Looking Back: Humber Grove

This Sunday marks the 63rd anniversary of the devastation Hurricane Hazel brought to the Toronto region.

In Hazel’s aftermath, the Metro Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (MTRCA) would implement a plan to mitigate future damages to human life and infrastructure, and bring about a major change to the landscape.

In those days, a small, picturesque community known as Humber Grove lay north of the village of Bolton, along the bend of the historic Duffy’s Lane. The neighborhood boasted stunning views of the steep river valley and tree groves along the winding Humber River.

1930s postcard depicts Humber Grove community
1936 Postcard

The 100-acre property was patented by the Crown to John Shore in 1835, and purchased 20 years later by an Irish farmer named George Elliott. In the 1861 census return for the area, Elliott’s property was recorded as having 80 acres under cultivation: 49 acres covered in crops, 30 acres under pasture and one acre of orchards.

The property remained in the family until it was listed for sale and sold to the Bertram Realty Company Ltd in 1929. At the time, several houses would have been located there, according to a topographic map of Bolton dated 1909.

1920s newspaper real estate advertisement
Toronto Daily Star, Advertisement March 17, 1928

This particular location along the Humber River was known to be a hotspot for vacationers seeking respite from urban life, a fact that the the Bertram company readily capitalized upon, dividing the property into smaller parcels to sell as cottage retreats. Buyers quickly snapped up the lots.

historical maps of Humber Grove community
Left: 1909 topographic map; Right: Bertram Realty Company Ltd. Registered plan ca. 1930

The community continued to flourish into the 1950s, as families turned their summer homes into year-round residences by installing furnaces and enrolling their children in school in Bolton. In 1958, the absence of school bus service to the area prompted several local mothers to establish a home school in protest. School trustees eventually relented, providing a portable housed at the corners of Duffy’s Lane and King Street. This was soon replaced by a more substantial brick building.

newspaper photographs of 1958 Humber Grove school strike
Toronto Daily Star, October 31, 1958

In 1954, Hurricane Hazel struck, dropping more than 200 millimetre of rain on the Toronto region in a span of 12 hours — 90% of  which drained into rivers. The Humber River swelled to four times its normal size.

In the aftermath of Hazel, the MTRCA created the Plan for Flood Control and Water Conservation, which identified the need for 15 large control dams, plus four major flood control channels and the acquisition of 7,200 acres of land.

Initiated in 1960, the Lands Acquisition Program was the first stage of the plan, put in place to transfer the liability of floodplain land from private hands to the authorities, at a cost of $11.6 million (nearly $100 million in today’s dollars). The second stage, called Flood Control Works, focused on building structures to control flooding — including dams, reservoirs and channel improvements.

map of Humber River Watershed flood control improvements
MTRCA 1959 Flood Control Plan, Proposed improvements in the Humber River Watershed

One proposed location for a new dam was north of Bolton in the hamlet of Glasgow. This dam, intended to stand 29 meters high, would create a lake extending eight kilometers along the Humber River and swallow the community of Humber Grove.

Although Humber Grove did not experience significant damage from Hurricane Hazel, the MTRCA began buying properties in the area under the Lands Acquisition Program in 1962. Completing the purchases took more than a decade, as many residents were initially reluctant to move away from the community they called home. Some ended up transporting their entire houses by truck to Bolton. Eventually, the school closed due to low enrollment, and the remaining houses were torn down in 1977.

aerial images of Humber Grove from 1954 and 1977
Aerial Photographs of the area from 1954 (left) and 1977 (right): A changed landscape

As it turned out, changes to the Conservation Authorities Act and new floodplain regulations meant that the Bolton dam was never built. Nevertheless, the flood control works implemented by the MTRCA south of Bolton would significantly reduce the risk to human life and damage to infrastructure throughout the watershed.

As you pass through this area today — perhaps strolling on the Humber Valley Heritage Trail or a driving along the new Emil Kolb Parkway, you may find it hard to imagine that in place of the dense forest there once thrived a vibrant community.

Look closer, though, and you may see surviving traces: cottage foundations still peeking out from the ground: the remnants of laneways and stone-lined flower beds. These visible reminders of Humber Grove remain imprinted on the landscape, while the forest stands guard over its legacy.

present-day images of Humber Grove area
Humber Grove, today

By Loren Scott