Back in the early 1970s, the federal government had the idea that air traffic was going to grow exponentially, and that Malton Airport (now known as Pearson) wouldn’t be able to handle the crowds. Fresh from starting construction on a grand new international airport north of Montreal, the federal decided that Toronto needed a new mega-airport to handle the 96.4 million passengers that would pass through Toronto by 2000. (In 2006, Pearson handled a respectable 31.0 million, less than one-third projected for seven years ago.)
In 1972, the federal government announced Pickering as the site for Toronto’s second international airport. The site was politically motivated: the terrain was not terribly suitable for an airport, and the location close to Pearson’s airspace (there were five earlier planned sites), but the Ontario government wanted to spur development to the east of Toronto, as part of its Toronto-Centred Plan, and would build a new community, called Cherrywood or Seaton, nearby.
The federal government froze and expropriated 18,600 hectares (7,530 acres) of property in Pickering north of Highway 7 and west of Brock Road — a large section of Markham and a sliver of Uxbridge. A thriving farming community was destroyed, the lands then rented either back to their previous owners, or to cash-crop farmers. As buildings vacated, they were boarded up or demolished. The airport was postponed in 1976 after protests, government fiscal restraint, and the failure of Mirabel, but the damage was done.
In 2005, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority released a draft plan for the construction of a new airport, which would have two runways by 2012, serving first general avation, but later a third runway, and full passenger and cargo services, by 2032. (The full draft plan can be found here – 12 MB PDF report, page 64 of 120 shows the planned airport layout).
According to the recent GTAA plan, the new passenger terminal would be located here, at Sideline 24 and the 7th Concession.
All around, houses and community buildings have been boarded up, though some farmsteads linger on. The country roads are quiet, even for rural sideroads. Many of the properties have forbiding “No Trespassing” signs as ordered by Transport Canada. Along Brock Road, there are hand-painted signs protesting the airport plans, but along the country roads, an eerie silence.
Some of the houses look otherwise well-kept; they appear to be recent vacancies.
Other houses are neglected and boarded-up, including an otherwise well-preserved schoolhouse.
Towards the north end of the site is the village of Altona, which almost has the feel of a ghost town. North of Durham Road 5, the expropriated lands are designated as greenspace connecting Rouge Park with the Oak Ridges Moraine, but remains in the hands of the federal government. Over half the buildings in the village are boarded up.
In Altona, there is an old Mennonite church and cemetery. The church’s windows are covered, but by Plexiglas instead of plywood, and the headstones date back at least to the 1850s. One of the most visible memorials is to a boy who died at the age of 1 year, 11 months and 8 days in 1850. According to the plaque next to the church, the last service was held in 1974, just as the government was in the middle of expropriations. The cemetery is maintained by a congregation out of Kitchener.
Driving through the Pickering Airport lands was fascinating and surreal. It was hard to remember that this will eventually be the site of an international airport (the largest airports in the area were two model airplane clubs). The semi-abandoned nature of such good farmland, so close to Toronto, seemed unnatural (which it is, really).
But many questions linger in my mind. With so much of the aircraft traffic in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor, wouldn’t high-speed rail be the better answer? With Pearson still undergoing a massive expansion and renovation, adding two new runways and a new, beautiful terminal, could we not continue to use that airport? What about Hamilton’s airport — could that not be expanded as well?