Tag Archives: Port Lands

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 Distillery District.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The story of the Distillery District starts in 1832 with the idea for a grist mill on the east end of York (Toronto) harbour.  James Worts had been a miller in Suffolk, England before moving to York.  He built a 70-foot tall windmill that was a prominent feature on the York skyline and started a milling business with his brother-in-law William Gooderham.  Together they started a business that led to the largest distilling operation in Canada.  However, disaster struck in 1834 when James Worts lost his wife in childbirth.  Distraught, he jumped in the well at the mill and drowned himself just two weeks later.  Gooderham adopted his children and raised them along with his own thirteen.  Among the adopted was James Gooderham Worts who would become his partner in the business.

Their position on the waterfront provided easy access to large quantities of grain and so Gooderham decided to use some of it to make whiskey.  The distillery began in 1837 and being an entrepreneur, Gooderham began selling the spent grain wash to local farmers as feed.  Over the next four years he set up 9 acres of cattle sheds on the east side of Trinity Street and started a dairy operation as well.  The company kept fantastic records and appreciated their own history and so they retained the original millstone that was shipped from England in 1832 and used at the windmill.


The Toronto Archives photo below shows the distillery as it appeared in the 1890’s on a post card.  It gives an idea of the scope of the enterprise that developed from that humble beginning with a windmill and a millstone.

Captions/Presentation slides. - 1903-1982, predominant 1978-1982

 In April of 1859 work started on the first wave of expansion for the company.  They began to build the most ambitious industrial building in the city, up to that time.  Built of Kingston limestone it is 80 feet wide and 300 feet long.  One half is five stories high to contain the mill while the west end is a story and a half and contained the distillery.  Working with lanterns in a dusty environment creates a serious fire hazard and many grist mills burned down because of it.  Gooderham has his constructed to be fire proof and when it burned in 1869 only the interior was lost.  This was quickly rebuilt and it is said that the grain that fell from the upper floors protected the milling equipment below and saved it from burning.  The cover photo shows the south side of the building which originally faced the Grand Trunk Railroad Tracks.


The Boiler House is known as building number two and it is attached to the north side of the mill.  It was originally a single story limestone building but it has been radically altered overt the years.  When the boilers were upgraded in the 1880’s the limestone wall was removed to accommodate the equipment and was replaced with the present brick structure.  Just behind the smoke stack is building number four which was part of a major expansion in 1863.  The boiler house was using 30 tons of coal per day to fire the 100 horsepower engine in the mill.  The ashes from all this coal were taken and spread around the neighbourhood streets leading to some of the best packed streets in the young city.


Several buildings were added to the north of the mill and west of Trinity Street in 1863 including new offices, cooperage buildings and the four story rectifying house for the purification of alcohol.   The modest offices pictured below served the growing business until they were replaced with a new office building on Wellington Street in 1892 known as the Flatiron Building.


David Roberts Sr. was the architect for most of the early buildings in the compound while his son oversaw the construction of the later ones.  They were also responsible for designing several Gooderham family homes as well as the Flatiron Building.  Although the buildings served a utilitarian manufacturing function, Roberts made sure to include some purely aesthetic features.  Most of the brick buildings were set on limestone foundations so they would tie in visually with the stone mill.  The Rectifying House still has its decorative cupola and patterned brickwork.  This design is known as “arcaded corbelling” with a saw-tooth surmount.


In the 1870’s another round of expansion took place.  The cattle sheds on the east side of Trinity Street were torn down and replaced with new ones on the east side of The Don River.  The Pure Spirits building, tank houses and store houses were built on their former site.  The Still Houses featured in the picture below were used to adjust the proof level of the spirits to ensure a consistent 40% alcohol.


A dozen Tank Houses were added throughout the 1880’s for the storage of copper tanks of whiskey and later some were converted to hold up to 5,000 barrels per building.  


Tankhouse Lane runs from Cherry Street to Trinity Street and is lined on both sides by these storage buildings.


A shipping building was added in 1883 to store cases and barrels of whiskey that were ready for distribution to the markets.


Meanwhile, the cattle sheds continued to function across the river and fifty years of disposing of the manure into Ashbridges Bay had contaminated it to the point where it was decided to fill it in and it was turned into The Port Lands.  During the First World War the company converted to producing acetone for the military under the name British Acetone.  The picture below is from the Toronto Archives and is dated November 30, 1916.


After the war was finished the temperance movement succeeded in implementing Prohibition.  The company survived by distilling whiskey for export, although much of it passed through Quebec where it was legal and back into Ontario.  In 1927 the business was sold to Hiram Walker and continued to operate in a lesser fashion until the complex was closed in 1990.  


The entrance to the Rectifying House was deliberately made grand to allow light into the interior of the building but it also has some awesome woodwork.  Two wooden arches support a circular oculi.  The original windmill was removed after the factory was converted to steam power and the site partially built over with the Rectifying House.  The semicircle of brighter red bricks in the lower corner of this picture marks the site of the windmill that started the enterprise.


Rather than being turned into a museum like Black Creek Pioneer Village the site has been developed into The Distillery District which preserves the heritage in a unique way.  The factory buildings are full of interesting shops and activities that bring new life to one of the most complete Victorian Industrial Complexes in Canada.  The map below provides some insight into what awaits visitors to the area.


The view below looks east along Gristmill Lane with the Stone Mill on the right and the chimney for the boiler room in the background.  The Coopers Shops and Rectifying House are on the left.


This is one historic site that definitely needs another visit when I can go into the buildings and look around.

Just across Cherry Street stands the Palace Street School which was built in 1859 and served the children of many distillery workers.

Google Maps Link: Distillery District

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Toronto Port Lands

Sunday May 3, 2015

It was a beautiful day, sunny and 19 degrees by the edge of Lake Ontario. I parked at Cherry Beach with the idea of walking the beach east to Leslie Street where I could get around the shipping channel and back along Commissioners Street.

The Port Lands are an entirely artificial construction, tacked onto the end of an artificially straightened Don River.  Formerly marsh land at the mouth of the Don River, it was home to abundant wild life.  Gooderham and Worts used the marsh to dispose of animal waste and wheat swill from their distillery.  Soap factories and other heavy industry upstream as well as raw sewage worked together to create Canada’s most polluted river.  By the 1890’s the marsh had become so foul that there was constant fear of cholera outbreaks.  The Don River was straightened from just below Riverdale Farm, but silt continued to be a problem that required annual dredging of both the river and the harbour.  In 1912 the Waterfront Plan was implemented and the city began a program of filling in the Ashbridges Bay Marsh.  The cover photo shows the dredging operation that helped create what became the port lands.

There are some nice spots along the beach in spite of the fact that it is made of rubble and fill. In many places bricks and parts of demolished buildings litter the sand on the shore. Considering that there is a large concrete recycling facility along the Leslie Slip, just past the turning basin, I think cleaning this up must be too simple to occur to a politician.


Although the city attempted to crowd the marsh out it has been re-established in places. New wetlands exist that provide habitat for birds and butterflies.  I notice that the robins and red-winged blackbirds are looking fat and are getting ready to lay their eggs.  The picture below was taken looking back toward the city across a field of Typha (cattails) and European Common Reeds.


As you walk east along the beach the massive tower of the Richard L Hearn generating station remains a focal point along the way.  It stands on the south side of the ship channel beside the newer Port Lands Energy Centre.  Commissioned in 1951 as a coal fired generating station it was in service for only 32 years before being decommissioned in 1983.  At it’s peak in the 1960’s it was burning 400 tonnes of coal per hour which could be offloaded from ships right beside the generator.  The smoke stack was built in 1971 to replace the eight shorter ones that were considered to be polluting downtown. At 215 meters it was one of the tallest in the world at the time.  This is one of three old smoke stacks on the waterfront, all of them are out of service. The other two are on the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant and Commissioners Street Waste Incinerator.  The picture below is taken from the corner of the ship turning basin looking at the two power generation buildings, with “The Hearn” being on the right.


This boat is sitting beside the turning basin.  The name plate on the front identifies it as a CB2 made by Suka Van Vene.


As you walk along Commissioners Street you come to fire hall No. 30, built in 1928.  This building has it’s single bay bricked off and is now used as a meeting hall.


The four buildings along the east side of Cherry Street are all listed as heritage properties.  On the corner is the former Dominion Bank building from 1920.  It is currently in use as Cherry Street Restaurant.


Next to it stands the 1930 Toronto Hydro Substation.


One of the remaining industrial buildings in the port lands is the former William McGill and Company offices.  The company was established in 1871 on Bathurst Street as coal and wood merchants.  Much of the port lands was used for coal storage and distribution.


The Bank of Montreal building on the corner also dates to 1920.  As the city looks to redevelop the port lands it will be allowing residential and commercial development on either side of the new Don river park.  This block has been proposed for condo development but the heritage buildings will be retained in some form.


Also on this small block are some of the few remaining oil storage facilities on the port lands.  At one time large tracts of land were covered with these tanks.  Most of them have been removed and have left acres of contaminated soil behind.


The plan for a new mouth for the Don river received approval Jan 28, 2015 on it’s final environmental assessment.  This clears the way for the river to be disconnected from the Keating Channel and given a new winding, more natural entrance to the harbour.  Soil would be removed, cleaned on site and used in berms to provide flood control.  Trees would be planted and a new green corridor leading into the heart of the city would be established.  A diagram of this was presented in the companion post, The Don Narrows. The picture below shows the area where the new river mouth would be built.  This was once the site of 40 or so oil storage tanks.


An artists conception of the newly created park lands at the mouth of a naturalized Don River. In the background the artist has included the smoke stack from “The Hearn”.

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The Docks Entertainment Complex added a drive in theatre in 2000 making Toronto the only city in North America to have a downtown drive in theatre.  It stands on the site of the former Polson Iron Works Limited, a Toronto ship building company founded in 1886.  In the redevelopment scheme, Polson Slip, where they launched their ships, would be converted into the mouth of the river. The 1930 Strauss Trunnion Bascule bridge over the ship channel is seen in the background.


Having seen the turning basin once, I don’t see why I would ever walk down Commissioners Street again.  The beach, however is another story.  You can walk along the beach in one direction and take a small nature trail on the way back.


I’m waiting to see if they will actually complete the naturalization plan for the mouth of the Don River.  That may never happen, but I just might go with my wife to a drive in movie on the waterfront this summer.

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