Please note that the Cataraqui Archaeological Research Foundation and the Kingston Archaeology Centre have closed. This site is still available for historical and informational reasons, but none of the services or products described here are available anymore.

Market Square

The Kingston Public Market is the oldest market in Ontario. Since its official founding in 1801 the market has operated as a community gathering place and has played an integral role in Kingston and our country's history.

An informal market was established on the same site in 1788 that the market now operates on today. As the Kingston population grew in the late 18th century, the market acted as the centre of the local economy and community. It was the Kingston Market Square that Lieutenant Governor Sir John Graves Simcoe chose as the location to proclaim the Constitutional Act which established Upper Canada as a separate jurisdiction on 8 July 1792.

In 1801 the Kingston Public Market was granted official status by the city of Kingston. By that time Kingston was home to 1,000 people and with the establishment of the British garrison, naval base and dockyard, demand for products was on the rise. The market was the economic and social heart of Kingston - with no stores in operation, the market was the place where anyone looking to buy, sell or trade goods came to do business. On a typical day at market you could find venison or game birds from a local hunter, fish caught by local fishermen, wood to heat your home, hay for your livestock, wool to make clothes and iron nails to build your house.

Detail of a plan of 1810 showing "h" as "Market Place Reservation" (LAC 3888).

By the mid-19th century Kingston had grown to 6,000 residents, and the market had grown with it to meet the increased demand. New businesses and buildings now surrounded the market including a city hall, hotels and merchant shops. Most of the market space was occupied by poorly constructed wooden stalls, referred to as the market shambles. The Great Fire of 1840 destroyed not only the market shambles, but most of the buildings surrounding it, including city hall. This gave rise to the reconstruction of the downtown core known as the 'limestone revolution'. Many of the buildings that you see today were constructed during this time.

1 July 1867 – Canada is born! It was in Kingston Market Square that the proclamation of Confederation and the formation of the Dominion of Canada occurred.

Reading the proclamation of Confederation in Market Square on 1 July (QUA).

During the mid 1900's, activity at the Kingston market slowed down as more space was needed to accommodate bigger roads, grocery stores won over consumers, and health regulations created stumbling blocks for vendors. Market space shrunk and Kingston Market Square was converted to a parking lot on non-market days. After years of struggle to maintain its place in the community, the market survived – largely thanks to the commitment of Kingston Public Market vendors and customers.

Market Square, crowded, looking north w/ Crown Bank of Canada visible

The Market Square underwent a major revitalization program from 2005 through 2007, the main purpose of which was to make the area more attractive and functional for residents of the city. New features incorporated included an outdoor skating rink and small amphitheatres in the north and south courtyards of city hall, all the while retaining the original use as a market place for farmers and other vendors to sell their wares. Kingston’s Market Square is part of the Kingston City Hall National Historic Site of Canada and underwent extensive archaeological excavations prior to the revitalization.

Excavations at Market Square.

Large areas of the Market Square were found to be remarkably undisturbed with intact archaeological deposits dating to the earliest occupation of the site by Europeans. Traces of what may have been the western battery of eighteenth century French Fort Frontenac were identified along the south edge of Brock Street. The foundations of commercial buildings dating to the early nineteenth century were also found along Brock Street, including a tavern and associated summer kitchen and privy. The foundations of the 1843 – 1865 Market Wing and clock tower were uncovered including an imposing set of limestone stairs that once led into the basement of that structure. The foundations of the 1853 – 1876 weigh house and several butchers’ shambles were also identified.

Site plan of excavations at Market Square.

Stemware excavated from the tavern privy (Photo by Rachel Brooks).

One of the most archaeologically significant features of the deposits is that they are marked stratigraphically by two intense fire events that are clearly documented in the historic record and also are clearly identifiable in most areas of the site. The first fire occurred on 17 April 1840 and wiped out all of the buildings erected to that date in the market square. Following the fire, the City Hall with a large Market Wing and shambles was constructed, commencing in 1843. The second fire occurred on 10 January 1865. It started in the clock tower on King Street and spread east through the Market Wing, but fortunately did not reach the main building of the City Hall. The Market Wing was demolished and rebuilt in a smaller version due mainly to financial constraints, with every attempt made to match the design of the City Hall. One result of the smaller Market Wing (or West Wing) was that more room was now available in the Market Square itself for vendors. The archaeology of Market Square in Kingston revealed extensive archaeological deposits relating to life in the heart of an early nineteenth century Upper Canadian town.

Close up burnt split peas from the burnt floor from a building located along Brock Street that burned to the ground in the Great Fire of April 17th 1840..