Historicist: On the Waterfront
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Historicist: On the Waterfront

The evolving, modernizing waterfront through the lens of Toronto Harbour Commission photographer Arthur Beales

Arthur Beales with photography equipment set up near Ship Channel, looking northwest to city skyline, October 2, 1914, by Beales' assistant. Toronto Port Authority Archives, PC 1/1/135.

The Toronto Harbour Commission’s Waterfront Plan of 1912 was perhaps the most ambitious redevelopment plan in the city’s history, addressing the whole area from the Humber River to Victoria Park Avenue. The $19-million plan was developed by the Toronto Harbour Commission’s (THC) chief engineer, Edward L. Cousins, and sought to transform Toronto’s waterfront—then a combination of boggy marshes and disorganized, small-scale wharves—into a modern port. It called for dredging the harbour to a depth of 24 feet, and using this dredged fill to create land for industrial, commercial, and recreational uses.

Almost 900 acres were to be added to the Islands, and new breakwaters would protect recreational beaches at the eastern and western ends of the waterfront. But industrial and commercial redevelopment was the plan’s main purpose, and once implemented, it would help fuel the city’s economic prosperity for the next half-century. The installation of modern piers and construction of warehouses—all linked with rail lines and roadways—would accommodate the larger shipping vessels expected after the opening of the Welland Ship Canal.

When the plan was introduced to the city’s Board of Control in November 1912, the press hailed it as a “magnificent plan” and a “vision splendid.” The plan was readily adopted.

Once work began on this massive undertaking—one project following another for several decades—Arthur Beales was there to document progress at every stage. Employed as staff photographer by the THC, Beales snapped photos of the changing waterfront every day. The result of his efforts is not only a remarkable documentary collection, but a surprisingly artful look at an evolving city.

View of Toronto skyline from bascule bridge on Keating Channel, with National Iron Works in the foreground, November 8, 1934, by Arthur Beales. Toronto Harbour Commission Archive, PC 1/1/1077 and 10776.

Born on October 10, 1871, in Brentwood, Ontario, Beales came to Toronto as a boy. From an early age, he showed an interest and proficiency in the arts, particularly music and painting in watercolours and oils. He developed a keen interest in photography and won first prize at the 1895 Toronto Industrial Exhibition for a series of landscape photographs, according to former THC archivist Michael Moir in the summer 1989 issue of Archivaria [PDF].

While working for the Canadian Photo-Engraving Bureau (later known as the Alexander Engraving Company) between 1898 and 1914—as Peter Robinson notes in Lily Koltun’s Private Realms of Light: Amateur Photography in Canada: 1839-1940 (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1984)—Beales “devoted much of his leisure time to amateur photography, recording landscapes in and around Toronto as well as the activities of his family and friends, and attempting his first colour photography in 1910.” So he was keenly aware of photography’s potential as an artistic medium.

Photograph of small narrow-gauge 0-4-0 type tank locomotive coupled to three four-wheeled dump cars in the Port Lands, March 3, 1917, by Arthur Beales. Toronto Port Authority Archives, PC 1/1/1915.

When the municipal, provincial, and federal governments formed the five-member Toronto Harbour Commission in 1911 as a joint effort to modernize the Toronto port, Cousins was hired to head its engineering department. He would become the commission’s foremost influence until the mid-1940s. Shortly after work began to implement the Waterfront Plan, Cousins hired Beales in July 1914 to lead his photography and blueprinting section. Cousins had previously worked for Toronto’s City Engineer, who had hired a staff photographer, Arthur S. Goss, to document that department’s work. Cousins envisioned a similar role for Beales, and the photographer did not disappoint.

Discharge from Dredge No. 3 filling in south retaining wall of Ship Channel with a boy in the foreground showing off his impressive catch of carp, July 13, 1916. Toronto Port Authority Archives, PC 1/1/1271.

Beales and his assistants were on hand to record these developments at every stage, working year-round in any type of weather to take their photos. He provided preliminary shots of existing conditions to assist engineers with planning, and he documented progress as THC initiated projects like dredging, reclamation of land, and construction of docks.

Beales taking pictures from atop a derrick, 1915. Toronto Port Authority Archives, PC 15/3/728.

With burdensome camera and glass-plate negatives in tow, Beales wandered to every corner of the waterfront. He photographed from the water and proved willing to clamber atop buildings, gentry cranes, and pile drivers to get his desired shot. The result was a significant number of panoramic vistas—for which his artistic experience with landscapes made him well-suited.