Toronto Harbour Commission

Toronto Harbour Commission

A Port Authority or Industrial and Commercial Development Agency in Toronto from 1912-1920

Nick Duguid

Toronto - 2023

The development and management of the Toronto Harbour and Waterfront were controlled by the Toronto Harbour Commission (THC) beginning in 1911 when the organization was first established. Before 1911, the previous harbour managing bodies were ineffective at dealing with the problems the Toronto Harbour and Waterfront was tasked with.1 This resulted in the creation of the THC through a Canadian federal act of parliament, which granted the organization more financial resources to invest in Toronto Harbour improvements and increased the organization’s ownership of property along the Toronto Waterfront.2 The first significant plan of action made by the THC was the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan, which was scheduled to end in 1920. Many operations were completed during this time frame, although a few were postponed and finished after 1950 because of the World Wars and projects lasting far longer than anticipated.3 It appears that the THC had devoted the expansion of commercial and industrial operations along the Toronto Waterfront a great deal of attention between 1912 and 1920. The THC needed to upgrade transportation infrastructure, increase waterway transit, and make investments in a stronger port regulatory authority to improve port operations.4 Nevertheless, these problems weren't resolved until around 1920, when most of the waterfront industrial expansion projects were finished. This paper will argue that although the THC was founded to serve as a port authority for the Toronto Harbour, its primary purpose was to plan and oversee projects for the Toronto Waterfront that would support the city's commercial and industrial growth. The three reasons for this are that the Toronto City Council wanted to use the THC as a vehicle for industrial development which influenced its plans, the public wanted more commercial interests to be provided on Toronto Waterfront property for their enjoyment, and the THC’s Board was motivated to apply the organization’s financials to the industrialization and commercial development in Toronto.

The THC's 1912 Waterfront Development Plan was implemented as Toronto's industrialization was occurring quickly at the time. Between 1871 and 1901, the population of Toronto tripled, from 86,000 to 234,000, as a result of the city's availability of a wide range of industrial jobs.5 The City Council of Toronto was motivated to keep advancing industrialization since the city financially benefited from these activities that attracted more residents to Toronto.6 The Toronto City Council requested a formal model for the growth and administration of industrialization when the THC Board was established.7 Also, Robert Gourlay was appointed as the Board of Trade's Representative and he was instrumental in the creation of the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan. He had the opinion that industrial operations shouldn't be situated near the Toronto Waterfront because they could cause harmful environmental effects and endanger public health owing to their smoke and pollutants.8 The City Council of Toronto, however, dismissed these arguments because they thought it was more crucial for Toronto to have a booming industrial economy and more job opportunities.9 The interaction between the Toronto City Council and the THC demonstrates a sense of competing authority. The Toronto City Council oversaw how financial resources were distributed to the THC and they could control how these financial resources were utilized by the THC.10 With the Toronto City Council holding this power, they could use the THC as their planning and development organization for industrial growth along the Toronto Waterfront.

The 1912 Waterfront Development Plan included the development of 1,077 acres of land through lakefilling for industrial expansion in Toronto, according to Robert Gourlay.11 The plan included substantial lakefilling, a key component of the development of the Toronto waterfront. Lakefilling is the process of filling in lakes to reclaim land and it was the primary mode of action the THC used to increase area of the Toronto Waterfront for industrial operations. The Toronto City Council gave the THC the funding necessary to finish lakefilling projects so that the city could benefit from it and make a substantial profit. It is clear that the Toronto City Council had influence over the THC through influence and regulation of the THC’s budget. A major aspect of the plan was for the THC to reclaim the marshlands of Ashbridge’s Bay by lakefilling as this was a large area that would serve as an effective location for industrial operations. This area would be called the Port Industrial District in the THC’s 1912 Waterfront Development Plan. On the east side of the Toronto Waterfront, where Ashbridges Bay was situated, a sizable portion of the lakefilling took place. The development of the Port Industrial District didn’t finish until after 1930, but major industrial operations were still completed between 1912-1920 by the THC to provide Toronto with the opportunity to expand its industrial industry during that time span. Figure 1 depicts the Port Industrial District of the Toronto Waterfront prior to the THC starting construction on the site.12 Figure 2 depicts the Port Industrial District's post-1920 development where lakefilling took place with extra area added to Toronto’s Waterfront.13 The Toronto City Council influenced the THC through their power to have the industrial interests of local elites ahead of fixing other prominent issues port authorities need to manage.14

Figure 1: Image of Port Industrial District before the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan.
Figure 2: Image of Port Industrial District’s development in the 1920s during the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan.

The western portion of the Toronto Waterfront has traditionally been used for recreational purposes by the general public. The THC’s 1912 Waterfront Development Plan had a large focus on developing the western section for commercial interests and activities that the public would enjoy.15 Before the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan, the public of Toronto desired more attractions and recreational activities available in the Toronto Waterfront region, much like the Toronto City Council sought to use the THC to aid in the development of more industrial operations. The public's ability to enjoy the Toronto Waterfront to a greater degree was a major goal of the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan. The THC had the plan to create more land through lakefilling operations and shoreline reclamation work so that people could enjoy recreational activities.16 Landfilling and the construction of breakwaters to shield the area from wave damage allowed for the expansion of the Toronto Waterfront's western area. A breakwater is an offshore building that reduces the energy of waves in order to protect the shoreline from them.17 The THC included breakwaters in its 1912 Waterfront Development Plan as another means of assisting in the development of more land. The public desired more attractions since more land was being created for the Toronto Waterfront's western part. However, the THC believed it would be difficult to create the different types of enjoyment wanted by the public as the THC would lose out on other opportunities to upgrade the port of Toronto and resolve its issues from a financial standpoint.18 Also, the THC believed that these commercial operations that the public wanted wouldn’t yield the revenues the THC needed to continue financing its operations in the future.19 A major influence that persuaded the THC to establish commercial properties on the western section of the Toronto Waterfront was newspaper outlets in Toronto. Journalists would discuss possible commercial and recreational operations that could be developed on the Toronto Waterfront after lakefilling operations would be completed which would excite the public and influence their opinion to lobby for more enjoyment to be developed.20 The THC didn't establish the plan to build Sunnyside Amusement Park on the western area until the 1920s, and it didn't open until 1922. The establishment of Sunnyside Amusement Park was critical to the THC since it was a business venture where the group could make money and increase its visibility through its contributions.21 The Sunnyside Amusement Park was what attracted visitors from across the world to come visit the Toronto Waterfront as the sightseeing was not enough to attract visitors.  This demonstrates how the THC was acting as a planning and development organization for commercial operations in Toronto by utilizing waterfront property. The other port authorities in Canada were not the organizations responsible for managing the commercial development of the area it oversaw.22 The THC, on the other hand, was unique and was founded to oversee these operations, which would aid in accelerating growth for Toronto's commercial sector.

The THC’s Board had a strong and self-serving influence on the decisions that were included in the THC’s 1912 Waterfront Development Plan. The THC’s Board is one of only two port authorities in Canada that were established by statute in their own right and were key members in the development of Toronto’s Waterfront.23 When the THC’s board was established, it was the only port authority that had the government of Canada as a minority. There were three board members that represented the city of Toronto, two from the Canadian Federal Government, and one from the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Toronto.24 The majority of the THC’s Board had the best interests of developing Toronto in mind. Due to the fact that the THC board members appointed by Toronto were in charge of making sure expansion was possible, the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan's operations were centred on intensifying the city's growth.25 So, the financials of the organization were applied to these plans. Although the THC’s Board had a significant role in the waterfront development of Toronto, there were still important Harbour issues the organization didn’t resolve at the time. The THC was founded primarily to address the deteriorating port and lake shipping conditions in Toronto, which the previous port authority of Toronto was unable to address.26 To "perform what was necessary for the development and improvement of the port" was the THC Board's mandate in 1912.27 However, the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan is where most of the organization’s financial resources were applied, and the Toronto Harbour received limited improvements during the time of this plan.28 In 1918, more board members were appointed to the THC. Edward Cousins, the city’s industrial commissioner was named to the THC’s Board and his main motivation was to open more branch plants in Toronto in the Port Industrial District of the Toronto Waterfront.29 The THC’s Board was also a main force in developing commercial enterprises along the Toronto Waterfront. The THC board members required funding for the organization's operations from the general public as well as revenue from its projects. After the majority of the lakefilling operations were finished during the 1912 Waterfront Development plan in 1922, the THC Board campaigned for the development of a Crosse & Blackwell and Tip Top Tailors on the central waterfront, which aided the organization's financial success.30 It is evident that the THC Board acted in their best interests when dealing with the problems the Toronto Harbour was experiencing.

In conclusion, although the THC was created to act as a port authority for Toronto's Harbour, the organization's primary goal was to create and oversee projects for the Toronto Waterfront that would support the city's commercial and industrial growth. The Toronto City Council used the THC as a vehicle for industrial development. This had an impact on the organization's intentions for its 1912 Waterfront Development Plan since it made the industrialization of the Toronto Waterfront region one of the plan's key focal points. The Toronto City Council wanted industrialization activities to contribute to accelerating the city's growth. To support the Toronto City Council, which was giving the THC the financial resources for its operations, the Port Industrial District on Toronto's waterfront was created. In order to fully enjoy the Toronto Waterfront, the public wished to see more businesses and commercial activities established. The THC needed public support to ensure the organisation could carry out its operations, and media channels like newspapers would persuade people to advocate enjoyable commercial and recreational operations. A result of this was that the THC made sure that expanding commercial operations was another key priority in its 1912 Waterfront Development Plan. Even though the creation of Sunnyside Amusement Park in the 1920s helped the organization make money for future operations, other problems with the Toronto Harbour weren't fixed at that time. The bulk of the Toronto City Council members that made up the THC Board were committed to accelerating Toronto's development through industrialization and other business ventures. The THC Board was crucial in making sure that the operations of the THC would be profitable for the city of Toronto. Nonetheless, it seemed that serving the Toronto Harbour's needs at the time was less important to them than serving their own interests. Overall, the THC was crucial in fostering the expansion of Toronto's industrial and commercial sectors, but given the available funding, it could have done more to support the growth of the city's port and harbour.

  1. Michael Moir, “The Toronto Harbour Commission Archives,” Urban History Review 17, no. 2 (1988): 112. 

  2. Moir, 112. 

  3. Moir, 112. 

  4. Gene Desfor and Lucian Vesalon, “Urban Expansion and Industrial Nature: A Political Ecology of Toronto's Port Industrial District,” Journal of Transport Geography 1, no. 3 (1993): 589. 

  5. Desfor & Vesalon, 589. 

  6. Desfor & Vesalon, 592. 

  7. Desfor & Vesalon, 593. 

  8. Royal Commission, Persistence and Change: Waterfront Issues and The Board of Toronto Harbour Commissioners (Publication 6. Toronto: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1989), 16. 

  9. Royal Commission, 18. 

  10. Roy Merrens, “Port Authorities as Urban Land Developers: The Case of the Toronto Harbour Commissioners and Their Outer Harbour Project, 1912-68,” Urban History Review 17, no. 2 (1988): 93. 

  11. Royal Commission, 42. 

  12. Figure 1: [Image of Port Industrial before the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan] Michael Moir, “The Toronto Harbour Commission Archives,” Urban History Review 17, no. 2 (1988): 115. 

  13. Figure 2: [Image of Port Industrial in the 1920s during the 1912 Waterfront Development Plan] Moir, “The Toronto Harbour Commission Archives,” 115. 

  14. Royal Commission, 43. 

  15. Royal Commission, 45. 

  16. Toronto Harbour Commission, Toronto Waterfront Development: 1912-1920. (1912): 17. 

  17. Royal Commission, 48. 

  18. Royal Commission, 52. 

  19. Royal Commission, 53. 

  20. Merrens, 98. 

  21. Royal Commission, 34. 

  22. Royal Commission, 38. 

  23. Royal Commission, 16. 

  24. Gene Desfor, “Restructuring the Toronto Harbour Commission: Land Politics on the Toronto Waterfront,” Journal of Transport Geography 1, no. 3 (1993): 181. 

  25. Desfor, 181. 

  26. Royal Commission, 15. 

  27. Royal Commission, 16. 

  28. Royal Commission, 18. 

  29. Moir, 114. 

  30. Moir, 118.