When Taddle Creek stank: Why the river was lost

Note: This article first appeared in Spacing Magazine, Issue 56. It has been reproduced here with permission.

In the late nineteenth century, Taddle Creek between Bloor and College Streets was a risk to public health. The waterway was then known as University Creek, since it passed through the grounds of the recently formed University of Toronto. It was considered a nuisance by everyone who commented on the unpleasant situation.

Once part of a picturesque natural landscape, by 1873 the state of University Creek had begun to decline, and it worsened over the next decade. Although arguably not the filthiest waterway in Toronto at the time (the Don River or Garrison Creek may have taken that title), the stream was essentially an open sewer.

Watercolour by Lucius O’Brien entitled University College, showing McCaul’s Pond on Taddle Creek, 1876. Credit: University of Toronto Archives.

The cause of the filth was sewage flowing from the nearby Village of Yorkville. The Toronto suburb was its own independent political entity at the time and, in the 1870s, its water supply and drainage were proving inadequate. Consequently, residents on Prince Arthur, Elgin, and Lowther Avenues, as well as on the north side of Bloor Street West, discharged their waste directly into the creek. There were also reports that McMaster College (now the Royal Conservatory) draining “refuse water from the sinks and water closets”  into the stream as well. 

Citizens called on the University of Toronto and City of Toronto to close the creek and hold Yorkville accountable, but little was accomplished.

And so, University Creek stank. McCaul’s Pond – the connected man-made pond named for the school’s first president – was a cesspool. Winds carried the stench as far north as Bloor Street, south to College Street, west to St. George Street, and east to North Street (now part of Bay Street). Above all, the University Creek nuisance posed a danger to the well-being of the approximately six hundred students and faculty at the University, the residents living around Queen’s Park, and visitors to the park.

University of Toronto Campus Map of area bounded by College, St. George, Bloor and Surrey Place, 1859. Credit: University of Toronto Archives.

The mismanagement of University Creek had consequences for the health of Torontonians. According to The Globe, dwellers close to the waterway had become “accustomed” to the odour, but their sense of smell had been “deadened” as if they were working in a “soap boiling factory.” A former alderman of the city was said to have been “laid up” by an unspecified illness caused by the creek. 

Ultimately, however, an even greater fear grew out of the University Creek debacle. The impacts of wide-spreading diseases like cholera were well-known in Toronto by this time.  The Town of York had experienced a bout of cholera in 1832, which took the lives of several hundred  residents from a total population of 5,000. Two years later, another epidemic of the same kind hit what was by then the City of Toronto. These events led to greater awareness of sanitation and the creation of a municipal public health board. When Dr. John Snow uncovered the disease’s water-born roots in England in the 1850s, Toronto was, in theory, better placed to understand and respond to the disease.

McCaul’s Pond, present site of Hart House, circa 1880. Credit: University of Toronto Archives.

But a cholera outbreak swept through Europe and Egypt beginning in 1881. By 1883, the outcry over the state of Toronto’s waterways and the tangible possibility of an epidemic heightened concerns even more. At least two news articles unceremoniously likened University Creek to the ”River Styx” of Greek mythology. Another commentator argued in The Globe that cholera resulting from the stream would have been a ”blessing in disguise” as it would have spurred officials into action after a decade of inertia. 

In 1883, public health reports on University Creek finally spurred action. Toronto’s medical health officer in commenting on the state of the polluted stream and its ”effluvia,” suggested the only effectual remedy was the construction of a sewer and, in the short term, the use of ”disinfectants.” In an interview with The Globe, Dr. John Oldright of the Provincial Board of Health echoed those recommendations. With that, the matter was turned over to the Board of Works, which solicited tenders for a University Creek sewer. The City Treasurer quoted a total cost of $11,200. 

In 1884, the City Engineer received orders to proceed with the project, and the stream was encased underground. By May, the southern section of the University Creek sewer was completed first, connecting it to the existing Murray Street sewer. This portion ran through the grounds of “Sleepy Hollow”, the estate of Lieutenant-Governor John Beverley Robinson, on the south side of College Street between University Avenue and McCaul Street, “so that surplus water that may collect at the approach will be carried away”. The northern section was completed later that year. 

Hering & Gray: Plan of the City of Toronto, Proposed Intercepting Sewers and Outfall, 1889. Credit: Fort York and Garrison Common Maps

Just as University Creek disappeared underground, references to the waterway’s name faded in the decades following the construction of the new sewer. Today, Taddle Creek – the common name for the stream since about the 1920s — lives on in the legends of lost Toronto. The ravine-like landscape of Philosopher’s Walk hides the north end of University Creek while Hart House and Hart House Circle sit over the former McCaul’s Pond. With some recent calls to daylight this portion of Taddle Creek, perhaps one day this long-buried creek may live again, only now, its fresh, clean water will be a public health benefit rather than a curse. 

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