Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Big Larry digs a hole in Toronto's history

Big Larry is a professional excavator with a backhoe and a reputation for finding early Canadian glass and pottery. He brings thirty years of digging experience to the Diggers' collective. He also brings a healthy sense of humor - here's a picture of Big Larry on the job, in the oldest part of Toronto (east of Yonge st, south of Queen).

April 25th 2008 was an exciting day. Big Larry was removing some suspicious soil under the parking lot behind 252 Adelaide St E, which any knowledgeable local historian will tell you is the site of Toronto’s very first post office (circa 1834).

The Town of York website hosts the story of Toronto's first post office amid the trappings of so many dedicated historians; this page is a veritable treasure trove of facts and information concerning James Scott Howard. The dig site also contained something valuable - what Larry found in the ground is important.

It was a small hole, and not even that deep, but look at the stratigraphy. On the morning of April 25th 2008 it was possible to see the shifting sands under this great city right back to 1834 when this exact spot was a mini marsh with cattails and bullfrogs.

Look carefully and note the bottom is clay and layers of top soil and finally gravel and asphalt as each generation used and improved the property. And of course let’s notice that log at the very bottom of the hole. That’s not a fence post, or a foundation beam…

According to Big Larry that post is the mooring of a small dock which may have existed here on the south side of a swampy pond almost two hundred years ago. The piles may have once supported a wooden dock or retaining wall – the whole mess was covered in and filled over in the 1830s and the land supported the busy post office and Toronto dentist.

Big Larry was just doing his job; he was digging a hole in a construction site. But like the wise old man, Larry keeps his eyes open all the time – especially when he’s working in history. As I watched him, he watched the hole. After a glimpse of ash, and the flash of glass, Larry jumped out of the cab and down into the pit, to grub knee deep in the mud on a hunt for the prize.

And it was worth it – from the depths of time Big Larry retrieved a ‘Riddel & Burns / 406 Yonge St / Toronto’ aqua torpedo bottle.

How did this bottle get here? The site is not a dump, but may have been dumped on all the same... This bottle was probably pitched into a water filled ditch sometime in the late 1860's or early 1870s by someone who wasn't interested in collecting the deposit. TimBits tells me that the bottle was made in 1869 by Francis Ridell and AW Burns, the proprietors of the beaver soda company. It was one of the last torpedo bottles made, before they came back into fashion again briefly in the early 1900s.

This is a very rare bottle; even good information is hard to find.

When Dumpdiggers went searching about for data on these two early Toronto beverage makers, we rediscovered the Canadian Bottle Lover's pages, and their wonderful photo gallery collection of early Toronto sodas.

But there's no Riddel & Burns torpedos on display here; the only similar specimen is a broken 'bowling pin' squat soda.

When Larry cleans and tumbles this piece I hope to do a follow-up on Francis Riddel & AW Burns. Anyway Big Larry, nice find.


TK42ONE said...

So does the bottle have a flat bottom to sit on or is it completely rounded? Looks like a great find though, I've never even seen a bottle remotely close to that type of shape.

Robert Campbell said...

This is a torpedo bottle - unlike the Riddel & Burns bowling pin squat profiled on Canadian Bottle Lover's web page, this piece will not stand on its own.