Toronto’s Waterfront at War, 1914-1918


All text, Toronto World
Toronto’s Waterfront at War, 1914-1918

| military contracts let to private waterfront concerns often fell outside the territorial and operational jurisdiction of the local port authority, and hence were not reflected in its records. Just as there was never a single, centralized agency that established policies and guidelines for waterfront development throughout the nation, there is no single repository that provides the materials necessary for a detailed examination of harbour activities during the war years.


In spite of the board’s willingness to sell inshore sites, a policy that prohibited the purchase of property fronting onto the harbour’s new dockwalls led to many manufacturers accepting the attractive benefits offered by nearby cities such as Hamilton.

Those industrial or commercial concerns that agreed to locate along Toronto’s shoreline enjoyed lease- hold rather than freehold tenure, and the port authority maintained comprehensive records of its tenants’ activities.

Toronto Harbour Commission was well-suited for this role, for it owed its existence to a protracted struggle to develop the industrial capacity of the water- front.14 By the beginning of the twentieth century it had become apparent that the existing port authority, the Harbour Trust, was an ineffective agent to deal effec- tively with the myriad problems that plagued Toronto’s waterfront. The lack of coordinated development within the harbour, coupled with the extremely disruptive activities of the railways, left wharves ramshackle and neglected
Highlight (color #D3D2EE): Located at the east end of the harbour, the bay’s 1,200 acres of marsh lands and shallow waters, long con- sidered a prime site for industrial development, was the dominant issue in the campaign for a new port authority. These local designs were not lost on the federal government,

But the harbor was only secondary to the industrial area that was to be developed, with parks third. The basic idea was to reclaim 2,000 acres of waterfront land, of which 800 were to be parks and 1,200 for indus- trial purposes.

This “basic idea” was the Toronto Harbour Commission’s Waterfront Plan of 1912, which featured the reclamation of Ashbridge’s Bay using 27 million cubic yards of dredged fi11.16 It was an ambitious undertaking estimated to cost over $19,000,000, but within months the harbour commission had won the support of both the federal and municipal governments.

The reclamation of the marsh lands began in May 1914, and the citizens of Toronto eagerly awaited the wholesale transformation of their waterfront over the next six years.

Toronto was R. Home Smith.
| residential development of large areas along Toronto’s Humber Valley,
had put Smith into contact with most of the financial titans of Britain and North America.

He had also served as a harbour commissioner since 1911, so that the sale of the British Forgings plant was a matter of more than passing concern. It proved to be a greater challenge than initially anticipated, but perseverance eventually paid off when a Welsh firm, Baldwins Limited, agreed in May 1919 to take over the site in an attempt to recapture the Canadian sheet steel and tin plate market that had been lost by Britain to the United States during the war.

The venture was unsuccessful, and the plant was leveled in the 1920s to make way for the tanks of the McColl-Frontenac Oil Co. Ltd., the predecessor of Texaco Canada Inc. The once-impressive plant would soon be remembered only by a local road named Munitions Street, but for two brief years it was the central fixture in the development of Toronto’s eastern waterfront

By 1900, at least three shipyards were producing steel-hulled vessels along the central waterfront, and prospects looked good for continued growth as orders were steadily arriving from Canadian and international sources.

Polson Iron Works,


The firm quickly expanded their Frederick Street yards and work force, and over the next two years launched a series of six 3,500-ton vessels that ended with the War  in August 1919.


Among these firms was the newly-formed Toronto Shipbuilding Company, which had taken a lease of land along the south side of the Keating Channel on lands reclaimed from Ashbridge’s Bay. Under the guidance of John E. Russell, the company’s vice-president who would become a fixture among the port’s industrialists, some 400 tradesmen began work on two 3,200-ton vessels in September 1917.

late 1917 American and Norwegian capital combined to form the Dominion Shipbuilding Company for the purpose of acquiring the Thor Iron Works, a firm with considerable expertise in the construction of steel-hulled freighters. The new venture immediately looked to the harbour commission’s industrial reserve at the foot of Bathurst Street for the site of its future development.
Highlight (color #D3D2EE): and perhaps with a sense of wonder at the boldness of any private firm that would engage a site that was two-thirds underwater.

Toronto yards any of the shipbuilding contracts for the new merchant marine announced in November 1918. In spite of very vocal attempts by Mayor (and harbour commissioner) Tommy Church to obtain a share of the money being spent on national reconstruction, the federal government’s course could not be altered. In the face of such intransigence, an industry employing over 2,500 people and providing annual wages of $2,350,000 quickly died. Only the Toronto Shipbuilding Company survived after a major restructuring, but its affairs were restricted to ship repairs and the construction of small scows and tugs.

scarcity of literature dealing with Canadian ports, particularly those in Ontario, is discussed in Malcolm Davidson, “Changing Patterns of Great Lakes Vessel Ownership as a Factor in the Economic Development of Toronto, 1850-1 860,” Urban History ReviewlRevue d’histoire urbaine 16, no. 3 (February 1988), pp. 242 and 252, note 3. Similar remarks concerning the lack of studies examining the history of the harbour administration in Canada can be found in Roy Merrens, “Port Authorities as Urban Land Developers: The Case of the Toronto Harbour Commissioners and Their Outer Harbour Project, 1912-68,” Urban History Review1 Revue d’histoire urbaine 17, no. 2 (October 1988), pp. 92 and 102, note 3.

Toronto Star, 30 October 19 17; Toronto Harbour Commission Archives [hereafter cited at THCA], Records of the Board of Commissioners, RG 112, box 1, folder 5, “Report 1912-1919,” p. 37.
Toronto Star, 14 April 1931. A more extensive treatment of the organization’s efforts to facilitate industrial growth along the eastem waterfront can be found in Merrens, “Port Authorities as Urban Land Developers,” pp. 92-105. The author is grateful to Professor Merrens for sharing his work on this subject during the formative stages of this article.


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