The History Around Front & Church Streets
The area surrounding C'est What
About 12,000 years ago a gigantic Glacier, five times as high as the CN Tower, melts away and leaves in its wake The Great Lakes. With that great melt and the warm climate that followed, people started to inhabit this area.
The first to arrive were the hunter-gathers known as the Fluted Point People about 9500 BC. Over the countless centuries that followed, Huron, Iroquois and Mississauga First Nations came to the area known to them as To'ron'to, interpreted as 'Meeting Place' or 'Where the waters converge,' but because those early people had no written language its true translation is highly debatable.
By the time the first European, a French explorer who worked with Champlain named Etienne Brule arrived in 1615, a trail between the Humber River in the west to the Don River in the east was well worn after millennia of use. Just below that ancient path was a beach. That path became Front Street and the beach would eventually evolve into The Esplanade.
In 1788 the British buy from the Mississauga First Nation most of what was to become the GTA for 9,000 dollars. This event is known as The Toronto Purchase. Governor Simcoe arrived in 1793 and the Town Of York was founded. Not really caring for the 'Indian' sounding name of Toronto it was changed to honour Frederick, The Duke Of York, second son of George III. By 1808 York built its first substantial Wharf constructed at the bottom of Church Street between the present day Old York Tower and the Performing Arts Lodge. Back then there was a shear, 20 foot drop from Front Street down to the beach, so to make the waterfront more accessible the grading of the embankment began.
This grading is still evident today with Church, Jarvis and Market Streets inclining steeply as they go down to The Esplanade.
Cooper's Wharf (named for its builder William Cooper) was what Pearson Airport, Union Station, The Eaton Centre and Yorkdale are today. Everything that came into York came through Cooper's Wharf. It had on it the first general store in York and a shipbuilding slip. It was the place to see and be seen and where you said your tearful good-byes to loved ones as they sailed away to far-flung destinations. Cooper's Wharf survived a few name changes and expansions but by 1845 it was no more. All that remains of this once historic landmark is Cooper Street, a nondescript, empty block long road between Loblaws and the LCBO at Lakeshore Blvd.
By 1818 the harbourfront was becoming a jumble of wharves and a stroll along the waterfront was the last place you'd want to go. The once pristine beach was lost forever. Something had to be done to bring the waterfront back to the people. On July 14 1818 a Royal Patent was granted to the owners of these wharves and the lands surrounding them 'That a walkway be built and it should be called The Mall.' It was to stretch from Peter Street in the west to Parliament Street in the east and follow the line of Front Street. With that a public Esplanade was born. These men, the newly created merchant class who assumed a British air of aristocracy about them now had a place where they could parade with their wives and children in their finery and take in smell of fresh lake air. Trees were planted along Front Street and the drainage pipes that used to empty right onto the beach were now discharging their untreated sewage farther out into the lake. In reality The Mall was just a strip of open ground edging on the lake and remained underdeveloped for years to come, but it served its purpose well.
In 1830 when York was still a few years away from being the city of Toronto the south side of Front Street was still open land. The hotels of the time like the Steamboat (site of todays Market Square), the Wellington (Flatiron building) and Ontario House (Pizza-Pizza) all had second floor verandas that would look over the lake just steps away. Early developers constructed a few wooden buildings on stilts rising out of the water on land that now is home to C'est What, east of Church Street. The cedar posts began to gray with weather and these; the first buildings ever erected on the south side of Front didn't last very long.
In spring and fall the whole area became a muddy mess and business owners, thinking Church street was far too remote from the center of town at King and Frederick, didn't bother to venture that far. In 1830 you could have bought the entire block from Church over to Yonge for about a thousand dollars.
One of the first buildings to go up east of Church was the home of Chief Justice Thomas Scott on the north east corner of Scott (hence the name) and Front streets. Scott was the first chairman of the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada that bestowed medals to citizens in defense of the Province. In 1842 one of the first theatres in York, Deering's Theater, went up on that site.
In 1834 the City of Toronto was founded and in 1844 opened its new City Hall. The Harbour, like the City, was expanding with close to 30 wharves and piers lining its frontage. Evidence to that early harbour can be found today in the huge fan window of the Council Chamber Block now encased inside the St. Lawrence Market (1904) that at one time gave the Mayor and Councilmen a commanding vista of the Harbour that was just steps below.
The waterfront was once again becoming an eyesore. The merchant class, many of who had homes along the water, moved away leaving behind a dingy and drab world. Not everybody was rich enough to move away and those left behind were forced to live in cramped, deteriorating shacks that faced the backs of crumbling storehouses. Lower Jarvis Street could see 20 families jammed into a few damp rooms above a storage shed and their children compelled to scrounge for pennies in the mud below. Life for those first residents of the Esplanade, however transitory, was sheer horror.
The 1850's saw the first railway lines come to Toronto with the bulk of its tracks to be laid on the waterfront promenade. At the same time a great civic works project was also planned, the construction of the modern Esplanade as a landscaped walk and carriage drive to stretch along the harbour. The builders of the railroad, The Grand Trunk, saw it as their God given right to also construct on the waterfront. A public outcry arose and the City Council threatened to oust the railroad. The Grand Trunk was then going to build its line across Queen Street and it took an act of Legislation in 1857 to transfer the land to the railroad giving it the right of way along the harbour. Progress and the grab for cash, as always, won but the building of the Esplanade as a place for people went ahead regardless.
The sharing of the waterfront must have worked because in 1873 historian Henry Scadding so eloquently wrote in his book Old Toronto of The Esplanade "...It has done for Toronto what the Thames Embankment has done for London..."