In the compelling theme of ‘Lost Toronto’, the area bordered by Eastern Avenue, Cherry Street, the Don River, and Mill Street in the West Don Lands has had a transformative history. Two intersecting streets, Tate Street and Water Street, were at the figurative and geographic centre of this intriguing district.
In his Landmarks, John Ross Robertson wrote Water Street was named after the Don River, which the street once ran along. Before 1876, Water Street was East Street after its location in the city of Toronto. In its longest version, Water Street ran from Eastern Avenue to the railway tracks. The street looks to date from the 1830s when the marshy area of the east end of Toronto was added to the street grid.
Robertson wrote Tate Street was named after Mr Tate, the contractor for the Grand Trunk Railway (the right of way ran south of the street). In its longest version, Tate Street ran from Cherry Street to the Don River. Don Loucks and Leslie Valpy wrote in their Modest Hopes: Homes and Stories of Toronto’s Workers from the 1820s to 1920s that Tate Street first appeared on maps in the 1850s.
Several details are available about life on Tate and Water Streets. Loucks and Valpy describe the area around and including them as a “bustling neighbourhood, with rows and rows of workers’ cottages as well as large and small factories”. The detailed Fire Insurance Map of 1889 tells us these were mostly tiny, one-storey, wooden structures, some of which (mostly on Water Street) had rough cast or plastered finishes. It also shows a relatively populous district with several pockets of empty lots, notably on Water Street north of Front Street and the south side of Tate Street near Cherry Street.
The Toronto Directory for 1880 offers a snapshot into the working-class identity of Tate and Water Streets. Professions are listed as mostly labourers. This is not surprising considering the proximity of industries: Gooderham and Worts distillery to the west, the Toronto Rolling Mills (until 1914) and Grand Trunk Railroad to the south, and the William Davies Co. giant meatpacking operation to the east.
At the close of the 19th century, several developments altered the course of history for Tate and Water. By the early 1890s, the Canadian Pacific Railway opened a branch through the east end of Toronto and up through the Don Valley. The track ran south of the western side of Tate Street, crossed Water Street at a level crossing, and then curved northeast adjacent to the Don.
In 1900, the William Davies Co. successful applied for some changes to the street grid to accommodate an expansion:
- The closure of Beachall Street from Front to Mill;
- The closure of Tate Street from the west limit of Beachall Street to the east limit of Vine Street
- The southern extension of Vine from Front to Mill
The eastern closure of Tate Street from the new Vine Street (which was later renamed to Overend) razed structures across nearly thirty lots on and around Tate.
In 1905, the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway acquired the lands east of Cherry Street between Eastern Avenue and Front Street. The company built freight yards on the property, which would later serve the Canadian National Railway from the 1910s onwards. Water Street lost about eighteen residences north of Front Street.
Archival images of the area are limited, but two images in 1907 offer a good insight into the physical look of the area. The photos look up and down Water Street from north and south of the CPR crossing and Tate Street. Most notable are the wet, muddy, wagon-tracked streets. Tate and Water, along with Mill, Cherry, and Overend Streets were not paved.
The foot of Water Street had a row of houses (numbered 2 to 14) on the west side. The corner property was a grocery run by the McSherrys. The archives label these homes as “old”. While not condemned as others photographed, the age and condition of the structures likely made the area more primed for redevelopment.
A few newspaper articles may have further pointed to the shabby nature of the residences. In 1904, a Mrs O’Brien was severely burned by an exploding lamp in her home at 12 Tate Street. In an odd tale from 1908, an 18-year old girl was turned away by her step-father and mother at 22 Tate Street after giving birth. The girl was taken in by a George Davis at 44 Tate Street where she slept downstairs in a low, mouldy room where water had been creeping in. Davis had four rooms in the house and he sublet two rooms to another family. While these events may have been one-offs or coincidental, they do fit the narrative of what was about to happen.
In 1911, The Canadian Pacific Railway expanded again. In April, the company served notice to all “tenants of the district bounded by Cherry, Water, Overend, Tate, and Front Streets to vacate their premises by the end of the month”. Freight yards and sheds were to go in their place. The Globe noted the properties occupying the area were “shacks” and would be torn down. Tenders to tear down or remove sixty houses were awarded by the company at the end of the month, although residents stayed until June.
In May, the City granted permission to the CPR to close Tate and Water. The company had already acquired 90% of the property in the area. In June, there seemed to have been an impasse with Thomas O’Connor’s property. The CPR needed the property to build a railway viaduct. The company stated they would expropriate if no price was agreed and they differed on price. Loucks and Valpy wrote William O’Connor was a champion oarsman whose family moved to Tate Street in the 1860s; it is unclear if Thomas O’Connor was related as the authors wrote the O’Connors left Tate Street in 1891. The final house on Tate Street was demolished in 1913. The streets continued to exist in the city directories and real-life, albeit as shortened versions of their former selves without anything except CPR and CNR structures built upon them.
Industry in the West Don Lands area continued for the next seventy years. In the 1990s, the former William Davies Co buildings along with the CPR and CNR tracks were gradually removed. A failed project in the 1990s entitled ‘Ataratiri’ aimed to redevelop the land for residential use, a goal which was eventually fulfilled by the Corktown Commons parkland and the rebranded Canary District in the 2010s.
Although Mill Street, Front Street, Cherry Street, and Eastern Avenue remain today and there is a new Rolling Mills Road, traces of Water Street and Tate Street and the bustling residential district once contained within them are essentially non-existent. Tannery Street roughly lays where Water Street once stood.