The town of Ajax, a forty-five minute GO train ride east of Toronto, is a product of the Second World War. In 1941, Canadian Defense Industries Limited established a munitions plant in what was then a sparsely populated region of Pickering township. At its peak, there were 9,000 workers employed filling shells for the plant, which became the largest munitions factory in the Commonwealth. The GO Transit line (discussed at the end of the Highland Creek walk) had not yet been built so getting workers to the factory was a challenge.
Those who lived in Toronto or Oshawa boarded the bus between these two cities, which let them out near the location of the present day GO station where overcrowded wooden seated “cattle cars” waited to take them down to the munitions plant. Many workers became frustrated with the wait and simply jogged down Harwood Ave to ensure that they punched in at the shell plant clock on time.
In these conditions, dormitories were established for male and female workers, who eventually came from all over Canada, and a town grew up to provide amenities for them. After the war, the munitions factory temporarily became a became a satellite campus of the University of Toronto, offering engineering programs for returning veterans. Demand for affordable housing within commuting distance of Toronto meant that the town continued to grow to its present population of 109,600.
I am walking the South Ajax portion of the Trans Canada Trail in reverse from the GO station to the lake front where I wrapped up my Pickering walk a few weeks ago.
Today (February 20), is unseasonably warm, which also means unseasonably muddy as I set off along Duffin’s Creek, named by surveyor Augustus Jones in 1791 for an early pioneer who may not have actually existed.
According to legend, Duffin lived in a cabin on the creek that was always open to passing travelers. One day, a visitor stopped by to find the cabin door ajar, blood on the floor and signs of a struggle. Duffin was never seen again.
After determining that my new hiking boots are indeed mud proof and waterproof, I join the main gravel trail.
At first, there is the same dull roar of traffic in the distance that reminds me of my walk on the Lower Don Valley trail in Toronto. The water quality of Duffin’s Creek is also similar to the Lower Don – the local sewage treatment plant empties into Lake Ontario along the creek.
The trail becomes quieter as it nears the lake, winding its way along the backyards of residential Ajax and ending at Rotary Park.
I have little interest in turning around and walking back through the mud along the shores of Duffin’s Creek so I stroll east along the waterfront trail and enjoy the view of Lake Ontario.
The Ajax Waterfront Trail leads to the ship shaped Veterans Point Gardens.
Ajax is named for the HMS Ajax, the flagship of the British naval squadron that defeated the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee at the Battle of the River Plate, the first allied naval victory of the Second World War.
Under the command of Admiral Sir Henry Harwood Harwood (a fourth cousin three times removed of mine, if I am reading the family tree correctly), the HMS Ajax, the HMS Exeter and the HMS Achilles critically damaged the Admiral Graf Spee, which was disrupting allied shipping routes in South American waters. In 1956, the Battle inspired a movie, The Battle of the River Plate with Anthony Quayle in the role of Commodore Harwood.
From Veterans Gardens, I follow in the footsteps of the 1940s munitions workers at the end of a long day at the factory, walking along Harwood Road back to the GO train station. The next segment of the Trans Canada Trail continues north from there, toward the town of Uxbridge.
Getting There By Public Transit: Ajax GO Station
Further Reading: The Royal Navy Since 1815: A New Short History by Eric J. Grove
The Globe and Mail, Deeds of Ajax defined an era at U of T, Anthony Reinhart, November 7, 2005