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10 quirky things to know about the Toronto harbour

Posted by Derek Flack / August 12, 2014

Toronto harbour historyThe Toronto harbour is a place rich in history, complete with buried oddities, unfinished projects, and little known facts. Although industrial activity has waned at the port over the last 30 years, decades of heavy use has left its fair share of buried boats and strange stories. The city's relationship with the harbour has become increasingly complicated since the early 20th century when the Harbour Commission filled in a huge portion of the harbour south of Front St.

From the various plans to build on the Islands to the Queens Quay condo boom to the expansion of the airport, the harbour is very much a contested space. Perhaps that's why its history is so fascinating. Here's a little trip through the past of our port. Next time you pay a visit, it might not look the same.

Whale bones were once found in the harbour
Long attributed to the presence of Piper's Zoo at Front and York streets, the provenance of the whale bones discovered when the TTC excavated the tunnel for the streetcar from Union to Queens Quay remains a complete mystery. Carbon dated back to the 1840s, it's anyone's guess as to how the vertebrae of a whale made it into the inner harbour. Theories anyone?

toronto harbour landfillMost of the area south of Front Street is reclaimed land
Starting in the early 20th century, the Toronto Harbour Commission aggressively filled in the harbour, expanding Toronto over a kilometre south. For perspective, in the early 1920s the Harbour Commission Building was on the water at the edge of a two hundred foot pier, while today it would take someone five minutes to walk to the shore from its front door.

PS TrilliumThe oldest ferry dates back to 1910
Built at the Polson Iron Works, formerly a fixture on the east side of the harbour, the PS Trillium has been make the trip to and from the Islands for over a century. It was decommissioned in the 1950s only to return to service in the 1976. Prior to being returned to service the ferry, which was docked at the Yonge St. slip, collided with the MS Normac, the former home of Captain John's, which sank two weeks later.

Toronto Islands historyThe Toronto Islands were once a peninsula
Formed from sediment that drifts off the Scarborough Bluffs, the Toronto Islands were once no such thing. Once a long peninsula extending southwest from Ashbridges Bay, a huge storm on April 14, 1858 created what we now call the Eastern Gap, which has remained to this day. In the 1970s, the city dredged the gap in order to allow major ship traffic into the harbour through this route.

Toronto started a tunnel to the Islands in 1935
The plan to build a tunnel to the Island airport has been in the works for a long time, a very long time. In fact, back in 1935 the city actually started construction on the project. While there was opposition to the project from the very beginning, the federal government gave the city money to complete the project. But, like so many Toronto infrastructure projects, a a change in party leadership - in this case the victory of William Lyon Mackenzie's Liberals - led to a change of plans, and work on the tunnel was halted. The new tunnel to the Islands is expected to be completed in 2015.

TTC subway cars port landsOur new subways and streetcars once arrived by boat
This isn't altogether that quirky, but surely one of the most valuable deliveries to our harbour over the years was the first Gloucester subway cars, which arrived by boat from England in 1953. Many of the PCC streetcars also came through the harbour before entering service. With Bombardier building our new Rocket subways and low-floor streetcars in Thunder Bay, shipments now come by train.

SS NoronicThe worst accident in harbour history claimed hundreds of lives
In the early hours of September 14, 1949 the S.S. Noronic caught fire in the Toronto harbour and was terrifyingly consumed by flames in a matter of minutes. The speed of the fire and a the lack of preparedness for an evacuation effort were the primary culprits in the tragedy. The cause of the blaze was attributed to a discarded cigarette.

roller boatSomething called the Roller Boat is buried in the harbour
Of the many strange things sunk in the harbour, the Roller Boat might take the cake. Augustus Knapp built this oddity in the late 19th century in the hopes of improving the trip across the Atlantic. The concept was a disaster and barely worked to ferry passengers around the Toronto harbour. The boat is buried somewhere near Lake Shore Blvd. and Sherbourne St.

harbour cityToronto almost built a mini-city on the lake
Harbour City remains to this day one of the most ambitious projects Toronto never completed. To be built on the Islands and an additional 510 acres of infill, the island community was to feature canals, a ring road that would connect it to the mainland (at Bathurst and Strachan streets) and pre-engineered building modules. Eventually the provincial government killed the idea.

1.6 million tonnes of goods passed through the harbour last year
Yes, the harbour is still used as an industrial port. Much of this activity involves Redpath Sugar, which has operated its refinery at the foot of Jarvis St. since the 1950s. The Toronto Port Authority removes 150 million pounds of debris from the inner harobur on a yearly basis to keep navigation safe. It is also the busiest port in the country for pleasure boats.

What quirky facts do you know about the Toronto harbour? Share them in the comments section.



Harbour City fiasco / August 12, 2014 at 11:50 am
Thank god Harbour City got canned. Who wants a "mini-city" clogging up our harbour and taking over our beloved islands? Would have been a disaster.
alan / August 12, 2014 at 12:00 pm
I'm sure I read here (or there) the bones were on display at the zoo...and when the zoo was relocated or whatever, rather than take the bones, they were discarded into the harbour...
Derek replying to a comment from alan / August 12, 2014 at 12:14 pm
Yes, we wrote that here:

But in doing further research for our article on urban myths, we discovered that the carbon dating of the bones tends to dismiss the zoo theory.
Bryan / August 12, 2014 at 12:59 pm
Very interesting stuff for a newcomer to Toronto.
PS Redpath Sugar is at the foot of Jarvis, not Sherbourne.
Groot / August 12, 2014 at 01:08 pm
I am Groot!
Fig / August 12, 2014 at 01:24 pm
I didn't know about the Roller boat - another cool little Toronto factoid. :)
John / August 13, 2014 at 04:21 am
I could be wrong... but i dont think i am, The first generation subway cars were shipped from England to Montreal and then transported by train to Toronto, the TTC used a rail spur off the old belt line to bring the new cars in.
Also Groot / August 13, 2014 at 02:50 pm
Philip Hanbidge / October 6, 2014 at 05:53 pm
I'm confused about the Whale. The zoo is marked on Goad's map and I have heard from several sources the story of displaying the dead whale until its decomposition rendered it unpalateable.
Even if (another?) whale display predated the zoo, that hardly makes its origins a "complete mystery".
Your own previous post includes too much specific detail and apparent corroboration for it all to have been made-up.

And just btw, the RCYC "ferries" Kwasind and Hiawatha also date back to 1912.

Also, it is worth noting that the oldest remaining building on the waterfront is now the home of Second Cup at York Quay. The structure was originally "Freight Shed 1" in 1907 and was modified and relocated to be the RCYC ferry office and then the coffee shop.
Philip Hanbidge / October 6, 2014 at 05:54 pm
More about the Freight Shed 1 (a.k.a. Second Cup at York Quay)
Wayne Lilley / October 7, 2014 at 03:27 pm
Uh, 150 million tons of debris removed per year? Might be worth checking, That's 75,000 tons per year, about 205 tons per day. There is no way the guys running the little tug remove anything close to that. For openers, where do they put it?
Wendy Day Hamilton / January 6, 2016 at 02:45 pm
I own the model company that made the model of Harbour City and I recognized the photo as I was going through old photos in our archives. Curious to know if the model all exists or if you only have photos?
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