From Savannah to West Toronto Junction: European Impacts on the Humber Plains

From Savannah to West Toronto Junction: European Impacts on the Humber Plains

To celebrate our move to the West Toronto Junction THA has worked with Sarah King Head, CAHP (writer and historian), Kamila Hakimova (website design) and Vik Pahwa (photographer) to provide a series of accounts of the place that we will soon call home.


Taylor Hazell Architects is proud to be part of the rich natural and cultural history of the area now known as the West Toronto Junction – and acknowledges it to be part of more than a millennia’s worth of Indigenous occupation before becoming home to an increasingly global community over the past 250 years.

It is worth noting that this area has long served as an anthropogenic ‘junction’. Indeed, long before it would become a juncture of industrial land-use activities by the mid-nineteenth century, it had been a transportation hub for thousands of years. An estimated 13,000 years ago, Indigenous peoples began to create a trail network that responded to the natural contours of the land and complemented their much more extensive lake and riverine infrastructure.

Today’s Junction emerged within this context: an extensive biotic savannah ecosystem known as the Humber Plains bounded by the Humber River to the west, Black Creek to the north and an Indigenous trail that followed the north shore of Lake Ontario to the south. The undulating topography of these plains was the result of geological and fluvial processes that saw the transformation of glacial Lake Iroquois’ principally sandy delta into a fire-adapted open woodland dotted with black oak copses, pine-barrens and tall prairie grasses – all part of Ontario’s mixed-wood plains ecozone (Ecoregion 7E) with its characteristically broad range of flora and fauna.

Topography of southern Ontario, showing trend of moraine crest and extent of Quaternary glacial lake deposits (8a) over the last 2 million years along the Humber River from: Sharpe, D.R., Barnett, P.J., Brennand, T.A., Finley, D., Gorrell, G., Russell, H.A.J., and Stacey, P. Surficial Geology of the Greater Toronto and Oak Ridges Moraine Area, Southern Ontario. Ottawa: Geological Survey of Canada, 1997: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319998198_Borehole_geophysical_log_signatures_and_stratigraphic_assessment_in_a_glacial_basin_southern_Ontario/figures?lo=1

British suzerainty over these lands in the late eighteenth century brought an imperative to survey them – something Lieut-Gov Simcoe oversaw as part of the fulfilment of the Crown’s promise to compensate Europeans fleeing the American colonies for their loyalty in the late eighteenth century. 

And, the area known as the Junction today was part of one such grant to Simeon Devins of all 200 acres in lot 39 of the Second Concession in the Township of York in 1812. Succumbing to injuries at the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812, his land was given to James Brown who promptly sold it to John Scarlett. From his home in a Swiss-style log hut, Scarlett operated the Runneymede estate along with various mills and factories for more than three decades. By 1849, Scarlett was forced to sell off his lands, including the northeast corner at the intersection of Keele and the Dundas Highway to his brother-in-law, the highly decorated politician and entrepreneur Colonel Edward William Thomson. 

Here Thomson established the Aikenshaw estate – named after Alexander Aitkin who had surveyed York and the surrounding area for Simcoe in the early 1790s.

Although this natural landscape’s transformation was already well under way by the mid-nineteenth-century, the author Henry Scadding was able to conjure up a memory of the scenic Humber Plains savannah when he wrote in 1873 of its,

… beautiful oak woods, the trees constituting it of no great magnitude, but as is often the case on sandy plains, of a gnarled, contorted aspect, each presenting a good study for the sketcher. 

Following the Dundas Highway, he described how one descended the valley to the Humber River, 

… where its waters, now become shallow but rapid, passed over sheets of shale. Here the surroundings of the bridle-road and foot-path were likewise picturesque, exhibiting rock plentifully amidst and beneath the foliage and herbage.

This all was swiftly changing with the arrival of the railways and associated industrial development: a first phase coincided with the operation of the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron (1853) and Grand Trunk (1856) lines; while the second came with the commencement of CP service via the Toronto, Grey & Bruce (1871), Credit Valley line (1879) and Ontario & Quebec (1884) lines. 

Detail of Wadsworth & Unwin. Runnymede Estate: A Subdivision of the Westerly Parts of Lots 39 and 40, Con. 2 from the Bay, Township of York, 1884: https://digitalarchive.tpl.ca/objects/302479/runnymede-estate-a-subdivision-of-the-westerly-parts-of-lot

Local entrepreneur and the Junction’s first mayor, Daniel Webster Clendenan recognized the enormous potential of the area around this railway hub and purchased the land west of Keele and south of the Dundas Street in 1883. He named the subdivision the West Toronto Junction Property – two years before the Canadian Pacific Railway purchased of the Toronto Grey & Bruce and Credit Valley lines and established the West Toronto Junction station. 

Thomson’s Aikenshaw Vineyard was among the final parcels of land in the Junction to be subdivided in 1886, leaving as its only legacy the name Vine Street. And, it is here in the centre of the block bounded by Dundas West, Pacific and Keele streets and the railway corridor to the north that the William Speers Building would be built three decades later. 

Goad, C.E. Toronto Suburbs Western District, in Atlas of the City of Toronto (Toronto: C.E. Goad, 1884), plate 39: http://jpeg2000.eloquent-systems.com/toronto.html?image=goads_atlas/1884/g1884_pl0039.jp2

Although most of the original landscape is buried, it is still possible to find remnants of these diverse ecosystems through an array of flora, fauna, riparian wetland and savannah in various local neighbourhood parks – but along the east shore of the Humber River at Lambton Park near its juncture with an ancient Indigenous trail (that became the settlers’ Dundas highway and then street), it’s still possible to get a sense of the majesty of this unique landscape in the twenty-first century.


Sources:

Common Bond Collective. West Toronto Junction Historic Context Statement. 2020 (courtesy of the City of Toronto).

Crins, W.J., Gray, P.A., Uhlig, P.W.C., and Wester, M.C. The Ecosystems of Ontario, Part 1: Ecozones and Ecoregions. Technical Report SIB TERM IMA TR-01. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 2009: https://files.ontario.ca/mnrf-ecosystemspart1-accessible-july2018-en-2020-01-16.pdf

Home Smith, R. The Humber Valley Subdivisions. Toronto: Home Smith & Co., 1912.

Kennedy, R.L. The Junction and Its Railways, 2009; rev. 2021: http://www.trainweb.org/oldtimetrains/Toronto/junction/history.htm

MacKenzie, A. Thomson (Thompson), Edward William. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 1976: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/thomson_edward_william_9E.html

Scadding, H. Toronto of Old. Toronto: Adam, Stevenson & Co., 1873: https://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/scadding-torontoofold/scadding-torontoofold-00-h-dir/scadding-torontoofold-00-h.html

Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Lambton Park: Terrestrial Biological Inventory and Assessment, 2016: http://trca.on.ca/dotAsset/219776.pdf

West Toronto Junction Historical Society. Junction History: https://wtjhs.ca/junction-history/