Along the Shore: Rediscovering Toronto's Waterfront Heritage

Along the Shore: Rediscovering Toronto's Waterfront Heritage

by Jane Fairburn

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Along the Shoreexamines the Toronto waterfront, past and present, through the lens of four lakefront communities and districts — the Scarborough shore (including the Bluffs), the Beach, the Island, and the Lakeshore (New Toronto, Mimico, Humber Bay, and Long Branch). Each retains a direct and immediate connection with Lake Ontario and the natural world. Exploring the history, landscape, geography, and people of each of these waterfront areas reveals a rich heritage that has gone largely unrecognized and is for the most part forgotten. 

The book brings to life the stories, many of which have never been told, of the lakefront and the people who have inhabited these special places. It features original interviews with wellknown Canadians like director Norman Jewison, who was raised in the Beach, and swimmer Marilyn Bell. Attention is also paid to the early First Nations presence in each of the featured areas. Historical, anecdotal, descriptive, and at the same time deeply personal, Along the Shoreis more than a local history, it is a layered journey that focuses on the connection between Toronto’s natural waterfront heritage and its people.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770903616
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 07/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 20 MB
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About the Author

Jane Fairburn is a Toronto lawyer and has lived for many years along the north shore of Lake Ontario. She is deeply connected to the ecology, history, and landscape of the Toronto shore.

Read an Excerpt

Along the Shore

Rediscovering Toronto's Waterfront Heritage

By M. Jane Fairburn


Copyright © 2013 M. Jane Fairburn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77090-361-6


The Nature of the Place

On the evening of July 29, 1793, the Mississauga, a British government vessel, set sail from Niagara for Toronto Bay. Arriving at Toronto before dawn the next morning, the vessel was piloted into the bay after daybreak by Jean-Baptiste Rousseaux, an Indian Department interpreter and trader who lived nearby. Mrs. Simcoe, the wife of the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, awoke on board the ship later that morning and was met with a sublime view of the pristine basin.

The bay, as later described by Colonel Joseph Bouchette in The British Dominions in North America; etc., revealed a plush carpet of Carolinian forest, which cast its image on the lake, blurring the line of demarcation between the water and beach. Just to the west of the inlet was the Rousseaux home, which was at the mouth of an ancient river now known as the Humber. For countless centuries the riverbank had served as a passageway to the hinterlands and the inland regions of Canada. To the south of the mainland was a peninsula that formed the outer periphery of the bay, beginning in the west, at the mouth of the inlet, and stretching easterly as a finger of white sand as far as the eye could see.

Within days of her arrival at Toronto, Mrs. Simcoe rode on horseback easterly across this peninsula, now known as the Island. Continuing east, along a sandy beach on the north shore of the lake, she found herself in the vicinity of what we now know as the Beach and from there, despite the restrictions of a proper eighteenth-century lady's dress, climbed into a small boat and had herself rowed farther still, until she saw a line of immense and imposing cliffs stretching far into the distance. Of the experience she wrote in her diary: "After rowing a mile we came within sight of what is named, in the map, the highlands of Toronto. The shore is extremely bold, and has the appearance of chalk cliffs, but I believe they are only white sand. They appeared so well that we talked of building a summer residence there and calling it Scarborough." Although the Highlands had been known to early European explorers since the seventeenth century, and for countless centuries before that to the Aboriginal people who frequented the lakefront, it was Mrs. Simcoe who first recorded the sense of mystery and imagination that they continue to evoke to this day.

It was one thing for Mrs. Simcoe to write about the Highlands. It was another thing entirely, during those times, to consider living on top of them, replete as they were with insects — notably black flies — and beasts of all description and lacking road access to York, which lay, at a minimum, five and a half miles distant to the west. To say the least, this was a thoroughly unconventional idea for an English gentlewoman of her times. But Elizabeth Simcoe was by no means conventional. She appreciated and rejoiced in the unspoiled beauty of the landscape, enough so to envision herself right from the beginning on the top of the cliffs, in the middle of nature, gazing out at an unending sea of blue.

In time these cliffs came to be known as the Scarborough Highlands and, later in the twentieth century, as the Scarborough Bluffs. In 1850 the whole region — bordered on the west by what is now Victoria Park Avenue, on the north by what was then the Township of Markham, on the east by what was then the Township of Pickering, and on the south by Lake Ontario — was incorporated as Scarborough Township within the County of York. The shoreline area of the township originally included the cliffs and, directly to the east, the Highland Creek River Valley, which lies just to the west of the present-day West Rouge area. (The Scarborough waterfront displays a northeast alignment from approximately Victoria Park Avenue, though for our purposes, directions along the Kingston Road, which has generally run parallel with the shore since the nineteenth century, are expressed as east-west, with the shore situated to the south of the highway.)

Since the nineteenth century, industrial and commercial building on and in the vicinity of the Toronto shore has destroyed much of the natural beauty first seen by Mrs. Simcoe. The steady march toward the future has too often reduced our shoreline to a by-product of Toronto's progress, so much so that many sections of today's waterfront would be virtually unrecognizable to the Simcoes. Yet some places remain where one can stand in silence and respond to the natural world, not with picks and shovels but with dreams and love. The Scarborough shore is one such place.

* * *

ALTHOUGH MRS. SIMCOE was the first to record the grandeur of the Bluffs, others have been making the journey to the Scarborough shore ever since. There was Jack Heron and Ruth Heron (née McCowan), who lived almost 100 years ago in the Beach at what was then the easternmost edge of Toronto. As it turns out, the couple was distantly related through a common ancestor, Sarah Ashbridge, whose family were the first settlers in the greater Beach area and were also pioneers of the Scarborough shore.

I was told by one of their children, Ruth Sutherland (née Heron), that in the long and lovely days of summer her parents sometimes gathered their children and picnic baskets and set out for a day in the open country. They made their way along the Kingston Road to a spot near Victoria Park Avenue where the radial car route — the electric tram that spanned the breadth of the Township of Scarborough, from Birch Cliff in the west all the way east to West Hill — began. There they joined a group of locals waiting for the trolley that took them just a few more miles to the east and into a different and seemingly distant land. They were going to have a day in the Bluffs, still known in those days as the Scarborough Highlands.

As they glided along the Kingston Road, sometimes in the car with a cupola of coloured glass, they passed Sir Donald Mann's Fallingbrook, a stately mansion with extensive grounds that overlooked the lake. Moving east, they next passed the Toronto Hunt, an exclusive country club whose presence on the Scarborough shore dated from 1895. Beyond this elegant property the rapidly expanding Birch Cliff community continued, which had begun decades earlier as a seasonal cottage area.

As the train climbed Trout's Hill to the east of these places, they passed another impressive residence whose three-storey turret surveyed the lake lying to the south, beyond the tableland known locally as the Flats. In later years, this property would be known as the White Castle Inn. Rising over the crest of the hill, they had their first sight of Scarborough's gentle meadows, spread out like a patchwork quilt before them and framed on the south by Lake Ontario, an ever-present expanse of blue glimpsed fleetingly through the trees.

Within minutes they passed the Halfway House, which still welcomed weary wayfarers off the Kingston Road, as it had from earliest times, when it was a popular stagecoach inn. To the southeast, beyond the cows that dozed in the shade of oak and elm, stood the twin citadels of the Roman Catholic Church's St. Augustine's Seminary and St. Joseph's-on-the-Lake, a convent and novitiate. These structures stood in stark contrast to the unassuming barns and homesteads of the original pioneers, among them those of the McCowans and the Cornells, whose lands still sprawled south from the Kingston Road down to the lake.

Just past St. Joseph's-on-the-Lake was Scarborough Heights Park, a pleasure ground that had been a popular destination for day trippers since the early 1900s. The family opted to avoid the raucous crowds at the park, however, and continued a little farther, where they finally arrived at Markham's Road, as it was then called. There, near the dilapidated smithy of Scarborough Village, which by then was almost deserted, they got off the radial.

The children ran ahead while their parents meandered along the time-worn path strewn with buttercups and wild strawberry. Only the freshness of the air hinted at the height of land as they moved steadily uphill toward the sumac that lined the top of the meadow. Finally, at the top of the field, they parted the brush and the brambles and sat down, drinking in the deep aquamarine and indigo tones of the still and silent lake that stretched out to the south.

Years later, the Herons solidified these summer sojourns by building a romantic stone house near the edge of this very cliff. One of the main features of this lovely home was a simple square window, which at night perfectly framed the moon hanging low on the southern horizon, casting a pathway of silver light across the waters of the lake. The memory of that simple "blue window" is cherished to this day.

* * *

THE SCARBOROUGH SHORE, remarkable for its beauty, is also notable for its size and scale. Presently stretching from the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, which borders the Beach community, in the west to the mouth of the Rouge River in the east, it is almost eleven miles in length, more than twice the length of the next longest shoreline featured in this book, the Lakeshore.

Volume 1 of Adam and Mulvany's History of Toronto and County of York, Ontario; etc. refers to Scarborough as being "abundantly watered." Four of the seven watersheds within the city of Toronto flow through Scarborough, and two of the three significant remaining marshlands in the city are just east of the Bluffs, at the mouths of Highland Creek and the Rouge River. Many sections of the Scarborough shore are designated as ecologically and/or scientifically significant. Together with Highland Creek and the Rouge Park lands, which are soon to be designated an urban national park, the Scarborough shore is an ecosystem of unparalleled diversity within the city of Toronto.

The Scarborough shore is perhaps most impressive when viewed from the perspective that Mrs. Simcoe first saw it, at the water's edge. From Lake Ontario, the cliffs appear as multi-layered cakes of white, grey, and rust punctuated by richly foliated ravines. In some sections, underwater streams and rivulets dribble down the cliff face, and in other sections the cliffs bear distinctive ridge-like patterns, worn from the waves of an ancient glacial lake that preceded Lake Ontario.

Farther to the east, near the highest point of the cliffs, stands the formation known as the Cathedral Bluffs or the Needles. Here the Bluffs take on a more malevolent appearance, where the jagged-toothed, perpendicular cliff faces, complete with spires, pinnacles, and buttresses, rise almost 300 feet out of the water.

The geological termination of the Scarborough Bluffs is at East Point Park, a quarter mile west of the mouth of Highland Creek. Early mariners called this area Centre Point, as it was halfway between the active ports of Toronto and Whitby. While the geological formation of the Bluffs actually ends here, the Scarborough shore continues east and includes the mouths of Highland Creek and, today, beyond the historic area of Port Union, the Rouge River at the city limits.

* * *

LONG BEFORE THE ARRIVAL of the Simcoes, the Bluffs were known to the French explorers, traders, and coureurs de bois as Les grands Ecores. One interpretation of "écore" found in an 1873 dictionary of French etymology defines it as a steep place on the shore, although the term is no longer in common use, and in Toronto did not survive the arrival of the British in 1793. Mrs. Simcoe thought of naming a summer residence on the Bluffs "Scarborough" because the cliffs reminded her of those at Scarborough, England, a resort town on the North Sea Coast. Unlike so many other transplanted British place names, this one was apt, not only for the resemblance seen by Mrs. Simcoe but also for etymological reasons of which she likely knew little or nothing.

The secondary meaning of the word "scar," according to the Oxford Reference Dictionary, is "a precipitous craggy part of a mountain-side or cliff." Archaeologist and historian David Boyle, editor of The Township of Scarboro 1796 — 1896, points out that the word "scar" is also curiously related to the Saxon word "sciran," meaning to divide, which is apt because the shore divides the land from the water. The second half of the word, "borough," also resonates in its plain meaning of a village or town, for there has been an intermittent human presence near the edge of the shore since as far back as 11,000 years ago.

Boyle also points out that the word "borough" is historically connected with the Anglo-Saxon word "beorgan," translations of which include "to cover, to hide, or to protect." It is in this sense that the present-day communities along the Scarborough shore are best defined — as hidden places that exist in relative isolation from the rest of Toronto. Unlike the Beach and the Island, which are still at some level village-like, the Scarborough shore, including the Bluffs and the Highland Creek and Rouge River Valleys, are more properly a series of enclaves, each one somewhat different in character but all "sub" urban, in the original non-pejorative sense of the word, existing within a complex system of parks, ravines, gullies, and water.

In stark contrast to the natural world of the lake, the Kingston Road lies on the height of land at the north end of the community. This multi-lane highway, dotted with seedy motels and strip malls erected during the height of the automobile age, effectively cuts the Bluffs off from the rest of the city, both visually and psychologically.

North of the highway lies another Scarborough. While the knee-jerk characterization of this Scarborough as an urban ghetto is grossly unfair — a Statistics Canada report released in 2009 shows many sections of Scarborough, including the vast majority of the Scarborough Bluffs district, to be at or below the average rate of violent crime in Toronto — it is nevertheless more difficult to recognize a connection to the lake in the concrete housing developments and cookie-cutter bungalows that appeared almost overnight on the abandoned farmlands north of the Kingston Road after the Second World War. It is only as you travel south from the highway and approach the water that you leave all this behind. Here the orientation shifts outward, toward the expanse of Lake Ontario, where you experience, in the words of Canadian painter and long-time resident Phil Richards, "a psychological freedom not normally associated with city living."

The development of these permanent residential areas was significantly different in Scarborough compared with the other waterfront areas, which transitioned into a series of full-time residential communities and districts in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Scarborough shore, with the exception of its westerly edge at Birch Cliff, remained largely rural in character and kept up many of the traditions and practices of an agrarian society right up to the early 1940s. There are still residents of the Scarborough shore who remember the southernmost edge of the township as farmland and who know the place not by its assigned street names and paved-over concession lines but by the topography of the land and shore.

There is a spirit in these last remaining wild spaces, in the untended apple and cherry orchards of Scarborough's lakeside parks and the wide suburban lots built near the shorecliff of an ancient glacial lake, a spirit that recalls another time and place in the history of the former township. It is at the decrepit Ashbridge farmhouse, the abandoned Cornell barn, and the Osterhout log cabin standing in Guildwood Park that we feel most keenly a yearning for our collective rural past, a past that was all but obliterated in the successive waves of industrialization that hit the present-day Toronto shore in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Despite the inevitable intrusions of progress, the cliffs and major watercourses remain, anchoring us to the past and grounding us in the present.



The story of the Scarborough shore reaches back some 75,000 years, to a time when the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, the last glacial period occurring within the ice age, began. The present-day Scarborough shore stood at an outlet of an enormous river that, during warm periods, flowed through the Laurentian Channel from Georgian Bay into a much larger ancestral Lake Ontario. Deposits from the delta of this river, including fossil pollen and lake organisms, collected at the mouth of the basin and were thickest in the Scarborough area, where they formed a peninsula that jutted far out into the lake.

After the beginning of the last glacial period, material continued to be deposited at the base of this great delta. When the Laurentide Ice Sheet began its final retreat from the Toronto region about 12,500 years ago, a massive body of water, much larger than today's Lake Ontario, was left in its wake. Known as Lake Iroquois, this body of water quickly drained away about 12,200 years ago, as temperatures continued to rise and the previously blocked St. Lawrence River Valley was freed of ice. (To maintain consistency with the majority of the published archaeological and geological literature, the dates presented here are uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present [1950]. The difference between uncalibrated radiocarbon years and calibrated or calendar years is generally inconsequential for most purposes, although the gap typically increases as one progresses back in time. For example, the estimated retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet circa 12,500 years ago would be calibrated to about 14,475 years ago.)


Excerpted from Along the Shore by M. Jane Fairburn. Copyright © 2013 M. Jane Fairburn. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part I The Scarborough Shore 13

Chapter 1 The Nature of the Place 15

Chapter 2 Beginnings 24

Chapter 3 Settlement 40

Chapter 4 Resort Era 65

Chapter 5 In the Suburbs 78

Chapter 6 Destruction and Loss 98

Chapter 7 Renewal 107

Part II The Beach 109

Chapter 1 The Nature of the Place 111

Chapter 2 Beginnings 122

Chapter 3 Settlement 135

Chapter 4 A Resort Town 153

Chapter 5 The Village 172

Chapter 6 Destruction and Loss 194

Chapter 7 Renewal 199

Part III The Island 203

Chapter 1 The Nature of the Place 205

Chapter 2 Beginnings 214

Chapter 3 Settlement 221

Chapter 4 A Resort Town 240

Chapter 5 An Island Village 260

Chapter 6 Destruction and Loss 282

Chapter 7 Renewal 291

Part IV The Lakeshore 303

Chapter 1 The Nature of the Place 305

Chapter 2 Beginnings 316

Chapter 3 Settlement 327

Chapter 4 Resort Era 347

Chapter 5 Lakeshore Towns and Villages 366

Chapter 6 Destruction and Loss 388

Chapter 7 Renewal 394

Epilogue 397

Acknowledgements 400

Works Cited 402

Index 418

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