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5 lost rivers that run under Toronto

Posted by Chris Bateman / February 10, 2014

toronto lost riverThe Don, Humber, and Rouge get all the glory, but Toronto is much more than a three-river town. Before John Graves Simcoe, when the land that would occupy the city was thick with trees and thickets, its soft soil was traversed by numerous streams and creeks that over centuries etched out deep ravines and sculpted rolling dales.

As early city builders would find, it's actually quite difficult to completely erase a river, and many of the waterways that once penetrated downtown Toronto still exist, re-routed into culverts or sewers and (mostly) from view. Here are five buried rivers that used to flow through Toronto.


toronto garrison creekOf all the rivers present in early Toronto, Garrison Creek was the biggest and hardest to cross. Its winding course and ocasionally deep ravine proved a significant obstacle to the expanding city and substantial bridges were built at Dundas and Harbord streets, both of which have been buried but still stand.

Garrison Creek started north of St. Clair and headed directly south via Bloor and Christie under a half-buried bridge at Harbord - the stone wall on the north side of the street at Bickford Park is the bridge's parapet. It continued south, causing the weird dips and warped intersection on Crawford Street.

From there, Garrison Creek headed through Trinity Bellwoods Park, where there's another buried bridge under Crawford Street (the dog park is in part of the old ravine,) and out the southeast corner parallel to Niagara Street, where the river bank caused its distinctive arc. Garrison Creek drained into the Toronto Bay near Bathurst and Fort York Blvd.

toronto garrison creekTADDLE CREEK

toronto taddle creekThe geographical legacy of Taddle Creek, sometimes called Little Don River, is more subtle than that of its westerly cousin Garrison Creek. The odd dent in the southwest corner of Queen's Park Crescent and the gentle slope of Parliament just north of King are the extent of the river's surviving landscaping.

Possibly rising at Wychwood Park northwest of Davenport and Bathurst (no-one is entirely certain,) Taddle Creek flowed south along the eastern edge of the University of Toronto campus, forming a small pond at Hart House Circle that shows up early photos of the university grounds.

At College it swerved east, eventually draining into the bay near Parliament and Esplanade.

toronto taddle creekCASTLE FRANK BROOK

toronto castle frank brookThe steep sides of the Rosedale Ravine had to come from somewhere. Castle Frank Brook, the product of several smaller rivers that met near Cedarvale Park, eroded the Nordheimer Ravine, which could have carried the Spadina Expressway but now covers the Spadina line, and the deep Rosedale Ravine.

Today, Castle Frank Brook cuts under St. Clair West station, rises again in Sir Winston Churchill Park, and vanishes back into a sewer that carries it down under Rosedale Valley Road into the Don River opposite Riverdale Park.

toronto castle frank brookSMALL'S POND

toronto smalls pondThe size of a small lake, Small's Pond once dominated the area close to Queen Street E and Kingston Road. It was fed by two separate streams, one that started near Gerrard and Coxwell, the other closer to Woodbine, and was once a prime source of beverage ice in the winter as many other bodies of water were considered too polluted.

The 12-metre deep, roughly U-shaped Small's Pond was naturally divided into two separate arms, one of which was popular with skaters and boaters and known locally as The Serpentine. The other, broader arm ran roughly parallel with Coxwell Ave.

In 1919, nine-year-old John Vice drowned in a weed-choked portion of the Small's Pond and the next year two small boys had to be pulled from its dark waters. Small's Pond became a stagnant, sewage-filled pool when its feeder streams were diverted into sewers. It was drained and filled in on health grounds around 1935. Orchard Park roughly marks the place where the two parts of Small's Pond met.

toronto smalls pondASHBRIDGE'S CREEK

toronto ashbridge estateAshbridge's Creek was so un-loved that it appears never to have been given an official name, though its geography is still easy to trace. Rising in two branches near today's Monarch Park, "the creek," as early landowners the Ashbridge family called it, passed under the rail tracks and down Woodfield Road, where it's still audible in the sewers.

At Gerrard, it moved slightly west, eroding a wide depression in the land where Highfield Road is now before draining into Lake Ontario at today's Eastern Avenue, just behind the streetcar yard. The lawn of the Ashbridge's home, which still stands on Queen Street E, got its dimpled texture from the river.

Today, Ashbridge's Creek flows into the Mid-Toronto Interceptor Sewer at Gerrard Street and ends life at the Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant.

toronto ashbridge estateFor more information on lost rivers, visit Lost Rivers, a great little resource for everything wet and buried in Toronto. Nathan Ng's map site is a great resource for discovering old streams.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library,



Kate / February 10, 2014 at 02:31 pm
Garrison Creek flows under Shaw, resulting in some awfully crooked houses
Al / February 10, 2014 at 04:33 pm
Yellow Creek survives as the portion of the Beltway Trail running beside Chaplin Crescent.
W. K. Lis / February 10, 2014 at 04:55 pm
There used to be a pond (as seen in some old, old maps) between Parkside Drive and St. Joseph's Health Care Centre.
d / February 10, 2014 at 05:02 pm
Can anyone tell me what creek used to run down on Birchview Cres. near the corner of Clendennan and Bloor? Those houses were built in the 40s and my dad said they used to play down there at a creek there.
Al replying to a comment from d / February 10, 2014 at 07:13 pm
Wendigo Creek.
d replying to a comment from Al / February 10, 2014 at 08:53 pm
Thanks Al :)
d / February 10, 2014 at 09:02 pm
Here's an interesting history about Wendigo Creek
Douglas Yardley / February 10, 2014 at 09:13 pm
The name "Little Don" was also used for the East branch of the Don River.
John / February 11, 2014 at 10:50 am
Small's Pond was only 12 feet deep, not 12 metres as per the earlier reference.
Tom / February 11, 2014 at 12:04 pm
The inlet of Small's pond marked as "The Serpentine" is still visible, it was drained and is now a sunken parking lot.
Phil / September 8, 2014 at 09:21 pm
When I lived on Howland Ave, Taddle Creek wasn't so subtle every spring. We would have 8 to 10 inches of water in the back yard, and I used to have to pump it out to the street. That was 25-30 years ago.
Brian / September 22, 2014 at 04:32 am
I'm curious, wasn't there a small lake between annette and bloor, runnymede and keele, that glenlake ave weaves through? Please correct me if I am wrong. I have biked there before and through it, looking up at the houses above (it's shoreline) and it always peaked my curiosity.
Dave / October 2, 2014 at 05:28 pm
Could you please add to the list, streams that are "lost" in other municipalities but re-emerge in Toronto? E.g. Renforth Creek, which some people erroneously call Bloordale Creek, is partially covered in Mississauga (in "Airport Corporate Centre" between 401 and Eglinton) but open to the air in Etobicoke.
Bill Parish / January 19, 2015 at 04:23 pm
Can anyone tell me where I might find information like this for Scarborough's Lost rivers/creeks/streams. Specifically, the McNicoll/Brimley area

elena / April 10, 2015 at 04:47 pm
this is so nice to see all these old pictures from 1908 I never knew if I didn't see. actually looks beautiful it is history of old Toronto and the old map reminds me how it was in the old days. very grateful to see all this specially Queen St. east and Kingston rd. there was nothing between these two streets couple houses and small creek weird but lovely.
Rob Kronick / July 5, 2015 at 06:03 pm
Can anyone tell me how I can find out whether there is a creek or river running under my house. We're having some serious water problems in the basement.

Thanks to everyone for the time you took to read my email.

Rob Kronick
Louisea / September 22, 2015 at 03:27 am
Wow, very fascinating!!
Rob M / March 19, 2016 at 08:06 am
Yesterday's lost rivers (Like Yellow Creek and Walmsley Brook) are today's flooded basements .. and tomorrow's:

I've created a GIS-based model of Toronto that maps the former river, creek and flow accumulation paths. The closer a property is to the lost river flow path, the higher the risk of flooding. Sure that makes intuitive sense, but here it is in a quantifiable way (includes hydrology of runoff and hydraulics of flow spread) which that can help set policy for preserving or restoring these features as part of flood mitigation / loss reduction. Over 30,000 Toronto properties are within the 100 year storm flow path, beyond the large regulated river/valley systems.

Here is another interesting, chronically flooded one (Newtonbrook Tributary) that floods even after sewer upgrades:

You can only upsize a sewer so much and have it fit in the right of way around other utilities. That means there will always be some storm the exceeds its capacity and floods the roads, window wells, walkouts and eventually the floor drains and everyone's sanitary sewer (basement back-up).

Despite that there are quantifiable changes to flow systems causing flooding (lost rivers, procedure F-5-5,..), the current Ontario government is focusing on carbon emissions to control flooding which is very squirrely because Environment Canada scientists have clearly shown no change in storm intensity in Ontario (or much of Canada):

And in southern Ontario there are more statistically significant decreasing rainfall intensity trends than increasing ones:

But its hard to get that message out when groups like the Insurance Bureau of Canada fabricate data and promote theoretical shifts in normal "bells curves" as historical Environment Canada data - its shameful:

So we can talk about lost rivers generally but we can also drill down and quantify their behaviour like with my GIS elevation model analysis and hydrology/hydraulics risk assessment and spatial correlation with historic flood events. Then with this detail we create strong policy to manage flooding and protect features (e.g., headwater drainage features in TRCA's new guidelines). In the same manner we can very generally think about the rain and let our heuristic biases run away with, like Milli Vanilli, think about flooding an Blame it on the Rain:

.. or we can also be quantitative and follow Kahneman's Slow Thinking approach and come up with smart, informed, evidence-based policies on flood risk reduction and climate change.

Unfortunately when it comes to flood policy in Ontario, we're full of Milli Vanili's at the moment and you know how that sham turned out:
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