Digging Up History

The Toronto Harbour Commissioners, precursor to the Toronto Port Authority, had been considering plans to build an airport on the Western sandbar (now the northwestern part of Toronto Island). The Great Depression had slowed planning and development in the city, but there were concerns that Toronto would fall behind the growing commercial aviation industry if investment wasn’t made in this area. So, as a means of getting people back to work and investing in the future of transportation for Toronto, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett announced that an island airport would be constructed. But a tunnel would need to be built first so people could get to this new airport.

In May 1935, Parliament approved $1 million to build the tunnel, with another $600,000 coming from the City of Toronto. On October 8, 1935, city council voted to approve the plan and work began in earnest only days later.

A long ditch was hollowed out along what is now the roadway Eireann Quay towards the seawall of the Western Channel, while another ditch was burrowed on the island side leading to the north seawall. Steel sheet piles were hammered into the ground to shore up the seawalls and enable excavation.

But work on the project ended as quickly as it had started. Former mayor and Toronto city alderman Sam McBride was opposed to the tunnel and fought to have the project cancelled. On October 23, 1935, a federal election was held and while Toronto largely voted for the Conservative incumbent Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, Liberal Party candidate William Lyon MacKenzie King won the vote. King was a close ally of McBride and within days of his election, King issued the order to cease all work on the tunnel, and fill in the holes and ditches.

As for the steel sheeting, it had no effect on the topography or surrounding environment and was left in place. Fast forward 77 years to the construction of the new pedestrian tunnel at BBTCA. Geotechnical plans and documents of public record had indicated that there were tunnel remnants underground but no one knew for sure what the pilings looked like. In August 2012, shortly after construction began, history met the modern day when certain steel pilings were found at the end of a tunneling drill bit. The drill bit needed to be replaced, but the pilings were soon removed and construction soon resumed.

Later this month the concrete liner in the tunnel will be completed – achieving the latest milestone in the construction of this modern innovation. The cold weather and ice-build-up and the discovery of contaminated soil (another remnant of the port’s industrial past) have caused some delay but progress is steady and the much-anticipated tunnel will open in winter of 2014/15.

As for the airport itself, following World War I, the City of Toronto and Federal Government began to receive advice from a variety of experts that would see the construction of what is now Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. This group included none other than Victoria Cross holders Billy Bishop and Billy Barker, both of whom came to reside in Toronto following the Great War.

The TPA archives include a letter from William (Billy) George Barker, VC, dated November 1, 1919, to the then Mayor of Toronto on behalf of the Aero Club of Canada (he was President at the time) asking if he was prepared to consider establishing a municipal aerodrome in the city.

There are also several letters to and from Col. William A. (Billy) Bishop (May 20 and July 13, 1937) and Toronto Harbour Commissioners (THC) general manager E.L. Cousins concerning the airport. The latter one informs Col. Bishop that Toronto City Council adopted the report of the city's Board of Control to build two airports, with the main one in the harbour (what is now the BBTCA) and an auxiliary one out in Malton. The City requested that the Toronto Harbour Commissioners (predecessor to the TPA) build both facilities.

According to the archives, Toronto City Council resolved in July 1937 that the BBTCA would be the “main” airport in Toronto while Malton (which is now Pearson International Airport) would serve as the “auxiliary” airport to be used during foul weather. Malton was “too far from downtown” at the time to serve as the main Toronto airport. As well, the Province of Ontario promised to construct a new road to Malton Airport once the airport was built, given the distance from Toronto (what is now Brown's Line).

The THC began clearing and grading the land for development of the BBTCA in August of 1937. The THC used some 1.8 million cubic yards of landfill to create the additional land for the runways (a byproduct of that dredging was the Long Pond regatta course). The first airplane to land at Toronto Island was February 2, 1939, the first commercial flight landed in September of that year.

To download images of the Historic Tunnel, please click here.