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Railway relics unearthed at condo project tell history of city's boom

Photographs of an archaeological site south of Front St. West and immediately east of Bathurst St. on April 18 2011. Developers of a condominium and public library near Fort York have discovered the archaeological remains of an engine storage and maintenance complex built by the Grand Trunk railway in the 1850s.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Relics of Toronto's 19th-century railway boom, when train links began to turn the city into an industrial powerhouse, have been unearthed near Fort York.

However, given that they are at the base of the new Library District condominium project, their fate has yet to be decided.

Brick and masonry foundation walls uncovered by archaeologists are the remains of a huge cruciform-shaped engine-house complex built by the Grand Trunk Railway in the 1850s. These buildings, near the shore of Lake Ontario, marked the starting point of the railway's westbound ribbon of track.

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The site, adjacent to the Bathurst Street bridge south of Front Street, is part of the Library District construction project by Context Development and the Toronto Community Housing Corp. The area the archeologists are scrutinizing is roughly where the library building would be in the development, which will also include a condominium tower, social housing and a park.

According to railway historian Derek Boles, Toronto was basically a warehousing centre until the mid-19th century. The railways turned it into a manufacturing hub and "having an appreciation for that background is really important for understanding Toronto's history," he said.

What will happen to the unearthed building remnants is unclear, given the construction plans, but Mr. Boles said they should be saved.

Preliminary archaeological work on the site about four years ago revealed evidence of ruins, and historic maps indicated the developers could expect to find some parts of the engine house structure. The dig was organized to determine what would need to be dealt with before construction began.

Susan Hughes, supervisor of archaeology at the City of Toronto, said she was told last Thursday that some intact portions of the engine house had been found, including 2.5-metre-high foundation walls consisting of 15 layers of stone, and some timbers that supported the floors.

Ms. Hughes said everyone involved in the site is committed to some kind of "interpretation and commemoration" of what has been found, but exactly how that will be done is not yet clear. It could mean reconstructing some of the walls in the adjacent park, or possibly even keeping the archaeological finds in place under a glass floor in the library. The final decision will likely be made after a consultant's report is received, and after negotiations are conducted between the city, the province and the developers.

"This is an important part of … telling the story of the 19th-century evolution of those lands," Ms. Hughes said. However, "it is hard to know at this point whether it can be incorporated [in the project]in a reasonable way," she added.

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Ron Williamson, whose firm, Archaeological Services Inc., is conducting the dig, said what has been uncovered so far appears to be the northeast corner of the building's foundation. But "we're very early here," he said, and it will take several more days to figure out the size and overall significance of the find.

David O'Hara, administrator of the Fort York museum, said the engine house appears on old plans and charts from the 1850s, just off the southeast corner of the fort.

He said the site was earlier occupied by a blockhouse, built in the late 1790s, that was part of the Fort York complex. But any remnants of that building were likely destroyed when the railway property was developed decades later.

The Grand Trunk Railway built the large engine house, which included a turntable, smithy, pump house and temporary passenger terminal, as part of its efforts to compete in the market for travel to the Midwest United States. The Grand Trunk had a separate line that ran to Eastern Canada, Mr. Boles said, but its terminus was three kilometres further east near the Don Valley. For several months in the mid-1850s, until the two lines were linked by rail, connecting passengers had to take a horse-drawn omnibus between the terminals.

The Grand Trunk eventually became part of Canadian National Railway.

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