Water, Sewage and Mud
Earlscourt and Junction Sewers
Earlscourt and West Toronto Junction sewersheds
Year of Construction:
Round and egg-shaped brick pipes, concrete arch with brick floor, concrete arch with concrete 'sidewalks' and round clay-lined central channel
Parkside Drive Relief Sewer
If you looked at the coverage of sewers and built over watersheds in Toronto over the last two decades, you might come away with the impression that the only one that mattered was the Garrison Creek and its Victorian and Edwardian sewers. While I've supported efforts to organize around and imagine new relationships with the Garrison, a great deal of the point of this website is to show that every neighbourhood in Toronto (or any urban area really) has a hidden watershed and waste-shed that despite its obscurity is critical to the lives of that neighbourhood's residents and to the spirit and future of the community.
This fall, I have been publishing articles about sewers in much lower profile areas of Toronto. Whether we look beneath that part of East Toronto that isn't quite the Beach(es), or below the modest homes and businesses along Rogers Road in the old Borough of York, we can find sewers that say a lot about how the communities above them came into being, and about the places and challenges we face today. This article is probably the last in that immediate series. Another sewer system built to confront a looming sanitation crisis in an area of the city annexed in the first decade of the twentieth century, for me the Earlscourt and Junction Sewers are literally a little closer to home: the photograph above was taken beneath a street immediately around the corner from where I live.
The Lay of the Land
The Earlscourt and Junction Sewers represent the northern and eastern aspects of a large sewer network centered on Keele St. and stretching from points north of St. Clair south to Sunnyside Beach on Lake Ontario. While the Earlscourt Sewer was built to drain neighbourhoods as far east as Dufferin St., one its tributaries runs from Jane St. east beneath Annette, draining the South Junction, and while another serves the Stockyards and the area along Weston Road up to the old city limits. Another sewer, the High Park Trunk Sewer, built at the same time, runs beneath Bloor Street from just east of Jane.
All of these flows meet in the same place, the northeast corner of High Park, near the intersection of Keele, Bloor, and Parkside Drive, where now-abandoned stand-by tanks once provided overflow storage and a connection to the High-Level Interceptor, before the Mid-Toronto Interceptor was installed and largely superceded the old interception scheme in the 1970s. From this point, wet weather overflows from all these sewers pass into the Parkside Drive Relief Sewer, running south to Garden Avenue where they are now diverted into the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel.
South Earlscourt was one of a number of un- or semi-planned suburbs that sprung up between the 1890s and the onset of the Great War in 1914, along what was then Toronto's periphery. A wave of working-class immigration from England, Central and Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean drove demand for inexpensive residential lots with access to streetcar lines 1 and employment in the manufacturing industries that then ringed Toronto in districts like Liberty and Niagara, the Grand Trunk Railway's main yard in the east end, and the West Toronto Junction.
At the time, Earlscourt appears to have been considered as an area very roughly bounded to the north by Eglinton Avenue, to the south by the cross-town line of the Canadian Pacific Railway, to the west by the old line of the Grand Trunk Railway that runs north-south near Lansdowne Avenue, and stretching east variously to Dufferin or even Bathurst St. (the area known today as Earlscourt is quite a bit smaller). Lots in Earlscourt, sub-divided from former estates, sold for as low as $1.50 per foot, and their placement outside the boundaries of any incorporated municipality meant that purchasers could build their own homes immediately, without the constraints and costs of restrictions, regulations and permitting.2 One sales pamphlet related the inspiring story of how this was done:
They gave up the houses they were renting, some providing themselves with tents while their houses were building, and others having previously erected temporary shelter for their families, worked on permanent dwellings in spare time... They bought materials, a quantity at a time, each week or month with the money they had left after providing for the small payment on their lots. 3
While providing the space for working-class self-improvement (or perhaps partly because it did so), the unregulated and unserviced borderlands of the city soon drew the attention and concern of Toronto's health campaigners, and of local business operators and other community leaders in Earlscourt and the other new suburbs, for whom the muddy streets and tarpaper shacks were something of an embarrassment. As a result, Toronto was convinced to annex a number of these suburbs over the course of that first decade of the 1900s: in the west end, it took the City of West Toronto in 1909, and the southern part of Earlscourt in 1910. The northern part of Earlscourt was left to ultimately be incorporated into a strengthened Township and later Borough of York (it was sewered in the 1920s with the construction of the York Central and Eastern Trunk Sewer).
In 1913, the City of Toronto, having largely completed the foundation of its interceptor sewer system, was able to move ahead with the sewering of Earlscourt and the improvement of the limited system that then existed in the West Toronto Junction. $336,615 was initially allocated for the project, but the final cost ran to some $530,681,4 millions in today's dollars. The combined strain of extending services (not just sewage, but water, electricity and road improvements) not just to Earlscourt and parts of the Junction but to those other suburbs annexed in the same period, pushed the city's finances to the breaking point. This strain, coupled with the outbreak of war towards the end of 1914, largely put an end to the annexations (with the exception of affluent enclaves like Forest Hill and Swansea) until the province forced the amalgamation of the six boroughs of Metro Toronto into a single municipality at the end of the century.
Inside the Earlscourt and Junction trunk sewers
The lower part of the trunk sewer is basically identical to the Parkside Drive Relief Sewer that serves as its overflow, and must have been constructed under the same tender. Above Glenlake Avenue, each arm of the sewer is a different, though there are some characteristics held largely in common. Like the East Toronto Sewer that was built in the same period, much of the Earlscourt and Junction trunk system is fairly modest, composed of arched, concrete conduits with a central channel or trench cut down the middle of the floor and lined for the most part with rounded ceramic tiles. Most of the smaller lines — like the Indian Grove sewer that runs down from the Stockyards, or the main Earlscourt trunk where it runs north-south beneath Emerson Avenue — are brick pipes, round in the case of the former, and egg- or balloon-shaped in the case of the latter.
Where the Earlscourt sewer reaches that section of Glenlake Avenue that falls westward down into the old Spring Creek ravine at Keele Street, it passes down a succession of steep slides. The first three or four of these slides retain the central channel and concrete 'sidewalks', while the last two, where the arched tunnel becomes larger with the addition of the Indian Grove sewer, have a rounded brick floor. While equipped with heavy metal railings, these bricked slides are very treacherous, and other slides leading to the smaller tributaries like the South Junction and Indian Grove sewers are nearly impossible to climb as a result of their lack of similar railings.
Another hazardous 'feature' of this sewer system is the abundance of head-height connections to the houses that line the streets the sewer passes beneath. While the pooled sewer service for connecting streets typically comes in at floor level, individual household connections have been made higher up the wall, and without warning a flushed toilet can send a stream of greywater out into the sewer at head-level. We constantly fretted about being unlucky enough to walk past or be standing in front of one of these sidepipes when a neighbour relieved themselves or put on the shower, and several times while shooting the photographs I saw and heard pipes open up a few metres in front or behind me. Despite the discomfort of worrying about the threat of a soaking — and of having to step over the nice deposits of solids that accumulate on the concrete 'sidewalks' in many of these spots — it is still fascinating to witness the 'business end' of a working sewer.
Water, Mud and the Future of Earlscourt and the Junction
Earlscourt, Wallace Emerson, and the West Toronto Junction are not neighbourhoods we typically associate with water. They straddle gaps between significant but now largely buried watercourses (the Garrison Creek, the mostly 'lost' Black Creek tributary Lavender Creek, and the lost upper portion of Spring Creek) and they are a relatively long way from the lake or from major waterways like the Humber River and Black Creek. Indeed, one cause of the recurring muds that choked traffic in Earlscourt in its first decades must surely have been poor drainage that was a consequence of the existing lay of the land and the disruption of what small streams did transect this area. We managed to 'solve' the mud problem, but only by assembling in its place a cluster of heavily-paved, 'dry' neighbourhoods (and not just in the Junction, where Prohibition was only repealed in 1997!).
The waters of South Earlscourt and the Junction are entirely subterranean. This sewer system represents these neighbourhoods' most significant piece of geography, an underground ecology that strikes me as a crucial place to start if people wanted to begin reimagining the environmental and spatial relationships that both make and restrain this part of the city. The sewer is as spatially significant as the railway infrastructure in these neighbourhoods, as important in our understanding of the area's past development, and — at this point, with the hollowing out of the rail centre and the conversion of much of the Stockyards to big box retail — potentially of greater importance to the present and future imagination and ambitions of these neighbourhoods. Not just an ambiguous 'service', sewerage in the Junction and Earlscourt has a very real shape and presence. But more than that, it's a place to start in reimagining the area in a way that brings the ecology of daily life back to the surface and that reintroduces water, and maybe a little mud, back into work and residency in these neighbourhoods.
Michael Cook is available to speak to your organization about infrastructure history, lost creeks, current conditions, and opportunities for change in our management of and communication about urban watersheds, and to work with teams proposing or implementing such change. Get in touch.