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Historicist: Defending Fort York… From Ourselves

Local government wasn't always so keen on maintaining Fort York.

Entrance to Fort York, August 26, 1953. City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 1832.

Today, Fort York is generally considered to be one of Toronto’s most significant historic sites—which might lead you to believe the site has been consistently respected ever since the Americans left in August of 1813. The reality is quite different. Fort York has endured both neglect and repeated attempts at redevelopment; what remains on the site today represents the effort of considerable advocacy and resistance to those circumstances, on the part of many Torontonians who thought the old fort worth defending.

After much of the fort was destroyed in 1813, its defences were improved to guard against another invasion from the south. In 1814, the American ship Lady of the Lake arrived in York’s harbour; there were some exchanges of fire. But, notes historian Carl Benn in his book, Historic Fort York: 1793 – 1993, “in the end, the Americans decided not to challenge Fort York’s new defences but sailed away instead. The rebuilt Fort York and its outlying defences had fulfilled the classic military function of deterrence.”

Some commemorations of the War of 1812 frame the end of the war as the beginning of two hundred years of peace, but this peace was anything but guaranteed. Changes to the fort continued after the Treaty of Ghent formally ended the War of 1812, and the threat of an American invasion was considered real for much of the remainder of the century; these threats included rising emotions based on the Trent Affair in 1861, the Fenian Raids following the American Civil War, and increased tensions of an 1895 boundary dispute in Venezuela. A local garrison was also necessary at times to guard against local uprisings, particularly following the 1837 rebellion, and through various political riots including those over the Rebellion Losses Bill.

Changes to Fort York’s buildings, as well as fluctuations in the size of its occupancy, varied over the course of the century, depending on other conflicts within the Empire and the perceived threat of war or conflict in York (or Toronto) itself. Carl Benn notes that “the fortifications were not maintained well during periods of relative peace and therefore eroded or otherwise deteriorated. But, at the first sign of possible hostilities, the army rebuilt and strengthened Fort York’s walls and batteries.”

Map showing the fort in 1823. Image courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

During much of the nineteenth century, Fort York was deemed to be outdated and in major need of repair. Despite numerous proposals to replace or significantly reconfigure the fort, few redevelopments were implemented, and most changes during these years appear to be limited to replacing individual buildings. The most significant change was the opening of a new barracks in the 1840s (named “Stanley Barracks” in 1893), southwest of the old fort site. The old fort remained in operation after the opening of the new barracks, however, both for harbour defence as well as other military uses.

By the turn of the new century, many of the buildings at Fort York had been neglected for some time, and the area surrounding it was considered somewhat unsavoury. Despite the old fort’s active role in Toronto life, there were several proposals in the late nineteenth century which called for demolishing the fort buildings and redeveloping the site, either for railroad expansion or for residential development. These plans were all vetoed by the Department of Militia and Defence, on the grounds that they were still using the site for the Toronto garrison.

The situation altered in October of 1903, when the City purchased the old fort site for $200,000 (considered relatively cheap at the time), to take effect once the military had erected and occupied a new site elsewhere in Toronto. (One early plan, never realized, called for the new barracks to be constructed in Baby Point.) The conditions of the sale, insisted upon by the Department of Militia and Defence, were that the City agree to restore the Fort York site and only use the property as a park. The Globe hailed the purchase, writing that “this property must be the basis of any great park improvement scheme for the city,” and that the project could, “when finally completed, make Toronto one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”

Toronto, however, had other plans.

It soon emerged that the City was not so much interested in the fort itself, but in the valuable land on which it sat. Despite the promise to maintain the whole of the fort property, within weeks of the purchase permission was granted to a meatpacking plant to encroach on the eastern part of the property, destroying both a bastion and a guardhouse, and unearthing the bodies of American soldiers.

The Canadian National Exhibition was a growing enterprise at this time, and a very profitable one for Toronto. Although the original 1903 agreement anticipated a streetcar line running along the northern boundary of the property, plans emerged in 1905 for an extension of a streetcar line actually running through the site, necessitating the destruction of at least three buildings.

Pen and ink map showing the proposed streetcar line through the fort. Image courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Credit for rallying public opinion goes to Jean Earle Geeson, a local historian and school teacher at Parkdale Public School, who was in the habit of taking her students to the Fort York site. On October 4, 1905, the Globe published a letter from Geeson decrying the streetcar plans. Geeson noted that the proposed plan called for the destruction of the oldest buildings in the fort, which she believed to be the oldest buildings in all of Toronto. Referring to Fort York as “the chief landmark of Toronto’s history,” she asked, “has it been forgotten that this Old Fort is the cradle from which has sprung our magnificent and life-throbbing city, the Queen of the West, and the centre from which armies have gone forth to fight, not only for this Dominion, but for the mother land?”

The Globe editorial staff agreed with her, and within a week all the Toronto dailies wrote editorials supporting Geeson and advocating for the preservation of the fort and an alternate plan for the streetcar line. A Star editorial opined that “it should be impossible for anybody to get consent of the city to do injury to that historic spot now that it is the property of the city, of which it was, in a real sense, the foundation stone.”

Dozens of historical societies, including the York Pioneers, the Women’s Canadian Historical Society, and the Ontario Historical Society came into action, all protesting the City’s plan. Not only did these groups oppose the streetcar extension, but they called for the removal of the slaughterhouse which had been permitted to encroach on the property, citing the terms of purchase which forbade any use other than as a park and historic site.

A cartoon from noted historical illustrator C.W. Jefferys, featured on the front page of the Toronto Star, October 11, 1905.

The City defended its proposal. The City engineer explained that the streetcar line would “only” require the removal of three buildings, adding “one is now used as a cottage, another as a men’s sleeping quarters, and the other as a store house. None of these buildings, however, have any historical significance.” Indeed, they touted the streetcar line as a positive development for the fort, believing it would bring more people to the neglected site. According to 1970s research by the York Pioneers, Mayor Thomas Urquhart sought to reassure the public by saying “Naturally some old buildings will have to come down, but, as I have always said, the Old Fort will not be disturbed…” The following year, Toronto’s new Mayor Emerson Coatsworth was quoted in the Globe saying “People ought to understand by this time that we have no intention of desecrating the Old Fort property. The Old Fort has been desecrated almost as long as I can remember and now we propose to try and take care of it.”

As part of the January 1907 election, Toronto ratepayers were presented with a plebiscite over whether to bear the cost of the streetcar plan, with nearly 70 per cent of the vote rejecting it.

The City was undeterred, and suggested a new plan the following autumn which kept the streetcar line running through the site, but which only required the destruction of one building, a barracks. An application was put to the Province of Ontario for permission to proceed with the plan without needing the ratepayers’ approval, but a vigorous campaign from heritage advocates ensured that the Province unanimously refused it.

With this setback stalling the City’s plans, the City and the Ontario Historical Society reached an agreement in the summer of 1908, wherein the OHS would generate plans for restoring the Fort York once the City had completed a new survey of the site, with a plan that called for the retention of all of the 1812-era buildings. The nature of exactly how the site would be used was still unclear, but a notice in the Globe from an OHS representative suggested that “some [buildings] might be used as homes for veterans, others for the creation of museums.”

Fort York, ca. 1926. City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 1244, Item 1507.

Despite this plan, it appears that no serious work was undertaken to restore the fort until the early 1930s, largely because many of the buildings were still occupied by the army. This changed in 1932, when Toronto recognized that restoring the fort would be a suitable project for the city’s centennial in two years’ time.

A 1932 Globe editorial reported that “detailed plans have been matured recently by which citizens may have the buildings restored to their original state and made an asset of great value…” Citing recent success elsewhere at Annapolis Royal and Chicago’s Fort Dearborn, the piece added “it would seem that the chance to do something worthy with Fort York has now come, and if it can be linked with the celebration of the birth of Toronto as a city, the entire community should join with enthusiasm.”

Restoration work took place between 1932 and 1934, as a make-work program during the depression. Despite the continued importance of the site following the War of 1812, the restoration focused on the old fort as it was in 1816, at the time when its post-war reconstruction was completed. Not only were the remaining 1816-era buildings restored, but all the later buildings on the site were destroyed, presumably in a well-intentioned effort to be faithful to the fort’s 1816 appearance.

Fort York, probably in the 1890s. City of Toronto Archives. Fonds 200, Series 376, File 5, Item 15.

This restored fort was unveiled to a sizeable crowd by the Governor-General, the Earl of Bessborough, as part of the 1934 Empire Day celebrations on May 24. According to the Mail and Empire, “the transformation of the Fort won the commendation of all visitors from the Governor-General down. The original plan has been followed, the redoubts rebuilt, the grass relaid, and a start has been made [at making] the Fort what it is destined to become: a national museum.” Most accounts of the restoration focus on the structure and terrain of the Fort, rather than on the interiors or exhibits. It appears that exhibits were supplied by various local historical groups, many of which had been involved years earlier in opposing the streetcar plan.

Old Fort York was again closed for restoration work following the Second World War, work which was carried out by the Toronto Civic Historical Committee (the forerunner of the Toronto Historical Board), reopening to the public on June 14, 1953. Whereas the 1934 restoration concentrated more on the buildings and their exteriors, newspaper coverage of the 1953 restoration noted major changes to the interiors and their exhibits, which showcased the social history of the fort as well as its military heritage. A preview from the Star noted “you can see what the troops ate off — wooden dishes and spoons. What they slept in — nice looking beds, with springs of stretched rope. But you’d pay the price of a new car for the fireplaces they warmed their feet in.” According to the Globe, “the [Toronto Civic Historical] Committee is putting its best foot forward in the exhibits of old military equipment, and several private collections have been put on show. Cutlasses, flint-lock pistols, epaulets of heavy metal, ancient lanterns, and kitchenware are just a few of the ancient articles now being catalogued.”

With the success of the reopening of the fort, its future in Toronto at last seemed safe and secure. And then came the Gardiner Expressway.

Photos from the opening of Fort York in the Telegram, June 15, 1953.

Metropolitan Toronto’s plans called for the Gardiner to cut through the southwest section of the Fort York site, requiring supports to be embedded in the fort’s ramparts. When this became public knowledge in January 1958, numerous historical groups and private individuals again raised their displeasure. Typical is a letter to the Globe from the president of the Niagara Historical Society, which decried the plan as “vandalism,” and adding that “while the Provincial Government is spending money erecting plaques to mark historic sites and buildings, Metropolitan Toronto is busy destroying them.”

Metro considered altering the route of the expressway, but found this option to be expensive, with the additional cost generally reported at $2,000,000. Furthermore, the roads commissioner for Metro, George Grant, claimed that an alternate route around Fort York would reduce speeds on the expressway from 50 to 30 km/h, severely reducing its effectiveness as an express route.

The proposed plan for the Gardiner Expressway. The Globe and Mail, January 24, 1958.

After visiting the fort in May, Metro Chairman Fred Gardiner announced that he was scrapping the plan to run the expressway through the site, and offered up what he considered to be a good alternative: the expressway’s route could be maintained if the entire fort was packed up and moved to nearby Coronation Park, where it would be safely out of the way. After all, the fort’s present location was inconvenient, and would be even harder to get to once the new expressway was built; in addition, the fort’s historical context was as a prominent fixture by the waterfront, but changes to the landscape meant that the fort was now considerably inland. As one Star article put it, moving Fort York to Coronation Park “would restore it to its original relative position and put it in a more attractive location and show it to the public as it was.” It was believed that this move could be accomplished for a mere $1,000,000, thereby making it $1,000,000 cheaper than rerouting the expressway around the site.

This solution found favour with the Toronto press. In a June editorial called “Second Fort Retreat Now In Order,” the Star dismissed claims to Fort York’s authentic heritage noting that it had already been rebuilt in the 1930s, and calling into question the quality of some of the restoration work that had then been performed. The editorial also questioned Fort York’s historical significance, writing that as the Americans were already retreating in 1813 when the powder house exploded, “if anything, the fort is a memorial to 52 dead Americans who went sky high with the magazine at the moment of victory.”

In August, the Globe wrote an editorial saying “the purpose of history and its artifacts is to help us understand something of ourselves by learning something about our past. Fort York could best fulfill that function if it were in an easily accessible location… Left where it is, Fort York will be of even less value when the Expressway is built. If it is difficult to reach now, it will be almost impossible then. Indeed, the only means of entry may be by helicopter.”

The Toronto newspapers continued to run pieces supporting the scheme throughout 1958, imploring the heritage community to drop their objections and support the move. Heritage advocates continued to condemn the plan, eventually winning Fred Gardiner to their side, although not necessarily the rest of Metro Council. Gardiner was apparently not swayed by the historical arguments, but believed that the objections could result in legal challenges that would delay the timely completion of the expressway project. The cause of relocating the fort was picked up by Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips, who continued to put public pressure on the rest of Metro Council to put it to a vote and push it through.

The Toronto Star illustrating the various plans being considered. The Toronto Star, October 4, 1958.

The tide turned quickly in January of 1959. Pierre Berton wrote a piece for the Star condemning the proposed move, tying the fort’s significance to the land on which it sat. “We can build a phony Fort York on the lakeshore if we wish… and perhaps for a while people will see it. Will they see the real McCoy? No, alas. In an age of sham and simulation they will see another piece of fakery. They will see a sideshow but they will not see a shrine.”

In addition to the historical and legal concerns, it soon became apparent that it was unclear whether this scheme actually would save any money at all, as the costs of reconstructing the fort might not offset the money saved by keeping the proposed expressway route. With the prospect of saving money no longer an issue, newspapers began questioning the wisdom of the move and public opinion began to change. On January 30, a recommendation for the plan put forward by Metro’s executive committee was defeated by Metro Council, by a vote of 16 to six. The Gardiner Expressway was eventually routed around Fort York, leaving the site intact as per the 1903 purchase agreement. While historical groups rejoiced at the decision, Nathan Phillips called the decision not to relocate Fort York a “tragedy,” and predicted that “it will never be a prominent historic or tourist attraction.”

Pierre Berton, however, predicted otherwise. “…[S]o much of what we know is impermanent. Expressways will come and go every quarter century, lakeshores change at the whim of man and nature, rail yards shift, factories rise and crumble. Only on these 10 acres do we walk with history.”


Additional material from: Carl Benn, Historic Fort York 1793—1993 (Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc., 1993: Toronto); Jean Earle Geeson, The Old Fort at Toronto: 1793—1906 (W. Briggs, 1906: Toronto); The Globe (and Mail) (October 23, 1903; October 4, October 7, October 18, 1905; April 25, 1906; January 2, 1907; July 16, 1908; June 7, 1932; April 27, 1933; May 8, May 24, May 25, 1934; June 11, 1953; January 24, February 4, February 25, March 12, March 25, March 26, March 27, June 19, August 25, December 8, 1958; January 15, January 21, January 21, 1959); Gerald Killen, “The York Pioneers and the First Old Fort Preservation Movement 1905—1909,” in The York Pioneer, Vol. 68, 1973; the Mail and Empire (May 2, 1934); Robert Malcolmson, Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813 (Robin Brass Studio, 2008: Montreal); John W. Scott, “Fort York” in The York Pioneer, Vol. 54, 1959; the Toronto Star (October 23, October 26, October 27, 1903; March 22, October 6, October 7, October 9, October 11, October 17, November 23, 1905; June 8, October 20, 1932; August 25, 1933; May 21, May 22, May 23, May 25, 1934; June 12, 1953; January 24, January 28, February 21, February 24, March 8, March 14, April 5, May 29, June 5, June 7, June 20, September 2, September 3, October 4, November 22, 1958; January 6, January 12, January 17, January 21, January 31, 1959); the Toronto Telegram (October 23, 1903; May 23, May 25, 1934; June 15, 1953; January 31, 1959).


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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