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10 quirky things you might not know about Toronto

Posted by Derek Flack / September 10, 2013

Secret TorontoEvery city has features that remain obscure. Be it lost subway stations, hidden passageways or bits of history that still shape our current streetscape, there are "secrets" lurking all across our urban milieu. Many of these hidden places have been documented by explorers of abandonments and other sites that don't welcome public access, but there are also quirky aspects of our city that sit out in the open, hiding in plain view. Here's a list of 10 features of the Toronto landscape that are as fascinating as they are little known. Please add your local lore to the comments section below.

Transformer Houses
That quaint-looking house with the high fence in the back and no mailbox, yeah that's not really a house (see lead image). Scattered across Toronto, there's a host of hidden transformers, many of which are located in nondescript residential houses.

Lower Queen Station
Most people know about Lower Bay Station, but there's also something of hidden subway station under Queen. Before the Bloor-Danforth subway was built, the plan had been to build a Queen Street subway line, and prior to that project being shelved, the shell of a station was carved out near City Hall.

Dundas Street TorontoDundas was stitched together from different streets
In the early 20th century, the city lacked a main east-west thoroughfare between College and Queen Street, which was causing major problems for traffic flow. The solution? To rename and connect a whole series of smaller streets into one main roadway, which is the Dundas Street we know today.

Bicycle Actuated Signals
Ever noticed three white dots embedded in the pavement at an intersection and wondered what they're for? They detect the presence of a bicycle and tell the light to change at intersections where the signals are set to remain on green until a vehicle arrives at the cross street.

Crawford Street Bridge TorontoThere's a bridge buried under Trinity Bellwoods Park
Head south on Crawford Street from Dundas, and you notice that the road narrows considerably for a section of about 25 metres or so. Underneath this stretch lies the old Crawford Street Bridge, which spanned Garrison Creek until the 1960s when it was filled in with earth from the Bloor-Danforth subway line. A second buried bridge exists on Harbord Street west of Grace, the north railing of which is still visible to this day.

The Imperial Oil building could have been City Hall
Now in the process of being converted into condos, the former Imperial Oil building near Avenue and St. Clair might instead have been located at 100 Queen St. W. if a group of architecture firms got its way in 1955. Instead, the city ultimately decided to have a design competition, which was won by Viljo Revell. Um, phew!

Wychwood ParkToronto has private streets
Toronto is home to some 250 private streets and laneways, which residents maintain on their own dime. Some are gated like the half-hidden community of Wychwood Park, while others lack much by way of obvious markers.

The Bloor Viaduct starts at Sherbourne
Opened in fall of 1918, the bridge system that makes up the Bloor Viaduct actually consists of three parts: the iconic section that spans the Don Valley, the smaller western section that runs above Rosedale Valley, and the section between Sherbourne and Parliament, which is built on fill.

20130415-HalfHouse-Front-Close.jpgToronto has a house that's been sawed in half
You could walk by it 20 times and not notice, but once you do, it looks like an optical illusion. Half of this house at 54 1/2 St. Patrick Street was sold to a developer, while the other half has remained to this day.

The subway was once designated a nuclear fallout shelter
Back at the height of the Cold War, TTC subway tunnels were seriously considered for use as a possible fallout shelter in the event of an attack on Toronto or neighbouring cities like Detroit or Buffalo. Now that's a recipe for a post-apocalyptic horror movie if I've ever seen one.

BONUS

There are washrooms beneath our streets
Although no longer in use, Toronto had a series of underground public toilets at the turn of the century. The most popular of these was located at Spadina and Queen streets, and can be spotted in many photos from the period. These might come in handy again, you know. They sure seem to be slow on rolling out the new ones.

Discussion

70 Comments

DavidP / September 10, 2013 at 03:42 pm
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Too bad the half the time you roll up onto the bicycle actuated signals, they never work. The intersection will count down and then go right back to green, and then you clumsily walk/bike into the sidewalk to push the pedestrian button to trigger the intersection. We need bike crossing buttons like in Vancouver!
Michael Fazackerley / September 10, 2013 at 03:48 pm
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Addendum to the bike dots. I know about these. They do not sense more modern bicycles made out of aluminum or carbon fibre. You need a good ol' steel or chromoly bike for that. Works for the hipsters on the Eddie Bauer 10 speeds. ;)

Lots of interesting information comes out regarding The Bloor Viaduct (and other interesting Toronto lore like the Byzantium inspired pumping station out East along the beaches area) in Michael Ondaatje's 'In the Skin of a Lion'. One would have to tease the fact from fiction but I do believe Michael placed quite a bit of factual detail in there. I checked some, the pumping station is there for sure!
Sarah / September 10, 2013 at 03:48 pm
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I pass by the house in the lead image on my way to work every day and always wondered what was up with it! Did not expect that! I like articles like this.
Rob / September 10, 2013 at 04:27 pm
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Sucks that we buried a number of rivers in this city. They certainly could have made the cityscape more interesting.
Victor / September 10, 2013 at 05:06 pm
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Actually- Lower Queen was meant to house streetcars- like St. Clair West.
Burial / September 10, 2013 at 05:24 pm
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Can someone please explain how bridges and rivers are "buried"? Does that mean it is possible to excavate and bring them back into usage, in theory? Did Torontonians of 100 years ago walk on ground that was considerably lower than today's sidewalks, as a result of all the burying?
BM / September 10, 2013 at 05:27 pm
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GREAT article! I love my city!
BM / September 10, 2013 at 05:30 pm
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And thanks Derek for another great article.
RE: burial / September 10, 2013 at 06:53 pm
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The year I was in Korea, there was a stream in Seoul that was dug up and turned into a park. It had been filled in to build a road in the 60's. It was pretty cool to see.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheonggyecheon
Michael Yuffa / September 10, 2013 at 07:17 pm
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No wonder its one the fastest growing cities on the planet. It's one of the most beautiful and welcoming.
Rob / September 10, 2013 at 07:19 pm
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How about a secret Tunnel from the King Eddy Hotel to the Flatiron building? http://kingeddyhotel.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/the-secret-tunnel-of-the-king-edward-hotel/

And I was told the Hotel was built on the site of the first Jail in the city and in the sub basement of the Hotel there is still an original Jail cell...
Melanie / September 10, 2013 at 08:32 pm
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Not to disparage your lovely article as I always like to look at the positive side of things, but I really don't think these features do anything to enhance this city. Who cares about things that are hidden that we can't see, doesn't add to the charm of this somewhat lackluster city. Cities like Boston, Chicago and San Francisco for example, have much quirkier, cooler elements. Toronto is a snoozefest and sadly, so was this article.
faves / September 10, 2013 at 08:38 pm
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I thought the first jails were in the St. lawrence market. You can still see it when you enter the main entrance and go to the basement. Looks like an alcove. Also the original building which can still be seen housed the 2nd city hall, at least I think it was the 2nd. City council was having a meeting on the second floor and a fire broke out downstairs. The floor went out and councilors fell to their death. Some of them onto the meat hooks below.
phuong / September 10, 2013 at 08:51 pm
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this is the most awesome post I read today. All these gems and treasures - in OUR city! *amazed
Thank you for writing this post.
Gee replying to a comment from Michael Fazackerley / September 10, 2013 at 09:37 pm
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Toronto hipsters ride Steve Bauer bikes, not Eddy Bauer...
torontowner replying to a comment from faves / September 10, 2013 at 09:46 pm
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The original Toronto Jail was out near Corktown
Elle / September 10, 2013 at 10:11 pm
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How can I find out if the creepy house at the end of my street is a transformer house?
Shawn / September 10, 2013 at 10:39 pm
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I've walked past OCAD scores of times; I never knew there was a half-house right near by. Cool article!
Rob replying to a comment from torontowner / September 10, 2013 at 10:55 pm
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Me thinks you are wrong.. and it seems others including the Brass Plaque on the king Eddy agree with me... :-)

http://www.brucebelltours.ca/page6.html

http://schools.tdsb.on.ca/jarvisci/history/jail1.htm

http://tayloronhistory.com/2012/06/18/torontos-architectural-gemsthe-king-edward-hotel/
JoJo replying to a comment from torontowner / September 10, 2013 at 11:03 pm
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Toronto's first jail was located where the King Edward Hotel stands today.
the lemur replying to a comment from DavidP / September 10, 2013 at 11:33 pm
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I've never seen a crossing with bike dots do that. Some of them just have really long red stages. Bike signals would be nice as long as they respond quickly. Out on the Finch hydro trail there are bike and ped signals side by side and they both take an eternity to have any effect.
the lemur replying to a comment from Melanie / September 10, 2013 at 11:36 pm
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It's the things that don't stand out that ARE the charm of this city - it only seems lacklustre on the surface. And this article only scratches the surface.

You didn't give a single example of any of the 'much quirkier, cooler elements' of SF, Boston or Chicago, so why should anyone believe you?
Jon / September 10, 2013 at 11:38 pm
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LOVE THIS!!! Great Read
Jen replying to a comment from Melanie / September 10, 2013 at 11:51 pm
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Yes, clearly you're a very positive person!

Was just in Boston and definitely think Toronto is head and shoulders more entertaining and just as lovely if not more so.
the lemur replying to a comment from Elle / September 11, 2013 at 12:02 am
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1. You will never see anyone go in or out, although a hydro technician may be in the area occasionally.
2. You may hear a hum.
3. There will be a light on sometimes, but there is nothing to really see through any of the windows.
Tam / September 11, 2013 at 12:11 am
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Yes there's a few of these around. Some not actually a house but still placed in the community. Theres a power station at College and Douvercourt, a few doors from the Starbucks.
Commercial Electricity Prices / September 11, 2013 at 05:08 am
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WN replying to a comment from Elle / September 11, 2013 at 07:59 am
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Re: transformer houses, although they are meant to blend into the background, when you get closer, there are large warning signs posted warning about high voltage, etc. That's probably a warning sign on the door in the photo in this article.
jen / September 11, 2013 at 09:30 am
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There's another half a house (or half and a quarter?) around 60 Spadina, west side, just south of the Calphalon building on King.
Linda / September 11, 2013 at 09:43 am
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I also like the old remaining air raid sirens in the city, like the one at Dundas & Shaw: http://www.thestar.com/news/2007/09/23/the_mystery_of_the_air_raid_sirens.html
Allie replying to a comment from Burial / September 11, 2013 at 09:54 am
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I went on a walking tour of Bellwoods/Garrison. We were told that it was because of disease that the rivers were filled. Not sure of the credibility but there you go!
Elizabeth / September 11, 2013 at 10:07 am
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I love this article. Thanks Derek!!
JG / September 11, 2013 at 10:45 am
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got really excited when I saw this article, and then didn't learn much at all. it's not you - it's me! can't get enough of this city. yet hard pressed to learn anything I didn't know after researching all these years. great article. maybe one day I'll finally be stumped!
Alex / September 11, 2013 at 10:53 am
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Not exactly hidden, but there is a Hydro station on Yonge near Lawrence (at the intersection of Yonge and Glengrove Ave) that looks like a cross between a church and a castle. I always thought it was the coolest hydro station ever.
Michael replying to a comment from Melanie / September 11, 2013 at 11:16 am
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Typical self-loathing Torontonian/Canadian. "Everywhere is better than here!We suck!"
What nonsense.

Ever have someone from another country come to Toronto? I have, many times...including two friends from Melbourne just a week ago.
They LOVE it! They find Toronto to be a vibrant, fun, interesting and eccentric city.

Try seeing your own city with fresh eyes like a visitor.
Brazen Lee / September 11, 2013 at 11:22 am
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According to the Toronto website, most of the semi-actuated stop lights are NOT sensitive enough to detect bicycles. So it's rather inaccurate to refer to them as bicycle actuated signals. Although, the city welcomes you to call 311 and report dots in need of sensitizing.
the lemur replying to a comment from JG / September 11, 2013 at 11:38 am
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I love the fact that blogTO put out a call on Twitter for people to submit their favourite oddities/hidden things in Toronto and then proceeded to use nobody's suggestions but their own, essentially.
Candy Charters / September 11, 2013 at 11:54 am
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As someone from the lower 48, I'd venture that Toronto is the coolest city in North America. I'm sure many Torontonians might dispute this, but TO seems very British to me - and I love it!
Sandra Marwood replying to a comment from Candy Charters / September 11, 2013 at 01:43 pm
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No comment on any of the other opinions about Toronto but British, it's not, nor even European. Why compare it to somewhere. Let it have it's own uniqueness, if it's there.
Sigh replying to a comment from Burial / September 11, 2013 at 02:41 pm
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They aren't buried so much as turned into sewers. London, UK did it, NYC did it, I suspect most major cities around the world did so in the late 19th century due to a combination of urban population boom, industry boom, the need for better waste management and various disease outbreaks like typhoid and cholora. There's a website for Toronto's lost streams - http://www.lostrivers.ca/
Lara replying to a comment from Burial / September 11, 2013 at 03:00 pm
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Essentially, yes. There has actually been a sound proposal to dig up Garrison Creek but I don't really know much about where that stands, but I'm going to assume it will never happen. The proposal states that it would improve our sewer system and handle the drainage of rain water better, not to mention maintaining the quality of our beaches after heavy rainfall. The flood that happened in the summer would not have been nearly as devastating if Garrison Creek still flowed above ground. You can read more about it here http://www.vanishingpoint.ca/garrison-creek-sewer-history and also in the link that @sigh posted.
Laura replying to a comment from Burial / September 11, 2013 at 03:02 pm
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Burial: check out this recent Globe and Mail article for more details on buried rivers in Toronto:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/how-to-keep-torontos-from-flooding-bring-the-rivers-back/article13325650/
the lemur replying to a comment from Sigh / September 11, 2013 at 03:20 pm
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NYC has a bunch that haven't been turned into sewers - they're just there under buildings and they occasionally resurface in someone's basement after a heavy storm.
Matilda the Hun / September 11, 2013 at 08:27 pm
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You can still see where streets were stitched together to form Dundas by the presence of curves and such (for instance, the one by the cop shop just west of University, and the one at Yonge-Dundas Square).

Bay St. was also stitched together from several streets. The original Bay (initially Bear) St. went only to Queen. There was then a jog over to Terauley St., which survives today as a curve. North of College, the streets got smaller and were not continuous. In 1922 and concluding in 1924, everything was joined up into Bay St.
Alecta replying to a comment from Melanie / September 11, 2013 at 09:48 pm
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Melanie: buh bye! If you don't want to be here, then leave! The Amtrak goes from Toronto to Chicago.
Alecta replying to a comment from Candy Charters / September 11, 2013 at 09:51 pm
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Candy: I am also a US expat - more than 20 years a Torontonian. British it's not, but Toronto is wonderful in its own right. If fewer people would whine about what they want Toronto to be and work to make it so instead, maybe that would be a good thing.
Toronto is what it is and that's pretty damned good. The whining and comparison is just pathetic.
Danah replying to a comment from Elle / September 12, 2013 at 08:36 am
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Look for a city of toronto sign or a toronto hydro sign. Also it will say on it private property maybe have a lightning bolt caution sign. Some of the "abandoned" houses are also converted into water/wastewater pumping stations as well.
A / September 12, 2013 at 09:14 am
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There are many unmarked mass graves around Toronto. Mainly from Cholera epidemic. As many as 6000 people are buried next to St. James Cathedral on Church. Blood-Yorkville used to be a grave yard for poor people and mass graves called Potter's field. There they tried to relocate people after they shut down the cemetery, but there are still bodies.
A / September 12, 2013 at 09:24 am
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There is also a mass grave at St. Paul's. 2800 typhus victims. The gravestones were destroyed and it's since been paved over and made into a parking lot.
JOHANNE / September 12, 2013 at 09:47 am
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The 3-Dot bicycle sensor is a myth. Cyclists in this city don't stop at red lights!
Danah / September 12, 2013 at 10:48 am
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Question. I love that we have this for Toronto. But are there sites like this for other historically significant cities in Ontario? Places like Hamilton have a similar history and would I assume have some hidden gems as well. Does anyone know of something like this. My coworker lives there and we were talking about this and it would be cool to know about it too.
Matt / September 12, 2013 at 11:06 am
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Wow. People actually complaining about little known (to most people) Toronto Facts. I have read and re-read stories about these exact topics before, but it's great having them in one article. Needless to say, there are lots more that what was written about here. BlogTO comment sections bring out the who's who of Toronto whiners. It's as if certain people MUST complain about anything and everything. As many have stated before.... if you don't like it here, LEAVE! Last I checked, we have no barriers preventing people from leaving. Something I find even more amusing is that some of the whiners I know of are not even from here! Read the news every day. See what others around the world deal with on a daily basis. Maybe then the 10 minute subway delays, the Jarvis bike lanes, the closing of a burger joint in the east end, and a kid drinking a beer in Trinity Bellwoods Park may not seem that significant any more.
the lemur replying to a comment from JOHANNE / September 12, 2013 at 11:07 am
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Um, yeah, most of them do. I do, and so do 90% of the other cyclists who get to the lights at the same time. But there's always that one guy out of every 6-8 cyclists who either rolls through early or blasts straight through.
Todd replying to a comment from the lemur / September 12, 2013 at 01:04 pm
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You may also notice a black smoke monster from time to time.
Dean / September 12, 2013 at 05:14 pm
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That explains a lot about Dundas. My Joke has always been that Dundas was drawn up by a drunk person or someone smoking something.
Mary replying to a comment from Elle / September 12, 2013 at 10:01 pm
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It has a sign on the door
Derek Pearce / September 14, 2013 at 02:38 pm
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Cool article but one quibble: the "half house" on St. Patrick isn't really half of a house, it's a full house that was part of a double-sided semi. The other full house was torn down leaving that full house alone but intact. But cool article overall!
call it like it is replying to a comment from Melanie / September 16, 2013 at 11:58 am
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Why do people say things like "Not to disparage but" and then go on to disparage? I would bet my last dollar that "Melanie" lives in another Canadian city; likely Montreal, Toronto or Calgary and just can't bear to see Toronto get ahead. These people are devoted to following all Toronto media to get their digs in about Toronto whenever possible. There is a lot of jealousy in this country, which is a shame. Take a valium, stop being so uptight, and follow your own city's news.
Orion replying to a comment from Rob / September 16, 2013 at 12:02 pm
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Most major industrialized cities have buried rivers or streams. All part of constructing a workable city that doesn't have constricting bridges every few blocks. Rivers and bridges are quaint but especially centuries ago they overly divided cities.
LadyDice / September 20, 2013 at 03:44 am
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The EMF coming off the "home" would be a dead giveaway as well (re: hidden transformer stations).

And c'mon, there's got to be a lot, a LOT more of Toronto secrets out there than that. I liked the mass graves locations, didn't know about those. I stumbled on the old Kodak factory myself a litte while ago...

Keep 'em coming.

This should really go without saying, but there's no city better than mine, my home, my birthplace, Toronto.
ashley replying to a comment from Allie / September 22, 2013 at 08:37 am
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correct. Garrison Creek, which used to flow underneath the Crawford Street bridge and the Harbord bridge, was filled in due to pollution. it was acyually covored into a sewer system. it used to strech down to the Toronto Harbour. it was filled in for this reason. and the story of the Crawford Street bridge is one of my favourites :)
Sarah replying to a comment from Melanie / September 24, 2013 at 09:47 pm
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I agree with you.
Matt replying to a comment from Sarah / September 24, 2013 at 10:57 pm
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Yes, we know. We can tell from your awful juvenile "writing".
Garry replying to a comment from DavidP / September 29, 2013 at 11:32 am
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It's not like cyclists stop for light anyway.
Helen Mills replying to a comment from Burial / November 23, 2013 at 03:03 pm
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Interesting question:)
1. How: in the past mainly by filling of ravines with garbage of various types.
2. How: early sewers made use of the gravity cut channels already cut by the creeks that dissected the landscape. These were already effectively open air transportation systems for human waste and industrial pollutants. I don't know exactly how the engineering of a sewer tunnel works at the headwaters, but essentially a pipe is installed in the path of the creek fed by a network of pipes from houses and streets etc. In the older parts of the city storm water and sanitary sewage share one pipe (two smaller channels within one bigger pipe). In big storms they and mix together and overflow into rivers and the lake.
3. Can we undo it? Very good question.
The creeks were buried as we expanded past the carrying capacity of local water systems. Now we have a remarkable life support system that is the result of heroic engineering efforts in the hundred years after the discovery that cholera is a waterborne disease - inbound water supply from the lake and outbound sewage treatment from the city. Much of the infrastructure for this system is occupying the creek pathways. The forested ecosystem that fed the creeks in the past is virtually obliterated and even if we daylight streams in some places, the flow regime will not remotely resemble the one that supported the creeks two hundred years ago. Flash floods and pollution will be ongoing issues.
a) Will we take down the Eaton Centre to get back to Taddle Creek? UNLIKELY
b) But there have been unintended consequences including the contamination of lake and beaches by combined sewer overflows. As a result, Toronto is a designated Area of Concern under the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes. Toronto is committed to fixing this and has developed something called the Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan or WWFMMP (yes I think a bureaucrat thought of that name)

Not everyone likes the big pipe engineered strategy outlined in the WWFMMP, though it does include a large component of soft engineering and source control which at the moment is defunded (I think).

Check out:
- vanishingpoint.ca for a discussion of creeks that we could start daylighting tomorrow.

- http://www.brownandstorey.com/projects/garrisoncreek/T-projectframes.htm for a hybrid project that manages storm water on Garrison Creek by creating "rain gardens and channels to capture and slow and clean runoff from surrounding neighbourhoods

-https://www.facebook.com/DaylightingUrbanRivers/photos_albums

- http://rivieresperdues.radio-canada.ca/en/film

- http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/06/09/how_to_grow_a_national_park_in_your_backyard_torontostyle.html

4. I don't think we can go back to the golden past that never was, but I do think we are very painfully moving out of the age of heroic engineering into the age of heroic ecological engineering: we need to rethink everything about the fabric of the city and evolve a new kind of urban ecosystem with a much smaller footprint.
Henry / December 12, 2013 at 02:11 pm
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Thanks for sharing information about Toronto
Nic / February 12, 2014 at 12:19 am
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@Danah. I spent my youth in Hamilton and there are many historical secret places, most left over from 1812. When I was a kid we would hike hike half way up the escarpment to find old stone war relics, building foundations, canon balls, arrow heads, lead balls etc. I hope municiaplities start searching out and preserving our history better than they have.
hard ab workouts / February 14, 2014 at 09:38 pm
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Superb post but I was wanting to know if you could write a
litte more on this subject? I'd be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further.

Thanks!
Lucile Barker / February 16, 2014 at 10:23 pm
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Thank you for showing me three things I hadn't known about. Have to go look at the half house sometime (as opposed to half-way house).Hope you can do a sequel!
tankless water heater / March 21, 2014 at 05:01 pm
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Wow loads of good tips.

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