Points of Interest > Ashbridge's Bay

Early settler accounts of the great marsh at the mouth of the Don River bear little resemblance to the industrial landscape that appears in its place today. As English writer Anna Jameson wrote in the spring of 1837, "this marsh, intersected by inlets and covered with reeds, is the haunt of thousands of wild fowl, and of the terrapin, or small turtle of the lake; and as evening comes on, we see long rows of red lights from the fishing boats gleaming across the surface of the water, for thus they spear the lake salmon, the bass and the pickereen."

Ashbridges Marsh
Ashbridge's Marsh looking northeast, circa 1909
City of Toronto Archives, Series 376, File 4, Item 63

Ashbridge's Marsh was indeed an incredible sight. Over five square kilometres in size, it was one of the largest wetlands in eastern Canada, and supported a vast range of migratory birds and other wildlife. Located on the west side of Ashbridge's Bay, the marsh extended as far east as the today's Leslie Street. Up until the late 1850s, a narrow peninsula extending from Ward's Island to the Lake Ontario shore near Woodbine Beach separated the Bay from Lake Ontario and the harbour. In 1858, a winter storm breached the sandbar, separating the Toronto Islands from the peninsula.

By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, industrial development along the shores of the Bay and the Lower Don River, together with the disposal of increasing quantities of sewage into the marsh, had caused serious pollution problems. One of the worst offenders was the Gooderham & Worts cattle byres, located east of the Don River mouth and south of the GTR tracks. Here, Gooderham & Worts fattened cows and pigs with the waste grain "swill" from the distilling process. By the 1880s, the Company's cattle operations had grown to seven massive sheds or "byres" housing up to 4000 head of cattle over the winter months. Liquid manure in quantities of up to 80,000 gallons a day drained directly into the marsh. Decades of complaints by area residents produced little response by either the Company or the City. Not until the threat of a cholera outbreak loomed in the early 1890s, and the City faced a series of legal actions due to conditions in the marsh, were any attempts made to abate the pollution problem in Ashbridge's Bay. In 1892 the City threatened Gooderham & Worts with legal proceedings, and the Company implemented a filtration system for wastes later that fall. The following year, City Engineer E.H. Keating oversaw the dredging a narrow channel through the marsh with openings to the lake in the east and to Toronto harbour in the west. "Keating's Cut" improved the circulation of waters in the marsh, but did little to address the ongoing problem of sewage pollution in the Bay.

Beginning in 1912, the newly created Toronto Harbour Commission (THC) drafted plans to drain and fill the marshlands in response to growing public health concerns, and the need for new port and industrial lands. The Ashbridge's Bay Reclamation Scheme would become the largest engineering project on the continent at that time, filling in an area from Cherry to Leslie Streets to create the Port Industrial District. By the time work was completed in the 1920s, only a fragment of the original Ashbridge's Bay remained, and the mouth of the Don River had been dramatically altered.

Dredging the Marsh
Ashbridge's Bay Improvement, circa 1890s.
City of Toronto Archives, Series 376, File 4, Item 47

Industry began to move out of the portlands area in the 1970s, leaving behind heavily polluted sites (uses of the portlands included oil refining and coal storage, waste disposal and incineration, and heavy manufacturing). In 2001, the governments of Toronto, Ontario and Canada came together to create the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation (TWRC) (now known as Waterfront Toronto) to oversee the renewal and redevelopment of the waterfront. For more information on these plans, see the Waterfront Toronto website.

Text: Jennifer Bonnell


Desfor, Gene. "Planning Urban Waterfront Industrial Districts: Toronto's Ashbridge's Bay, 1889-1910." Urban History Review 17.2 (1988): 77-91.

Jameson, Anna Brownell. Winter studies and summer rambles in Canada: selections. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.

Royal Commission of the Future of the Toronto Waterfront. Regeneration: Toronto's Waterfront and the Sustainable City, Final Report. Toronto: 1992.

Stinson, Jeffery. The Heritage of the Port Industrial District. Vol. 1. Toronto: Toronto Harbour Commissioners, 1990.

Wickson, Ted. Reflections of Toronto Harbour: 200 years of port activity and waterfront development. Toronto: Toronto Port Authority, 2002.




Jennifer Bonnell & Marcel Fortin, 2009. A member project of NiCHE in partnership
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