City tries to honour past amid rampant development

Archeologists are doing brisk business in Toronto assessing sites for their historical significance as widespread development uncovers vestiges of the city's past.

Archeologists are doing brisk business in Toronto assessing sites for their historical significance as widespread development uncovers vestiges of the city's past.

The city has already identified thousands of sites that have potential archeological significance. Among the more prominent ones that is undergoing an assessment as mandated by the city is at the intersection of Bathurst Street and Fort York Boulevard, where Context Development Inc.'s 29-storey Library District condominiums are slated to be built.

An engine house built in the 1850s by the Grand Trunk Railway once stood at the site. Peter Venetas of Context Development said his company had done its research early in the planning stages and knew about the cruciform structure, although they were surprised by its size.

"We knew that it was here and we were looking forward to seeing exactly what it was and what state it was in," he said.

 Preliminary excavations first began on the site in 2005, but more extensive work later uncovered foundations of the building, various artifacts and a wall.

Construction of the project is going ahead, but it's still unclear what shape it will take and how the engine house will be incorporated into the site.

Ron Williamson who helped craft the city's strategy to managing archeological sites, is consulting with the developer and will make recommendations on how to handle the find.

19th century remnants common 

He said at any one time, his company Archaeological Services Inc. is conducting half a dozen such assessments, including a site at King and Bathurst where an estate built in the 1840s once stood. Freed Development is now constructing a condominium building in the area.

"To be honest, mid- to late-19th century [archeological] resources are found fairly frequently in the city as part of this process," Williamson said, adding the city has been "quite good" at recognizing the history of these structures.

Context, for its part, said it will build what it calls "Mouth of the Creek Park" on part of the site. The developer says it is considering using some of the materials and artifacts to feature in the park to tell the story of Engine House.

Williamson said it is unlikely that a find would stop construction of a project altogether.

"If we were to find a site that dated to 11,000 years ago by the very first occupants of the area, that would be a site that people would think very seriously about," he said.

"You can't stop every project when you find material like this but we routinely uncover these, mitigate them, record their important features and then also participate in their interpretation and commemoration."

One such example, he said, is the work the city did with the builders of the Tiff Bell Lightbox at King and John streets. Toronto's first general hospital was built in the area, and artifacts unearthed during the construction process are now housed in an exhibit on the fourth floor.

Screening began in 2006

Gary Miedema, a historian with Heritage Toronto, an arms-length city body, said Toronto has come a long way to honouring its history in the last decade.

But he acknowledged that this was not always the case.

"We have lost a lot of our history, certainly, through development that has not been sensitive to the archeological potential of what's underneath them," he said.

"So we don't know how much of our history has gone out in garbage bins and into landfill. It's a lot. So what we have now, we have to work hard to conserve and to learn something from because we have lost a great deal."

Toronto has only committed relatively recently to its strategy to assess and preserve sites of archeological significance. It is still in the process of implementing its archeological masterplan, the development of which first began in 2002, six years after the province downloaded the responsibility of assessing archeological sites to municipalities.

Council in 2005 mandated screening of  potential developments in areas where archeological significant relics may be found. Archeologists began screening sites in 2006.

With files from Kimberly Gale