Toronto pandemics past: Typhoid and a tale of death in the water

In his second in a series on Toronto pandemics past, Richard Longley explores the typhoid fever outbreaks that swept through “Hogtown” in the late 19th-century and prompted the modernization of Toronto’s drinking water supply.

In 2017, director Guillermo del Toro chose the Keating Channel for the climax of his movie The Shape of Water. It’s there, with the Gardiner Expressway looming in the background, that his mute heroine Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) elopes into the water with her gilled lover that she’d rescued from a laboratory of brutal scientists. The fantasy is an apt metaphor for a brutalized river in a city with a brutally polluted past.

When cholera struck the Town of York in 1832 and the newly incorporated City of Toronto in 1834 medical science was in its infancy. The connection between cholera and polluted water wouldn’t be discovered until 1854. And Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, which made the cause of epidemics comprehensible, wouldn’t arrive until 1864. Toronto experienced its last outbreak of cholera in 1866, the year Pasteur lost his two daughters to another water-borne killer that would afflict Toronto until well into the 20th century – typhoid fever.

In their study of Death in Victorian Toronto, Risa Barkin and Ian Gentles identify typhoid as the cause of 412 of the 24,124 deaths recorded in the burial registers of the Potter’s Field and the Necropolis cemeteries between 1850 and 1899. They also include a story of another event – a tale of mud and catfish spewing out in the water a fire engine was directing at a downtown blaze. That water came from a hydrant at the corner of King and Yonge that was supposed to be drinkable.

Until the 1870s, Torontonians depended on wells, local streams or the harbour for their water supply. Water from the harbour and the lower Don River was increasingly and dangerously polluted. The situation was ameliorated briefly in 1875 when lake water was first piped into the city from the south side of the Toronto islands, but two weeks later its wooden conduit broke loose and floated to the surface “like a wooden snake.” In the late 1870s, it was replaced with a steel pipe but it too broke in 1890, and again in 1910.

With each break, the number of typhoid cases soared. The disease was rampant and a foul stench hovered over the city that had been labelled one of the dirtiest and unhealthiest on the continent.


Ashbridge’s Bay wetland as it was in 1873: to the east a bay, to the west a marsh with pools, including Brown’s pond, a “vast open cesspool.” (Credit unknown)

Death in the water

The water in Toronto Harbour was made filthy by the industrialization of the Don, but filthiest of all was the water that flowed out of the Don into Ashbridge’s Bay. In the spring of 1837, Anna Jameson, wife of the Attorney General of Upper Canada described the bay in her Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada as “A mere swamp, a tangled wilderness, the birch, the hemlock and tamarack trees,  were growing down to the water’s edge, and even into the lake.”

While Anna Jameson was enjoying her idyll in the bay, a kilometre away William Gooderham was switching his business from the milling of grain to the making of whiskey at the distlllery he’d built beside his waterfront windmill west of the mouth of the Don. Gooderham was a resourceful man. After the sugar had been boiled out of it and turned into alcohol he fed the grain mash left over to the pigs and cattle he raised on his nearby farm. The manure they produced, he sold to local farmers. The rest went into Ashbridge’s Bay.

By 1866 Gooderham’s cattle operation had grown so large, he relocated it to the east side of the Don, south of the GTR tracks. By 1880, he had 4,000 animals, housed in seven huge cattle byres, all fed on grain swill piped in from the distillery. The liquid manure they produced, as much as 80,000 gallons a day, drained into the part of the marsh that was called, appropriately, Brown’s Pond. 


Anna Brownell Jameson, author of 

From wetland to cesspool

Where it was not too polluted, Ashbridge’s Bay was home to wild fowlers. They lived in cabins around the bay and made a living by shooting ducks and geese and selling them in St. Lawrence Market. In winter the ice trade moved in. The frozen surface of the bay was scored like a chocolate bar, and cut into blocks and sold in the city clean ice for cooling drinks and making ice-cream, less clean ice for refrigeration. Inevitably there was confusion that contributed to outbreaks of typhoid.

In the 1880s the Don Improvement Scheme straightened the river to discharge directly into the bay. Human waste from a growing Toronto and manure from Gooderham’s cattle byres were joined by effluent from the tanneries, slaughterhouses, oil refineries, foundries and rendering plants that lined the Lower Don. In 1879 Gooderham’s cattle sheds were joined on the east side of the Don by William Davies’ pork packing plant. It was the largest in the British Empire and processed 500,000 hogs annually, turning Toronto into “Hogtown.” All the operations were disgusting, all dangerous, all contributing to the foul stench that blew over the city.

Choked with muck, Brown’s Pond became a patchwork of “vast open cesspools” covered by stinking semisolid waste that crusted over, thick enough for a man to walk on – if he didn’t mind the risk of falling through and drowning in the myre.

Gooderham Distillery Circa 1851.jpg

Gooderham & Wort’s Distillery, circa 1855. J. C. Forbes, artist (Toronto Public Library).

The health risks posed by the pollution of Ashbridge’s Bay were too many to ignore. In 1883 attempts to clean it up began. Wheelbarrow loads of manure were sold to Leslieville farmers. Leslieville farmers and 200 men were hired to lay planks over the quaking mass then cover it with 2 feet of soil. Their labour trapped the stink and made Brown’s Pond safer to walk on but there was always a risk of sinking into its “disgusting quicksand.”

In 1892, after the City threatened William Gooderham’s son George with a lawsuit for the mess his cattle operation was causing, he installed a filtration system. It amounted to little more than a band-aid on a fecal hemorrhage. Gooderham’s cattle operation would remain in place for another 20 years.

Also in 1892, council approved City Engineer Edward Keating’s plan to divert the Don away from the polluted Ashbridge’s marsh, cutting west towards Toronto Bay. Like all great schemes, Keating’s was delayed and shrunk by budget cuts – it was not fully completed until 1922. If it had been built as planned, Keating channel would have been 100 metres wide, not the 30 metres it is today, so narrow that it has to be dredged of 35,000 cubic metres of driftwood, silt and garbage annually.

Typhoid-Keating Channel being dredged1.jpg

Richard Longley

Keating Channel being dredged.

Summon the medical officer of health

In 1910 Charles Hastings became the city’s Medical Officer of Health. He began his career as an obstetrician but switched to public health after both of his daughters contracted typhoid from contaminated milk and one of them died. Chlorination of the city’s water supply began the year he was appointed, along with his use of the Ontario Milk Act to promote his campaign for pasteurization, the treatment invented by Pasteur that requires heating milk to 60 degrees celsius for 20 minutes to eliminate any pathogens it might contain.

As well as cleaning up the milk and water supply, Hastings sent inspectors into slaughterhouses, food stores and restaurants and nurses into the dwellings of the poor. He promoted children’s playgrounds with bubbler drinking fountains that replaced earlier fountains that had a communal cup, set up baby clinics and commissioned city photographer Arthur Goss to document the squalid conditions of the Ward that sprawled to the west of City Hall.

It all worked. By 1915, the year that pasteurization became law in Toronto the frequency of typhoid and other water and milk-related diseases in the city had plummeted and infant mortality had declined by a third.

In July of that year, Maclean’s magazine ran a headline: “Saving Lives on Wholesale Plan: How Toronto Has Been Made the Healthiest of Large Cities.” In the year of COVID-19, it’s an instructive read and it must have been gratifying for Hastings who would be soon be confronted with the greatest challenge of his career, the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Toronto Harbour:Ashbridges Marsh circa 1857.jpg

A hideous air-polluting monster

In 1912, two years after Hastings was appointed Medical Officer of Health, Roland Caldwell Harris became the city’s Commissioner of Works. Like Hastings he had lost a child – his 6-month old son Emerson had died in 1906 of streptococcal infection that Harris blamed on contaminated water. Thanks largely to the standards set by Hastings and Harris, drinking water in Toronto is now among the safest in the world and better tested than any that comes in bottles. But in their time, sewage remained a challenge at Ashbridge’s Bay. The treatment plant built on Eastern Avenue in 1913 was soon over capacity and often overflowing, releasing floaters and sinkers into the lake.

In 1933 Harris presented to Council a plan devised by engineers George Nasmith and Harrison Eddy for a new plant at the mouth of Highland Creek where compressed air would be forced through the sewage to accelerate its decomposition, a process called activated sludge aeration.

The Nasmith-Eddy plan promoted by Harris was ambitious but when the decision was made, in 1940, at the beginning of World War II, its cost was deemed prohibitive: $25 million for the entire project, $12 million for the pipe alone. Council appointed a panel of experts. Four out of five them wanted construction of a cheaper plant at Ashbridge’s Bay. The city has been paying for that mistake ever since.

The present Ashbridge’s Bay plant was completed in 1951. For years it was a hideous, stinking, air-polluting monster. A 2005 study revealed that Beaches and South Riverdale residents had more serious cases of circulatory and respiratory diseases than the residents of other comparable neighbourhoods.

The conversion of the Ashbridge’s Bay Treatment Plant from an incinerator of solid waste into a convertor of fertilizer pellets was just a beginning. In 2018 the city began construction of a $6 billion Central Waterfront System that will connect to a new pumping station that will replace the two existing stations at Pump House Park (Coxwell and the Lakeshore). The Ashbridge’s Bay Treatment plant – upgraded yet again – will treat the wastewater it receives from the new pumping station with ultraviolet light rather than chlorination.

While all this is going on, the Toronto Portlands that were created from the landfilling of most of Ashbridge’s Bay in the 1920s will also be under development. A new naturalized exit to Lake Ontario is being created for the Don, which will also create a new Villiers Island.

The revitalized Port Lands will be almost unimaginably different from the Ashbridge’s Bay Anna Jameson visited in 1837. And instead of being strangled at the Keating Channel, the Don will flow through wetlands in a facsimile of nature into Lake Ontario and the Keating Channel will be transformed into a canal of a new little Venice. The lake will be healthier than it has been in two centuries. That’s the plan, let’s hope it happens and it works.


Richard Longley

With files by Jennifer Bonnell.


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