How the Forestry Industry Transformed Scarborough’s Highland Creek

Crossing Highland Creek

Scarborough of the 1800s was a settler’s dream—the land was rich with pine and hardwoods, the rivers were filled with trout and salmon, and the waterways provided easy transportation to different parts of the township.

By the 1850s, the population of Scarborough was close to 4,200 people. Forestry in the Highland Creek watershed became the first significant resource use and economic activity. To meet the demand, saw mills sprang up, leveling trees and using the cleared land to create homesteads, barns and farms.

Building a barn


By 1851, almost 75% of the township was covered in forest. Within 10 years this was down to about 30%. By then, the forest was so depleted that industry in the Highland Creek area was replaced with agriculture. The saw mills all closed and in their place grist mills were built, grinding grain that now grew in the Highland Creek area into flour.

“On first coming to this country, nothing surprised me more than the total absence of trees about the dwelling houses and cleared lands…Man appears to contend with the trees of the forest as though they were his most obnoxious enemies; for he spares neither the young sapling in its greenness nor the ancient trunk in its lofting pride.”

Catherine Parr Traill, early Canadian settler, naturalist, author, 1832

Trees, like everything in an ecosystem, play an interconnected role with all other parts of the ecosystem. By the late 1800s, deforestation led to water fluctuations. Flooding of the Highland Creek became more frequent and unpredictable, damaging properties and making it difficult to run the mills, many of which either closed or switched to steam power.

How has this shaped Highland Creek?

Historical land uses are significant because they shape the character of the watershed we see today. The loss of forest cover resulted in a lower water table, which caused many of the tributaries of the Highland Creek to disappear and caused an increase in runoff and erosion from the land. This reduced fish populations in the area, due to changes in flow pattern, barriers within the stream and the loss of habitats.

In Highland Creek, the history of resource-based industry has since been replaced by urban land uses and today the watershed is entirely urbanized. Through regular monitoring, TRCA tracks and reports on changes to the shorelines and watershed areas to promote and restore its health and regional biodiversity.

To read more about what we do in the Highland Creek watershed, check out the Highland Creek section of the TRCA website.

Photos from the Toronto Public Library’s digital archive.