Uncovering Toronto’s history

IO’s archaeological excavation brings the city’s multicultural past to life

Artifacts included metal pitchers and ceramic kitchenware

Infrastructure Ontario (IO) recently uncovered a portal to Toronto’s past as archaeologists excavated a downtown site rich with the city’s multicultural history.

“The sheer magnitude of what was there — I don’t think we’ll find a comparable project in Ontario, and definitely not in Toronto,” said Holly Martelle, IO’s archaeological consultant on the project and principal of Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants Inc.

Located at 11 Centre Avenue, the property was once a part of Toronto’s first immigrant settlement called St. John’s Ward (the Ward).

Toy teacups and a doll’s head

During painstakingly detailed work throughout much of 2015, archaeologists recovered and documented thousands of artifacts dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries: Leather shoes, women’s hosiery, perfume and nail polish bottles, smoking pipes, children’s toys and ceramic kitchenware, along with the foundations of a British Methodist Episcopal church and several residential buildings and businesses.

The land is now being redeveloped for a new high-rise courthouse on behalf of the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG).

The Ward in 1919. Photo: Toronto Archives

“It’s an immediate physical connection to the people,” said Abbey Flower, an archaeologist who works for IO as a heritage advisor. “Pictures are fantastic, but for me, there is nothing like actually touching and feeling history.”

Founded partly by prominent members of the city’s early African-Canadian community, the Ward became home to many refugee slaves who escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Many families of Irish, Italian, Chinese and Russian-Jewish descent also settled on this block up until the mid-20th century.

The archaeology work that IO and its consultants undertook was to ensure that the historical value of the site is documented and preserved before the land is prepared for construction of the courthouse. While a preliminary report on the archaeological findings will be completed in the coming months, the research and analysis of this intriguing site and its artifacts will continue for many years.

Digging for treasures, one artifact at a time

“It really is the closest thing to time travel that one can get,” said Martelle. “There’s an overwhelming sense of privilege being there. It’s about as spiritual as archaeology can get. A profoundly moving experience.”

Martelle and Flower agree that a site like this is an archaeologist’s dream. A stakeholder-led committee will soon be tasked with deciding how to commemorate the site. The committee’s considerations will include input from a number of parties, including MAG and representatives from the various communities with ties to the site. Consultations including IO-led meetings and site tours with members of key community groups continue to be an integral part of the project.

“We want the commemoration to be meaningful, which is why our collaborative approach will include input from both community and project stakeholders,” said Flower.

A nail polish bottle and hair comb
The Simpsons, a prominent family who loved on the site. Photo: Toronto Archives
Signage from a printing shop
Bottles used for milk, soda water and gin
British Methodist Episcopal Church circa 1950s. Photo: Toronto Archives
The foundations of the BME church