It’s the absence of hubbub, both sight and sound, that is initially compelling. The only vehicles allowed in the historic Distillery District of Toronto are person-powered bicycles. A quiet hovers, and you take a deep and satisfying breath in..and out.
Then gradually, the impact deepens. Your eyes, (and mind) take in the historic beauty of the 40 stone, brick and mortar buildings that make up the complex, located in the Parliament Street area of the bustling city.
For history-seekers like me, the Distillery experience is almost a reverential one. I’m compelled to speak in hushed tones as I walk and wander and imagine….
Come along with me as I discover one of Ontario’s richest historic sites. You’ll be glad you made the time.
Curiously, it was a Dutch-styled windmill that marked the birth of the Distillery District. More than 35 years before Canada became a nation, in 1831, James Worts immigrated to Canada from England. It was here that Worts, a successful miller planned to make his fortune.
A year later, he was joined by his brother-in-law William Gooderham and an entourage of 54 family members and servants. Included in this number were 11 orphans, children of other British immigrants who had died on the particularly difficult ocean crossing.
Gooderham and Worts immediately set to building a 70-foot windmill on the lakeshore, just outside the fledgling settlement of York, now Toronto. Wind power would run the machines that would turn the grain into flour.
But the wind was fickle in this part of the wild and wooly Canada, and production fluctuated. The future of the enterprise turned even more uncertain, when in 1834, Worts wife died in childbirth. Distraught at her loss, James Worts threw himself down a well and died.
Gooderham carried on alone for a time, with his vision of the “Great Canadian Dream” undaunted. In fact he’d begun eyeing alcohol manufacturing in addition to milling. To William Gooderham goes the prize for best Canadian business decision of 1837!
Serendipitously, his vision had coincided with the invention of steam power. Gooderham quickly deserted the unpredictable windmill, and in 1859, now joined in business partnership by the deceased James Wort’s son, he commenced construction of a stone Distillery Building on the site.
Soon, Canadian whisky was flowing. It’s then loaded onto lake and ocean-going ships docked on G&W’s “doorstep.” Today, the G&W complex is at least a kilometer from the lakefront. Over the years, Toronto has made more room for itself courtesy of “landfill.”
A Second Generation
The second generation of Gooderham & Worts guided its expansion into a major Canadian industry. Over the next 35 years, over three dozen buildings would join the complex. Gooderham & Worts Distillery would become the largest in the British Empire. Some said the world.
Let’s take a respite from G&W history to take in a few of the present-day sights. And handsome ones they are. Our tour guide for today is Toronto historian Sally Gibson. Sally has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Gooderham & Worts.
We begin our walking tour at the stote Distillery Building, the oldest structure of the D&W complex. Fashioned from Kingston limestone and rising five stories high, it’s a marvelous if, formidable structure. “The walls are 3-feet thick at the base,” notes Sally, “and David Roberts Sr., the architect, took for his inspiration Classical architecture.”
Echoing a voice from early Canadian television, “The Friendly Giant,” Sally instructs us to “look up, look waaay up” once we are inside.The open stairway allows us to see to the top story of the building. Some of the original milling, fermenting and distilling “works” are still on display.
Our guide reminds us that like many of the structures built in our country’s early years, fire would consume the wooden interior of the building. The stone “fortress” and much of the iron machinery fortuitously held, and the Distillery was rebuilt.
Grey limestone melds to red clay brick as we follow Sally through the rest of the Distillery complex. The genius of architects David Roberts Sr. and Jr. is on display throughout the rest of the functionary, yet decorative buildings.
“The workmanship is glorious,” I comment to my guide, as my eyes rest on towers, saw-tooth brick detailings, elegant cupolas, and highly-carved corbels (brackets).
Our next stops are the G&W Cooperage (barrel) buildings. At their height of production, the firm was pumping out two million gallons of alcohol a year. Imagine the number of barrels needed for this output! G&W’s skilled Coopers (barrel-makers) working in 4 Cooperage buildings churned out over 40,000 barrels a year.
We now follow our guide to the Pure Spirits buildings, numbering 7 in total. This is where the G&W brew was purified before storage. Sally points out the windows in the elegant buildings. “Because the alcohol was highly flammable and could explode, the architect, Roberts, designed the windows to blow out instead of inwards,” she tells us. “This saved the employees and the buildings themselves.”
The Industry is Regulated
In 1885, the Ontario legislature passed into law, a bill which now required alcohol to be “seasoned” two years before being sold. The law aimed at “protecting the health of consumers.” Coinciding with a demand for more products, hence an increase in G&W production, the need for more storage became predominant.
Over the next 12 years, a total of 12 Rack and Tank Houses were built. The Racks stored empty barrels; the Tank Houses stored filled barrels. The largest Tank House, six stories high, speaks to the immensity of the Gooderham & Worts operation.
And with fire an omnipresent reality, in 1895 G&W constructed their own Fire Pump House. A 400,000 gallon water reservoir was connected to the fire pumps.
And what of the fortunes of the G&W empire into the 20th century? The long slide downwards came with World War 1. To support the war effort, alcohol production was phased back and acetone production predominated.
Then Prohibition brought alcohol production to a standstill. In 1927, Gooderham & Worts, now in decline was bought and merged into the Hiram Walker Company. Whiskey production stopped in Toronto.
Designated a National Historic Site in 1988, in 1990, after 153 years in production, Gooderham & Worts closed. The buildings were now used primarily for movie filming. It has become Hollywood North!
In 2001 the complex was purchased by a Toronto holding company, Cityscape Holdings. A massive and visionary reconstruction project was begun. In 2003, Toronto’s historic Distillery District opened. It now housed trendy shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. It was declared a pedestrian-only village.
We thank the knowledgeable and personable Sally Gibson and return to the buzz of Toronto. My sigh of relaxtion becomes one of tension as we battle the traffic home. But we’ll come again and spend more time poking around this gem of Toronto history. You should too!