Tuesday, June 7, 2011

archaeology excavation near fort york unearths locomotive history

Looking east from the Bathurst Street bridge just south of Front, a mighty wall of new towers looms over the landscape. But just over the edge of the bridge, adjacent to the latest building under construction, is an incongruous site: A vast archaeological dig that has uncovered 150-year-old remains of the Toronto waterfront’s once-booming industrial age.

Here, a stone’s throw from Fort York, a huge cruciform-shaped building was constructed in 1855 and 1856 to service and repair engines of the Grand Trunk Railway. Only the northeast portion of the foundations survive, but inside the engine house’s footprint are the remains of brick ovens where wrought-iron locomotive parts were forged, and a vaulted chamber whose use is still a mystery.

Outside the stone foundation walls, the bases of wooden privies – still rank from use more than a century ago by railway workers – are intact. And portions of Queen’s Wharf, a massive wooden dock that for decades jutted far out into Lake Ontario, have also been unearthed.

The dig is on the site of the Library District construction project, a joint venture of Toronto Community Housing Corp. and Context Development. It includes a condominium tower, social housing, and a library and a park. Because there was expected to be some archaeological material under the site, Context set aside time to conduct the required dig before construction begins later this summer.

Historic maps suggested the developers might unearth some parts of the engine house, and preliminary archaeological work performed at the site about five years ago showed evidence of ruins, said archaeologist David Robertson, whose firm, Archaeological Services Inc., is conducting the dig.

But the site was so wet from groundwater that no real study could be done until the builders put in place a complex “dewatering” system that keeps the area dry. In April this year, the fullscale excavations began, and will continue for several more weeks.

The most remarkable find, in Mr. Robertson’s view, is a portion of a massive wooden channelling system, just outside the engine house, that directed the flow of Garrison Creek to the lakefront. The channel was created by building huge crib walls out of foot-square timber beams and filling them with stones. The system kept the small river – now flowing anonymously through Toronto’s sewers – under control and away from the railway buildings.

Individual artifacts are rare on the site, except for chunks of metal and a few bottles and ceramics that may have been used to carry the workers’ lunches. Some of those objects likely were dumped here as part of the fill used to reclaim the land from the lake around the time the railway buildings were built.

While the archeological findings will be carefully charted and catalogued, most will not survive. The wood, preserved underground by the wet land, has already begun to disintegrate now that it has been exposed to the air, and the mortar between the stones and bricks is also drying out and crumbling.

The only way to preserve these kinds of finds, Mr. Robertson said, is in a hermetically sealed environment, and that’s just not a practical option on the site of new condominium.

At best, some of the stones and brick may be reconstructed in the park that is being built adjacent to the library, commemorating the industrial era before condos ruled the waterfront.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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