Thursday, May 26, 2011

Acquiring Antique Bottles From Excavators in Downtown Toronto Construction Sites - May 2011

The title says it all...

For many years I've heard about avaricious antiques collectors who stand at the fence out front of downtown Toronto excavation sites and arrange to buy found objects from the workers. The crafty collector infuses the excavators with a duty to save their Canadian heritage, just by talking about the old bottles passionately and teaching them some history. The friendly merchant who makes lunchtime visits to the dig site sets a policy and offers to buy everything found intact for $5 a bottle, and $10 for all pottery. This was a recipe for getting rich in the 1980s when bottle prices were high and the dumps were the oldest. But then a lot of tall buildings were built along the lake shore in the 1990s, and even more in the 2000s, and bottle prices plummeted with every excavation. Also, the site workers themselves got smarter, and now they're bottle collectors too.

Here I am making 'first contact' with Shawn the Shovel Man at Cherry St. and Lakeshore.

The guys on the boring machines at Cherry and Lakeshore are finding some interesting things with every corkscrew down into the mud.

There's a lot of development happening in the West Donlands. There are plenty of shovels in the ground and old Toronto bottles are popping up everywhere.

Let's look at the future of this place. This is 2015

Athletes Village - Pan American Games Park - Lower Donlands. On November 6th 2009, it was announced that Toronto had won the 2015 Pan Am Games, on the first ballot.

Now journey back to 1793, to the shores of muddy york.
Archeologists are busy digging up the foundations of old buildings as they search for history ahead of steam shovels developing this quarter for the Pan Am games. Here's a discussion on Urban Toronto asking and telling about archeologists in the Old City - the oldest part of Toronto. Click the map - the picture expands and you can see right where Toronto started. This is the 1793 Map of the Toronto Harbour made by Joseph Bouchette.

The Lower Donlands, just east of The Distillery District, is one of the oldest parts of Toronto. It’s been neglected for years and is only now undergoing some long overdue development.

Earlier this year, I posted about a lost creek that became a Toronto city dump in the late 1880s, at King and River Sts. Streetcar Developments condo buildings have some special engineering to suck up water at the base of the northwest wall and channel it through pipes to return it to the municipal sewer system drainage on the south side of the structure. They had to do this or the underground parking lot would flood because of a spring to the north that made the original lost creek which, previously, ran into the Don River. This natural water system was buried in garbage in the late 1880s. The excavation workers at that site carried away boxes full of early pottery and glass bottles while the machines were digging the riverbed. The one picture of 1870s era stoneware beers that I obtained for the blog was only a small portion of the hoard that sprung forth, only to be reburied in dump trucks or snatched away by staff.

Over the years the luckiest and friendliest excavation site workers have become well paid ‘inside men', and profit by selling or trading what they find in the ground. Most just liquidate for cash, but some of these guys amass large collections of museum quality artifacts. At Cherry Street and Lakeshore the boys are keen to find things, but unfortunately there's a lot of broken material due to the corkscrew boring mechanism...

Working right on top of the Martin Goodman bike path south of the railroad bridge, and in the shadow of the Gardiner Expressway overhead, these yellow clad men are the most unlikely time travelers you'll ever meet, but with every corkscrew full of earth they dredge up from twenty feet down, they voyage back to the shoreline of the earliest British settlement.

On May 18th I was passing alongside the site and hoping to get somebody’s attention, because I smelled a good story. At that time, I just wanted to know if they were finding anything? And were they finding any old bottles and pottery? With just one quick scan of site and huge screw machine however I could see that the apparatus was not historical artifact friendly.

But there were bottles here. The two story tall drill came up out the ground and it was possible, just for moment, to see the industrial age dump on the blades. You could see historic rubbish being removed from the earth; century old garbage was staring at me right there on the blade. The crew is here boring down into the earth to make cylindrical holes in the ground and sink steel pipes that will soon be filled with concrete to anchor buildings. The ground is a century old city dump very near the original mouth of the Don River.

Then it happened again and this time right in front of my eyes. The giant auger came up out of the pipe, the huge corkscrew blade spun around and all the clumps of mud came flying off the blade. There was an unbroken Chas Wilson soda bottle that rolled off the clumps and a little blue Bromo Seltzer finger sized bottle was spotted in the mud beside it. They were retrieved and wiped clean.

Through the chain link fence around the construction site, further along at the base of 'the piles' I could see broken pot lids and broken stoneware. With my sharp eyes I spotted other small cylindrical pottery vessels covered in white furnace ash. And once again as the auger came up out of the pipe I saw a cross section of a decent little dump with multiple ‘goody veins’ right there on the blades. I should have taken a video of that moment, or a picture of the booty on that huge drill bit – but I was standing right beside Shawn the Shovelman and I couldn’t very well make media in such an overt manner at that particular time.

The excavators are curious about why some bottles are worth more than others? They always ask which bottles to look out for, and if you tell them a name, any name, they'll squint their eyes and try for a moment to commit the words to memory. The older guys with good collections already know what to pick up - and it all happens so fast. The backhoe operator will pause the machine and give a nod to his shovel man when he sees something he wants. He'll get out of the machine himself and get down and pick it up if he sees blue glass, or any unbroken pottery, or any torpedo shaped glass bottles - that's money. If he gets out of the rig a lot it will annoy the site manager and the people watching the clock will soon make rules against the bottle collecting.

At Cherry St. I got the general impression that the guy running the biggest machine was in charge of the whole operation. When I handed my card to Shawn he removed his muddy gloves and carried the card with some care all the way over to the corkscrew operator. This bearded chap scrutinized my card from inside the cab of his two story drilling machine. He looked up at me in the gate. I waved. He nodded. Then I turned around and walked back to The Distillery...

At my office, I did some research on the area and found some great cartography. This very old area has changed considerably since the 1800s. This land was also the site of a large city dump – the Keating Channel is a relatively new development. Here's a map of this area in the 1870s. On this date in history, the city of Toronto is ready to expand by dumping household garbage into the marshy lake shore. (Click these map pictures, they expand.)

Look at the little river channel through the marsh south of the Grand Trunk Railway. I put the X in the wrong spot - the railway tracks are still there. The diggers are actually digging in the original mouth of the Don River!

Now here is the same property in 1910. Notice there is no sign of the Don River here whatsoever. The mouth of the river has been buried using mostly household trash and wood ash. (Click these map pictures, they expand.)

Now here is the same property in 1941 - now there is a steel bridge over the Don River spillway, the Keating Channel (Click these map pictures, they expand.)


Two days later I got a phone call from the big screw driver and he asked me if I would like to come down to the site and have a peek at what he's been picking up all week. He was pretty excited about some recently recovered bottles. He wanted to sell them. ‘Listen’ the voice says, ‘I’ve got six boxes in my garage, and my wife is clean freak. I’ve got to get rid of some.' And soon enough he asks if perhaps I'd like to buy the whole lot? "Of course," I reply, 'bring everything.'

Of course I won't buy the whole works – not unless I can see squat sodas and ginger beers in the boxes, but yes, I will come and look at them and cherry pick through the boxes looking for the best bottles to buy. I'll make purchases, one at a time, haggling for the lowest possible price per item, while angling for freebies.

The following afternoon, Weds May 25th 2011 I had my first experience as a construction site bottle picker. I was there waiting at the gate at 12:00 noon sharp as per our earlier arrangement. For years I’ve heard about hoarders who've made fortunes buying and selling valuable glass vessels found in excavation sites. The pieces change hands three or fours times before the end up in the city's best antique shops. But that was then, and this is now. Bottles and stoneware collectibles have plummeted in price. And the merchandise that was put on display that afternoon really wasn't all that special.

The Excavation Site Bottle Show Started at Noon

Here's a clear class Orange Crush, and below is a Bromo Seltzer.

Found a little Balsam Honey.

Some common Toronto patent medicines,

Some common early Toronto milk bottles

and at least one bottle I'd never seen before...

Stay tuned for more information and more pictures...


Anonymous said...

What a fascinating article! I live in the Beach, not too far from this site, and am intrigued by both the history and the finds.

Kyle said...

Very interesting and entertaining article Rob. Best one yet.

Anonymous said...

It strikes me that many of your posts are about bottle collecting and money -- the bottle show a case in point. Does anyone actually collect for the sheer pleasure of it, or is it always greed that motivates? Your articles sugar coat the hobby. Were you to be somewhat less obliging toward the diggers you seem to enjoy placing on a pedestal, you would give your readers a more accurate and honest picture of hobby. Your words often suggest that the diggers you know are great iconoclasts -- which is another way of saying downright competitive and ready to do just about anything to get the better of the other fellow. I do think there are a few enthusiasts who do it for the sake of discovery and pure enjoyment, but they’re a minority.

kira said...

Do you know why the city decided to put the Keating Channel back in 1941? Does it have a purpose?

Anonymous said...

To the person talking about greed and money - you must not be a collector. I don't know of any bottle collector who's motivation is money or greed. Collectors want to collect, so anything they do is motivated by that - the drive is to acquire that next tough or rare bottle and if we can find creative ways to do it all the better. I've been collecting for 7 years or so and if money was my prime motivator I'd have quit long ago. 99.999% of what you find is worthless monetarily, but the history and the beauty of the bottles makes it all worthwhile. I've sold basically nothing and what I have sold didn't bring much money. On the other hand I've spent a fair bit in time, money and sweat to build a small but interesting collection.

Anonymous said...

I am, in fact, a collector. And that's great you don't care about money. You're a minority. Trying "sharing" a digging spot with some of Toronto's well-known "collectors" and you won't see their love of history shining through. If you want to see a more balanced and informed view of the hobby, visit the UK collecting site:

Anonymous said...

Actually, this bit from a blog about mudlarking in the UK sums up my feelings about many Toronto-area diggers, including the ones Rob enjoys to suggest are "special" (I suspect he's just being sardonic ... whatever it takes to build a writing career, I suppose):

The contemporary mudlarks, equipped with metal detectors, spades and rubber waders, are a tight-lipped bunch. Yesterday, I tried to engage several in conversation without much success. They are not genial, academic or enthusiastic collector types but hard-bitten, secretive grumps.

Anonymous said...

I am a construction worker working in Toronto in the last two years i have found over forty antique bottles. I have sold none i have them on display in my living room some are from the late 1800's.

Steven R. McPhee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I know all the diggers personally and was involved in all the big digs back in the 80`s. Not only was there commradery amonst us, there was also a true love for the artifacts being uncovered. Only a fool would not take into consideration the financial aspect of the hobby. Selling for top dollar is what it is all about. When you want to buy a thousand dollar bottle you gotta wring out every cent of those 50 dollar hackers. I`ve dug thousands of early Toronto bottles and have had pretty much all the rare ones grace my shelf at one time or another. When it gets to the point of having a fortune tied up in the stuff it is time to move some along. Only the best and rarest examples will appreciate in value, if your lucky enough to dig them you don`t care about the price tag, if you have to sell a pile of mediocre stuff to pull together the asking price then will want top dollar for what your selling. Greed has no place in the hobby, most diggers work in teams and fairly distribute the days finds between themselves regardless of who had the lucky shovel that day. If it is decided the wares are to be sold, only an idiot would let a $1000 piece go for a hundred bucks......SS

Anonymous said...

I operate same type of boring machine and have found many bottles downtown Toronto. Can't seem to part with them.

fuscia said...

To me all the bottles are valuable because they are old and historical. They tell a story about life then. I'm a fool, but I would have bought them all to preserve them. Lol

Richard said...

I am willing to purchase any artifacts found. They will be treasured as a piece of History and will not be resold!

Unknown said...

Hey, we are doing an excavation (Dupont area - Toronto) and so far we have 6 boxes full of antique bottles. Write me at this email if you are interested thanks