Toronto Urban Legends: Queen's Quay Whale Relic's Origin Remains Murky
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Toronto Urban Legends: Queen’s Quay Whale Relic’s Origin Remains Murky

The truth behind a Lake Ontario whale vertebra is not what you've been told.

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

Rosalia Bambo and son, Santiago, observing the whale vertebra at the ROM. The bone was unearthed in 1988 during construction of Harbourfront LRT.

Prior to breaking ground for the new Harbourfront LRT in 1987, construction crews were told to keep an eye open for historical artifacts unearthed while digging into a landfill that a century earlier had been under water. The discovery of centuries-old military relics or First Nations artifacts was a real possibility.

Imagine backhoe operator Jose Resendes’s surprise when he spotted what at first was assumed to be an 11,000-year-old whale vertebra protruding from fill in the bucket of his machine. The remains of a saltwater mammal buried in the freshwater sediments of Lake Ontario was a geological game changer.

Or was it?

This was not the first time TTC construction crews had unearthed an antediluvian relic, either. Twelve years earlier, nearly to the day, crews excavating the future site of Islington Station dug up the 12,000-year-old fossilized remains of an undiscovered species belonging to the genus Rangifer.

If whales had inhabited the waters off Toronto’s shoreline as Resendes’s find appeared to indicate, portions of North America’s glacial history needed tweaking.

Until the Queen’s Quay whale bone appeared in the sediment, it was assumed the saltwater shoreline of the ancient Champlain Sea, a temporary Atlantic Ocean inlet caused by the weight of retreating glaciers, reached its westerly limit around Brockville, Ontario.

The brownish-white whale vertebra weighing approximately 4.5 kilograms, along with soil samples from the former lakebed, was transported to the Royal Ontario Museum for further analysis.

For a brief time the story had a global audience. The Los Angeles Times ran a piece under the headline “Bone discovery could have whale of impact.” Immediately following the initial media reports, however, the Toronto Star was contacted by an Orillia historian, Allan Ironside. Ironside claimed the prehistoric whale bone was actually part of a display from a zoological garden once located in the vicinity of the present day Fairmount Royal York Hotel. Ironside theorized that after the whale became too degraded for display purposes, portions were disposed of in the lake.

Plausible, yes. Scientifically sound? Not really.

It was true, in the 1880s former city alderman and entrepreneur Harry Piper operated a zoo at that location and for a time displayed a dead whale for the public’s enjoyment.

While ROM paleontologist Kevin Seymour was hard at work unraveling the truth behind the find, armchair historians quickly latched on to Ironside’s speculation. A year later when Seymour published his findings, Ironside’s theory explaining the vertebra’s origin had become firmly entrenched in the city’s psyche.

A replica of the Queen’s Quay whale vertebra held in storage at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Seymour’s research, including carbon dating and pollen analysis, proved equivocally the bone was neither prehistoric nor part of a local late-nineteenth-century menagerie. DNA testing revealed the bone belonged to a killer whale. Orcas generally grow to six to eight metres, nowhere near the 16-20 metre leviathan reportedly displayed by Piper. Pollen analysis dated the find to the 1840s, coincidentally around the same time as Piper’s birth.

To this day Ironside’s theory continues to overshadow the archaeological facts about the bone. We may never know why the historian, now deceased, so quickly concluded the vertebra had once belonged to Piper’s whale.

Toronto-based documentary filmmaker Peter Lynch deserves the final word regarding this murky urban legend. Researching the vertebra’s origin, Lynch nearly became as obsessed with the Queen’s Quay bone as Melville’s Captain Ahab did in pursuit of Moby Dick.

Scouring North America for clues, Lynch’s exhaustive quest is documented in A Whale of a Tale.

After investigating the subject baleen to fluke, the award-winning director concluded the specimen now on permanent display at the ROM Crystal was likely a discarded souvenir tossed into the harbour nearly two centuries ago for reasons unknown.

Additional material from Rotunda (Volume 22, no. 1)