Toronto’s Lost Streets: Tate & Water Streets

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.

Aerial, 2020.
Source: Google Maps.

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.

1833 Bonnycastle: No.1 Plan of the Town and Harbour of York Upper Canada. South is at the top of the map.
Credit: Old Toronto Maps

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.

1858 WS Boulton: Atlas of the City of Toronto and Vicinity.
Source: Old Toronto Maps.

Several details are available about life on Tate and Water Streets. Loucks and Valpy describe the area around and including the streets 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.

1889 Insurance Plan of the City of Toronto.
Source: Goads Toronto

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.

Toronto Rolling Mills, Mill St., south side, between Cherry St. and Overend St. (at southwest corner of former Water St.); Interior, 1864.
Source: Toronto Public Library
Front St. east of Overend St., 1925. Source: City of Toronto Archives. The William Davies Co. is on the right; a sign adorns the top.

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.

1893 Barclay, Clark & Co. Bird’s Eye View.
Source: Old Toronto Maps

In 1900, the William Davies Co. successfully 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.

1903 Toronto Fire Insurance Map.
Source: Goads Toronto

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.

1913 Toronto Fire Insurance Map.
Source: Goads Toronto

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.

Water St., looking n. from s. of Tate St., across C.P.R. tracks & Tate St. to Eastern Ave. at head of street., 1907.
Source: Toronto Public Library
1907 Water St., looking south from Tate St., across C.P.R. tracks to Mill St.
Source: Toronto Public Library

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 like others that are photographed, the age and condition of the structures likely made the area more primed for redevelopment.

Cherry St., looking s. from Tate St., across C.P.R. tracks towards Mill St., 1907.
Source: Toronto Public Library

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.

“TENDERS ARE IN FOR CLEARING YARDS”, The Globe, April 29, 1911. Source: Globe & Mail Archives
“Fires From Crackers” Toronto Daily Star, May 25, 1911.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

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.

1924 Toronto Fire Insurance Map.
Source: Goads Toronto
Aerial, 1965.
Source: Toronto Public Library.

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.

Aerial, 1992.
Source: Toronto Public Library
Ataratiri site plan, 1990. Source: City of Toronto Archives

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.

Tannery Road, 2020.
Source: Google Maps.

Scenes From The Distillery District

What began as the Gooderham & Worts complex, the Distillery District is associated with a distinct set of Victorian structures that make up its stunning geography. Its story, though, is as much about what remains as it is what hasn’t remained — its lost geography.

Gooderham & Worts, Ltd., Toronto., 1896. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Running through the middle is Trinity Street. At its foot is the Distillery District’s most recognizable building: the Stone Distillery of 1859. Cut from Kingston limestone, it is the largest and oldest of the existing G&W buildings. It infamously went up in flames in 1869 — the pressure from the fire blowing the roof off! It was rebuilt again, but several workers perished in the fire and burn marks can still be seen in the brickwork.

Rising high on the west side of Trinity Street is the Malt House & Kiln Building and Cooperage Building. They are most noticeable for the cupola overlooking the area. Gristmill Lane leads into Trinity Street from Parliament Street.

On the east side (from south to north) is the Pump House, Pure Spirits and Cannery complex, and interestingly, the old Lunch Room. Along what is now Tank House Lane is, well, a complex of Tank Houses, built to house and age liquor for two years by law.

Case Goods Lane houses the Case Goods Warehouse, which is the youngest of the existing buildings (erected in 1927). Its age shows as it looks different than the earlier structures. It came when Harry Hatch, a Bridlewood horsebreeder and industrialist, bought the distillery in the 1920s and merged it with Hiram-Walker.

“Gooderham & Worts Taken Over By Hatch” The Globe, December 21, 1923. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

“Historic Windmill from Which a Great Modern Industry Grew” The Toronto Daily Star, January 8, 1927.

Aside from the Case Goods Building, the Distillery District’s architecture was designed by David Roberts Sr. and his son David Roberts Jr., who were Gooderham & Worts’ exclusive architects and civil engineers. Roberts Jr also designed the company’s headquarters, the Gooderham Building on Wellington Street, and other Gooderham family residences, such as Waveney — otherwise known as the George Gooderham House on Bloor Street.

George Gooderham residence, northeast corner of St. George and Bloor streets, 1892. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

As much as the current building stock is an impressive visual reminder of the history of Gooderham and Worts, the Distillery District’s story also lays in its lost geography too. The obvious start is the windmill near the mouth of the Don River, started by William Gooderham and James Worts Sr in 1832. Several years later the gristmill turned into a distillery and was the beginning of an empire. It stood until the 1860s when the buildings on the west side of Trinity Street replaced it. A curved line of bricks in Grist Mill Lane marks where it once stood. In the 1950s, G&W and the York Pioneers (of which the Gooderhams were members) erected a replica windmill on Parliament Street near the Victory Mill Silos.

Gooderham and Worts (Toronto, Ont.) Gristmill, 1840s. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Gooderham & Worts, foot of Trinity St. showing replica of original windmill, 1954. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Aerial showing location of Gooderham and Worts Windmill replica, 1957. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Another little known enterprise in the Gooderham & Worts empire was a dairy and cattle business. These cow byres were once located on the east side of Trinity Street across the original mill in the 1830s. They relocated east of the Don near the river’s bend decades later. Residents in the east end of the city complained about the ‘intolerable nuisance’ of pollutants G&W were discharging into Ashbridges Bay in the 1880s and ’90s.

Gooderham & Worts Cattle Sheds from Goads Fire Insurance Map, 1903. Credit: Goads Toronto.

“The Marsh”, The Globe, August 21, 1881. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Moving up Trinity Street from Mill Street, there are other lost Gooderham & Worts sites — particularly houses! On the northwest corner of Mill and Trinity was the residence of Henry Gooderham, as the 1880 City of Toronto Directories tell us, but was built and lived in by his father William Gooderham himself. A funeral for the man in 1881 ran from the house to his resting place in St. James Cemetery. In 1902, the General Distilling Company — a subsidiary of G&W — replaced the house. Directly across the street was the James Gooderham Worts House, Lindenwold. It was razed for Rack House “D” in 1895. Both warehouse structures still stand.

View of Toronto’s Front Street from Windmill to Old Fort from Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, circa 1850. The Gooderham house at Trinity Street and Mill Street is on the left. The gristmill and wharf are to its right. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Lindenwold, 1870s. Credit: Distillery District Heritage.

On the southwest corner of Trinity and Front was the William George Gooderham house, also as per 1880 City Directories. In the first decade of the 1900s, it fell victim to the expanding Consumers Gas Co. Across street on the east side was the residence of his father, George Gooderham, who perhaps lived there before moving into Waveney around 1892. There are parking lots on both sites today.

Gooderham and Worts houses in the Goads Fire Insurance Map, 1903. Credit: Goads Toronto.

Looking north on Trinity Street, 2018. Credit: Google Maps.

Moving east, the Gooderham and Worts Cooperage once stood on Front Street east of Cherry Street. Bordering the north side of the cooperage yard was Worts Avenue. Worts was originally called Market Street with the name change occurring sometime in the 1880s. George Gooderham had three houses built on the street in 1901. On the north side of Worts was St. Lawrence Square, a oddly situated tract of land shaped by Worts, Cherry, and a bend in Eastern Avenue. G&W sold their land to the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway in 1906 as the CNOR grew its yards, absorbing the cooperage and St Lawrence Square. Cooperage Street today pays homage to the history.

Gooderham and Worts Cooperage in the Goads Fire Insurance Map, 1903. The three houses are hilighted. Credit: Goads Toronto.

Cooperage Street & Front Street, 2018. Credit: Google Maps.

The Canadian National Railway’s expansion also absorbed several residential streets including Water Street and Tate Street, whose residents were labourers at the railroads, G&W, the Toronto Rolling Mills, and at the William Davies Co. With the recent redevelopment of the area to what is now the West Don Lands, little physical reminders remain beyond some street names.

West Don Lands from Goads Fire Insurance Map, 1924. Credit: Goads Toronto

Along with the emergence of the CNOR, there were other railway lines that surrounded the complex. First, the Canadian Pacific Railway curled around the north of Gooderham & Worts, crossing at Parliament Street and Trinity Street.

Bird’s-eye view of plant, 1918. The railway curls in the bottom right of the page. Trinity Street is on the left side. Credit: City of Toronto Archives

Parliament St., looking n. across Mill St., 1907. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Plant from Parliament Street, British Acetones Toronto Limited, Toronto, Ontario, 1918. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Parliament Street – old C.P.R. crossing, 1932. The railway ceases to cross Parliament. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Plant, Trinity Street view, British Acetones Toronto Limited, 1918. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Railroad, Trinity south of Front, 1971. View is looking north. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

George Gooderham also co-founded the Toronto & Nipissing Railway which he used to transport raw materials from the northern parts of Ontario to the Distillery. From a train station located in today’s Parliament Square Park, the tracks ran steps away from the Stone Distillery. The T&N Railway was eventually absorbed into the CNR by the 1920s. Part of it is used by the York-Durham Heritage Railway for themed train rides.

Gooderham and Worts from Bird’s Eye View of Toronto, 1889. The old Toronto & Nippissing terminus station is located on the left side of the image. Credit: Old Toronto Maps.

On the same right of way was the Grand Trunk Railway, who also had railyards west and east of the complex. The latter now houses the Cherry Street streetcar loop. The GTR also became part of CNR. Overlooking the loop is the Cherry Street Interlocking Tower which was built here in 1931 to monitor rail traffic within the Union Station Railway Corridor.

With Gooderham and Worts leveraging the rails in its growth, it also had water at its whim. With the changes to Toronto’s waterfront, it has been forgotten that the Stone Distillery was steps from Lake Ontario. G&W also had its own wharf beginning in the 1840s, housing its grain elevator.

Gooderham and Worts from Barclay, Clark & Co. Bird’s Eye View, 1893. The elevator is right on the water to the south of the Stone Distillery. Credit: Old Toronto Maps.

Since the closing of Gooderham & Worts Ltd in 1990 and its reopening as the Distillery District in 2003 by Cityscape Holdings, the area has been transformed into a pedestrian-only district, friendly for festivals and movie shoots. Although Trinity Street was gravel historically, bricks from Ohio were added for an old-time feel in its redevelopment — if you look close enough you can make out their origins on a select few.

The buildings themselves have been repurposed to host cafes, chocolate shops, micro-breweries, bars, bakeries, and theatres. The area’s past is also nicely displayed throughout via heritage plaques and displays of artefacts, images, and paintings.

Every turn produces some place of interest. Favourites include the clock tower and the famous Love locks sign. Together with the buildings themselves, they create a distinct modern geography.

Useful Links

Distillery District Heritage Website