5 Strangest Things Buried Along Toronto’s Waterfront

Long before the days of city waste disposal and landfills, Toronto really didn’t have anywhere to put its garbage. We were very creative getting rid of our trash, but the most convenient by far (and ecologically dangerous) method was dumping it into the lake.

In the 1920’s, Toronto began to infill parts of Toronto Harbour, reclaiming the land that is now everything south of Front Street. While excavating the reclaimed land for building foundations, we ended up digging up a lot of that old trash. And over the years, we’ve found some very strange stuff!

#1: In the late 1980’s, an 18th century French cannon was uncovered while digging the foundations of the Skydome (current day Roger’s Centre). It may have been used at Fort York against invading Americans in 1813. However, its final days were clearly less than glamorous as its bore was filled in with concrete. It was likely a ballast for a ship (weight at the bottom of a boat to provide stability), or a barricade to prevent boats from ramming into docks, or even a security barrier in front of a building to guard against wayward carts (often used to transport artillery). In working condition, the cannon could fire a ball 1,650 metres or 1,800 yards.

Close to 2,000 artifacts were discovered at the Dome site, including…

#2: Broken doll heads. Like something out of a horror film, archaeologists found multiple heads. They were originally used to fill in the waterfront to make land for the Grand Trunk Railway tracks. Unsettling to think about how many of those creepy little faces might still silently wait to be discovered underground.

#3: In 1897, at Polson Iron Works (located on The Esplanade at Frederick Street), work began on a one-of-a-kind boat, designed by lawyer, Frederick Knapp. It looked like a cross between a ship, a submarine and a watermill. Instead of inefficiently ploughing through water like traditional crafts, he thought it would be better if boats could roll along the surface, generating less drag. He likened the idea to a floating log, which is easily rotated in water. Despite modestly successful test runs of the prototype, Knapp had trouble finding serious buyers. After unsuccessful runs as a passenger ferry, the vessel was brought back to Polson Iron Works to be used as a coal carrier. While the ship was being retrofitted, it broke free and became submerged in the mud by the Iron Works, where it remained for decades. The Roller Boat finally vanished in 1933 when it was buried near Frederick Street by infill for the Union Station railway viaduct. According to recent archaeological surveys, the skeleton is likely still down there, waiting to be rediscovered.

(To lean more about Knapp and his boat, check out this great post by torontoist.com.)

#4: In the 1980’s, when the TTC was digging the streetcar tunnel between Union Station and Queens Quay, they came across a huge bone, once belonging to a whale. At the time, many people thought that it had come from Piper’s Zoo. This zoo once stood at the site of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. Its main attraction was a rotting whale carcass. Carbon dating has ruled this out, however, as the bone dates back to the 1840s, long before the Zoo existed. How it ended up there, still remains a mystery.

#5: In 2015, an 19th century ship was discovered about six metres underground at a construction site for a building near Bathurst Street and Lake Shore Boulevard. Believed to be the oldest vessel ever found in the city, it was about 12 feet long and likely scuttled for scaffolding. Workers used it to build a wharf where the building complex now stands. Along with the boat, they also found a treasure-trove of 19th century artifacts including ceramics, broken tableware, and even an American penny that dates back to 1816-1839.

Written by Jill Sullivan
Tour Guide
The Haunted Walk of Toronto