Antique Glass Bottles Found Under Southcore Financial Centre & Delta Hotel Toronto, The Story of Rees’ Wharf

I was standing on the north side of Bremner Ave, halfway between York St and Simcoe St surveying the future site of the Southcore Financial Centre & Delta Hotel Toronto towers, on a hot Weds Aug 9th 2011 afternoon, just after 5pm. It was quitting time, and I was there at the gate, waiting for these guys to knock off for the day. Once again my contacts had put me onto another downtown Toronto excavation site run by people who will let me shoot their bottles and tell their stories, alongside the history of the property. But on that day the massive hydraulic backhoes were still down there jack hammering the shale fifty feet below the sidewalks at a quarter after five. They hadn’t quit yet.

There was no sign of my merchant historian friend either, but I could see the excavation workers were also expecting him. They were milling about two pick-up trucks about hundred meters away, inside the fence. To my delight I could see one fellow setting up some antique glass bottles in the tailgate exhibition.

I waved at the crew and rather trepidatiously walked into the yard, expecting someone to evict me. I held up my camera and announced that I was party to this show and sale – I was a friend of so and so, and so was expected?

Harry, the youngest member of the excavation crew, had just taken off his green fluorescent reflective vest, and was kicking the sand out of his work boots as I approached. He smiled and shook my hand and then gestured to the array of ready glass that was waiting to be perused and photographed – his display would be documented on Dumpdiggers for the rest of time. I told him who I was and he said ‘yeah, I like your site’. So I knew he knew what he was getting into by standing in front of my lens beside historic Canadian glass.

The bottles actually belonged to the backhoe operator, but most had been retrieved by Harry, this young lad who manages the gate; his job is to document each and every truck that comes through the gate. He’s the camp secretary. When the excavator shakes his bucket a certain way, it’s a signal to Harry to come over and pick up the bottle that’s visible underneath the behemoth’s jaws. There is minimal disruption to the work, according to Harry who was rather proud of the assembled artifacts.

This patch of land on modern day Bremner Ave wasn’t a big city dump, like other sites nearby, but rather it was another stretch of the Toronto lake shore that was filled in with debris, and anything handy in the 1870s and 1880s as the railroad grew and people wanted a better port facility at the bottom of the city. In the 1840’s, before the railroad came to Toronto, this was Rees’ Pier.

So if we were to go back in time right on this spot we’d all be underwater or standing on the water opposite Rees Pier or what became known as the Rees’ Wharf. This location is very historic. It was on these wooden docks and facilities through which the mass exodus of Irish immigrants entered the 1840’s era New World of opportunities. Rees’ wharf was an important conduit in the city, and life in Canada.

Dr William Rees and the Rees’ Wharf in Toronto

REES, WILLIAM, physician and surgeon; b. c.1800, son of Evans Rees of Bristol, Eng.; d. unmarried 4 Feb. 1874 in Toronto, Ont.

William Rees studied medicine in England under Sir Astley Cooper and came to Canada in 1819. He was an assistant health officer at the port of Quebec in 1822. In 1829 he moved to York (Toronto) and, after examination by the Medical Board of Upper Canada in January 1830, he purchased the practice of John Porter Daly. With the exception of a brief sojourn in Cobourg in 1832 Rees lived the rest of his life in Toronto. He ran unsuccessfully in the first riding of York for election to the Legislative Assembly in 1834, but distinguished himself during the Upper Canada Rebellion when he was appointed surgeon to the guard-ship at Toronto, and assistant surgeon to the regiment of Queen’s Rangers.

From what this author can determine, Dr William Rees had the long wooden dock and support buildings erected in 1837 as a disembarkation point for emigrants to Toronto. Rees advocated throughout his career numerous measures for social reform and the development of public service. When he began his practice in the city he advertised that he would vaccinate the poor people and give them medical advice free of charge. In 1837 he constructed a wharf which had no formal name, but became known as Rees’ Wharf and he is also said to have built public baths on the waterfront at Toronto for the use of immigrants in the same year. He lived there, or nearby in a cottage beside a small hill for many years.

This square patch of the Toronto harbour became very important in the 1840s when Irish potato crops had caught a blight that caused widespread crop failure that resulted in the ‘Irish Potato Famine’ and one of the largest European mass emigrations in modern history. Those who pressed on to Toronto were required to disembark at Rees’ Wharf, where they were processed at a make shift shed by Edward McElderry, the local Emigration Agent and representative of the Government of the Province of Canada (the union of what is now Quebec and Ontario) and Constable John B Townsend, who was the Clerk of the Toronto Board of Health.

In 1847, over 100,000 Irish immigrants migrated to Canada. Nearly 40,000 of these people passed through Toronto, which at the time had a population of just under 20,000. Most had come through Grosse Ile, which was a special station set up to aid the refugees of the worst famine in the history of the British Isles. In the summer of that year, 863 Irish people died in the fever sheds that were erected at King Street West and John Street. In total 1,100 people lost their lives during this tragic time.

Look at this 1862 Map of Toronto. Rees’ Wharf is situated just south of the Provincial Parliament Buildings. East of this map insert, there are some unfamiliar street names, like Graves St for example (became Pearl St) and Market Street. Dr Rees was already a very well respected physician in this ‘garrison town’ turn provincial capital. He helped found the Provincial Insane Asylum. At the height of his accomplishments he was struck by a mental patient in the asylum and it was a blow from which he never quite recovered. This incident marks the beginning of a slow decline of his professional career and social prospects. When he died in 1874 he was a poor man.

The shoreline is open and lush and green as was the fashion in the 1800s. Civilized men would take the air at night and ambulate about the grounds – this was a place of recreation near the Ontario General Assembly buildings. Whenever I look at the early pictures of Toronto I’m struck by the gardens and open landscape of the lake shore.

Look at this vision of the 1840 Toronto with a horse track and ‘gardens’ for the civilized people of Upper Canada’s largest settlement. The place grew in prominence because it was a Garrison Town and home to Fort York and the seat of a shared government with Montreal – Upper and Lower Canada.


The Upper Canadian parliament buildings, designed by Thomas Rogers and constructed between 1829 and 1832, stood at Front and Simcoe streets. The surrounding area was largely a mixed institutional and affluent suburban district that had emerged after the War of 1812. However, less prestigious structures, such as immigrant sheds and taverns, stood nearby, as sharp neighbourhood distinctions did not exist in Georgian Toronto.

Here’s what this patch of land is forecast to look like in 2013,

Southcore Financial Centre is a major mixed-use office tower development built in Toronto’s downtown core. Designed to exceed the expectations of today’s globally connected tenants and urban travelers, this three-phase project will include two office towers totaling 1.4 million sq.ft. and the Delta Toronto – a next generation, premium 4-star hotel. Connected to the urban forest, this fully integrated complex will provide an enclosed pedestrian access to Union Station, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and the PATH network.

Located on 3.25 acres at the centre of Toronto’s expanding financial core and entertainment district, SFC occupies a full block from York to Lower Simcoe Streets along Bremner Ave. The fully integrated complex will be connected to Union Station and all of downtown Toronto via the already extensive PATH network.

While digging the foundation for this megalith, the backhoe operators encountered pockets of dump, either material that was household trash dumped there in the 1870s to fill in the lake or the natural bottles and pottery pieces that are thrown into the lake off the pier and came to rest in the mud of the lake bed for 150 years.

Buying Bottles on Excavation Sites

Not much of what happened next can I relate in any detail but suffice to say that there was a mercantile exchange and some people had to visit nearby ATM machines and get more cash.

Here is a photo montage, starting with the players involved in negotiating a fair price for these historic artifacts. The buyer and the seller and the banter was as colourful as the old bottles.

Here are some of the best bottles in their hands.

This is a Brain Bros Lager Beer bottle from Hornby Ontario that’s quite rare. This bottle traveled some distance to end up in the Toronto lake shore.
I was able to get some more information on Hornby and I even found an 1877 image of the brewery. It was a large operation in a small town.  This tract was written in EHS Archives,

This 9th Line business was established in 1845. The beer became famous and the business expanded to employ ten men and 40 horses! Only the main house remains, although it has been extensively renovated. This sketch (below) is from the 1877 Halton Atlas”

And there was another great early Canadian beer bottle, very rare. The gem seen below is embossed,
Rob Davies / Lager Beer / Dominion Brewer / Toronto

Here’s a Robertson tan ginger beer bottle that another operator proffered for sale but closer inspection revealed it has a crack and that makes it about worthless according to the visiting expert. That verdict was immediately rejected by the seller who announced that it would find a ready buyer in a flea market near his house. I reflected on that – it would indeed, as this is exactly the type of bottle you would think was incredibly rare and valuable and worth buying in any condition at any price. But it isn’t – this is a common Toronto late 1800’s ginger beer bottle, and not worth that much, especially when cracked.

An Earlier Stash Sold

The Merchant Historian who is my contact to this world had visited this site one or two days earlier, and he’d made deals with another one of the machine operators. He sent me these pictures so I can show them here, and thereby offer a more complete assessment of the artifacts found on site.

Here are the highlights. These two bottle are both rare and beautiful and date from mid to late 1800s. They were found intact with only slight damage not visible in this picture.

On the left is a light cobalt blue Pilgrim Soda bottle and beside it is a lovely ribbed ink bottle with spout top. This ink is embossed Commercial Ink Co London, and my merchant historian friend swears this is a product of London Ontario (which would make it worth than if was simply another lovely UK ink). The Pilgrim is worth about ?? (it has some damage) and the ink could be obtained for ? ? somebody email me, or leave in the comments more accurate price data. I will follow up if and when this piece goes to auction.

In the main ditch immediately inside the gate there’s a pile of wood debris and metal pipes etc that was recovered by the excavators, and separated out of the loads being shipped north as ‘clean fill’ to some other part of Ontario that needs building up.

The metal pipes and castings are very interesting and no doubt all have stories, but the ship’s anchor is the centerpiece. Here was an iron anchor that was lost back in the 1800s, perhaps by a sailboat, or a steamer that was docked at Rees’ Wharf.

Abel DaSilva Buys And Sells Antiques in Downtown Toronto

Abel DaSilva outside the St Lawrence Sunday Market in Toronto, told Dumpdiggers that the only he time he doesn’t make money shopping for antiques is when he doesn’t buy anything. A bold statement, and we loved it. And from that moment forward, on Sunday January 3rd I personally watched the man like a hawk, determined to learn the secrets of his success.

Just after the holidays, I wrote and published two stories about an afternoon that I spent with Abel DaSilva, Toronto’s foremost antique glass bottle merchant and quite knowledgeable in multiple subjects. He’s an eBay power seller, and a prolific Yahoo Groups discussion forum participant.

Shopping for Antiques at the Sunday Market in Toronto with Abel DaSilva is a first person account of what I saw while following Abel around the St Lawrence Hall as he sniffed and pawed hundreds of collectibles. This article establishes the setting and chronicles the purchases of a wise man leveraging his knowledge of history. Abel understands tricky niche markets for collectibles and how to buy local and sell global using eBay and related Yahoo antiques collecting groups.

Another article, perhaps even more fascinating, is entitled Sightseeing with Abel DaSilva in Downtown Toronto, and this matter sifts through half a dozen stories about four different building lots in the downtown core. In each of these urban properties there were truckloads of historically significant antique glass bottles discovered by professional excavators with no mandate to preserve or even document their finds. What happened to this stuff? Abel knows the whereabouts of almost all the buried booty, and has stories about what’s still under just about every new structure on the Toronto shoreline.

What’s even better is how Abel befriends the excavation company employees, site supervisors and heavy machinery operators by sharing his knowledge of the specimens they unearth in their digging projects. Abel doesn’t have much time between when the men and machines start excavating, and when the pile drivers start pounding, and the first concrete teams arrive to pour cement in insulated concrete forms for walls and floors, and reinforced pillars for the parking garages. Mr DaSilva gets their attention two ways. He makes them take time out of their busy schedules because 1) he’s very generous about sharing tips, and heritage information about the site and its contents, and 2) he has a fistful of ready cash. Click the pictures they expand – look carefully at the picture above right, and you can see hundred year old glass bottles in the ashes behind the bulldozer.

Bottle Rush in Meaford – Part One

At six thirty am on Sunday November 18th 2007 the St Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto was bustling with activity. Over the antiques tables there was a buzz in the air; the pickers listened to the dealers describe the flood of stoneware coming out of the Bruce Peninsula… Somebody was digging. Gradually the story was distilled down to the very essence of the secret. ‘A bottle digger named Ace of Spades has found the oldest dump in Meaford.’
The gossip spread among Toronto’s pottery pickers like fresh pine tar on new pants. It left people wondering… who the heck is the Ace of Spades? And where the heck is Meaford?
Well of course Timbitz, who knows everyone, knows Ace personally and he knows just where all the dumps are in just about all of the historic towns in Southern Ontario… On Sunday November eighteenth Timbitz and I visited one of the oldest ports in Upper Canada. I suppose it’s fair to say we were caught up in a bottle rush and I was proud to be November digger along for the thrill of the last autumn safari. I feel privileged to be able to offer up this story as Bottle Rush in Meaford Ontario, Part One. It’s a three part adventure series that begins with a broken shovel.
Our route tripped through the very heart of Grey County, which is apple orchard country and where up to twenty five percent of Ontario’s apples are produced. November is past the peak of the harvest, but even still I could see tractors with wagons stacked high with crates full of red and yellow delicious apples, and the narrow gravel lots beside the highway markets bustled with Sunday shoppers.
In the town of Meaford, Tim stopped to buy a new shovel and I had some time to look around. On the corner of the hardware store I saw a signs for something called a Scarecrow Invasion, which is a weeklong event that precedes the Apple Craft Show and Quilt Auction in late September. I remember reading about that bizarre municipal marketing event in a Toronto Star article last year – those darn scarecrows were everywhere; on mailboxes, front porches, balconies and storefronts – the whole town went scarecrow crazy.
Before the village incorporated into the town of Meaford in 1874 it was called Peggy’s Landing in honour of a particularly charismatic pioneer. I would be interested to know if Peggy was a man or a woman. I suspect she was a man.
Situated on Georgian Bay, Meaford’s harbour was the center of industry and commerce, with its earliest saw mills and later factories being built close to water transport – a one day’s wagon ride south to the area’s largest markets.
An active trade developed around Georgian Bay after 1850 with fishing settlements along the shore. By 1855 a small set of locks was constructed at Sault Ste. Marie opening Lake Superior to small craft. In addition to steamers, there were dozens of schooners and small sailboats on the lakes. There were four famous steam ships in Meaford’s golden age; the names Algoma, Clifton, Ploughboy, Kaloola sound off in many local stories.
BRIEFING: In the truck Tim spelled out the particulars of the scenario. We were on our way to meet this self professed ‘Ace of Spades’, who came to Tim’s attention earlier in the summer when he sold two big crocks on eBay. Since then Tim has watched him like a hawk and even swooped down on a few superb Ontario ginger beers. Ace of Spades has been selling stoneware from all across the top of southern Ontario and recently vended a rare Thompson gingerbeer from as far away as Kingston.
But who is the Ace of Spades? I ask, unable to take the suspense any longer….
The Ace of Spades is an ex Canadian infantry soldier named Jason Hayder; he’s a full time dumpdigger with two kids in a nearby small town. His wife teaches at a nearby beauty school. Like any lucky strike he wasn’t looking for it – he was just walking his dog along the wetland trails outside of Meaford when he spotted a cork top cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottle in the mud. That was six months ago. Jason started digging full time in the summer and struck a serious goody vein in August – he sold some spectacular stuff on eBay just last Saturday night.
Jason Hayder is a remarkable fellow and I liked him the first moment I laid eyes on him. He’s a digger with a heart of gold and his passion is as wide as his eyes and he digs too fast when he gets excited.
The three of us piled into Tim’s truck and the tour continued through the industrial backside of Meaford. We were off the beaten track
‘Okay park here’ Jason said. ‘Don’t worry. You won’t get a ticket here’. Tim looked at me and laughed. There was no doubt about that – we were in the middle of nowhere with no buildings in sight.
Each of us shouldering gym bags full of fresh clothing, lunch, and two large blimps full of water – and on top of that load we each carried at least one digging implement. With Jason in the lead we hiked for about a quarter mile through scrub brush and cow pasture on the edge of town to approach the site from the west, through one fence and over another older barricade.
In a jungle of wild rhubarb, not far from a babbling brook and within sight of Georgian Bay we came upon the secret spot that Jason Hayder had found six months earlier. His digging had now pockmarked the terrain with craters lined with broken glass bottles and pottery fragments. As we walked he remembered his pontiled prizes and pointed to the places where he had found them. ‘I forked out two blue Underwood inks there, and I got some milks and a nice amber pumpkinseed whiskey under that tree… etc’
‘Where do you reckon we should dig today Jason?’ Tim strolled about looking for angles into fresh dump and I marveled at the quality of some of the hackers lying forlorn on the sides of the dirt piles.
‘I’ve been working up this end’ Jason said as he disappeared behind a wall of wild rhubarb and only after I followed did I see the knoll that was to be the day’s dig zone. It was already partially excavated and Jason was quick to describe the fruit sealer jar inscribed The Rose that he had found in this very cavity.
Tim interrupted and took command of the situation when he stepped into the hole. He immediately began picking away at the top crust of the existing hole to widen the working area. After scraping off the grass and six inches of topsoil, and then smashing down the hard gravel strewn crust below that, the brown loam of the dump appeared on all of our shovels.
“Oh its close boys’ Jason said gleefully as he attacked the ground with his long handled shovel. ‘I sometimes find medicines and amber pill jars right below this black ash so keep an eye out.’
On November 18th 2007, while digging the oldest dump in Meaford Ontario with the Ace of Spades and Timbits, Roberrific found several 1920’s relics in the first ten minutes of the excavation, and some serious prizes four feet below, in the 1880’s Meaford dump.