The 1960s battle over the Spadina Express is a crucial episode in Toronto about who could define the city. Citizens challenged politicians, public servants, and experts to shape the city and its future. But the fight over expressways wasn’t the first modernist infrastructure project Toronto’s residents resisted.
From 1913 to 1923, Torontonians organized and vigorously opposed plans to construct destructors, massive garbage incinerators in their neighbourhoods. This is the story of how residents and experts battled over the future of Toronto’s garbage.
“The Modern and Sanitary Way is to Burn It”
There are three options for dealing with garbage – burn it, bury it, or sink it.
In 1910, Toronto buried most of its garbage at nine dumps and sank some in Ashbridges Bay. The city was growing fast (the population had doubled in 12 years), and development was crowding the dumps. Ashbridges Bay was soon off limits as it was being transformed into an industrial district.
To address the growing garbage crisis, R.C. Harris, Toronto’s Property Commissioner and Street Commissioner, favoured building destructors. Sanitary Engineers lauded the efficiency of modern incinerator technology. They pledged to residents that their garbage would no longer create breeding grounds for germs, rats, or flies. In a flash of fire your garbage issues would be solved.
In this context, in 1913, ratepayers approved a plan to build four destructors across the city. Their vote was part of a $13 million ($300 million today) package of progressive projects advanced by city officials to improve and modernize Toronto. Voters approved new water treatment and filtration plants, sewers, Sick Children’s Hospital funds, road improvements, and the Bloor Street Viaduct.
Yet, while voters approved the idea of a modern waste disposal system, no one wanted to live near one.
Ward 5 vs the Destructor
The first fight over a destructor was just before World War 1 during the summer of 1914, in Ward 5 near Dovercourt Park and Seaton Village. The city’s new Street Cleaning and Sanitation Department had announced they would build Toronto’s first destructor north of Ossington Avenue along the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).
The department’s Commissioner, George Wilson, had to convince City Council to support the site. Wilson was a modernizer and reportedly City Hall’s most dapper civil servant. He joined the civil service in 1888 after graduating from medical school, working his way up the ranks to become the secretary to the Mayor before being appointed Commissioner.
The Ossington site wasn’t Wilson’s first choice for a destructor. City Council had turned down his preferred proposal, which a consultant had recommended. The recommendation had been to build one destructor at Ashbridge’s Bay supported by three transfer stations in the city’s western, northwestern, and northern sections. Building several smaller destructors across the city proved less expensive – but politically challenging.
Wilson had not anticipated the opposition to the destructor in Toronto’s new suburbs.
Not long after the Ossington community learned of the proposal, the residents association began to organize. They gathered hundreds of signatures, printed and disrupted pamphlets, organized volunteers to depute, and even recruited someone from the United States to share their experience of living near a destructor to counter the claim they wouldn’t smell a thing.
Ultimately the community’s campaign against the plan succeeded, and City Council abandoned the Ossington site. A grateful community organized a meeting at McMurrich School where they “express their hearty appreciation” to the Alderman of Ward 5 for defeating the proposal.
The Don Destructor
While the Ossington community was appreciative, City Council was in a bind. Alderman McBride, who represented the downtown complained:
“The ratepayers have voted $1,000,000 for the erection of garbage disposal plants, to be located in the east, west and north ends of the city…and it is the duty of Council to provide such plants irrespective of sectional feeling displayed by some Alderman, who have been swayed by the appearance in the Council Chamber of a deputation of ratepayersThe Globe, July 8, 1914, pg. 6.
But after Ossington, some members of the City Council realized they might not be able to convince a majority of Alderman to approve any sites for destructors. So that fall, they found an unusual solution – they decided to depoliticize the process by giving Wilson free reign.
City Council voted to give Wilson the authority to pick any site he deemed appropriate. The only condition was that they could overturn the decision with a 2/3 majority.
In October 1914, Wilson presented his recommendation. He would build the first destructor on the Don River south of the Don Jail and build the second next to the City Abbatoir on Wellington Street.
The Don site had several advantages. It was land already owned by the City, central and easy to access, and politically, it would only affect residents in one eastern ward. Yet, it also had deficiencies. It was very close to existing homes, and the site flooded frequently. The Don River had historically flowed through the site. The City had come to own the land 30 years earlier when they straightened the river.
Just as Ossington residents had organized, so did the Riverdale Residents Association. But after City Council had delegated the decision to Wilson, residents received a very different reception from City Hall. In the words of one ratepayer:
“[The Alderman] seem to think it was a piece of presumption on our part to dare appear before them to express any opinion whatever as to either the disposal of the garbage or the location of the incinerator… We were told we did not know anything about it. ‘It was a matter of experts.’ Then, if we grant that to be so, why did they not take the experts advice?… The experts’ advice (which was paid for by the citizens’ money) was a reduction and incineration central plant, which was proposed to be located on Ashbridge’s Marsh.”Toronto Daily Star, December 8, 1914, pg. 10.
In December 1914, the destructor dominated the municipal election campaign in Ward One. The incumbent Aldermen were heckled and pressed on the issue. All three Alderman vowed to fight it. Yet, by end of 1915 the Don Destructor was well under construction and Wilson had beat back local opposition.
Sanitation professionals were triumphant. In 1917, as the destructor was nearing completion, the Canadian Engineer, a journal for civil engineers and contractors, profiled the project writing:
“violent objection was encountered by the department in securing it for the legitimate municipal purposes for which it was so naturally adapted. The department’s contention that the plant would in no way detrimentally affect the neighbourhood but would, on the contrary, improve the locality, has been amply demonstrated.”Canadian Engineer, March 1917
Back to the Northwest
In 1922, City Council and Wilson turned their attention to a second destructor in the city (a smaller one had been built on Toronto Island). While Wilson had recommended the site of the Cattle Market Annex on Wellington Avenue in 1914, the Board of Control asked him to find another location because they were considering an offer to sell the property to the nearby John Inglis Company.
Again Wilson looked to Toronto’s northwest, this time to a site in Ward 6 by Dufferin Street near the CPR tracks. He returned to the area because it was central to the west end neighbourhoods (carting garbage down to Wellington and Niagara was estimated to cost an extra $17,500 a year). But ultimately, for Wilson and the community, the summer of 1922 must have felt a lot like the summer of 1914.
Hearing about Wilson’s proposal, the Aldermen in Ward 6 quietly tried using zoning by-laws to kill the destructor but were thwarted by the City Solicitor. The plan then moved into the public arena. One cautious Alderman pledged to the residents, “If you are opposed to the destructor after seeing the Don Incerinator. I’ll be with you.”
Despite what Canadian Engineering thought of a destructors ability to “improve the locality, “residents did not agree. In the 1910s, residents approved the referendum on the premise that destructors were the most sanitary and hygienic method of disposing of garbage. But by 1922, residents were forcefully arguing the opposite case.
The Toronto Daily Star reported that Local School Trustee Dr. Caroline Brown “urged the importance of bringing up children under the most hygienic conditions possible, and she did not think the incinerator would improve conditions in the neighbourhood.”
Wilson promoted the Destructor as better than the alternative – another factory. The Toronto Star reported (sardonically?) that he “eloquently pictured the destructor to be as a thing of beauty and joy forever.”
The Mayor supported Wilson and appealed to City Council’s broader civic duties in a similar vein to Alderman McBride in 1914. But the plan failed to earn the support of a majority of Alderman.
The Wellington Destructor
After generating so much passion elsewhere in the city, there was a shrug when City Council approved the Wellington Destructor in November 1922. The Toronto Daily Star reported:
“Ald. Benson was surprised to learn that a recommendation had gone through the council at a previous meeting to provide an incinerator site on the old cattle market…Ald. Hacker, another Ward Five representative, also confessed that he did not know when the recommendation went through. Council awarded the contract as recommended by the board to Francis Harken & Co. of Montreal at $203,000.”Toronto Daily Star, December 19, 1922, pg 3.
The site had been on the shortlist since 1913 and Wilson had selected it in 1914 as his second destructor. Like the Don Destructor, it was located by a buried waterway (Garrison Creek), on city land, near a jail, and next to the railway. But unlike the three previous sites, there are no reports in the papers of vocal opposition – perhaps due to the neighbourhood’s long industrial history, gritty housing, and a large number of newcomers from Ireland and Eastern Europe.
“A thing of beauty and joy forever”
George Wilson would not live to see the Wellington Destructor completed. He was 59 when he passed away in February 1924. But he achieved much of what he set out to accomplish 11 years earlier, partly because political leaders privileged his views over those of residents. The City would ultimately build a total of five incinerators. The obituary headline in the Toronto Star acknowledged Wilson’s legacy with the headline, “Established the Incinerator in Toronto – Was Popular Among his Associates.” Unfortunately, Wilson’s technological solution to waste management was only effective in removing one environmental challenge – dumps and replacing it with another – air pollution.
As an early example of Toronto’s residents clashing with expert plans for city improvements, the fight around destructors is further evidence of Toronto’s fitful relationship with modernism and the early roots of neighbourhood civic action. It also demonstrates the process by which environmental hazards became concentrated in the city’s more impoverished and marginalized neighbourhoods.
In the 1910s and 1920s Torontonians actively engaged and challenged modernist assumptions about improvements to shape their city and played a pivotal role in siting destructors. Without their interventions, a destructor would not have been built on Wellington.
The residents who opposed the destructors were ultimately vindicated when Toronto began to phase out waste incineration in the 1970s. The Don Destructor was demolished in 2004.
The Wellington Destructor, abandoned since the 1980s, is now slated to be restored as a new community and commercial centre – transforming a once unwanted and contested piece of infrastructure into a landmark heritage structure. The redevelopment will perhaps actualize Wilson’s vision of “A thing of beauty and joy forever,” but not in a way he envisioned.
J.F.M Clarke, ‘The incineration of refuse is beautiful’: Torquay and the introduction of municipal refuse destructors; Urban History, Vol. 34, No. 2 (August 2007), pp. 255-277.
Sarah Hill, Making garbage, making land, making cities; Global Environment, Vol. 9, No. 1, The Country and the City (2016), pp. 166-195.
Patricia Petersen, ‘Leave the Fads to the Yankees:’ The Campaign for Commission and City Manager Government in Toronto, 1910 – 1926; Urban History Review, Vol. 20, No. 2 (October 1991), pp. 72-84.
Wayne Reeves, Burying and Burning Trash on Toronto’s Military Reserve; The Fife and Drum, Vol. 19, No. 1 (March 2015), pp. 8-10.
Primary Sources Consulted
- For Garbage Disposal Plan, Toronto Daily Star, December 31, 1912, pp. 4
- A Garbage Incinerator in Cattle Market Annex, Toronto Daily Star, August 19, 1913, pp. 4.
- Two New Incinerators for Garbage Disposal, The Globe, February 28, 1914; pp. 8.
- Object to Incinerator, Toronto Daily Star, June 23, 1914, pp. 4.
- Garbage Plan Sent Back, Toronto Daily Star, July 8, 1914, pp. 4
- Alderman’s Work Much Appreciated, The Toronto World, July 9, 1914.
- What Council Did, The Globe, September 22, 1914, pp. 6.
- Leaves Loophole on Sites Selection, The Globe, October 24, 1914, pp. 7.
- Incinerator Site is On Don Roadway, Toronto Daily Star, October 24, 1914, pp. 7
- Don’t Want Incinerator, Toronto Daily Star, November 21, 1914, pp. 9.
- East End Deputation to Board of Control, Toronto World, November 24, 1914.
- Riverdale Makes Protest, Toronto Daily Star, December 8, 1914, pp. 10.
- Ward One Tories’ Municipal Night, Toronto World, December 19, 1914, pp. 4.
- “M’Carthy is White, All Way Through,” Toronto Daily Star, December 31, 1914, pp. 10.
- Would do Much Harm, The Globe, February 2, 1921, pp. 6.
- Can’t Stop Incinerator, Toronto Daily Star, April 18, 1922.
- City May Yet “Pay the Piper.,” The Globe, May 17, 1922, pp. 13.
- Destructor Plan a Thing of Beauty, Toronto Daily Star, June 3, 1922, pp. 3.
- Hotly Object to Incinerator, The Globe, July 20, 1922, pp. 13.
- Strong Protest Voiced at Proposed Location of New Incinerator, Toronto Daily Star, July 19, 1922.
- Nobody Loves a Garbage Plant, Toronto Daily Star, July 24, 1922, pp. 6.
- Protests on Incinerator Prevail and Council Abandons Idea, The Globe, July 25, 1922, pp. 15.
- Want Government to Pay for Relief, Toronto Dialy Star, December 19, 1922, pp. 3.
- Established the Incinerator in Toronto – Was Popular Among His Associates, Toronto Daily Star, February 4, 1924.