Tag Archives: Keating channel

Toronto Dry Dock Company Ltd.

August 22, 2021

When Toronto was founded (as York) it was located where it was because it had one of the best sheltered harbours on Lake Ontario. The ship building industry got started early and the nearly completed Sir Isaac Brock warship was a prime motivation for the Battle of York. When the Americans invaded on April 27, 1813 the British burned the ship rather than have it fall into enemy hands. Since that time there have been hundreds of boats and ships built by the dozens of companies that have come and gone. The straightening of the Lower Don in the 1880s followed by the transformation of Ashbridges Bay into The Port Lands after the turn of the century created further opportunities for industry. The Toronto Dry Dock Company Ltd. was one of those new enterprises.

The aerial photograph below is from 1957 and was taken from the Toronto Archives. It shows the straightened Don River making a hard 90 degree turn into the Keating Channel. The buildings of the Toronto Dry Dock Company Ltd and Toronto Ship Building line the south side of the channel with the existing buildings circled in green. At the edge of the channel a ship is currently sitting in dry dock (also circled).

One of the earliest and most successful manufacturers of steam engines and ships was Polson Iron Works. They produced around 150 vessels and were intended to occupy Polson’s Pier in the newly created Port Lands but didn’t move there because of the First World War and then they suffered bankruptcy in 1919. Meanwhile, The Toronto Dry Dock Company and its co-owned Toronto Ship Building Company established themselves along side the Keating Channel. Three of their former buildings can be seen in the picture below.

While Polson was busy pumping out minesweepers for the military, the newly founded Dry Dock and Ship Building enterprise got a contract to build cargo ships for the military. War Ontario and War Toronto were their first two ships. Their facilities faced the Keating Channel with access to Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes but they also faced Villiers Road where a railway spur gave them access to the rest of the province.

The building at 170 Villiers served as the front office of the business, greeting customers from the street side, rather than the rear which looked out over the work yard.

The side of the building facing Villiers Street was a lot more inviting in 1954 when this Toronto Public Library photo was taken.

The business would continue until 1964 when it would become part of Port Weller Dry Docks. Following their demise, the property was sold to the Toronto Port Authority. Today, the windows are all boarded over and the front of the building is grown over in ivy.

However, the front door is still there, secretly waiting for dry dock customers who never arrive.

When Toronto Dry Dock Company Ltd. received its charter in 1917 as a vessel repair yards, C.S. Boone was the first president. It was an off-shoot of C.S. Boone Dredging & Construction, of which he was also the president. They started business with a floating dry dock that was 160 feet long that was tethered to the concrete wall in front of the office building.

However, they soon found that it wasn’t large enough for many of the vessels they could have worked on. In 1920 they purchased another dry dock which was sitting in Montreal. It had been used during the war to re-assemble ships that had been taken apart and floated through various canals to the St. Lawrence River so that they could be added to the war effort. The dry dock was towed to Toronto where it was added to the existing one. This gave the yards the ability to work on the biggest ships on the Great Lakes. The building below was used to build and repair large boilers and steam engines. It has been the unfortunate victim of someone who doesn’t know how to spell “scarface” and chose to display it in ten foot letters.

When The Don Narrows were created by straightening the Lower Don River one of the objectives was to create shipping to service the industries along the river. Instead, the 90 degree turn into the Keating Channel led to serious silting problems and the larger ships were often unable to reach the dry docks for repairs. By the early 1940s Henry J. Dixon had become the principal owner and he started Toronto Towing and Salvage Ltd. and moved away from the dry dock business. Villiers Street was formerly serviced by a rail line that ran down the middle of the street and it provides the vantage point for the picture below.

Over the years the company had bought up scrap vessels and salvaged a large number of parts which they used in repair of other ships. When the company went into liquidation in January 1964 a lot of the left over items were sold for scrap metal. The buildings became part of the Toronto Harbour Commission properties but the dock facilities on the Keating Channel in front of the third building have been left to deteriorate.

Fortunately, not everything in the yard was sold for scrap. The Marine Museum of Upper Canada had been opened in Stanley Barracks on the CNE grounds in 1957 and a large number of local marine artifacts were donated to the museum. In 2000 the museum, now known as Toronto Maritime Museum, was relocated to Pier 4 in Queens Quay West. In 2008 the museum was closed and all the artifacts have been in storage ever since.

The first two ships built in the yards were sisters named War of Ontario and War of Toronto. Both were completed in 1918 in time for the last of the Great War in Europe. The picture below is part of the Bowling Green State University collection and shows the wooden hull of the War of Toronto as it was being launched into the Keating Channel.

The island Ferry “Sam McBride” was built in 1939 by Toronto Dry Dock Limited and remains in service to Toronto Islands today. Sam McBride was born in Toronto in 1866 and was mayor from 1928-1929 and again in 1936. He passed away before completing his second term. This image is taken from Wikipedia.

Toronto needs a new home for our Marine Museum and these few remaining buildings could be the perfect place for it. It would be a sort of homecoming for many of the artifacts and historic vessels could be tied up along the Keating Channel for museum guests to explore.

Related articles: The Battle of York, The Don Narrows, The Port Lands

Google Maps Link: 170 Villiers Road

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The Don Narrows

Saturday April 4, 2015

When York (Toronto) was founded in 1793 the Don River was home to a wide variety of wildlife. The lower Don snaked it’s way through the Ashbridges Bay Marsh before reaching the lake. At night the marshes were alight with small boats spear fishing large salmon. After a snowfall in the winter the frozen river revealed countless tracks from many different species. This past winter’s pictures show that this is no longer the case.  The cover photo shows the marshes in 1909 before they started to fill them in.  This portion of the river flows slowly because it has a very gradual slope at only 4 meters for every km it flows.  Milling operations, industry and sewage caused the river to become horribly polluted by the mid 1800’s.  By 1890 the Don Improvement Plan had been implemented to straighten the portion of the Don river below Riverdale Farm.  This channelized portion of the river would become known as The Don Narrows.  What a change from yesterday.  At 2 degrees, I didn’t end up carrying my jacket today.  I started off at Riverdale Park where I used the pedestrian bridge to get access to the Lower Don Trail.s0725_fl0012_mt00092c_don-straightening

The first bridge across the Don river was a fallen tree with a hand rail attached which was known as Playter’s Bridge.  The drawing below was made by Elizabeth Simcoe, wife the Lieutenant Governor, in 1794.  It ran where Winchester Street  bridge used to stand.  This was the starting point for my hike down the Don River.

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The final curve in the river, before the narrows, runs under the former Canadian Pacific Railway bridge.  This abandoned bridge carried the Toronto to Montreal train out across the Half Mile Bridge.

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Just south of here is a pedestrian bridge that carries the Lower Don Trail over the river.  The picture above was taken from this vantage point.  The third bridge is the high green steel pedestrian bridge that backs onto Riverdale Park and Farm built in 1959.  At the base of this bridge is the abandoned abutments from a bailey bridge that stood here previously.  Princess Margaret visited Toronto on July 31, 1958.  She was introduced to the city from this former bridge, of which the concrete abutments stand on either side of the river.

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The bridge at Queen Street replaces a couple of previous bridges.  The first one from 1803 was designed by William Berczy, father of the post master in Toronto’s First Post Office and was a wooden draw bridge.  Today’s bridge was built in 1911and contains the phrase “This River I Step In Is not The River I Stand In” above a clock.  This phrase is taken from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who is known for his doctrine of constant change.  It was only added in 1996 and the clock has been broken since 2010.

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The Consumer’s Gas Bridge (now Enbridge) carries a 30″ gas main across the river.  It was constructed in 1930 for this purpose and has never actually been used for either pedestrian or vehicular traffic.  Consumer’s Gas used to operate three coal gas manufacturing plants in the city.  Customers who are supplied from the Eastern Avenue facility have their gas carried across the river on this bridge.  At the time that it was constructed the former wooden bridge for Eastern Avenue was incapable of carrying the weight.  There is a current push to have the sides opened up so that it won’t become a dam during a flood, causing a Raymore Drive kind of disaster.

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The double span truss bridge that stands beside the Consumer’s Gas bridge replaces an earlier bridge that was damaged by ice flows in 1933.  This was the former bridge for Eastern Avenue before the opening of the DVP in 1964 and realignment of Eastern Avenue.

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The first rail crossing on the lower Don was built in 1856 as part of the Grand Trunk Railway’s Toronto to Montreal line.  In 1892 a new bridge was built on the existing abutments.  In 1930 the present bridge was built on higher abutments just to the south of the previous one.  The cut stone abutments from 1856 can be seen on the eastern river bank in the picture below.  When the river was widened in 2007 for flood control purposes the west bank abutments were pulled up and used for erosion control and distributed as casual seating.  Cedar pilings that lined the river bank following the 1890 straightening of the river can be seen in the water on the near shore line.

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The last abandoned bridge before the harbour belonged to the British American Oil Company and was used to transport pipes across the river.  It appears to have been closed when the DVP was completed in the 1960’s.

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The river makes a 90 degree turn after it passes under Lakeshore Drive as it enters Keating Channel on it’s way to the lake.  The picture below is looking back toward the curve in the river with the road on the left.  The British American Oil Company who owned the lands on either side of the river refused to allow access for the river to curve to meet the Keating Channel and so the right angled connection.

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Along the Keating Channel, just before Cherry Street, I watched this Canada Goose jumping into the river.

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The only bridge to cross the Keating Channel is the Cherry Street bascule bridge.  Built in 1968 it replaces an earlier swing bridge.  With plans to re-naturalize the mouth of the Don river a new channel will be created south of the Keating channel.  The Keating Channel will be retained for it’s historic value but this bridge is already scheduled to be replaced.  Note the operator’s control booth elevated above the bridge on the far end.

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The mouth of the Don where it empties into the harbour as seen from the control room on the Cherry street bridge.

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There is a plan to move the mouth of the Don river once again.  The present discussion involves taking the river a little farther south and then running a more natural channel west to the lake. The areas around the new channel would be planted with trees and made into parkland.  This strip of park would revitalize the Port Lands and reclaim a brown spot on the lake shore near downtown.  The picture below shows one of several proposals for the naturalization of the mouth of the Don River.

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Google Maps link: Lower Don Trail

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