Area was a ship-building hub

Drawing of Port Union Village and wharf (c. 1856-1895). Illustration:Jeremy Hopkin, courtesy Scarborough Archives

By Don Allen

The mouths of the Highland Creek and Rouge Rivers were a hub of shipbuilding activity during the early 1820s to late 1840s.  Schooners such as the Duke of York (1820), the fastest ship on the lake in her day, the Wood Duck (1822), which was a 25-ton schooner, along with the Mary Ann and the Highland Chief were built at the mouth of the Highland Creek. The steamer Canada, a 250-ton ship built at the mouth of the Rouge during the winter of 1825-1826, along with the Charlotte of Pickering (1843) and the last locally built ship, the Caledonia (1851). During this time, both the Highland Creek and Rouge Rivers were navigable for vessels of up to 100 tons. They were able to travel two kilometres inland.

Many of these ships formed what was called the Highland Rangers (a name given to the local ships of the Highlands of Scarborough) and plied the waters of Lake Ontario, shipping cargo to Toronto, Port Hope and Cobourg, also trading across the lake to Oswego and other ports of call along the New York shoreline.

With the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway bridges over the rivers during the mid-1850s, the Highland Creek and the Rouge River were all but closed to ships much larger than a rowboat.

There was no natural harbour along our shoreline like Frenchman’s Bay, yet there was enough potential trade to warrant some kind of port. Local businessmen formed the Scarborough, Pickering and Markham Wharf Company. During 1847, a suitable location on the shoreline between Scarborough and Pickering was agreed on. The first section of wooden cribs was constructed and loaded with stone. Newer sections were built, floated into position, and they too were filled with stone. Eventually, the wharf extended 350 feet into the lake with a width of 50 feet. The wharf ran south-east and was located completely within Pickering Township.  A storage shed was constructed on the shoreline with a smaller shed  on the end of the pier for the storage of apples and other perishables awaiting shipment. The water at the lake end of the pier was a good 12 feet in depth and allowed for vessels large enough to carry the cargos of the three townships, such as cord wood, potash, grain, shingles and tanbark.

There were also schooners used for “stone hooking.” These shallow draft ships would collect stones from the shallows and ship them to Toronto to be used at various construction sites. A 1942 Toronto Telegram newspaper article mentions “Capt. John Williams seeing the Highland Chief, a schooner, loading fieldstone at Port Union. It had been dumped over the bank by landowners during the clearing of their fields.”  During the 1880s, steamers would stop at the Port Union wharf in the summer to take people on moonlight dance excursions. There was also much passenger traffic to numerous ports of call throughout  the Great Lakes.

The end of the Scarborough, Pickering and Markham Wharf Company came in the form of a fierce storm during the winter of 1895. The pier was damaged beyond repair. With the railway, which came through 40 years earlier, shipping by water proved too slow and expensive as a way of transporting goods to Ontario markets. The wharf company ceased operations and the pier was left to the ravages of the lake.