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

View looking east from Cherry Street, showing dredge at work in Keating Channel and freighters War Ontario and War Toronto under construction at yard of the Toronto Shipbuilding Company, June 24, 1918, by Arthur Beales. Toronto Port Authority Archives, PC 1/1/3041A.

According to the 1912 plan, the diversion of the Don River and utilization of 27-million cubic yards of lakefill would be used to create the new Ashbridges Bay industrial area south of Cherry Street, serviced by a new shipping channel. By 1922, the Ashbridges Bay area had been reclaimed and serviced with the construction of the Keating Channel, Ship Channel, and Turning Basin. By 1933, the area housed oil refineries, coal facilities, and factories, according to Toronto Harbour: The Passing Years (Toronto Harbour Commissioners, 1985).

Beales also took an interest in the day-to-day operations of factories, shipyards, and industrial works occupying the harbour. For example, he took photos almost daily at the site that was turning into British Forgings. The resulting 220 images, Moir argues, “show construction methods and the gradual reclamation of the marsh lands that surrounded the concrete foundations, and form a record of development that could never be matched by written reports.”

Photograph of British-American Oil refinery on north side of Keating Street and east of Cherry Street, November 6, 1934, by Arthur Beales. Toronto Port Authority Archives, PC 1/1/10769.

Although the subject of his photographs was most frequently the hulking engines of industry, symbolic of the city’s aspirations of economic prosperity, Beales’ skill as a photographer elevated them beyond mere utilitarianism. Moreover, Beales photographed visiting dignitaries, the baseball team that played at Maple Leaf Stadium, and other scenes of city life.

In addition to adorning the pages of THC reports, Beales’ photographs appeared in magazines and newspapers, acting as promotional material for the THC’s progress.

Looking north-east to Canada Steamship Lines marine terminal warehouses and Toronto Harbour Commission Administration Building, September 22, 1920, by Arthur Beales. Toronto Port Authority Archives, PC 1/1/5629.

Part of Beales’ duties involved operating the THC’s lantern slide-projector whenever staff were providing lectures to stakeholders. On a rainy evening in March 1920, while driving to one such public presentation, his car was struck by a train. He suffered severe head injuries that affected the remainder of his career. According to a biography that used to be on the Toronto Port Authority website, Beales felt that the facial disfigurement he suffered would make photography subjects uncomfortable—dashing his hopes for work as a portrait photographer.

View looking east from roof of Terminal Warehouse, showing Toronto Harbour Commission building, ferry and Canada Steamship Lines docks, October 23, 1945, by Arthur Beales. Toronto Port Authority Archives, PC 1/1/12313.

Furthermore, he lost one eye and damaged the other in the accident, which affected his depth perception and ability to easily focus through his camera lens. To account for the loss of depth, Robinson notes, Beales “at first used a piece of string knotted at regular intervals to measure distances when photographing, and later bought a Kodak 35mm single-lens camera fitted with an Anastar 50mm lens and a range-finder.”

The physical rigour required to carry his camera equipment to isolated pockets of the waterfront made work more difficult, as did Beales’ frequent headaches. “In spite of his physical problems,” Moir suggests, “his photographs maintained a high quality of composition and clarity—a lasting tribute to his talent and ability as a photographer.”

Toronto Harbour Commissioner Malcolm Kinsella (left) presenting Arthur Beales with a watch at the inaugural dinner of the Quarter Century Club, December 28, 1950. Toronto Port Authority Archives.

Although the tragic accident limited the amount of work Beales could undertake later in his career, the THC’s photographer took more than 17,500 photos until his retirement in 1951. The vast majority are deposited at the now–Toronto Port Authority archives, along with Beales’ camera equipment, but others can be found at the Library and Archives Canada. Beales died in Toronto on October 6, 1955.

Other sources consulted: Ralph Greenhill and Andrew Birrell, Canadian Photography: 1839-1920 (Coach House Press, 1979); Official Photographers: The Work of Arthur Beales, Arthur S. Goss, Alfred J. Pearson (The Market Gallery of the City of Toronto Archives, 1992).

Special thanks are extended to archivist Jeff Hubbell and the communications department at the Toronto Port Authority for graciously researching and digitizing photographs for use in this article.

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