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Exploring Toronto’s Forgotten Watershed

Toronto is an metropolis that houses some 2.8 million people. In places like Dundas Square, standing in the midst of skyscrapers and glass facades, it can feel as though the city has engulfed you whole. 

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

(Image Source: Google Maps Street View)

But Toronto has not always been this way. The land on which Toronto grew its roots is placed firmly on complex network of rivers, creeks, lakes, and marshes. 

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Only when we begin digging, both in the literal and figurative sense, do we begin to uncover worlds far different from those of modern Toronto. Places rich with ecosystems, ravines, and marshes, along with the indigenous peoples who’ve cared for these spaces for thousands of years. 

As a tribute to these places, I would like to briefly introduce to you to several hydrological systems we lost in the fast development of Canada’s largest urban center:

1 . Taddle Creek

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

A map of Taddle Creek in 1872. (Image Source: Wadsworth & Unwin: Map of the City of Toronto, Library and Archives Canada: NMC25641)

Historically, Taddle Creek’s resources were thought to be used and stewarded by indigenous peoples of Canada. The water came from a small lake further inland, which also fed a number of similar sized tributaries throughout the region, supporting a variety of flora and fauna. Upon the arrival of Europeans, development slowly slithered North from what is now “Old Toronto” and began to set roots in the form of institutional buildings. One of these institutions was the University of Toronto, which, in attempt to harness the beauty of the creek while still leaving room for adjacent development, decided to transform it into a pond by damming it. This pond was admired by academics in the mid 1800s who noted the flora it supported, until it inevitably became polluted (water treatment was less sophisticated in those days). Later in the 1800s, the City began to bury what was left of the creek. First, the southern segment in the 1860s, and then University of Toronto segments in the 1880s.

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

McCaul’s Pond created by the damming of Taddle Creek on the University of Toronto Campus. (Image Source: Unknown)

If we walked along the ghost of Taddle Creek, we would begin just North of Casa Loma in a place called Wychwood Park. Here, a vestige of the creek is still visible….

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

(Image Source: BlogTO)

… We would then stroll down through the University of St. George Campus at Toronto…

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

(Image Source: University of Toronto

 …. and end inside the Toronto Eaton Center. 

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

(Image Source: Raysonho)

Today, one of the only recognizable vestiges of the creek is a park of the same name, overtop of where it would have turned South towards the University of Toronto. A strange, avante-garde style fountain is the only water left pouring in memory of Taddle Creek. 

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

The giant cistern is known as “the vessel” , created by Ilan Sandler in 2009. (Image Source: Toronto Savy)

2. Castle Frank Brook

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

(Image Source: blogTO)

Castle Frank Brook can be thought of as Taddle Creek’s big sibling. It extends 12 kilometers (not including tributaries) through central Toronto. While little of the brook’s pre-European history has been recorded, the brook was known to run through land of incredibly high real estate potential, according to the elites of early 20th century Toronto. The brook’s name comes from an elegant summer home it passes near its end (where it opens into the Don River Valley) called Caste Frank, which was owned by Sir John Graves, Lady Simcoe, and their son, Francis in the 18th century. Sir Graves, aside from being known as the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, was involved with development of early Toronto. 

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Sir John Graves ordered his men (the Queen’s Rangers of York) to cut trees for what eventually would become Yonge Street. (Image Source: Kita Inoru

Though some of the brook still exists, the vast majority was buried to make way for urban development.

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

How the brook appeared in 1890 in an area of Toronto now known as Cabbagetown (Image Source: W.G. MacFarlane)

If we walked along the brook today, we would begin at Yorkdale Secondary School (based on descriptions and historical maps)….

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Image Source: Google Maps Street View

Walk through Cedarvale Park and find a vestige of the brook meandering below heavily vegetated forest….

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Image Source: Google Maps Street View

Walk East of Casa Loma through an expensive residential neighbourhood …

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Image Source: Google Maps Street View

Duck underneath the Canadian Pacific Rail line…

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Image Source: Google Maps Street View

Walk through Ramsden Park…

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Image Source: Google Maps Street View

And end in the Don Valley Parkway…

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Image Source: Google Maps Street View

While certain portions of Castle Frank Brook can be found today, the vast majority of it, along with its surrounding landscape has been levelled out and developed overtop of, especially in the suburban areas of North York. Only in Ramsden Park do we still see traces of the creek, though the majority of Torontonians are likely unaware that this vestige was once part of a much larger watershed. 

3. Ashbridge Marsh

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

A map of Ashbridge Marsh drawn out in 1815. (Image Source: Tommy Thompson Park)

As one of Ontario’s largest marshes, Ashbridge was an ecological masterpiece, home to a variety of migratory birds and an array of aquatic flora and fauna. When Europeans arrived, settlers recognized the Marsh for its abundance of fish and wildfowl, which they hunted to their hearts’ content. At this time, you could have walked from the marsh to the Toronto islands on land, before they were separated after a storm in 1858

By the late 19th century, Toronto began rapidly developing into an industrial city, and a good portion of this development was taking place along the shoreline. This led to Ashbridge Marsh being contaminated with manure and sewage, so much so that it became a serious breeding ground for cholera and other diseases. In response to the crisis, the city created a channel through the marsh to improve water flow, but this ended up having little effect. 

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Dredging of the Marsh in the 1890s. (Image Source: Don Valley Historical Mapping Project and the City of Toronto Archives)

By the 20th century, the marsh remained a serious health concern. Meanwhile, there was a push to create new industrial lands near the water where products could be easily exported via Lake Ontario. For these reasons, the marsh was almost completely filled in by the 1920s. When the manufacturing era collapsed in the 1970s, the land was left underused and polluted with industrial waste. This has led the City of Toronto to come up with numerous revitalization plans, with the hopes of restoring this area into an inhabitable community.

If we went to Ashbridge Marsh today, we would venture into in area known as the Port Lands, just South of the Gardiner Expressway. Here we might see rusting industrial landscapes like what I found when I last visited…

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Or quiet streets like this…

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

But we would also see Yacht Clubs enjoyed by the bourgeois of Toronto…

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Ashbridge’s Bay Yacht Club. (Image Source: marinas.com)

Since the marsh has been virtually erased from Toronto, its legacy has nearly been forgotten. Indeed, many locals are probably more familiar with Ashbridge Bay (as the small existing waterway where yachts and sailboats dock) than Ashbridge Marsh. Fortunately, with the redevelopment of the waterfront through projects like Sidewalk Labs, there has been a comeback in its recognition, as locals have become more invested in the potential the land has to offer. 

***

This list makes up only a small portion of the lost watershed archived by historians, urbanists, and indigenous peoples. With the transformation of Toronto into a urban core of Canada, many more rivers, creeks, and wetlands were lost and forgotten (an extensive list of these waterways has been archived by the Toronto group Lost River Walks). Aquatic ecosystems that once served as home for a variety of animals were slowly demolished into smaller and smaller fragments. Their cultural and natural importance, both to First Nations groups and settlers, were lost along with the destruction and development. Fading from our collective consciousness, we have slowly forgotten how much they provided for us, and instead look to a diminishing pool of external resources to sustain our source of potable water, food, and spiritual connection with the natural world, all within the urban environment. 

It’s far too late to recover a complete version of Toronto’s aquatic system, but the surviving portions have become an important component of the urban fabric. Explore the city and you’ll notice these surviving streams intermingling with buildings, hiding in parks, and squeezing under bridges. 

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed

Some bits of lost creeks can still be found in the oddest places. This is most likely a vestige of Taddle Creek flowing into a grate. (Image Source: blogTO)

I can only hope that our future generations will keep what remains of the watershed a part of Toronto’s living eco-urban system rather than a part of our history. 

Author

Exploring Toronto's Forgotten Watershed
Ross is a graduate student at Ryerson University studying urban planning.