4 February 2013

The Torontos That Are No More.

I've been in a historical frame of mind.  At times like this, I like to think of my city, and the cities it used to be.

Unlike Montreal, which has Old Montreal, or Quebec City which has the old city, or Kingston, there is really no Old Toronto.  The "city" such as it was, was burned to the ground by the Americans in 1813.  It burned again in 1849, and again in 1905.  The 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, oldest building still standing in situ are all in Fort York, and date from the 1814 rebuild of the Fort.  The oldest in situ building in the city is the haunted lighthouse on Gibraltar Point, dating from 1808.  The walls are over six feet thick stone, so good luck with burning that one down.

We really made little or no effort to preserve an "old Toronto".  The oldest parts of the ciy have all been built over.  For example, when the Sjydome, or Rogers Centre or whatever it is called now (after all the shenanigans that went on with that place, I thought we chould call it the Con Dome.) it was to be built on one of the oldest parts of the city.  Archeologists were attached to the work teams clearing the site to spot and preserve any artifacts that may be found.  They uncovered, among other things, a brass French cannon, possibly from nearby Fort Rouille, old bottles and crockery, and a Whale skeleton.  That last one actually raised a few eyebrows.  An archivist eventually found out how that got there:  a travelling cricus stopped in town.  They had been dragging a whale carcass around to show all the landlubber just how big one of these creatures really was.  By the time it hit our fair city, it had begun to do what all unrefridgerated meat does eventually, and rot.  A hundred tons of rotten meat must have put up quite a stink, and the city quickly dug a pit and buried it, and forgot it.

The point is, Old Toronto was swept aside for the new Toronto.  About the only place one can find anything that could resemble an "Old Toronto" is in archives and books, and the internet.  Here is the Toronto (Called 'York" at the time) that the Americans burned in 1813.

The buildings in the foregrounds are the original Fort York.  The main village, home to a whopping 500 souls, along with the original parliament buildings was further east, based mainly around the mouth of the Don River.  People who see the Fort today are often ignorant of the fact that the fort was originally placed to guard the entrance of the harbour (the fact that Toronto began as a port, and is still one today, is another fact that most people have forgotten) for it is is so far back from the water now.  The fort didn't move, but the waterline did.  The people of the city dumped the earth they dug up for making foundations into the lake, and have pushed the waterfront back several hundred yards.  You can see that in this painting of the old Front St. 

That wedge shaped building in the middle is a precursor to the current flat iron building.  So this view has been replaced with this one:

There is nothing from the early painting to be seen in this photo.  That city, and even the lake, have long since receded beyond memory. 

Here is a view along King Street to the east, looking to be from around the 1830's or so.

King was the original main street of York/Toronto.  Originally it was a road that ran between the Fort and the village on the Don.  By this time you can see that the city has been rebuilt and expanded from the time of the American conflagration of the city.  They are building important looking buildings in a classical style, attempting to give their work an air of timelessness and permanence.  In the above picture, on the right you can see the Anglican church (eventually cathedral) of St James still under construction, as it's spire is as yet unbuilt.  In another, slightly different slightly later view of the same street the spire is complete.

The church looks as though it may have been a beauty.  What can I say?  The Anglicans had both money and taste back then.  This church burned and was rebuilt in 1839.  This street, and this scene, was recognizable to the rebels of '37, to Michael Power and his clergy, and much of it would have still been around for the Irish famine refugees of 1847.  The church and almost everything else in this scene was destroyed in the Toronto fire of 1849.

Despite repeated burnings, the city of Toronto continued to grow rapidly throughout nineteenth century.  Cameras replaced paintings in capturing views of yet another city.

This is a view from the St Lawrence Hall, looking north. The scene  is of shabby workers houses and factories.  This photo can give a fair sense of the Toronto of that era: an industrial shanty town.  The photo conveys the congestion of the buildings, and convey how, even after repeated burnings of the city by the time, the place was still a firetrap.  Although the view from this point has changed utterly, there are still a few buildings from this picture still standing.

Among those buildings still remaining is the church spire in the distance, which is St Michael's Cathedral.  Notice that the city more or less ends at the Cathedral and the land beyond it is farmland.  The Cathedral, now firmly ensconced within the downtown core, was originally built outside of the city proper.  The church was consecrated in 1848 by Montreal Archbishop Ignace Bourget, but the spire was not completed until 1867, which at least gives us the earliest possible date for this photo.  I have tried repeatedly to find pictures of St Michael's without its spire- there has to be some, somewhere- but, alas, no luck. 

On the other hand, finding a picture of the new Anglican Cathedral sans bell tower was a piece of cake. 

This photo is another view of the old King Street, this time from the opposie direction of the two paintings above.  Though only separated by perhaps thirty years, the two scenes may as well be of different cities altogether.  The burning of the old Cathedral in 1848 gave the Anglicans a chance to build a bigger and more impressive Cathedral than the other Big Cathedral in the city- St Michael's.  St. Mike's was a ridiculously big building when our first Bishop Michael Power planned it in the 1840's- it could have comfortably held almost every single Catholic living in the city at that time, and was the largest church in the city.  Thus, when the old Anglican Cathedral burned down the  year after the Catholic Cathedral was consecrated, many Anglicans saw it as providential, and an opportunity to once again demonstrate who was really who in this city.  The spire, when completed, would be the tallest building in Toronto for quite some time.  It remains the tallest church steeple in Canada.  (The dome of St Joseph's Oratory in Montreal is the only taller church building in Canada. The twin steeples of the Basilica of St Anne de Beaupre are shorter than St James by less than 2 metres.)

A note about the two above photographs:  They were both taken at about the same time from the same place: the roof of St. Lawrence Hall, one looking north, the other east.  St Lawrence Hall served for a time as the city hall.  From the original city hall, we can see that the Anglican Cathedral is almost across the road.  The Catholic Cathedral is a distant view, removed from the original city altogether.  That was the status of the Catholic Church in Toronto's early years: best kept at a distance, far away.

One other note about the above photograph, and other old pictures:  They always seem so ghostly, a photo taken on a bright day of a busy city but with no people.  In fact, the exposure times of these photographs was quite long, and the camera would only capture images that were still and unmoving.  The street above may have been filled with people and horses and carts, but because they were moving, the camera did not capture their image, thus creating an image of a ghost town.  Rather fitting, it would seem, for an image of A City That Was.

More soon.


Vox Cantoris said...

I think that I have a picture somewhere of St. Michael's without the tower; I will try to find it and send it to you.

Bear said...

Thanks, Vox.