalles Avenue HistoryRoncesvalles at Howard Park, 1970s via Chuckman's blog.
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Queen, King and Roncesvalles, 1971 via lindsaybridge.
Roncesvalles Avenue History
PCC streetcars at Queen, King and Roncesvalles in 1976 via Lou Gerard
Roncesvalles Avenue HistorySunnyside loop, 1980 via Lou Gerard
Roncesvalles Avenue History
429 Roncesvalles, 1983 (a Joy Oil Station) via Patrick Cummins
Roncesvalles Avenue History
Looking south towards the foot of Roncesvalles in 1992 via David Wilson
Roncesvalles Avenue History
The corner of Queen, King and Roncesvalles in 1992 via David Wilson
Roncesvalles Avenue History
The Ace in 1998 via Patrick Cummins
Photos from the Toronto Archives unless otherwise noted

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The sinking of the steamer Alexandria in Toronto

steamer alexandria postcardThe Mississippi might be the spiritual home of the steamboat, but Lake Ontario and Canada in general have seen their fair share of paddlewheels and boilers. In fact, the vessels were integral in the development of the western provinces, transporting passengers and goods up and down the navigable rivers of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and even venturing into the Yukon.
One such Canadian steamer, the Alexendria, built at Hull, Quebec in 1866, came to a spectacular demise at the foot of the Scarborough Bluffs one tempestuous night in August 1915 on its way to Toronto from Port Hope. The wreck still sits in the same place almost 100 years later, serving as a reminder that even the usually placid Lake Ontario can still deliver a nasty bite.
steamer alexandria sepia postcardAccording to a 1975 story in the Picton Gazette by Willis Metcalf, the Alexandria or "Alex" to those familiar with the vessel, was registered at "173.7 feet in length, 30.6 feet in breadth, and 8.4 feet in depth." It weighed 508 tons. Primarily used as a passenger steamer servicing towns along the north shore of Lake Ontario and occasionally making a run over to Rochester, N.Y., the Alexandria became the property of Canada Steamship Lines, the owners of several other famous vessels including the Noronic, after a merger with Hepburn Brothers of Picton.
Built as a freighter, the Alexandria had its first passenger decks added in Montreal. It was a regular visitor to the harbour at Picton, Prince Edward County, where it was lengthened by thirty feet to accommodate additional passengers on the Rochester-Quebec and Brighton-Montreal runs. The picture above shows the vessel before its final modifications.
On the night of August 3, 1915, the Alexandria was bound for Toronto from Montreal carrying 300 tons of vinegar, beans and tomatoes. A small crew - captain William Bloomfield, wheelsman Frank Twaddle, Sam Schriver, Alex Boy and several others - fed the engine and navigated the shoreline of the lake. Prior to the journey, the ship had once again undergone extensive modifications - it's seats and other passenger equipment removed - to transport cargo.
steamer alexandria wreck bluffsHeading west beyond Port Hope, the Alexandria encountered an increasingly strong northerly wind and large rolling waves tossing the vessel from side to side, toward the shore. In response, captain Bloomfield worked hard to keep the steamer away from the perilous rocky shore while maintaining forward momentum in the hope of weathering the worst of the wind and rain.
The situation became increasingly dire approaching the foot of the Scarborough Bluffs and the Alexandria was blown dangerously close to the shore. Despite its engines working at full power, the ship ran aground in the shallow water broadside to the wind. Immediately, waves began to crash over the lower decks and captain Bloomfield ordered the crew to release distress signals.
According to newspaper reports, "scores" of farmers and radial railway workers arrived at the top of the fifty-foot cliff, blocked by the prospect treacherous scramble down to the shore. The breakers - already capsizing the Alexandria - were too high to launch a vessel close by so rescuers from a nearby life saving station in Toronto were mobilized. By the time the first boats arrived, the impromptu party had reached the bottom of the cliff and begun forming a human chain into the water to help pull the crew of the ship to safety.
As the hull rapidly began to break apart, the crew pulled on lifejackets and leapt into the roiling water.
steamer alexandria hull in waterTossed about by the waves, the human chain snatched up the crew and heaved them to shore. Up on the Bluffs, the aptly named Mrs. Crew of the Half Way House inn prepared beds and a fire for the soaked, cold but otherwise uninjured sailors. With everyone safely out of the water, the crew were taken to Toronto - ruining Mrs. Crew's chance at a quick buck.
The next day, with the lake considerably calmer, nefarious locals set about salvaging anything they could from the stricken Alexandria. To quote a newspaper report, "a persistent stream of the curious and thrifty went back and forth from the Bluffs bearing trophies of every conceivable nature. Nearly everything of value above the water line was taken. Many a cellar was stocked with vinegar and canned goods."
Perhaps as a result of the rampant looting, the Alexandria was never properly salvaged. The hull of the ship still sits a few metres off shore and is easy to see from land (it's even visible on Google Maps' aerial view.) Scarborough-based diver Mike McAllister has extensively explored and photographed the wreck; his photograph of the rusting hull is shown above. Other pictures from the site are below.
wreck of the alexandria underwaterwreck of the alexandria underwaterwreck of the alexandria underwaterImages (in order): Maritime History of the Great Lakes (postcards), City of Toronto Archives and Mike McAllister.