PortCities 2.0

Connecting Toronto and Project Updates

Kimberly Monk

Port2Port - 2023

The launch of the PortCities website in October 2022 1 coincided with the release of the first group of essays, on the Port of Hamilton, to connect and reengage Great Lakes port histories. At the heart of this project are Brock University students enrolled in HIST 2F00 Great Lakes Maritime and Coastal History. Providing an opportunity for students to explore this subject, while supporting them in building their research skills and improving their writing. As with any course project, there are changes and amendments to facilitate student success. And I hope that over time, this will ensure that our project continues with a greater number of student contributions.

This asynchronous course is an elective, with over half of the students enrolled in programs outside of history - from across the humanities, social, and physical sciences. While there is often a learning curve as they develop historical research and writing skills, the range of topics allows them to pursue subjects related to their major. By examining port history on subjects such as health sciences, environmental studies, and business, they may reflect on their discipline while engaging it from an interdisciplinary perspective. Port history allows our students to then connect with a wider audience on these historical and contemporary issues. Addressing the importance of looking at these disciplines from the perspective of water, while reflecting on how human settlement shaped these coastal locations.

The Port of Toronto Project, 2022-2023

The 22 research essays from our 2022-2023 course on the Port of Toronto, illustrate the range of themes that connect its port history, past and present. We congratulate these students for working so diligently as they progressed from proposal to first draft to final edits. Deepening our understanding of another Canadian Great Lakes port city. The following brief synopsis addresses the range of these essays, and the significance of Toronto’s port history.

Tkaronto, with its protected natural harbour, river connections, arable land and plentiful fish stocks, has been settled by Indigenous Peoples for over 11, 000 years. The arrival of Europeans and expansion of the fur trade would result in the French constructing several trading posts and forts at this location. By the end of the Seven Years' War, the location would serve as a British military post, leading to the founding of the Town of York in 1793. After the War of 1812, the town would quickly evolve, its early industries supporting the community and increasing its socio-economic status. By the 1830s, York quickly replaced Kingston as Upper Canada's leading town. While its incorporation as the City of Toronto in 1834 would lead to regulating the port as a hub for commerce on the Great Lakes. By the 1850s, Toronto was central to communication through the expansion of shipping and railways, with the city's population increasing rapidly from 30,000 in 1851 to more than 181,000 by 1891.

By the twentieth century, Toronto’s urban center provided greater opportunity for jobs and housing. Shipping greater quantities of natural resources into the port while exporting manufactured goods and products, led to the expansion of its port facilities. Toronto was ideally positioned to expand its shipbuilding and shipping infrastructure, spurred on by wartime contracts during the First and Second World War. With the end of the war and the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the final block was laid for urban development. A surge in immigration coincided with improvements in the port’s natural spaces; the coast becoming increasingly popular for sport and recreation. The creation of parkland on Toronto Island in the 1950s with its connection by ferry, provided an escape for the city dweller. Later enterprises such as Ontario Place and Harbourfront in the 1970s and 1980s, would further reconnect Torontonians with their watery spaces.

Today, Toronto remains a major port on the Lakes, for both import and export markets. It supports a network of cost-effective links to road, rail, and air transportation; also catering to cruise ships and other coastal and marine tourism. Importantly for the environment, shipping has reduced the number of trucks and congestion on our roads and highways; the Port of Toronto claims 54,000 40-tonne trucks were taken off the roads in 2020 2. The port and its networks remain critical to sustaining the city, the home of almost 2.8 million people. A vital system that evolved largely because of its key maritime location, natural resources, and the early industries that supported its development.

Project Support

The 2022-2023 essays were reviewed by teaching assistant Ms. Trudy Tattersall, who has again supported students as they progressed with researching and writing their projects. Ms. Alexandra Lewis provided editorial assistance for the Toronto projects, ensuring key elements of the essays were checked and corrected. The project’s outstanding web developer Mr. Manan Patel expanded the design and functionality of the website, which has improved aesthetics and versatility in creating and editing new content.

PortCities, 2023-2025

Our next port-of-call highlights the projects' home port. Our HIST 2F00 students have begun to research topics on Niagara’s maritime and coastal history, connecting several port towns and cities across the region. The release of the 2023-2024 project will coincides with a significant local event - the bicentennial for the 'start' of construction on the first Welland Canal. Several project topics will address the Welland Canal and its four phases of development. Providing timely reflection on the cultural value of local maritime heritage, while addressing the importance of Niagara's port history, past and present.

In addition to our Niagara essays, we will also be sharing a selection of student-authored public history blogs; characterizing a wide range of topics from around the Great Lakes region. Students have authored blogs on subjects including Indigenous fishing weirs, the s.s. Edmund Fitzgerald and the taconite industry, Duluth’s Aerial Bridge, and military actions on Georgian Bay. These topics help to further connect the range of themes and locations and, importantly, ensure that students begin to hone their research and writing skills before deeper explorations on the PortCities project essays.

In autumn 2024, HIST 2F00 students will begin researching the Port of Buffalo, and the smaller ports and harbours located along the Niagara River in New York state. With this project, we will begin to connect with the US Great Lakes port cities to ensure balance to our study of these shared inland seas. We look forward to connecting with the excellent libraries and archives in New York State, to research their remarkable port histories.

  1. Alison Innes, "Student history project highlights Ontario port cities for public." Brock News, October 22, 2022, https://brocku.ca/brock-news/2022/10/student-history-project-highlights-ontario-port-cities-for-public/

  2. "Port of Toronto," PortsToronto, accessed October 1, 2023, https://www.portstoronto.com/port-of-toronto.aspx