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How to spot a lost river in Toronto

Posted by Chris Bateman / February 1, 2014

toronto ashbridges estateI live at the bottom of a river. Or at least I would if this was 1906. The signs are all over the neighbourhood: Highfield Road, a couple of blocks east of Greenwood and Gerrard, sits at the bottom a wide basin with steep banks at either side. Round here, streets dip and rise unexpectedly; adjacent houses sit at drastically different elevations.

The stream still flows, though it's been buried, contained, and diverted since the Ashbridge Estate, a sprawling farm that used to occupy the land, was subdivided in the early years of the 1900s. Listen to the drains on Woodfield Road just south of Monarch Park and the roar of caged waterway is still clearly audible en route to the Ashbridge's Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant.

toronto ashbridge mapIn 1794, the original Ashbridge family, Pennsylvania farmers who were granted a substantial plot of land east of the Town of York, largely stripped their narrow allotment of its native hardwood bush from Danforth Ave. to the bay that now bears their name, planting an orchard, laying fences, and sowing fields.

The family, led by the widowed Sarah Ashbridge, who was already in her sixties when she left America, were highly industrious and remained on the land for five generations. Jesse Ashbridge, a grandson of Sarah, built the family home that still stands on the north side of Queen Street, east of Greenwood.

Before the Ashbridges, the land contained a longhouse and hearth used by local aboriginal people around AD 1100 to 1200. Archaeological digs have turned up some 48,000 artifacts, mostly pottery fragments, across the area.

toronto ashbridges estateA small stream with two distinct branches ran sporadically spring along the property's western edge, merging into a single flow just east of Dundas and Greenwood, before winding its way in a shallow depression to a mouth roughly where the TTC yard backs on to Eastern Ave. today.

The dimpled front lawn of Jesse Ashbridge's Regency-style house is further evidence of the lost stream. Here, at its widest extent, the family would paddle down the creek and out into the bay.

toronto ashbridges estateAs far as records of the Ashbridge Estate and old maps reveal, the little waterway, which was often no more than a frozen trickle in winter, did not have a formal name. A history of the estate that contained several photos, published in 1912 by Wellington Thomas Ashbridge, Jesse Ashbridge's son, referred to it as "the creek."

In his words, the photo above "shows in the distance Lake Ontario, while the old farm with its snake fence, the creek valley, and the house with the high elm trees may also be traced by close examination. The dog in the foreground is old "Mike," of well known local memory. This view was taken of what we used to call the "stump field," being on the present site of Morley Ave. [Woodfield Rd.], a little south of the G.T. Railway."

Contrast that with the view today (below) and plenty has changed. The creek valley, visible as a depression in the left side of the frame, has been channeled into a sewer structure and buried. The Ashbridge Estate, which was subdivided out of existence shortly after the first photo was taken, is unrecognizable with the addition of homes and streets.

toronto ashbridge estateA little north, in Monarch Park, the land shows the distinctive crumples and depressions of the lost river. It was here, according to early maps, that one branch of the creek flowed on its way south. The other branch started further north, just above the Danforth but seems to have been erased by gravel mining adjacent to Greenwood Ave.

The best evidence for the survival of this lost river whispers on the air during the walk south down Woodfield Road from the park. The creek (or at least what sounds like the creek - it flows night and day year round) splashes in the darkness some metres below a steaming manhole cover in the middle of the road.

The Mid-Toronto Interceptor Sewer, a 13.17-km crosstown sewage highway, was built in the 1970s from the northeast corner of High Park to Ashbridge's Bay. Its 3-metre diameter concrete-lined pipe scoops up the Ashbridge Estate stream when it meets Gerrard St., preventing it from continuing through its old valley to the bay.

The river paddled by some of Toronto's earliest pioneers is now a carriage for its sewage.


toronto ashbridge estateThe ground in Monarch Park, where the stream used to flow.

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

Image: Toronto Public Library, Chris Bateman/blogTO



piero / February 1, 2014 at 01:10 am
Thanks Chris!
Jeremy / February 1, 2014 at 07:17 am
I live on Highfield. Can confirm, my sump-pump gets quite the workout.
Torontonian / February 1, 2014 at 07:42 am
A helpful guide is also the website
Lost Rivers.
W. K. Lis / February 1, 2014 at 08:06 am
And people wonder why their homes flood. Check the terrain before you buy a new home.

The bad news is that in new suburban developments, they level the ground, hiding the streams. Even badder news, the streams continue to flow.
Jeremy replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / February 1, 2014 at 08:29 am
No one on our street has had any significant flooding.
ginnee / February 1, 2014 at 09:37 am
I've been on a couple of walks looking at the lost streams in your neighbourhood with Richard Anderson of Lost Rivers ( and the Toronto Field Naturalists. Another wonderful person to talk to about lost rivers terrain is Helen Mills of Lost Rivers. She has exceptional knowledge and all kinds of maps.
John Norton / February 1, 2014 at 12:21 pm
Fun fact..... the land which the TTC built Greenwood Yards on was originally a fairly large sized municipal dump.
Andrew Stoch / February 1, 2014 at 12:55 pm
What an excellent read. Thanks so much!
W. K. Lis replying to a comment from John Norton / February 1, 2014 at 01:58 pm
Several parks were originally garbage dumps. Centennial Park (Etobicoke) is a former big one. Rennie Park (Swansea), at the foot of Runnymede Road, is a former small one.
E. Toby Coke replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / February 1, 2014 at 02:45 pm
W. K. Lis wrote: "The bad news is that in new suburban developments, they level the ground, hiding the streams. Even badder news, the streams continue to flow."

It has been that way here since the city began.
Andrew / February 1, 2014 at 03:25 pm
There's a large body of water less than a kilometre from my home and often large bodies of water are fed by a delta of creeks and rivers.
I live just east of High Park. It is rumoured there is a creek running below Indian Road. A neighbour had some sewer work done and the yard was dug to about 12 feet with no sign of water. I wonder if the rumours of a creek are true.
E. Toby Coke replying to a comment from Andrew / February 1, 2014 at 04:11 pm
Andrew, there absolutely was a creek around Indian Rd, and a pond at the foot of the street. Check old maps and you'll see it there. The foot of the road is still prone to flooding, and the houses in the area are prone to bad settling -- I lived in one, and saw many worse!

I am from Guelph, but live in Parkdale / February 2, 2014 at 11:14 am
Where is this fabled east end?
Adam Broadhead / February 4, 2014 at 04:39 am
Great article. While many rivers, streams and creeks have been buried under towns and cities around the world, you have identified another little-appreciated fact:

Lost watercourses have been "captured" into the sewer systems, flowing through the sewage treatment works. We pay to treat the extra water, we pay to upgrade the sewer network when it runs out of capacity prematurely, and we pay to clear up the mess when sewers flood because the streamwater takes up the space.

You may like to read an academic paper I wrote on this issue from Sheffield University, UK:

There are some places that have separated these "captured" watercourses, freeing up sewer capacity, saving money on water bills, and using that to invest in restoring the watercourses through our towns once more. All in the paper above.

Rob Ford / February 4, 2014 at 05:48 am
I don't hide my rivers. Instead, as the police observed, I PROUDLY PISS IN PUBLIC PARKS! i like to show off my HUGE SIZE and my HUGE SPOWERFUL STREAM! FORD MORE YEARS OF URINATION!
Daniel / February 4, 2014 at 06:31 am
Go back to bed Ford. No need to get up for a pissing war. ASleep right Robbie
John replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / February 7, 2014 at 07:23 pm
As the article mentions, the stream is completely contained and diverted by an underground channel. People in the area do not experience any extraordinary issues with flooding.
custom and classic car cleaning / March 13, 2014 at 08:27 am
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Larry / April 16, 2014 at 12:49 pm
Ashbridge's Creek source was near Donlands and O'Connor in East York. The curve in Greenwood Avenue north of Memorial Park is there to avoid the creek, which ran through Dieppe Park. There is also a street north of Cosburn called "Northbrook."
Christine replying to a comment from Larry / January 28, 2016 at 05:47 pm
I think that the height of land runs roughly parallel to Cosburn. See a topo map for the contours. Therefore, the Ashbridge Ck cannot rise north of it. Little streams to the north ran down to the Don R. as it curves to the east. Streams that rose just south of Cosburn flowed south and into Lake Ontario directly. Ashbridge's Ck was one of these. A remnant stretch of its steeply-sided valley can be seen in the backyards between Oakdene Cres. and Linnsmore Cres. They are curved along this short stretch following the stream valley. It then goes under Greenwood subway stn and southward from there via Felstead Parkette, St. Patrick's High School, Torbrick Rd housing infill (prev. landfill, and before that a brickyard owned by the Ashbridge family using the clay in the streambank), Duke of Connaught PS playground and the Ashbridge Estate on Queen St.
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