The Crothers Woods Stairs

Sunday, May 26, 2018

Previous posts on Crothers Woods and the Beechwood Wetlands have covered much of the early history of this area but we’ll touch on it briefly as we set the scene for the present story.  The valley was a much different place in 1929 than it is today but to understand one of the prominent features of the valley we need to step back nearly a century.  At that time most of the tree coverage had been removed from everywhere except the ravine slopes.  A saw mill had been in operation in the area shown as Cottonwood Flats on the map below until the local supply of lumber was exhausted in 1858.  After that, Cottonwood Flats was home to manufacturing with Domtar operating an insulation factory there until 1965.  The area known as Sun Valley had been home to a brick factory since 1900 and by 1929 there was a large strip mine where the clay had been removed.  The Don River had become one of the most polluted rivers in Canada by this time but it formed a natural border to the floodplain.  The area bounded by the ravine, the large clay mine and the river was chosen as the site for Toronto’s newest sewage treatment plant.

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North Toronto was annexed to the city of Toronto in 1912. This led to the rapid infill of an area that had largely been farmland until that time.  With the influx of affluent people came an outflow of effluent.  Hooking up to the existing city sewer system was impractical because of the Yellow Creek Ravine and so a new sewage system and treatment plant was needed.  A site was selected in the industrial area we now call Crothers Woods because it was lower in elevation and no pumping was required to bring the sewage to the plant.  The close proximity of the Don River was a deciding factor as was the concept that the discharge was downstream from any agricultural or drinking water uses.

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The whole facility sits in the floodplain and at the time was bounded by the ravine, a deep pit and a dirty river.  R. C. Harris was the commissioner of public works in 1926 when the project was approved by city council.  Harris was a man of foresight and when he built the Bloor Street Viaduct (1918) he installed a lower deck for a subway that wouldn’t use it until 1966.  When he built the R. C. Harris Filtration Plant he designed it so that it could be expanded by 50% when the time came.  When he commissioned the North Toronto Water Treatment Plant he was decades ahead of his time in ensuring worker safety.  An escape route was planned to allow employees to get out of the valley if an emergency occurred.  A wooden boardwalk leads to a set of wooden stairs then to the road above.  A small section has no hand rails to allow cyclists to enjoy one of 9 kilometers of trails that weave their way through the 52 hectare park.  There are two places where the trails cross the stairway.

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As the boardwalk approaches the ravine wall it starts a fairly steep climb.  This section of the woods is full of birds and the stairs provide an excellent place to find some quiet time when you can sit and watch for them.

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In the fall these stairs also provide excellent views of the changing colours in the Don River Valley.  About half way to the top is a bench for those who need a rest or just want to sit for awhile.

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One hundred ninety-five steps separate the wastewater treatment facility and the road at the top of the ravine.  The top of the stairs are almost hidden in the intersection of Millwood Road and Redway Road.  The stairs are obviously maintained because the deadwood has been removed and broken boards replaced.  Much of the blue paint is peeling from the structure and the new boards are still raw.  I wonder if a paint job is scheduled for the near future.

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When we visited Crothers Woods in December 2016 the stairway hadn’t seen much recent use.  Fresh snow covered the stairs at that time.  Today, there was only one other person using the stairs but dozens of others on the trails either hiking or riding their mountain bikes.

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It turns out that the set of stairs designed in 1929 to allow the water treatment plant workers to escape functions very well today as a place for personal escape.

Google Maps Link: Crothers Woods

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