Local History - Port Union

By Mary Miller

Port Union was a busy little town in its early days. There were two hotels, a busy port and a railway station. The main road leading into town divided Pickering from Scarborough, and was called Town Line, now Port Union Road. On the east side was the Township of Pickering, Ontario County; on the west was the Township of Scarborough, York County. In the early 1970's this part of Pickering, from Port Union Road to the Rouge River, was annexed to Scarborough.

Two of the earliest settlers in this area were the “Annis” and “Adams” families. Charles Annis (although the family name was spelled differently in the Ontario Gazetteer) and Thomas Adams settled in Port Union in 1793 and 1808 respectively.


Thomas Adams was a United Empire Loyalist who came from Vermont. He was a carpenter and built a log cabin overlooking the lake. He had six sons and two daughters, and built the first schoolhouse in this area in 1836. He captained a sailing vessel during the War of 1812 and at one point, was driven to take refuge in the mouth of the Highland Creek. Fearing capture, Adams threw his cargo of ammunition overboard. It is still believed to be at the bottom of the swamp. In 1834 Adams built another sailing ship at the mouth of the Highland Creek. He named it the Mary Ann. With her he provided a trading service to local farmers.


Andrew Annis house

Andrew Annis bought 100 acres from Tom Adams at the corner of Town Line Road and Concession (Port Union Road and Lawrence.) There he built a fine stone house which was demolished to make way for the shopping plaza. However a fine painting of the house was hung in the Port Union Library and photographs hang in the Bank of Montreal.


The population in 1857 was 47, supporting some 300 trades’ people supplying lumber, grain, apples, potatoes and a mill that was operated on the Highland Creek by Stephen Closson.


And in 1869, the following excerpt appeared in “Anderson's Province of Ontario Gazetteer and Directory”:


“Port Union, a village in the Township of Pickering, Ontario County, 12 miles from Whitby, the county town, and 17 miles from Toronto. Population 100.

Annes [sic] A., farmer

Annes [sic] L., farmer

Brennan, W., telegraph operator

Chester, Isaac, farmer

Cowan, William, farmer

Dickson [sic] R. farmer

Dudley, T. G., farmer

Gibson, Robert, carpenter

Hemming, William, teacher

Laskey, Thomas, hotel keeper and cooper

McDonald, Alexander, farmer

Mitchell, J.

Moon, Joseph, hotel keeper

Neilson, R., farmer

Pullen. Mrs. N., groceries

PULLEN, N. L. postmaster

Stratton, Alexander, agent GTR”

One hotel was owned by the Laskey family. From stories told by Mrs. Jim Johnston, a descendant of the Secors who lived in the building, this was the place to go in the late19th century. There was a very large ballroom and it was fashionable for people to drive up in well-polished surreys or buggies, or in cutters in the winter. The ladies would be handed down at the front door, dressed in their finest: long flowing evening gowns and feathered boas, fur capes and glittering jewellery. A groom took the horses to the livery stable until the party was over. The hotel had been designated as an historical site, but as happens so often with the fine old buildings of Highland Creek and Port Union, fire ravaged it on December 29th, 1993.


Railroad station

When the railroad was being built, a few sections were constructed by Robert Dixon in 1885. There was a wharf where a 95 ton schooner was built.


The port was used by lake boats. They brought coal and wood into the harbour which was used by the steam engines running on the Grand Trunk Railway Lines, now part of the Canadian National Railway System. The railway built a pumping station with a high water tower where every freight train's steam engine would have to take on more water before continuing westbound on the trip to Toronto. Here, also, they would have to get an auxiliary engine which was referred to as the Shunter or Pusher. Sometimes this extra engine was attached to the front of the train; other times at the rear so they either pushed or pulled trains along the 700 foot grade to Scarborough Junction.


Thomas Carson was Station Agent for years and his son Howard Carson operated the pump house which drew water from the lake into the tower.


About 1927-8 Percy Tredway fell heir to the General Store and Post Office building which had once belonged to his grandfather, William Tredway. It was standing at the corner of Eglinton Ave. and Kingston Rd. He decided to move it to Port Union.


The moving of the building was done by Peter Heron of Scarborough Junction. It was deposited in front of the cottage where he was living on the east side of Town Line. The Tredways started an ice cream parlour in the building with chocolate bars, tobacco in all its form, all kinds of soft drinks, bread, butter, milk and some canned goods for sale. They would bake pies, tarts, cakes, muffins, and scones to sell every week end. People would leave standing orders for these from week to week or ask for some special item to be made for them such as a birthday cake. The demand always far exceeded both the supply and the store was a huge success.


Editor’s note: This is the second instalment of the notes used by long time resident Mary Miller for her school presentations over the years. Mary died on January 7th 2010 in her 96th year


Port Union in those days had taken on a different flavour. It was quite a summer weekend retreat for Toronto people. On a Saturday afternoon, dozens of men, women and children would get off the train and proceed to their summer quarters. Many had tents on the beach, mostly at the part which was immediately south of the Tredway farm which was towards the mouth of the Highland Creek.


Will Heatherington's Hotel, which dated from 1860, was remodelled into a carpet factory. However the building burned and the remains stood for many years known as The Old Brick. The grounds remained idle for years until a part of it was made into a baseball diamond. Here, young and old alike gathered for many a hard fought game. The property changed owners several times and was finally acquired by Johns Manville Ltd.


Residents spent hours down at the lakeshore directly opposite the station where the remains of the old wharf were. Arthur Bradley was a fisher man and his nets would be hung on large frames to dry. Howard Carson also did a lot of lake fishing and locals helped to bring in many of the catches.


The fish would be packed in ice in large wooden boxes and shipped to Toronto or as far away as New York City. It was nothing in the summer time to have a school of eels come in close to the shore. They would sometimes latch on to one's leg while swimming and were difficult to pull off because they were so slippery. Eels are still a hazard to cross-the-Iake swimmers. Local boys had many swimming races from Port Union to the mouth of the Rouge River and back, a good two miles.


Over the years there were several train wrecks. There was one in which the engine and several freight cars wound up in the marsh on the Tredway farm. This train was loaded in part with large rolls of news print paper. People came from miles around to retrieve some paper. For years things were wrapped in news print. It was also used for art work, paper sculptures and posters and served many different purposes including picnic table covers.


In another wreck, a load of grain was spewed all over the tracks. Yet another involved a car load of cattle from the west. Several were killed out right, while others ran loose around the country side. Some had to be destroyed. One drowned in the marsh. These cattle were brought from western Canada by Robert Dixon for beef purposes. He brought a car load every fall. Still another wreck happened at a time when the rails were being replaced very near the water tower at Port Union. Some how the brakes of the freight train did not work and the train just kept on going past the end of the track onto open ground. The engine dug itself in and several cars piled up. The first car housed a race horse. Its groom was in the car with the horse. He had just finished feeding it at the front of the car and had walked back to his quarters at the time of the accident. The horse was killed, but after a short time had elapsed, the groom crawled out of the wreckage


The lake level began to change and the railway found it necessary to bring in flat car after flat car of large stone slabs to put along the shore to stop erosion from undermining the roadbed. At one time a person could walk anywhere on the beautiful sandy beaches and venture out quite a distance on that same sand. The water was very shallow a long way out and at waste depth the gravel bottom took over. A large freight shed operated for many years with local merchants in West Hill, Highland Creek, Dunbarton and other surrounding towns and villages getting their merchandise shipped by rail to Port Union. They then came by horse and buggy or horse and wagon in summer, sleighs in winter along with the merry tinkle of sleigh bells. A flourishing coal business was carried on here also. The local dealers originally had the coal delivered to the port by boats, but this method was replaced by the railway. After horse delivery became out-moded, trucks were used to deliver.


The Grand Trunk Railway had its name changed after World War One as it became a part of the CNR -Canadian National Railway. The railway maintained a siding here and all major repairs were carried on by crews of men who lived in sleeping cars parked on the siding. There was also a special dining and kitchen car to prepare their meals. There were bridge crews, painting crews and roadbed and rail crews.


At one time the station was staffed 24 hours a day with the station agent during the day time and telegraph operators, each working an eight hour shift. Port Union was an important site on the CNR mainline. All train clearances to allow trains to proceed both east and west bound had to go through here. The crew on a train picked up telegraphed messages as they steamed through the station using a net like a fisherman's landing net to retrieve papers extended on a long pole. Going to Toronto Riverdale Station by train from Port Union took about thirty minutes and the cost was less than 70 cents return. Of course, if a larger fare was paid, you could proceed to the Union Station. As long as the countryside remained a farming area this was an important livestock shipping area -cattle, hogs, sheep and horses were shipped out. Livestock were also brought in. From the odd shipment, a few might manage to escape.


About 1920 some of the resident families of the village whose population never exceeded 100 were Jim Johnston and his 2 sons Secor and Laskey (named for their early family connections with the Laskey Hotel); Thomas Carson, wife Minnie Barnes, 12 children: George, Beatrice, Howard, Mabel, Margaret, John, Thomas, Audrey, Mary, Reta, Dorothy and Jean ; Charles Rate, wife Mame White, 11 children: Charles, Mary, Annie, Thomas, William, Bertha, Lillian, Nellie, Frederick, Joseph and Mabel; Seaman Beck (Railroad section foreman) and his wife, 6 children: Sylvia, Mae, Verna.; Arthur & Mrs. Bradley, 7 children: Balfe, Brock, Wallace (also known as Jim,) Irene, Clare, Dorothy and Audrey. The Yates family from Montreal spent summers in a home east of the station, south of the tracks close to Chesterton Shores. The Langs from Toronto spent summers next door to the Carsons. Hilliard Lang was Toronto Harbour Police Chief for many years.