The Historical View of The Toronto Waterfront – INSTALLMENT TWO

by Bill Genova

After the American incursion the community became more and more British even outdoing the mother country. A small group of men called the Family Compact began to rule, their primary leader being the Archbishop of the Anglican Church, Bishop Strachan. Others in the community took exception and, led by a fiery Scotsman, named William Lyon MacKenzie, created open rebellion in 1837 with skirmishes up and down Yonge Street. The waterfront saw loyal troops rushed in from Hamilton and other areas. The rebellion, however, failed.

The political system was reformed and Victorian Toronto began to grow up and away from the waterfront to the north and the west. Palace Street became Front Street. At Jarvis Street the market that had started from the very beginnings had now grown and farmers from the outlying communities brought an ever increasing volume of their goods and produce to sell. Theatres, businesses, hotels, warehouses and offices grew along Front Street and spilled over to King and Wellington.

The waterfront became the playground for Torontonians. Great sailing events occurred. More people traveled from the waterfront to the island to enjoy the pleasant breezes and open areas. A cottage community with residences, stores, hotels and amusements were built. A heroic oarsman appeared called Ned Hanlan, who won the local rowing competition and went on to conquer the world in his sport. In the Winter, curling and sleighing continued to be popular. The entire community focused on the waterfront, both economically and for pleasure.

The train arrived in the mid 19th century and its barons wanted access to downtown via the waterfront. The city fathers had other ideas since they had established a bucolic esplanade along the waterfront. The Barons were frustrated and threatened to build the rail line down Queen Street. The lesser of the two evils it seemed was to fill in the land along the waterfront and bring the progressive economic railways. The first landfill was initiated along the water’s edge. Two giant stations were built. The Union Station south and to the west of the current Union Station and the Grand Truck Station where the Hummingbird Centre now stands.

Great freight and marshalling rail yards grew up and cut people off from the waterfront. As the railways expanded, industry moved in, especially east of Yonge Street. Here were established great iron works, coal yards, breweries and distilleries, tanneries, and carriage makers. Progress demanded more land be filled in to accommodate the ever increasing railway traffic along the waterfront. There was work to be found along the waterfront, as in the past, but no pleasure was found among this Victorian industrial landscape.

By the 1920s, the waterfront had deteriorated and the city fathers decided to rejuvenate the area. The Harbour Commission building was erected as a symbol of their determination. A baseball stadium was built called the Maple Leaf Stadium. A new airport appeared along the waterfront in the 30’s. During WWII it served as a training centre for pilots from Norway who lived on the waterfront opposite the airport. It is still called Little Norway.

In the 50’s the community on the island was destroyed to make parklands. Resistance was strong and a small number survived on Wards Island. A second obstacle was now placed in front of Torontonians as they tried to use the waterfront. In the 60’s a new elevated highway called the Fred Gardiner Expressway marred and psychologically blocked access to its waterfront.

A third obstacle was now built along the waterfront. Expensive condos walled the waters edge in increasing numbers. Attempts were made to improve the area as various levels of government rode off in seemingly all directions as they told of their vision of what the waterfront could be.

Today the waterfront has condos, hotels, SkyDome, the CN Tower, theatres, convention centres, antique markets, historic buildings, a great arena, a major transportation centre and the lake. Torontonians lucky enough to live on the waterfront enjoy panoramas of the city and the lake. Torontonians continue to pressure to gain easier and greater access to their waterfront.

Bill Genova is an historian, storyteller and tour guide. If you would like to take one of the many tours organized by Bill Genova, contact: www.genovatours.com (416-367-0380)

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