Tommy Thompson Park and The Leslie Street Spit contain some of the most interesting and oddest landscapes in Toronto. They’ve been called an Urban Wilderness and an Accidental Wilderness. Exploring their history and geography, one can see why. They embody Toronto as a whole: the intriguing and sometimes unexpected intersection of nature and city.
Many Paths, Many Landscapes
First, there’s a careful distinction to be made of the two places. Tommy Thompson Park and the Leslie Street Spit (or the Leslie Spit or just The Spit) are used interchangeably by many people. The reality is one is located within the other. That is to say, the Leslie Spit is a geographic feature and Tommy Thompson Park is the recreational area housed in it.
The entrance of Tommy Thompson Park and the Leslie Spit is located at Unwin Street where it meets the bottom of Leslie Street. If travelling south from Lake Shore Boulevard by road, one is struck by how bizarre a stretch it is. A streetcar barn, a mail facility, a concrete plant, tool and equipment rental place, and most curiously, an allotment garden all make up the scene. At the same time, the Martin Goodman Trail also passes through the area, making bicycle traffic a natural thing for the Spit (the park’s car lot also has a BikeShare station.)
The Baselands just off the entrance is Tommy Thompson Park’s first landscape. This is a thicket of bushes, shrubs, and trees — and rubble. The red-osier dogwood offer some colour in the spring-time grey and brown.
One emerges from Baselands to meet with the Multi-Use Trail, a paved path used by walkers, runners, cyclists, and sometimes park staff vehicles. The trail runs the course of the Spit from the entrance to its most southern tip. If one doesn’t pass through pedestrian bridge nearly half-way through the 5-kilometre length, one can branch out to the north of the cell bays and pass through the Flats and Headlands. The lighthouse is a natural goal and following the multi-use trail to the end offers a great reward. But the side-trails are well worth it too.
The Spit splits into the three paths. Along with the Multi-Use path, there is a Nature Trail and Pedestrian Trail. If on foot, these quiet and more slower-paced alternatives allow one to take in the Spit in a truly unique way.
The Nature Trail on the north side of the main paved path hugs the north shore of the Spit. It offers views of the marina, embayments, and the great skyline of Toronto beyond them all along the way. Numbered trail markers show the way. It is also on the way to the Ecological Bird Research Centre, one of a few scientific and educational functions of the park.
The Pedestrian Trail runs south of the Multi-Use Trail. It offers clear blue lake views, along with views of Cell 1 where wildlife undoubtedly lives. The shores along this trail also show the most interesting debris.
A History of Many Names
The curious history of the Leslie Street Spit started in the late 1950’s and continued into the 1960s. It was designed to be a breakwater for Toronto harbour. For this reason, the official name for the Leslie Spit is the mouthful-ish “Outer Harbour East Headland”. By 1970, a 5-kilometre “arm” made of infill and construction materials extended into the water. The main road on this landform is now the Multi-Use trail. Over the next several decades, several “branches” would be made to jut out from this “spine”, creating endikements and bays. For this reason, the Leslie Spit is better labelled as a man-made peninsula rather than a naturally-occuring spit.
By the early 1970s, the anticipated port activity in Toronto’s waters never materialized. The East Headland became obsolete as a commercial project. As the decade progressed, a curious thing happened. Nature took over. Birds used the peninsula as migratory stop. The potential of the Spit as a recreational area, namely sailing and boating, also entered the conversation. So much so that the area was known as “The Aquatic Park”.
In 1977, a client group consisting of Metro Toronto Regional Conservation Authority and Metro Toronto Park Commission members hired a consultant firm to report on the possibilities of the peninsula. Ideas included a sailing school, marine hotel, camp grounds, a hostel, and a wildlife and nature preserve. Curiously, the north shore of the Spit, already used by recreational boats, was not included in the report. The report put naturalists and recreationists at odds — a theme that continues today. In 1983, the Leslie Street Spit was named “Tommy Thompson Park”, after the longtime Toronto Parks Commissioner. The Toronto & Region Conservation Authority manages the parkland today.
Trash or Built Heritage?
A common sight of The Leslie Spit is the piles of bricks, cement blocks, rebar, scrap metal, and more on its trails and on its shores. People have combined two of these elements — the rebar and bricks — to make some makeshift art installations.
It has been said that because the Spit is in a way akin to garbage dump, it is a valuable asset in that it literally is the “archaeology of Toronto”. Indeed, debris excavated to build the downtown subway lines is said to rest at the peninsula. Beyond that, is any of the rubble of the headland actually important?
One brick has the pressing of “F Price” and it may provide an insight into Toronto history a whole. The Prices were a family of brick makers on Greenwood Avenue. The most famous of them are perhaps brothers Isaac Price and John Price — the latter who ran last brickmaking entreprise on Greenwood.
The identity and origin of this “F Price” on this particular brick is a mystery, but may refer to a Fred Price, who was in business in the 1920s. He may have been a brother or son or nephew to the Isaac and John. Fred Price looks to have partnered with a George J Smith. Together they formed Price & Smith, which operated on the west side of Greenwood Avenue north of the railway tracks (where the subway yard now sits). By the mid-1930s, the establishment ceased to appear in the city directories. The historical significance of Price & Smith and brickyards from the same period is in providing the bricks which made the housing stock of Toronto in its growth period after World War I.
Today, the Leslie Spit is an intriguing refuge for many plants and animals. Some of these are species found in other parts of Toronto, like cattails, goldenrod, trumpeter swans, red-wing black birds, and beavers. Some are to the city as a whole, like bats, owls, and cottonwood trees, which are threatened by the pesky cormorant. The Leslie Spit’s importance as a migratory bird stopover led to it to being declared an “Important Bird Area” by Birdlife International in 2000.
There are two main rules to Tommy Thompson Park: no motorized vehicles and no dogs. Both are to safeguard the peninsula as a habitat to seen and unseen wildlife. The lack of cars is an obvious rule with the exhaust fumes and loudness among other threats providing obvious disruptions. Bikes are allowed and are popular on the Spit, but speeds are capped at 20 km/hour to protect not only pedestrians but wildlife like turtles that may wander onto the path. The dogs or pets policy dates back to the 1980s. Dogs can be a threat to ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. With a population of coyotes on the Spit, pets themselves can also be at risk too.
The balance between human use and environmental respect remains today. With new controversies and challenges arising (like filming), careful stewartship should perserve the Leslie Street Spit for decades and centuries to come!