Ice takes out the Old Mill Bridge in 1916.
For most of the year, the valley of the Humber River is one of Toronto’s more serene locations. Bordered extensively by parkland, the Humber winds its way through the western part of the city, and attracts city-dwellers seeking a peaceful escape from their urban troubles. A bit north of Bloor Street is a picturesque stone bridge, known by a variety of names, which connects Old Mill Road to Catherine Street. This bridge dates from 1916, and serves as a reminder of the violence that the Humber is capable of when winter gives way to spring.
Prior to the arrival of British settlers in the late eighteenth century, the lower section of the Humber had been used by many other peoples. Numerous First Nations groups have lived in the area, and used the trail along the Humber to travel through the lands connecting Lake Ontario with the north. The French first arrived at the Humber in the seventeenth century, and eventually established a trading post at Humber Bay.
The landscape of the area began changing significantly in the 1790s, following the Toronto Purchase, when John Graves Simcoe established the King’s Mill at what is now known as the Old Mill site. Water from the Humber was diverted into a mill race, which powered the mill’s wheel, before rejoining the rest of the river further south. Over time, more mills set up along the Humber, adding additional mill races and dams to better capitalize on the water’s power. According to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, there were a total of 164 mills built on the Humber.
Having greater impact on the landscape, however, was the deforestation along the river. As industry grew, so did the demand for wood. The removal of the trees and surrounding undergrowth eliminated much of the land’s ability to absorb water, resulting in increasingly severe floods.
Ice jams are known to have been a major problem for the millers along the Humber. In The Merchant-Millers of the Humber Valley: A Study of the Early Economy of Canada, Sidney Thomson Fisher writes that “year after year, floods and ice jams damaged or washed out the mill dams, but the millers repaired or rebuilt them; the advantages of the gradients and the rapid flow of the stream outweighed the disadvantages.” Numerous bridges were taken out as well, as raised water levels brought large chunks of ice down the Humber at road level, pushing against the bridges until they gave way.
It is believed that the first bridge at what is now Old Mill Road was erected in 1837. The bridge at (Old) Dundas Street to the north was then the primary road for those seeking to travel a great distance, with the Old Mill bridge used more by local residents to connect them to the immediate area. The bridge that enables Bloor to cross the Humber today was not completed until after the First World War; although Bloor Street was the second concession line, it did not become a major arterial in the area until development increased in the early twentieth century. Those seeking to continue west from Bloor Street would go north and cross the Humber using the Old Mill bridge.
By the 1910s, the bridge at the Old Mill site was primarily made of steel, with stone piers on either side of the river. Fears for its survival were an annual occurrence when the big thaw came at the end of winter. It only narrowly survived destruction in 1914. On March 24 of that year, the Star reported that the Humber “is one vast acreage of piled, twisted ice cakes, and in quantity, according to some of the [local] farmers, equals any winter of years past.” While it normally cleared the water by 20 feet, the bridge was reportedly only six feet above the jammed ice. Three days later, the Star reported that the ice was now touching the bottom of the bridge, despite continuous efforts upriver to break up the ice with dynamite. According to one article, “the bridge is badly twisted, and in parts of it the structure is very badly distorted. As yet, however, vehicles still pass over it, and it is still thought safe enough for traffic.”
With the newspapers fully expecting the bridge to give out, warm weather and heavy rains over the next two days melted much of the ice, thereby granting it a reprieve. It would not be so fortunate two years later.
On the afternoon of March 28, 1916, the ice once again reached the level of the bridge, effectively turning it into a dam. The Telegram reported that bridge was “groaning under a load of ice all afternoon with the flood swirling over the deck.” Around 6:00, an ice jam up at Lambton broke, putting even more pressure on the Old Mill bridge, as the water levels rose, reportedly up to eight feet over the bridge’s roadway.
The World quoted York County Constable R.B. Dennis as saying “it was just about 6:30 when thousands of tons of ice piled against the bridge… The west span went first, facing south, and was taken completely off the piers. Then the east one went off the abutments, but the centre span held. The ice is piled anywhere from 10 to 15 feet high over the valley north of the bridge and covers, I should say, 15 acres.”Robert Home Smith, the prominent local land owner and developer, told the World“ the whole valley was a rushing sea of water from bank to bank, and the immense bodies of ice were simply irresistible when they got behind the [bridge] structure… Fine trees, 70 years old, were snapped off and borne downstream.”
After the great torrent of water and ice had cleared, the centre span of bridge reportedly remained, absurdly marooned in the centre of the Humber, surrouded by chunks of ice and cut off from the road. “To the south, ice, trunks of trees, and parts of the wreck lie in chaotic confusion,” wrote the Telegram. “The remainder of the bridge itself is almost twisted beyond recognition, the steel supports at the base resembling corkscrews.”
The Daily Mail and Empire reported that about 30 spectators had a narrow escape when the section of the bridge they were on gave out, forcing them to scramble to land. “Two men were unable to escape to the river banks, and were carried downstream about half a mile before they succeeded in extricating themselves from their perilous position by grasping the limb of a tree, hanging low across the water, and dragging themselves to safety.”
William James, the early Toronto photojournalist, was on site, reportedly laying in wait for the big ice break with a “moving-picture machine.” According to the Star, who ran one of James’ photos on the front page the next day. James “was rewarded with securing pictures of the great wave and of the first smash of the bridge and he was forced to flee for his own life from his perch on the bank.” The moving images he recorded do not appear to have survived, although many of his still images record the aftermath and demonstrate the extent of the damage.
York County Council immediately vowed to replace the structure, and soon did so with the bridge that remains on the site today, at a reported cost of $50,000. Although initial newspaper reports promised a high-level bridge of solid steel, the finished product designed by Frank Barber is primarily made of concrete, a relatively novel engineering innovation for the time. This material proved stronger than the previous wood and steel bridges at the site, aided also by the three high arches and the wedges on the bridge’s supports, which encourage ice and debris to pass underneath.
The new bridge faced its first significant test the following March, only five weeks after it first opened to traffic. On March 24, 1917, the Star wrote that “the annual antics of the Humber River commenced early this morning, when a heavy ice field north of the new Bloor Street stone bridge near the ‘Old Mill’ crumpled and drifted towards the bridge, piling on both approaches.” By all accounts, however, the only damage done was to the dirt road approaching the bridge, and the new bridge survived the ordeal.
Nearly 100 years later, the Old Mill Bridge remains on the site, having withstood every annual thaw of the river, along with the severe flooding of Hurricane Hazel in 1954. It was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1983.
BY DAVID WENCER