A doubled junction chamber beneath Toronto's Avenue Road in the Rosedale Creek Sewer. This photograph is available as a limited edition print from Circuit Gallery

The Problem of Ice

Rosedale Creek Sewer

Castle Frank Brook, also called Rosedale Creek
Annex,Yorkville, Casa Loma sewers

Year of Construction:

Construction Details:
Mostly yellow-brick pipe, 1950mm diameter and smaller west of Yonge Street. Large slide/stairs structure takes the sewer into a more modern concrete conduit below the Yonge subway corridor.

The Rosedale Creek Sewer is perhaps Toronto's second large-scale combined trunk sewer, built as it was in 1888 just a few years after construction of the Garrison Creek Sewer. It served to sewer the waterway that the city called "Rosedale Creek" but which is more commonly known as Castle Frank Brook, removing the nuisance of another polluted waterway (see also) from Yorkville, Rosedale, and the neighbourhood around the future Casa Loma. Sewering the creek also allowed the construction of a road (Rosedale Valley Road) up the Castle Frank Ravine, which for many years was an essential route into and out of the Don Valley.

Until the construction of the High-Level Interceptor c. 1912, this sewer ran straight down the Castle Frank Ravine and into the Don River, and the effects of its effluent were felt immediately in an unlikely corner of the city's economy. In 1892, an editorial in the Toronto Daily Mail decried the sewer's effect on Toronto's supply of ice, noting that "ice will be dearer probably next summer than it would be if we could cut it at our door." 1 Until the widespread adoption of safe and commercially viable methods of chemical refrigeration in the first decades of the twentieth century, North American cities had depended on harvested ice stored in insulated blockhouses throughout the warm part of the year. This ice trade was increasingly jeopardized in the late 1800s as urban wastewater marred many cities' most convenient sources of harvested ice, including Toronto's.

The Daily Mail's editorial noted that new regulations from "the Local Board of Health of this city [had] decreed that no ice must be cut in the sewage-polluted harbour, or in the River Don, or in any of the sewage-contaminated streams and pools which are to be found within the boundaries of the city or in its neighbourhood. Ice may be cut from the Grenadier pond or Small's pond so long as it can be shown that it is to be used for cooling or packing purposes only." 2 While the sewage problem restricted ice harvesting throughout all those areas convenient to the city, the author of the editorial singled out the Rosedale Creek Sewer for special complaint, observing that

if the trunk sewer were made, and if instead of pouring the Rosedale sewage into the Don, thus making it a filthy channel of obscenity, we allowed the pure water from the upper reaches of the stream to fill it, we should be able to cut pure ice anywhere. The refusal to attend properly to our sewerage involves a heavy expense in life and health. It will now cost a great deal in increased prices for ice. 3

While the Daily Mail in this instance made the connection between the effects of sewer provision and other aspects of the city's life, its conclusions continued to be ignored by many politicians and a majority of the city's ratepayers. Around 1912, by which time chemical refrigeration was becoming increasingly available, the sewer's dry weather flow was finally intercepted with the construction of a dedicated arm of the High-Level Interceptor to divert the sewage from the Castle Frank Ravine down to the interceptor beneath Gerrard Street. In the 1920s, a new concrete overflow conduit replaced the downstream reach of the sewer, perhaps as a result of damage sustained in a flood. This overflow conduit appears on the cover of many editions of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, for which we named the whole sewer system. When the Mid-Toronto Interceptor (MTI) expanded the interceptor system in the 1970s, a new diversion was constructed further up the valley to feed the bulk of the Rosedale Creek Sewer's flow into the MTI rather than the High-Level.

Exploring Rosedale Creek's Upper Sewer

Topology effectively divides the Rosedale Creek Sewer into two reaches, east and west of Yonge Street. It is only the upstream reach, in the west, that we have so far been able to access and document. The sewer begins around Bathurst and Davenport, and drains the neighbourhoods surrounding the Nordheimer Ravine (south of St. Clair Ave, west of Avenue Road) as well as those in the vicinity of Ramsden Park. Built predominantly in yellow brick, it may very well also be the work of the contractor A.J. Browne, who in the 1880s was hired by the city to build much of the Garrison Creek and Taddle Creek sewers.

At a number of points through Ramsden Park, the sewer's grade increasingly temporarily. The shape and form of the pipe does not otherwise change in these locations, but these "ramps" were at some point (perhaps even originally) equipped with metal handrails which have survived through to today. 

At Yonge Street, the Rosedale Creek Sewer experiences a more significant drop (the flow is hazardous enough that we've yet to determine whether it is a very steep slide or a staircase). While the sewer likely originally included some sort of drop near this location to enter the Caste Frank Ravine, it was substantially rebuilt in concrete and red brick in the 1940s to facilitate the construction of the Yonge subway line, whose Rosedale station the sewer now passes beneath. A line of metal rods hang from the ceiling — while they have eyelets at the bottom that could have held a chain or rope, its likely that their primary purpose was and is to serve as "tell-tales," markers that warn of an upcoming fall or other danger. They are a hint that sewer inspection and maintenance wasn't always the predominantly vertical and remote activity it is now, but that workers once travelled horizontally through sewers and needed these kind of permanent installations. This drop marks the end of our exploration of the sewer to date, as so far it has been too hazardous to continue downstream from this location.

  1. 1. "The Ice Supply," The Toronto Daily Mail, 17 November 1892.
  2. 2. Ibid.
  3. 3. Ibid.
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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.