The Stonehookers of Lake Ontario

It has been said that Toronto was built on Dundas Shale. A careful look at the foundations of buildings erected in the City before 1910 will often reveal stone foundations. In the village of Bronte, the foundations of many 19th century buildings, including one at 49 Bronte Road, were made of shale. In an age before the ready availability of concrete, a constant supply of building stone was essential. From the 1830s until after World War I, the Lake Ontario water front between the Credit River and Burlington Bay was busy with men engaged in mining the shallow waters for blocks of shale and loading them onto small sail-driven vessels known as stonehookers.

Old Ontario was built from wood, soil and stone. Wood was the preferred building material, a forgiving material well suited to unskilled hands. Ontario's forests provided the logs that became the planks, siding, and roofing of the domestic home industry. Many of the province's earliest commercial buildings were also made of wood but the constant threat of fire soon made stone or brick construction a necessity in the construction trade.

According to Thomas F. McIlwraith in his 1997 book, Looking for Old Ontario, stone as a building material became more fashionable after 1840. The presence of large numbers of Scottish stone masons and England's Gothic Revival resulted in new buildings of stone; mills, courthouses, office blocks, churches, public structures, and homes. But it was the common building foundation that found the most utilitarian use for stone. 1

Wooden houses tend to flex in frost allowing them to be safely constructed on cornerstones or even bare ground. Stone or brick buildings, however, must have foundations walls well footed below the frost line. A half-century of clearing land had exposed shale - the perfect foundation stone for the growing number of Ontario stone and masonry houses. Along the shores of Lake Ontario blocks of shale were available, not just from bedrock land deposits but also from the lake bottom. Submerged stone, retrieved from Lake Ontario could also be used for roads, sidewalks, and pavements.

In order to mine Lake Ontario for stone, a new marine industry, unique in Canadian history, was developed. The stonehooker was a small vessel, usually between twenty to one hundred tons in burden. They had very little draft (many, with their centreboards withdrawn) drew only eighteen inches of water. Schooner-rigged, the stonehookers of Lake Ontario were nearly all square ended. Broad beamed, the typical stonehooker could sail fast in light winds.

Bronte, along with Oakville, Frenchman's Bay, and Port Credit, was one of several Canadian ports along Lake Ontario that developed a stonehooking fleet. With stonehooking taking place from Port Whitby to Oakville and beyond, Port Credit soon became the centre of the industry. Vessels such as Coronet, a 53 foot long stonehooker with a 17 foot beam, were built there.

Philip Brimacombe in The Story of Bronte Harbour argues, however, that the "handsomest schooners to enter the trade were a series built by Lem Dorland at Bronte between 1880-85." Dorland's stonehookers included the Madeline, Newsboy, Rapid City, and Northwest. Overall, during the nearly one century of its existence, over one hundred schooners were involved in some degree in the Lake Ontario stonehooking industry. 2

The elements of stonehooking were relatively simple. A stonehooker would anchor as close to the shore as possible, usually in anywhere from six to twelve feet of water. A cargo would be gathered by sending out a small, flat scow or barge onto which loads of stone would be piled. Workers would then pry slabs of shale from the lake bottom using long rakes with prong-like forks bent at right angles to the handle. The stone, in turn would be loaded onto the barge.

When filled, the barges would be poled or sculled to the waiting schooner where the stone would be offloaded onto the stonehooker's deck. Schooners such as the Coronet could store thirty tons of stone on her deck. The toise was the standard measure for stone. Piled in rectangles three feet high, six feet wide, and twelve feet long, with long slabs on the outside and smaller pieces of shale positioned in the middle, a toise would bring the stonehooking crew, depending upon the year and the demand, between $3.00 and $5.00. Three trips a week at two toise a trip was considered an excellent output for a two-man crew.

A toise of stone totalled 216 cubic feet. In comparison, a bush cord of wood (four by four by sixteen feet) amounted to 128 cubic feet. At the height of the industry, as many as 5,000 toise of stone were annually removed from Lake Ontario. In 1903, Toronto Harbour officials registered over 1,000 stonehooker loads of shale.

Many stonehookers worked as close as possible to the actual shore. This allowed men to wade, prying loose the shale with crowbars. Many of the waiting barges were equipped with hoists and "A" frames that assisted in loading shale onto the barge. Much of the stone was taken to Toronto where it was piled on Queen's Wharf at the foot of Bathurst Street. From there, it was removed to construction sites throughout the City, usually to be employed in forming the foundations for many of Toronto's stone and brick buildings.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, lakeside farmers were complaining that the wholesale stripping of stone from the lake bottom was destabilizing their land, leading to erosion. In 1857, the Three Rod Law was passed by the Ontario government prohibiting stonehookers from taking stone from within three "perches" (49 1/2 feet) of shore. Dorothy Turcotte in Places and People on Bronte Creek reports that the new legislation did not solve the problem. "Stone hookers simply sent a man up the mast to watch for farmers or anyone else who might notice that they were working too close to shore. As soon as they were spotted, they moved further out". 3

According to the marine historian and journalist, C. H. J. Snider, the taking of stone off the Scarborough Highlands (bluffs) was so extensive that signs were posted imploring stonehooking captains not to take stone from that area in order to prevent further erosion. 4

The stonehooking industry on Lake Ontario flourished until just after the close of World War I. With improved standards for Portland cement, concrete replaced stone as a building material.

Footnotes

  1. Thomas F. McIlwraith, Looking for Old Ontario, p. 83-84.
  2. Philip Brimacombe, The Story of Bronte Harbour, p. 37.
  3. Dorothy Turcotte, Places and People on Bronte Creek, p. 87.
  4. C. H. J. Snider, Tales From the Great Lakes, p. 25-27.