An archaeological assessment reveals earlier incarnations of the north market.
In the November 5, 1803 edition of the Upper Canada Gazette, a notice from Lieutenant-Governor Peter Hunter addressed an irritant for the early inhabitants of York: “no place or day having been set apart or appointed for exposing publicly for Sale, Cattle, Sheep, Poultry, and other Provisions, Goods and Merchandise, brought by Merchants, Farmers, and others, for the necessary supply of the said Town of York.”
The solution: starting that day, a public open market [PDF] would operate every Saturday at the northwest corner of present-day Front and Jarvis. Nearly 30 years later, in 1831, the first permanent brick building opened on the site, a structure which ringed an open courtyard. Elements of that incarnation of north St. Lawrence Market, along with its successors, have been uncovered through archaeological work carried out as part of the preparations for the fifth market building to stand on the site.
Beyond its role as a trading centre, the north end of the 1831 marketplace housed Toronto’s first city council chambers after the city’s incorporation in 1834. But the complex had its problems, especially for butchers: the height of the gallery exposed their meat to the sun; damp and poorly ventilated cellars also provided lousy storage. Space was so tight that farmers were turned away, forcing them to sell to grocers, causing a loss of civic revenue. Part of the balcony collapsed in July 1834 during a tax riot. The solution was the construction of a new south market building, which politicians and produce vendors moved into in 1845.
The original north market complex was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1849, and was replaced within two years in a project that also created St. Lawrence Hall. That structure met its end in 1904, replaced by one designed to match recent renovations to the south market. For 50 years a canopy above Front Street linked the two markets, as the north side settled into its role as a Saturday-only farmers market. Construction was a bureaucratic nightmare, from cost overruns to the firing of the architects; as a Star editorial put it, “the city’s interests were being looked after by too many men, so that among them all nobody gave the work the determined attention it deserved.”
When the next version of the north market was completed in 1968, some tenants were happy to see the demise of the poorly aging 1904 building. “Gone was the dirt and dust,” the Telegram observed. “Gone was the roof which sometimes leaked. The cold and the gloom, the shabby walls and uneven floors had departed. Instead there is brightness under-floor heating and colour everywhere. The farmers have never had it so good.” Opening reviews were mixed, with architectural critics giving the space thumbs down for being too mundane.
Dirt and dust is what you’ll find in the 1968 building as it awaits its end. Its placement atop a thin concrete pad made finding its earlier incarnations easier for archaeologists. Based on the three trenches made in the floor, you don’t have to dig deep to find the foundation piers from the 1831 complex. “Nobody had popped the lid to have a look at the what the preservation was like under the site,” archaeologist Dr. Peter Popkin noted during a media tour of the site on Wednesday.
Popkin and Golder Associates Ltd. conducted the current stage of the archaeological assessment over the past few weeks, and found elements of all pre-1968 structures within the trenches. Besides the original foundation piers, other uncovered features include the 1851 sewer system, and bricks, concrete foundations, and a box drain from 1904. Evidence points toward the existence of the cellars which irritated butchers during the 1830s. While items like animal bones and ceramics have been found, their volume is less than would be discovered at a residential site. The holes in the ground also show evidence of “robber trenches” where fill was dumped during each construction project, especially from 1904.
One interesting find was the discolouration of levels of dirt, especially in the second trench. The darker stained soil was the original surface of the 1831 interior courtyard. While paving stones were contemplated, according to Popkin, visitors reported it was covered with gravel. The evidence points to a sandy material with plenty of pebbles sitting atop a clay capping.
At the media tour, Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) referred to the discoveries not as “surprises,” but as “prizes” which will help tell the story of the city from their respective eras. Up to 18 months of historical assessment work was built into the timeline for the new market structure, leaving plenty of time for further investigation and a mitigation study. It is expected that some of the material found will be displayed in the new building. It shall be seen how the discoveries affect plans for a 250-space underground parking lot.
As it awaits the wrecking ball, the 1968 building feels like an archaeological relic. The tour provided one of the last opportunities to survey it, to notice touches easily overlooked on a busy Saturday morning like the old City coat of arms mounted above the stage. The waterlogged floor of the space which housed the snack bar. A floor painting honouring BuskerFest. The banner inviting visitors to check out the temporary farmers market to the south. Time will tell if this incarnation of the north market will be the least mourned.
Additional material from the September 19, 1904 edition of the Toronto Star and the February 1, 1969 edition of the Telegram. Unless indicated, photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.