When I drew the old waterways onto the map I understood for the first time the odd scattering of farmhouses and estates through the countryside. Many homes were, quite naturally, tucked in among the winding rivers and creek paths — sources of precious water, power, and transportation as well. In some places the rivers were deep and powerful enough to power a saw mill. Even many of the much shallower creeks could float canoes or rafts.
Most of Toronto's old creeks are long-gone. Agriculture and industry reduced their flows, killed the fish, and polluted the water. What remained was converted to sewers and buried.
The shoreline, originally marked by Front Street, was (and is) constantly pushed southward, in earlier days by garbage dumping and today with ongoing infill projects.
The winding Don River was straightened and channelized during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the huge marsh at its mouth drained and filled.
I've spent many days drawing in the waterways of the early 1800s, but the the results are just approximations. I worked with overlays of early maps, and with reference to the maps available on the Lost River Walks website and the Don Valley Historical Mapping Project (DVHMP).
However, I found no exact agreements among the various sources as to where the waterways were located circa 1800 — the work of the DVHMP was detailed and excellent, but only looks back as far as 1857 — so the waterway paths are my best estimate at this time.
Important also to remember that coastlines and waterways shift constantly at the mercy of storms, ice, and heavy winds — so it's not a surprise that mapmakers working in different decades drew different waterway paths.
I stand ready to be corrected, and very much look forward to seeing the next phase of the DVHMP — including their mapping of the west-of-the-Don watersheds.
Please click on the various creeks and other waterways for their names and stories.
The map below is a small section of Alexander Aitken's 1793 map, Toronto's first official plan. Note the array of streams and creeks running into the bay.
Above: detail from Plan of York Harbour surveyed by order of Lt. Govr. Simcoe by Alexander Aitken, 1793. From Historical Atlas of Toronto, 2008, p.26.
More on this great map in Alexander Aitken's 1793 map: the first official plan.