A ‘Drain’ or the Story of Toronto?

A drain feature. “I cannot justify spending … $1.96 million for a ‘drain feature’ in the St. Lawrence Market redevelopment,” John Tory announced, never mind the actual cost that is up for debate is pegged at $1.64 million.

Toronto is a young city built on land with a rich heritage. Around the time that colonists started arriving the land on which Toronto is now built was home to the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. In 1786 land was purchased by the colonial government from the Mississaugas to establish a new settlement which would eventually be named York.

After the war of 1812 with the Americans, York grew quickly attracting workers and merchants. It grew too quickly though, faster than the infrastructure needed to support residents, and the town earned the nickname “Muddy York.” This lead to the incorporation of Toronto in 1834 and lead to its first democratically elected mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie.

I had the pleasure of learning about much of the history of the St. Lawrence Market North Building from Peter Popkin, an archaeologist with Stantec, who was the project lead. He gave a talk to the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association describing the history that lay beneath our feet.

There have been five separate markets on the site of what is now the under construction North Market, ones built in 1820, 1831, 1851, 1904 and 1968.

There is little physical evidence of the small 1820 building left; indications are that it was a building built without foundations and there is even documentary evidence that the structure was placed on skids and moved prior to constructions of the 1831 market.

The 1831 building had exterior walls along three sides which formed a courtyard along the inside of which were stalls used exclusively by butchers. The butchers stalls had cellars beneath them where sheep and cows would be slaughtered and carved.

I quote now from Mr. Popkin’s reading from council papers in a letter written by James McMillan to William Lyon Mackenzie in 1834 on the subject of the North Market:

Sir, in immediance to your orders I have endeavoured to give a report to the general state of the market buildings of the City of Toronto, and more particularly of that part which is occupied by the butchers, who have rented stalls. First I examined the cellars and found them to be without exception exceedingly damp and disagreeable and unfit to keep or preserve meat. In none of them are any floor but the earth, and in several the water covers the floor, particularly the one occupied by Mr. Federitch, who complains that he cannot place his meat on the slate.

Further along:

The butchers also complain of the disregard that has been paid to their remonstrances when the market house was built, the projectors having placed but one window in each cellar facing inwards towards the market square.

Later he prescribes a solution:

The necessity, also, of plank or flag floors with a small iron grate to the entrance of each drain that conducts from the cellars to the main sewer is much wanted, and this will be obvious to any person who looked at the troubles I have inspected.

An inspection the next year identified many of the same issues and included descriptions of the cellars as being “useless” and “in their present state unwholesome.”

The drain was eventually built, which led to safer food being produced and consumed by the population and the city grew and flourished.

This is the context under which this ‘drain feature’ was built. This is the history which isn’t valuable enough to be preserved. Money can be “found” to speed up road resurfacing work on a highway, an effect which is temporary, but it can’t be found to preserve and proudly display our heritage.

I wonder how history will record John Tory’s time in office.

(Disclosure: I am not a historian or an archaeologist. I based this off of a poorly recorded talk. If I got a detail wrong, please contact me.)