The Scarborough Bluffs are Scarborough’s claim to fame and claim to name. Although the southern part of borough and its winding main streets are another world to me personally, I know that in the general consciousness of Torontonians, the Bluffs usually come up in Scarborough word association. Or, at least, they should.
The built form of the southern end of Scarborough is a result of the Bluffs, including Kingston Road, whose course roughly follows the top of the landform. Laid out in 1817, it is one of the oldest European routes in the borough. In a pre-401 world, Kingston Road was the highway in and out of Toronto from the east. Its existence made it ideal for hotels and inns to aid travelers in their voyages. Some motels still dot the street today.
One notable landmark near Birchmount Road is not a rest stop but Scarborough Arts. The non-for-profit arts organization has a mandate “to create and cultivate innovative arts and cultural programs in Scarborough.” It’s a good one.
In addition to facilitating and promoting artistic programs, Scarborough Arts also has rotating exhibition space, appropriately named the Bluffs Gallery. In March 2016, its showcase was ‘YEARBOOK’, a brilliantly-conceived and -executed exhibit which utilized high school yearbooks to tell Scarborough’s history and its remarkable demographic change in particular.
It’s not a surprising discovery, but Scarborough didn’t begin to really diversify until around the 1980s. In addition to offering demographic snapshots, I enjoyed the cultural tidbits that could be gleaned from the yearbooks, such as what kind of school clubs existed and the advertisements of local businesses of the day.
The Scarborough Arts office is a little unconventional in that it is housed in a converted 1920s dwelling. Its ‘backyard’ is the Harrison Properties, which makes up part of the Waterfront Trail and whose name strikes me as having some sort of history perhaps relating to a previous owner of the lot. I’ve found nothing on the topic, however.
The park backs onto the Bluffs, although a fence and a warning blocks access to the ridge for safety reasons. More on that later.
Further up Kingston is the Rosetta McClain Gardens. The backstory of this gem is fortunately known and offered up in a couple of plaques. Rosetta McClain once owned this land, and upon her death, her husband and son gifted the lot to the City of Toronto for a public park. Interesting to me in the story is McClain’s father was in charge of the J & J Taylor Safe Works operation in Old Town.
The gardens are naturally a better a sight in the summer, but even in spr-winter the awe of the space is evident.
The frame of the old McClain house also still stands in the park as a monument…and as a backdrop for wedding shoots.
Access to the Bluffs themselves can be tricky and elusive. There are many’a sign on local streets south of Kingston which advise people to, well, go away. It reminds me of the ire of local Hollywood residents concerning tourists trying to get to the Hollywood sign.
Fortunately, there is a path beside Wynnview which leads down to Scarborough Heights Park. The bottom of the steep trail delivers a great view. The eye can follow the curve of the Scarborough coast as seen in maps as well the endless blue expanse of Lake Ontario.
The way is long and muddy (and marked with bricks), but the reward at the end is worth-while.
These natural wonders are the leftovers of Glacial Lake Iroquois, whose geography is apparent throughout the city, most famously along the Davenport escarpment near Casa Loma. They are the same Bluffs that might exist in unknown narratives of Aboriginal settlement in this part of Scarborough. And they are the natural wonders Elizabeth “Don’t-Call-Me-Lady” Simcoe sailed past in 1793 which reminded her of her English home.
Of course, the elements and human activity have taken their toll on the Bluffs today, robbing them of stability and their chalky exterior in some places. I might argue their erosion is, though, a good – albeit, unfortunate – marker of time and a reminder of their history and pre-history.
One thing that has remained consistent about the Bluffs is the marvel surrounding them. Sometimes it is hard to connect to bygone times and the psyches of people who lived within them, but human feeling and intelligence was no less primitive one hundred years ago than today. The people who explored Scarborough’s coast for an afternoon outing likely thought and felt the same as us when we do the same. That’s a comforting idea.
The Bluffs of course stretch beyond Scarborough Heights for more stunning views, including across the way at Scarborough Bluffs Park. But that’s another day.