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There's more than one reason to dig up Guelph's past

This week's Market Squared talks about the history we don't see and why we should start looking at it.
20160421 BAKER STREET ts
File photo

If you’re like me, you’ve been obsessively following the bi-weekly update about the findings of the archaeological excavation of the Baker Street parking lot.

Ghoulish? Perhaps, but if you were a kid raised on Indiana Jones movies, this is probably the closest you will ever get to the thrills of unearthing the past despite the precious lack of treasure, booby traps and the supernatural.

I would also say that there’s something compelling about unearthing Guelph’s past. So much of our history is on display as preserved heritage buildings or in carefully curated display cases at the Civic Museum and McCrae House that there’s a thrill of rediscovery having to dig into the earth and revealing the past rather than turning a corner and seeing it right there in front of you.

What remains of these early residents of Guelph in the Baker lot are just bone fragments, 37 discovered so far at last report, but the discovery of human remains has also revealed other kinds of remains. A peak through the construction fence last fall revealed several grave shafts, the remains of a brick crypt, and a petrified tree trunk only a few metres below the surface of where we’ve been parking for years.

There’s actually a lot going on in Guelph under the surface, and much of it you wouldn’t notice if you hadn’t heard about it or somehow stumbled upon the information.

Consider the Fountain Street parking lot across the road from Guelph police headquarters, did you know that it was the site of the Guelph Coal Gasification Plant from 1871 to 1957? While the city has been monitoring the site for environmental concerns around soil contamination, that parking lot is a great big brownsite that still needs cleaning up nearly seven decades after the plant was closed.

In the spring, take a walk along the Eramosa River between Gordon and Victoria, and you might find relics from Guelph past, remembrances from the good old days when we dumped our garbage by the river. The earth occasionally belches up old bottles or leather goods to the surface, a reminder that many of the city’s beautiful riverside amenities were once Guelph’s riverside garbage can.

And who would have guessed that the parking lot behind Quebec Street and Wyndham Street was once a graveyard? Sure, there were history buffs that knew, but it certainly came as a surprise to me the first time I looked into the lot’s history in 2005 when a sinkhole on Baker revealed a forgotten grave.

I was on the staff at the University of Guelph student paper The Ontarion at the time, and I eagerly chronicled this bizarre story. I learned about the old graveyard there, and how Guelph passed a bylaw decades after it opened that said you can’t bury people within the city limits.

That’s how the Woodlawn Cemetery was created! The town planners at the time thought it was far enough outside the city limits to accommodate growth. How little they knew. It seems kind of silly now, but I try to imagine those olden days walking from downtown Guelph to Woodlawn to pay respects to a deceased loved one. The Guelph Factor of the 19th century, perhaps?

So what does this have to do with a column about the politics of city hall in the 21st century?

It’s notable that there was some opposition to closing the Baker Street parking lot, especially since there’s still a while before construction formally begins on the new Baker Street development. But don’t the people still buried in that old graveyard, or still have a part of themselves left there, deserve to be found and re-interred with care and dignity?

But this also rubs our face in the heritage we don’t talk about, the history we buried or covered up or left to fester for decades lacking the will or money or direction to fix it. The old IMICo site at 200 Beverley St. is a good example of this, a big blight about to go on the market after years of trying to do something with it knowing the first step is the biggest, making it safely habitable for people.

And how many of us walk by these places not knowing the history that’s literally underfoot? How many times has someone parked in the Fountain Street parking lot and wondered why such prime real estate is just another ugly patch of asphalt? What other secrets are waiting to be found between Guelph’s other cracks and crevices?

It was mentioned at committee of the whole this week that we are now just five years away from Guelph’s bicentennial year. It will be a celebration of Guelph history, but it should also be an occasion to raise the history we once plowed over so that we can confront our (hopefully) former shortsightedness. The truly ghoulish thing would be to pretend that none of this ever happened in the first place.