Monday, July 18, 2011

Cool Off at Toronto's Harbourfront

It's too hot here in Toronto (41 degrees Celsius factoring in the humidity) to spend much time in front of a heat-producing computer, so I'm recycling an article I wrote awhile ago on a walking tour of Toronto's harbourfront that promises to offer scenic and historic sites by the cooling Lake Ontario...

To leash the dog days of summer, take a walk along Toronto’s waterfront.  It was Toronto’s harbour that convinced John Graves Simcoe to choose this location as the provincial capital in 1793, because the natural cove was ideal to defend the city from quarrelsome Americans. The lake has been integral to the development of Toronto.  It’s also where Toronto gets its drinking water.  Lake water is also used to provide environmentally-friendly cooling for Financial District offices

Toronto’s shoreline has changed dramatically over the years.  After the last ice age, everything south of Davenport Road was under the waters of giant Lake Iroquois. The waters gradually receded and the shore in Simcoe’s day was at Front Street. A storm in 1858 washed out the eastern edge of the harbour helping sever Toronto Island from the mainland. More recent landfill projects have extended the shoreline to its present location.

The waterfront was always a transportation hub - first ships, then trains, and then automotives with the 1966 opening of the Gardiner. (Toronto’s port, despite years of decline, is apparently increasing in use, due in part to high gasoline costs.)  Industry located in proximity to transportation, and as a result of both, the Lake was cut off from Torontonians first by peers then by railway tracks – more recently its highway and now walls of condominiums blocking the waterfront from most Torontonians.

Nonetheless, it is possible to walk along much of Toronto’s lakeshore to enjoy views of the lake and key historic sites.

Start your stroll at the foot of Yonge Street with the Redpath Sugar Refinery, still an operating factory and the biggest user of the port. Their sugar shed has a huge whale mural by artist Wyland and is one of his 100 “Whaling Walls.”  Redpath has a free, semi-sweet sugar museum.

Walking west you’ll pass the former Caption John’s seafood restaurant ship, docked there since 1975 (previously it was a Croatian ferry).

Further west there’s the ferry docks. Ferries have been running to the islands and other locales for decades. This is where to catch the ferry to Toronto Island. The trip affords great views of the city. Toronto Island (or more correctly islands) is probably Toronto’s best park - complete with gardens, beaches (including one for nudists), amusement park, farm, Toronto’s oldest structure the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse (reputed to be haunted by a former murdered keeper), restaurants, and it is the location of Babe Ruth’s first professional home run). The failed Toronto to Rochester, New York catamaran ferry also left near here but only lasted only a few months. Turns out Torontonians weren’t lining up to go to Rochester after all.

Continuing on, you’ll pass the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel. It is located on the site of Toronto’s worst disaster, the fire of the S.S. Noronic.  In the middle of the night on September 17, 1949, the cruise ship, docked overnight, burned before many passengers were even awakened.  Of the 695 on board approximately 118 died – all passengers. The cause was unknown, but a cowardly crew and inadequate safety measures were blamed.

Next, stop and grab an ice cap at Second Cup, housed in the original ferry terminal, Pier 6. Built in 1907, it is the oldest remaining waterfront building.

Next door is the Queen’s Quay Terminal, built in 1927, it was Canada’s first poured concrete building. Once one of the largest shipping warehouses, it was remodeled to house overpriced shops, restaurants and offices. The Terminal is part of Harbourfront Centre, Toronto’s preeminent cultural centre with (mostly free) festivals, concerts, art studios, galleries, and theatres. Harbourfront Centre was built largely by retrofitting heritage buildings including a power plant.

Conclude your walk with a rest on the beach of Toronto’s waterfront new park, “HTO,” complete with sand and sun umbrellas.

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