Once upon a time, about 448 million years ago, the equator ran through Hudson Bay and Winnipeg, the site of Toronto was submerged in a warm, shallow, sub-tropical sea, and the process of depositing what became shale — known today as the Georgian Bay Formation — was under way.
At the Toronto Brick Works on the Bayview Ave. extension, just south of Pottery Rd., you can see the uppermost level of the formation. Before the Brick Work’s quarry was filled by a developer in 1984, you could also follow the formation down another 43 metres, representing about three million years of history.
For the next 445 million years, there is a gap in the geological record. It was during this time that the movement of tectonic plates caused Canada to drift to its present position.
In the quarry, the story then picks up about 140,000 years ago, and this is what makes the Brick Works so remarkable — it’s the only place in the entire Great Lakes Basin where you can see the complete geological history through two periods of glaciers, the warm period in between them, and the warm period, our period, that followed the end of the last ice age.
In the clay, sand, and gravel on the north slope of the old quarry there is the record of:
• our 12,000 years of a warm climate;
• the previous 68,000 to 78,000 years of Wisconsinan glaciers, which advanced and retreated many times, and covered Toronto only during their last 13,000 years — to 12,000 years before the present (bp) from 25,000 bp;
• the 40,000 years of the warm period between the glacial eras — to 80,0000 -90,000 bp from 130,000 bp; and
• the 10,000 years of the Illinoian glaciers, which also advanced and retreated many times — to 130,000 bp from 140,000 bp.
What a wonderful learning centre this could be. Not only are there fossilized remains of insects, snails, and clams, there are, from the Georgian Bay Formation, remains of such exotic animals as bottom-feeding scavengers called trilobites, and sea lilies, or crinoids, which looked like plants but actually were animals.
And from the interglacial, warm period there are remains of giant beavers the size of adolescent black bears, as well as bison, grizzly bears, and elk.
The Brick Works opened in 1889, and in the 100 years it operated, it excavated enough material from the quarry to fill the Skydome. Its bricks went into such landmark buildings as Hart House, Convocation Hall, and Trinity College at the University of Toronto, the Old City Hall, Osgoode Hall, Massey Hall, the Pantages Theatre, Toronto General Hospital, and some of the main buildings at Queen’s Park.
So the site, with its old buildings and machinery, also offers a historical record of part of Toronto’s industrial heritage.
In 1989 the Toronto Region Conservation Authority bought the 17.5-hectare site, and transformed it into one of Toronto’s hidden jewels — a wetland crisscrossed with boardwalks and bordered with with wild grasses, flowers, and shrubs, with buildings that could serve admirably for exhibitions and other functions.
In the short time I was there last week, a saw a flicker, a type of woodpecker which is uncommon in downtown Toronto, as well as a kingfisher, barn swallows and, of course, red-winged blackbirds and several ducks proudly leading watery rabbles of ducklings.
I can imagine that every science teacher in Toronto’s elementary and secondary schools would love to take classes to visit the Brick Works, if only it had an interpretive centre that made it easy to trace the evolution of our immediate world. Where better to place our times in context? To fire young imaginations with stories of continents moving? Of extinct animals treading where they were standing?
The cost, however, would be a minimum of $150,000 to $200,000 a year, according to Adele Freeman, watershed specialist with the conservation authority, and in these times of parsimonious government assistance, that’s out of reach for the authority.
What a pity — and what a lost opportunity for so many students. But, on the other hand, what a great opportunity for some benefactor.