When one thinks of the history of Scarborough, the intersection of Midland Avenue and the 401 might not be the first thought. However, a site that once stood there for more the half the 20th century literally put the local community on the international scientific map. This was the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory.
The story of the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory begins not in Scarborough, but on the grounds of King’s College in downtown Toronto in 1840. The school became the University of Toronto in 1850. Contrary to the dense district of today, the university was then sparsely populated – in other words, perfect conditions to minimize interference. The University granted 2.5 acres for a site that was located on the southwest side of today’s King’s College Circle.
The Globe described the laboratory:
“The first observatory was of logs, rough cast on the outside and plastered on the inside; it was completed during the summer of 1840 and observations were begun in September.”The Globe, October 1, 1898
The second observatory was built in the autumn of 1853, replacing the wooden observatory on the same site. It was built of stone and the nails and fastenings were of copper and zinc.
In 1892, Toronto’s growing infrastructure began to spell the beginning of the end for the observatory. To be sure, as early as 1876, new structures on the university grounds began to impact the observatory, but it was nothing like the electric railway to come. Streetcars were electrified, first beginning with the Church Street line opened on August 17, 1892, and then the College Street line only steps from the building. Instead of recording magnetic changes, the observatory recorded the starting and stoppings of the trolleys. In 1896, Sir Frederick Stupart, the director at the observatory, took up the issue with the government. There would be no action until a report was received from a committee of meteorologists visiting from England that year. This report recommended the centre be moved far away — to Scarborough.
The observatory was relocated just south of the Agincourt Village centre at the current intersection of Midland Avenue and Sheppard Avenue where a Presbyterian Church and nearby Canadian National and Canadian Pacific stations stood. It was perfect in that no electric railway lines existed – at least not in seven miles and there was little prospect of any lines for many years (the railway did not interfere either). The observatory stood in a 4-acre field at the north end of the southern half of lot 16 (Midland Avenue) and Concession II (Ellesmere Avenue), belonging to the Forfar family. It was constructed over the summer of 1898 and opened in September. The first observations were made on September 10 and by the end of the month, all instruments had been moved from Toronto to the new site.
This Observatory was described in The Globe:
“…[It] consists of two parts, a circular stone collar nineteen feet in diameter, the walls two feet in thickness, the floor concrete and the roof covered with felt and gravel, in which on stone piers sunk in concrete to a depth of six feet below the floor are place the self-recording photographic instruments, namely, the declinometer for recording changes in the direction of the magnetic needle and the bifilar and vertical force instrument, for registering respectively changes in the horizontal and vertical components of the earth’s magnetism: above ground and connected with the cellar by a flight of steps is an erection which divided into two portions, in the larger of which absolute magnetic determinations will be made, piers being provided on which to place the necessary instruments, and an adjustable opening on the roof for transit work – and the smaller, an office, which will be heated by a copper stove.”The Globe, October 1, 1898
The old Toronto Observatory continued to serve as the central office of the Dominion Meteorological Service. All photographic records from Agincourt were sent there for development. It also conducted astronomical studies. In 1908, the observatory was dismantled to accommodate an extension to King’s College Circle and possibly a new physics building. It was reconstructed brick by brick near Hart House, where it stands today as a students’ union. Some installations stand near its former location between Convocation Hall and the Sandford Fleming Building.
In 1899, severe earthquakes in Alaska were recorded at the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory. In 1903, the observatory recorded the largest magnetic storm on October 30 and 31, which Director Stupart “intimately” connected sunspots and magnetic disturbances on earth. The centre recorded more such magnetic storms attributed to sun sports on Aug 8, 1917. The Agincourt labs were useful in World War II against Germany for “calibration of master compasses and other apparatuses”.
The significance of the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory and its activities were very well documented and even world-renowned. In 1919, the Observatory was threatened by a proposed Toronto to Port Perry Hydro Radial, which had officials looking for a new site where electricity would not penetrate that observatory’s environment. It was of significant alarm as the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory was one of two of its kind in Canada and by far the more important of the pair. In 1957, a contagion of scientists from around the world visited Agincourt as a part of some sessions by the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics held at the University of Toronto. They asserted that they knew Agincourt better than Toronto as the village appeared in “thousands of International Geophysical maps” around the world.
Despite its importance, city growth once again spelled the end for the site. Meeting a similar fate to the Toronto Observatory seventy years before, the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory closed in March 1969. In the 1950s, Highway 401 was constructed next to the laboratory. Farms adjacent to the observatory began to turn into housing. Factories were built on either side of the property in the 1960s. On July 1, 1968, a new observatory opened in Ottawa. By 1971, the Agincourt structures were gone completely. Today, government offices stand in its place, hiding the great landmark once housed there.
“Astronomical Conversation.” The Globe, 21 Jan. 1903, p. 12.
“Chilly Weather.” The Globe, 14 Dec. 1898, p. 2.
Dobson, Jack. “Magnetic Observatory One of Canada’s First.” The Globe and Mail, 26 Nov. 1952, p. 3.
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“World Weather.” The Globe and Mail, 26 Nov. 1952, p. 3.
“A World-Shaking Earthquake.” The Globe, 27 Sept. 1899, p. 8.