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.

100 in 1 Day (and More) 2015 at the Old Eastern Avenue Bridge

100 in 1 Day is an initiative of citywide ‘interventions’, aimed at making the city a better place. There were many to choose from (far greater than 100 actually), but I chose to go the ‘Learnt Wisdom: Above and Beyond’ lecture.

There were a few reasons for attending this particular intervention. First, it would be held at the old Eastern Avenue bridge, which I’ve read about and seen pictures about, but I’ve never actually been to. Second, one of the hosts – Daniel “The Urban Geographer” Rostzain (I feel like I gave him a wrestling name) – is doing really great things with his library-philia, Jane’s Walking, and everything else. And third, it’s about storytelling – and who doesn’t love a good story?

The meetup point is at King and River Streets. While waiting, I chat with Daniel, who I have bounced tweets back and forth but never met in the flesh. I also meet Kyle Baptista of Park People. On top of that, I encounter fellow tweeter Sean Marshall at the bridge. It’s a wonderful meeting of the online community!

Also while waiting, I do a panorama of the interesting sites in the vicinity. To the south is the sleek black River City complex of condos, which, in the last time I wrote about Corktown, was not completed. To the east is the always intriguing convergence of King and Queen Streets. There’s a triangular island and undeveloped plot of land, which Kyle believes is supposed to be a park eventually. Makes sense. To the immediate north is the old Scotiabank and beyond that up River is the 1907 Queen City Vinegar Co. Lofts.

1. River City Condo

The walk to the Eastern Avenue Bridge travels down Lower River Street, which was absent from Toronto’s street grid up until a few years ago. We pass Underpass Park (great use of dead space), Lawren Harris Square (not to be confused with Lawren Harris Park), and come to the Corktown  Common. Only, we don’t actually come to the Corktown Common because it’s been fenced off for the summer for the PanAm games. A shame because it’s a great recreational space which doubles as a natural flood plain.

2. Corktown Common Closed

3. Corktown Common Closed

It’s amazing to think of the reconfiguration the West Don Lands has gone through in the last little while and over the last hundred years. River and Bayview Streets have southern extensions. The railway lands that dominated the area are gone. All the industry that once prevailed on or near the banks of the Don are gone. It’s remarkable to think, in that regard, that the Corktown Common was once occupied by the William Davies Co. pig processing operation.

West Don Lands Goads, 1924
Corktown & West Don Lands. Source: Goads Atlas, 1924

We travel around the security zone and come the Lower Don Trail. My eye catches a couple of Heritage Toronto plaques highlighting the stories of the waterway. But more than that, the graffiti is disappointing to see. I don’t see a reason to mark up a plaque.

5. Don River Heritage Toronto plaques

4. Don River Heritage Toronto plaques

Far into the distance is the Unilever Plant, which is the subject of a lot of city building discussions including the Gardiner East debacle debate. Every week for the final year of the soap plant I saw the striking workers camped outside the factory. Then, they weren’t there and the plant succumbed.

6. Don River Heritage Toronto plaques

A stroll up the trail (very well used on this sunny Saturday) and we’re at our destination. The Eastern Avenue Bridge is pretty much a bridge in only name because it doesn’t connect anything. It’s truly a bridge to nowhere. On one side is the trail with the meager security and on the other the Don Valley Parkway.

7. Old Eastern Avenue Bridge from Lower Don Trail

In a pre-DVP world, Eastern Avenue ran a straight course east and west of the Don. But with the construction of the highway in 1961, Eastern was rerouted to curve up from about Broadview Avenue to about Cherry Street before following its original course again.

The Eastern Avenue bridge, the third version of its kind at this crossing, is a big hunk of metal with cool zig-zaggy beams and locales where explorers have left their mark. It’s a dead space, but for our purposes makes a great performance venue – surprisingly so with the highway running beside us. As Natalie – the other creator/host of Learnt Wisdom – told me, their past venues have included underneath the Leaside Bridge, a pool, the Toronto Islands. Their next one is at a cemetery tucked in at a highway interchange.

    8. Old Eastern Avenue Bridge         9. Old Eastern Avenue Bridge

12. Old Eastern Avenue Bridge circle

13. Don't Try to Fix Me! I'm not Broken! Old Eastern Avenue Bridge

14. DVP from Old Eastern Avenue Bridge

The lecture starts and, one by one, four speakers come up and tell us their tales of going ‘above and beyond’. I won’t recount the stories themselves, but the messages behind them were great: how being lazy and doing nothing can actually be a good thing; and how small people can do big things & if you have an idea, for it.

   10. Learnt Wisdom Old Eastern Avenue Bridge          19. Learnt Wisdom Old Eastern Avenue Bridge

If the goal of 100 in 1 Day was to inspire change that would make Toronto a better place, I think the Learnt Wisdom intervention achieved it with the messages of the story tellers.

On that note: If you, reader, have a story to tell on the theme of ‘Milestones’ or have an idea for am unusual venue, get in touch with them.

17. Learnt Wisdom Old Eastern Avenue Bridge

Following that, Kyle and I retrace our steps back to King Street, and get a good look at the city skyline from the development lands.

20. Corktown condos

21. Toronto skyline from Corktown

22. Corktown condos

My streetcar isn’t going to arrive for another 10 minutes lamentably, so I get a coffee and walk down the street to pass the time. At St. Lawrence Street, a building catches my attention. At first I think it’s a church because of the northern part that juts out, but on further inspection, I better suspect that it’s a factory. Further research has produced that this was originally the Simpson Knitting Mill in the 1920s. Today, it’s work-live lofts.

23. 52 St. Lawrence Street Simpson Knitting Mill factory

24. 52 St. Lawrence Street Simpson Knitting Mill factory

A peer down Sumach and its almost completed Cherry ROW streetcar line to the Distillery District follows.

25. Sumach Street streetcar

Finally, I check in with the great art pieces under the Richmond and Adelaide Street overpasses. The nautical exploration themed design catches my attention most. It’s about this time that, not a boat but, a rocket picks me to conclude this adventure.

26. King Street East underpass art

27. King Street East underpass art

28. King Street East underpass art