Friday, June 8, 2007

Some Lonely Place


As the sun sinks below high rise apartments in the west, Timbit and his team use their shovels to travel back in time. Their destination: Toronto 1885.


‘That’s the bottom of the lake there.’ Tim points to the line of black mud on top of gray clay that slopes down along the recently excavated walls of a huge square hole in the ground. This particular evening’s dig zone is at the bottom of a future parking garage in the bowels of what will someday be a very tall residential tower.


Myself and the other diggers marvel at how the excavation neatly bisects the mud of Toronto’s old shoreline. This particular place was once the lake bottom over which the region's indigenous people paddled canoes, and over which the Americans disembarked 1600 soldiers from twelve schooners on April 27th 1813 when they captured Fort York.



This lonely place was at least ten feet under water, and at the end of a long wooden pier in the 1840s. But as Toronto expanded in the 1850's, and the Grand Trunk Railroad consumed the shoreline, the wharves and fishing docks were pushed farther and farther out into the lake as new land was created by dumping the city's own rubbish into the mud on shore.


Today this black mud is full of industrial age relics – every scoop has metal shrapnel and broken pottery, bits of glass, ash, and bones. And today this century old trash is pay dirt for antiques collectors... like me.

Tim works a rich vein of undisturbed dump alone as the other diggers pick along the site walls. He tells me, 'It took an Act of Legislation in 1857 to transfer the land to the Grand Trunk Railroad and give it the right of way along the harbour.

The whole crew gets excited when Tim dredges up the first ginger beer bottle of the dig, a well preserved cream colored blank. The irony is that the blanks probably came from small micro breweries that used paper labels on generic stone bottles. It would have been one of the small brands competing for market share with the major players like Wilson's and Verner's. By the 1880s the big bottlers could afford to have the pottery works in Bristol England custom stencil their names on the sides of each vessel.

'Why are the blanks always in mint condition?'

The other diggers found a vein of small glass pill bottles of all shapes and sizes including cobalt blue specimens in fair condition. My favourite is a tiny clear glass bottle marked W.R. STEWARD / TORONTO.

Probably the best discovery of the entire dig was this rare toothpaste pot lid. Before toothpaste came in squeeze tubes it was made available in metal and pottery jars. Well decorated lids are very collectible.

This particular lid reads PARISIENNE TOOTHPASTE and it features lots of text detailing the product. An American dentist named Dr. Washington Wentworth Sheffield invented the squeeze tube in 1892, and his firm probably helped brush the Parisienne Toothpaste company out of business. Between 1892 and 1900, sales of Dr. Sheffield's Creme Dentifrice boomed at the expense of every other manufacturer. After revolutionizing the toothpaste market, Dr. Sheffield expanded operations to make squeeze tubes for dozens of other products.


This little bottle really sparked my curiosity. The cork still securely seals the vessel and its exterior is squeaky clean. Click on the picture; it expands to an enormous size! The embossed message, all in capitol letters, reads J.D. MATHESON /OPPOSITE ROSSIN HOUSE / TORONTO.


This very curious little chemist's bottle has some interesting mysteries... I know you all really want to know who was J.D. Matheson? And where and what exactly is this Rossin House? And as there is nobody alive and handy to tell us this information, I had to research it online.

First let's explore the mystery of J.D. Matheson, for its quite intriguing. The name is connected to the History of the Queens Plate , North America's oldest horse race. Believe it or not, their history records that two of J.D. Matheson's horses (Harry Cooper and Colonist) won the Queen’s Plate in 1888 and 1889 respectively - in both cases with the same jockey and trainer! Now I’m really curious. Could this same horse owner named J.D. Matheson also be a dispensing chemist in downtown Toronto? I'm thinking that perhaps he's a pharmacist that's maybe also a veterinarian with his own horse farm?

More research online at the Toronto Archives uncovers a man named Arthur James Matheson who was a Canadian politician. He served as a Conservative Member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario for Lanark South from 1898 to 1914, and later, as provincial treasurer from 1905 to 1913. I think he might be the namesake for Matheson Blvd in Mississauga...

The best piece of information recovered centers on a man named Angus Matheson who was a druggist and chemist with a business on York Street at King St. The digital collections of the Toronto Public Library have reproduced several Toronto business directories, and a chemist named Angus Matheson can be seen at 65 York St in the year 1856, and then again in 1886 at 100 York Street, which is, if I'm not mistaken, across from Rossin House.


The Rossin House was a fabulous hotel, built in the age of fabulous hotels. It rivaled the Queen's Hotel on Front Street and the fire-proof King Edward Hotel built in 1873 on King Street east of Yonge St. The Rossin House was erected before them, in 1855-57 when the railroad dominated local politics. The late 1850s was an age of speculation which followed the economic depression of the 1840's.

The once famous and now almost forgotten Toronto hotel appears here and there in the history of great happenings in the city. I found this terrific reference in a musical archive of sorts here is the link that chronicles a night in 1888 when Governor General Lord Stanely watched the Toronto Fire Brigade from the balcony of the Rossin House.

'Dinner was at Government House and, on the balcony of Rossin House at midnight, their Excellencies enjoyed a dynamic demonstration by the engines and hosers of the fire brigade. They missed the genuine excitement. At the alarm, the hose-reel and the ladder truck charged out of the Lombard station and down Church Street. The hoser tried a wide sweep to turn onto King, got caught in the car-track and was rammed and flipped by the ladder, the poor horse being thrown onto the sidewalk on its back.'

This building was the first of a marvellous age of urban castles. The above image can be found in the Toronto Public Library, which also has more details about the hotel.

There's also lots of great information about Rossin House Hotel, 1855-7 on OurRoots.ca - they have reproduced a period publication with some exquisite details.

To the best of my reckoning the Rossin House hotel was demolished in the 1960s and the land was redeveloped into the Royal Bank Towers.

While digging I looked east at the skyline - a traffic helicopter was idling overhead reporting conditions on the Gardiner Expressway. I suddenly wondered what a colonist would think if he could behold Toronto now...


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