Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Giant Prehistoric Beavers of the Don Valley Brick Works

Hooooooo boy. Meet the giant beaver. It’s one of the largest rodents to have ever walked the earth: as much as seven feet long and more than 200 pounds. So, like, the size of a black bear. Its teeth were six inches long, but scientists aren’t sure if they were used to chop down trees like beavers do today; giant beavers probably ate aquatic plants, and there’s no evidence they built giant dams either. Their tails were probably quite different from their modern cousins, too: longer and thinner. And they had shaggier hair.

They also used to live in Toronto — about 130,000 years before our modern city was founded.

The first scientist to discover them here was Toronto’s most famous and celebrated geologist: Arthur Philemon Coleman. In the late 1800s, he became the first geologist to realize the importance of the big cliff on the northern end of the Don Valley Brick Works. At the bottom of the cliff was a bedrock of slate from about 450 million years ago — littered with fossils from the days when this part of the world was a tropical sea filled with trilobites. But what really makes the cliff special is what Coleman found above that slate: a remarkably complete geological record of the last 135,000 years.

Layer by layer, the exposed earth shows the last two Ice Ages coming and going, leaving rocks and dirt and boulders behind as enormous glaciers covered this land in ice and then melted away as the climate changed again. It’s the only place in this part of the world where you can see all of that history laid out in front of you. And in between those two Ice Age layers, there are a bunch of other layers: from a time when the planet was warmer. One of them, near the bottom, is a layer of sand and clay from about 130,000 years ago. That’s where A.P. Coleman found the giant tooth of a giant beaver.

Back in our giant beaver days, Toronto was actually a couple of degrees warmer than it is now. Instead of Lake Ontario, there was an even bigger and deeper lake here; they call it Lake Coleman in honour of the moustachioed geologist. Everything that now sits in downtown T.O. was very much underwater back then. The sands and clays at the foot of the cliff in the Brick Works — which is all the way north of Bloor — would have been in the shallow waters near shore, at the mouth of the prehistoric ancestor to the Don River.

A.P. Coleman
Coleman and his team were able to piece together a whole scene thanks to the other fossils they found along with the beaver tooth. The area where the river met the lake was a marshy wetland back then, surrounded by woods and grasslands. Prehistoric stag-moose, bigger even than moose are today, with huge sets of antlers, roamed through a wilderness that would have seemed both familiar and strange to us. There were plenty of trees and other plants that still grow in Toronto today: oaks and pines and maples, willows, cedars and elms. But there were also some species that you can only find further to the south these days — in the United States, where it’s warmer — as well as a few that are long-extinct. There were giant prehistoric bears here, too. Massive, ancient bison. Woodchucks and white-tailed deer. On occasion, a thunderstorm sparked a fire, flames tearing through forests and fields, enormous panicked beasts rushing for the safety of the water.

Scientists figure that giant beavers didn’t spend much of their time on land; even less, it seems, than beavers do today. They stuck to the swamp at the mouth of the river, swimming through the marsh, feeding on the aquatic reeds and long grasses that lined the shore. (And if they did behave like their modern relatives, maybe they were even cutting down trees and building beaver lodges big enough to house a family of rodents the size of a bear.) They’d been living like this, in the wetlands of North America, for two million years. And they had more than another hundred thousand years left to go.

But not in Toronto. As the next Ice Age began, Toronto got colder, eventually getting buried beneath a layer of ice two kilometers thick. The giant beavers would have been forced far to the south. And as the Ice Age ended, around 10,000 B.C. or so, the last members of the species died out. The giant beaver was extinct.

By then, a new species was living in North America: human beings. Back in the days when giant beavers had been swimming around the Don Valley, humans were still a young species, having only recently evolved on the savannas of Africa. But by the time the giant beavers went extinct, indigenous peoples had established cultures and communities all over the Americas — soon to become civilizations. The First Nations and their ancestors have been living in Toronto for thousands and thousands of years. But it was only a few hundred years ago that the first Europeans showed up. And when they did, many of them came looking for the smaller, modern relatives of those prehistoric beavers — so they could turn these new beavers into hats.

Finally, just a little more than 200 years ago, the British founded a new capital on this spot. To build it, they needed bricks. To make bricks, they needed clay. And one of the best sources for clay was discovered in the very same place where that prehistoric river once met that prehistoric lake. The Don Valley Brick Works was born, turning clay into red and yellow bricks of such a high quality that they won gold medals at the Chicago World’s Fair. A lot of Toronto’s old buildings are made of Brick Works bricks. Much of our city was quite literally built from the mud of the swamp where giant beavers once roamed.

Today, the Brick Works is no longer an industrial wasteland. Instead, we’ve tried to return it to its roots: a mixture of wetlands, forests and fields. Native species of plants and animals have been reintroduced and allowed to thrive — some of them are the very same species that would have been here in the days of the giant beaver. In fact, if you get lucky, you might even spot one of the newest residents: a modern, normal-sized beaver, swimming around the wetland where 130,000 years ago its giant beaver cousins did the very same thing.


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
This post was edited from its original version to be more awesome.

Image: Castoroides in New Jersey by Charles R. Knight, 1904 (via Wikimedia Commons).

The ROM has a giant beaver, along with other prehistoric beasts who would have lived in these parts on display, which is raaaaather cool. And a few indigenous nations, like the Mi'kmaq and the Cree, have myths about giant beavers.

You can read more about the north cliff of the Brick Works here, at the oh-my-god-so-good Lost Rivers site.

There's a neat photo of the cliff from it's industrial days here and the wasteland that was the quarry here

Oh and Torontoist is currently running a series on our city back in its prehistoric days. They've started with a couple of posts about super-super-super old stuff. You can find them all here.

Here, also, since I made this list and didn't use it but don't want to delete it, a few of the plants A.P. Coleman and his team discovered evidence of from that period 130,000 years ago: sugar maples, ash, cedar, hickory, willows, elm, locust trees, oaks, white pine, sycamore, sedges, which are like rushes, mare's tail, algae, mosses.

And then there's this video about giant beavers from a Discovery Channel series called "Prehistoric New York":

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Scarborough Bluffs Looking Like They Belong In A John Ford Film

I can't seem to find any information about this photo online — like, say, when it was taken — but I like it so I'm posting it anyway. It almost looks like a shot of Monument Valley, where John Ford shot his iconic Westerns, but this is, of course, our very own Scarborough Bluffs. They were apparently originally formed thousands of years ago as part the shoreline of the ancient Lake Iroquois, the giant lake left behind when the last Ice Age ended and the enormofuckingus glacier that used to cover this land melted away. (The big hill that runs through Toronto just north of Davenport Road was also part of that shoreline.) The cliffs been gradually moving north as they erode away, and the sand that gets washed off them is what formed the Toronto Islands (which were nothing more than a sandy peninsula when our city was founded — before they got separated from the mainland by a storm and then enlarged artificially).

There are some cliffs that look a little like this on the northeast coast of England, at Scarborough, which is why Elizabeth Simcoe,  the wife of the guy who founded Toronto, named our cliffs Scarborough, too. The name obviously stuck. And ended up being used not just for the Bluffs, but for the entire east-end suburb that was eventually swallowed up by the Megacity.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What Bay And Wellington Looked Like in 1925

I think this has just become one of my favourite old shots of the city. Though I don't really have too much to say about it. It was taken in the spring of 1925 looking north up Bay Street from Wellington. Construction workers are repairing the streetcar lines. It's still one of the most beautiful views in our city, I think, especially at night — one of our few terminating vistas: looking up Bay Street toward Old City Hall. (Which, in this photo, was still just plain old City Hall. It opened it 1899, built by the guy who is Toronto's most famous old timey architect, E.J. Lennox, who also designed Casa Loma, The King Edward Hotel, and a bunch of other stuff.)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Toronto's First Cat

Toronto when it was just a few days old

The cat arrived on a July morning in 1793. Toronto was just a few days old. It had only been a week and a half since one hundred British soldiers sailed into our harbour and came ashore at the mouth of a creek they would call the Garrison. That's the spot where they pitched their tents and started taking axes to trees. Enormous old oaks and pines crashed to earth as the men began to clear away the ancient forest that had been growing here since prehistoric times. In its place they would build Fort York – and a few kilometers to the east, the first few blocks of a new town. This was going to be the new capital of the new province of Upper Canada, away from the border and easily defensible – ready for the inevitable war with the Americans.

It was in the early morning of their eleventh day clearing trees that a great big British ship sailed into the harbour. This was the HMS Mississauga. On board was the man who had sent them here: John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of the new province. He had sailed overnight from Niagara-on-the-Lake (the temporary capital) to oversee the construction of what he hoped would some day become a thriving metropolis, a testament to the glory of the British Empire. And he brought his family with him.

The next evening, he and his wife Elizabeth found a spot across the creek from the fort to pitch their own tent. It was an elaborate canvas house with two rooms, doors, wallpaper, windows and floors – even a stove to keep it warm. This was the very same tent that had once been used by one of the most super-important and famous European explorers ever. Captain James Cook had lived in it on his travels around the Pacific Ocean, right up until he "discovered" Hawaii, tried to take the indigenous king hostage, and was killed.

Now, in the forest of Toronto, the tent was home to the ruler of Upper Canada, his wife, and three of their children. They'd left the older ones behind in England, but brought their toddlers – Sophia and Francis – with them. Their youngest daughter, Katherine, was a brand new baby girl: she'd been born just a few months earlier in that very same tent.

She wasn't the only new addition to the family, either. At Niagara-on-the-Lake the Simcoes had gotten three pets: two dogs (who I'll talk about in another post) and a cat. And since they'd all come along for the trip to Toronto, (assuming none of the soldiers brought a cat along with him) this cat was the very first house cat to ever set paw on this land. Elizabeth Simcoe wrote a paragraph about him in her diary, just a few weeks after they arrived:

"I brought a favourite white Cat with grey spots with me from Niagara. He is a native of Kingston. His sense & attachment are such that those who believe in transmigration would think his soul once animated a reasoning being. He was undaunted on board the Ship, sits composedly as Centinel at my door amid the beat of Drums & the crash of falling Trees & visits the Tents with as little fear as a dog would do."

Toronto's first cat was a badass.


That painting was done by Elizabeth Simcoe herself about ten days after they arrived. It's looking west from what's now the Port Lands. You can see the tiny little white specks of the first huts at Fort York and the tall masts of the ships that brought the Simcoes and the others here. 

Katherine, sadly, didn't live a very long life. The baby got sick in the spring and died. She was one of the first people buried in a cemetery that's still there, kind of, preserved as park called Victoria Square just southeast of King and Bathurst. You can read more about her and the other people buried there here.

You can read more about the canvas house from the Captain Cook Society here

As for wild cats, the internet is being weirdly unhelpful on this, but I suspect there would have been some prowling those woods in the days before our city was founded: bobcats and lynx and maybe even mountain lions.

Interestingly, the canvas house wasn't only the connection between James Cook and our Lieutenant Governor. Cook had served under Simcoe's dad on a ship called the Pembroke, which is how he learned how to be a great big important ship captain guy.

This post is related to dream
01 Metropolitan York
John Graves Simcoe, 1793

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Beautiful Brook Hemingway Used To Stroll Along

Castle Frank Brook, 1907
That's Castle Frank Brook in 1907. Oh how pretty it once was. It used to run through the heart of our city — from Dufferin and Lawrence down along the south-western edge of Forest Hill, across the northern end of Yorkville, through Rosedale Valley Ravine and into the Don River. It was right near that spot, in the ancient pine forest overlooking the valley, that the dude who founded Toronto, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, decided to build his family's summer home. He named it, with tongue firmly in cheek, after his young son Francis: Castle Frank. And so the brook ended up with that name too.

This photo was taken more than 100 years later and quite a bit further upstream, just south-east of St. Clair and Spadina. There, the brook runs through the Nordheimer Ravine, named after the family who used to own the land. Samuel Nordheimer made his fortune importing pianos and then married Edith Boulton of the super-crazy-important Boultons: one of the first families to move here when the city was founded, they were leaders of the Family Compact and the people who built the Grange. In the 1870s, the newlywed Nordheimers built a mansion on the hill overlooking the ravine and damned the brook at this spot to create a little pond and waterfall.

Not long after that the Town of Yorkville built their waterworks nearby, using the brook to supply the town with what quickly became not very clean drinking water. The yuckiness of it eventually helped convince the town that they should join the rest of the city. The waterworks were replaced with a brand new pumping station right around the same time this photo was taken, and then later expanded. It's still there now, designated as a heritage site and used to control the entire freaking water system for the whole entire freaking city.

Now, as for Ernest Hemingway. It was a little less than 20 years after this photo was taken that he moved into the neighbourhood. In the early 1920s, he and his wife Hadley lived on Bathurst, just a couple of blocks north of St. Clair, while he was writing for the Star. Their apartment building overlooked the brook about a ten or fifteen minute walk upstream of this pretty little waterfall. They say Hemingway used to like to take strolls along the banks of the creek.

Since then, sadly, most of Castle Frank Brook has been buried, tied into the city's sewer system just like the other streams that used to run through the middle of Toronto. In the 1960s, it was going to be even more obliterated than that: the Spadina Expressway was supposed to be built right on top of it. Thankfully, plans for the expressway were killed after opposition by community groups led by the likes of Jane Jacobs and Marshall McLuhan (who also used to live only a few minutes away from where this photo was taken). Today, most of the ravines around the area where Hemingway used to take his strolls are preserved as parkland. And Castle Frank Brook has been brought partially back life, trickling along the same path it has followed for more than ten thousand years.


I wrote more about Hemingway and his ties to Toronto here. They also had their only child while they were living here. Jack Hemingway (eventual father to Muriel) was born at the Wellesley Hospital in 1923.

I first discovered this photo while I was reading the awesome book HTO: Toronto's Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost River to Low-flow Toilets. You can buy the book for yourself from Coach House here or borrow it from the library here. It's got chapters from Shawn Micallef and John Lorinc and everything.

And you can learn more about Castle Frank Brook and all of our buried creeks on the Lost Rivers website, which is an absolute-freaking-lutely amazing resource for all this kind of stuff. Really. Seriously. Neat stuff.

This post is related to dream
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John Graves Simcoe, 1793

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Ernest Hemingway, 1923