A History of T.O'.S [H.Sub.2]O: The Waterways That Surround and Run through Toronto Have Shaped Its Past

By Tait, Kim; Burridge, Mary | ROM Magazine, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

A History of T.O'.S [H.Sub.2]O: The Waterways That Surround and Run through Toronto Have Shaped Its Past


Tait, Kim, Burridge, Mary, ROM Magazine


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For more than two centuries, an abundant supply of fresh water has fuelled Toronto's growth and prosperity. The city's many waterways have offered pleasurable places for recreation and abundant sources of fresh food, but they've also been the source of outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever. In many ways, Toronto's water has shaped the city we know today.

Toronto's six waterways--the Etobicoke, Mimico, Humber, and Don rivers, Highland Creek, and the Rouge River--drain into Lake Ontario along 157 kilometres of constantly changing shoreline. The first settlements in the Toronto region, established by the Petun and Neutrals, were strategically located near the mouths of the Humber and the Rouge. When Europeans arrived, they followed the same pattern, building their settlements around water.

By 1834, when the city of York was incorporated as Toronto, there were 9,254 residents. As the population grew and became more concentrated, the availability of clean, safe drinking water and proper means for disposing of waste and sewage developed into issues. The dangers and consequences of unsanitary conditions were not immediately recognized--at great cost to public health.

In those early days, many small streams and creeks flowed through the city. Taddle Creek--which flowed from the Annex southeast through the University of Toronto lands before emptying into Lake Ontario--was one example. Local residences and breweries drew on it for their fresh water. But the creek was also used as a dumping ground for waste, and by 1830 people were reporting foul smells. The contamination of waterways such as Taddle Creek led to several cholera outbreaks in the city. In 1832, cholera claimed the lives of more than 200 residents and threatened the city's economy. As a result, the York Board of Health was put in charge of guarding against future infectious diseases. But the city's numerous waterways made it particularly vulnerable to epidemics of water-borne illnesses and the board was not able to prevent outbreaks of typhoid fever in 1845 and 1847 and of cholera in 1849, 1854, and 1866.

In the early 1860s, before unsanitary water was discovered to be the cause of the cholera outbreaks, Taddle Creek was dammed to create McCaul's Pond, a long sinuous water feature on the University of Toronto campus. Students used it for fishing, skating, and swimming. But it, too, became increasingly polluted as more large buildings went up in the area, including the Toronto Baptist College (now occupied by the Royal Conservatory of Music). The increased waste in the Yorkville drains was discharged into the already-overwhelmed Taddle Creek and swept downstream to fester in McCaul's Pond. Meanwhile in the Toronto Harbour there was so much sewage accumulation that it was interfering with the movement of cargo.

Clearly something had to be done. The city established the Water Works Commission and installed an infrastructure and piping system to draw the city's water supply from the lake. In the early 1870s, the commission decided to move the intake pipe for the city's water supply from the harbour to the lakeside of Toronto Island, and water was piped through a 3-kilometre wooden conduit, using the island's sands as a natural filter. In 1881 the city enacted a bylaw that required citizens to abandon private wells and use the piped city supply.

As time went on, a series of broken pipes, more sewage dumping, and further typhoid epidemics led the city to experiment with and adopt chlorine disinfection as a sanitization method. Toronto became a North American leader in the use of this technology. It wasn't until much later, due to the high cost, that Toronto got its first sewage-treatment facility, which uses physical, chemical, and biological processes for decontaminating water.

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To simplify water delivery and fire protection throughout the city, in the mid-1870s the city constructed the Rosehill Reservoir just southeast of Yonge and St. …

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