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Your Toronto 2014 Issue Navigator

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Tracing Toronto’s History Through Maps

A new website takes a cartographic approach to charting Toronto's past.

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For as long as I can recall, I’ve been fascinated by maps. As a kid, getting the latest edition of the provincial road map was like receiving an early birthday present, a gateway to endless hours of studying highway and provincial-park details, imagining the adventures that lay beyond the colourful lines. Based on the number of maps I drew during childhood, an observer might have predicted a career in cartography.

Now, instead of drawing maps, I study them for the historical information they reveal about our city. Beyond providing a sense of how Toronto has evolved from First Nation footpath stop to sprawling metropolis, old maps reveal tidbits that hours of pouring through books fail to uncover. Vague references to long-gone roads are pinpointed. Building locations are verified. Odd landforms or street patterns make more sense. Grand urban planning schemes that never escaped the drawing board live on as the seeds of an alternate reality.

Old maps are also a type of artwork, demonstrating the skills of surveyors and graphic designers. The visual appearance of a map reveals much about the styles and thoughts of an era. Expertly drawn lines may be whimsical, ornate, or simple and plain. They can even camouflage the sins of the past. As Derek Hayes notes in his introduction to The Historical Atlas of Toronto, “Sometimes the maps illustrate a way of thinking different from what we consider proper today; to some, maps are instruments of imperialism, colonization, and the imposition of control, especially by Europeans over Native peoples. But all are products of their period in history and can give us important insights into the thinking of the time.”

Many of those insights are displayed in the maps Nathan Ng has collected for his new website, Historical Maps of Toronto. The site grew out of Ng’s research into the history of the building that housed his favourite climbing gym, Rock Oasis, whose location at Front and Bathurst Streets was slated for demolition. (The gym has since moved east.) Along the way, he discovered the Charles Goad Company’s Atlas of the City of Toronto, a series of fire-insurance maps. Frustrated by the arcane file format the City of Toronto Archives employed for the digitized version, Ng posted user-friendly versions of the maps, which other researchers found useful.

“I love old maps of Toronto,” Ng notes on his website, “and I’ve come across many that ought to be aggregated someplace. My subjective issue with a lot of the institutional sources is that browsing their catalogues for maps can be…a balky experience for novices, due to interface and system constraints. What if there was a tidy, easy to use list?” Several browsing methods are included on the site, from a chronological listing to thumbnails, making it easy to find what you’re looking for. There’s even a “view random map” link for those who like surprises.

Ng intends his site to complement the efforts of institutions like the Archives, the Toronto Public Library, and the University of Toronto, who are posting their map collections online. “I want people to discover that these artifacts exist,” he recently told the Canadian Encyclopedia, “and then if they want to learn more, if their curiosity has been piqued, they can research the item or the period in full at the corresponding institution.”

As a tie-in to the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York, Ng has collaborated with historian Stephen Otto and the Friends of Fort York to produce a partner site concentrating on maps related to Fort York and Garrison Common. Beyond the military landmarks, this website explores plans for later buildings and infrastructure built within the old military reserve, such as the Provincial Lunatic Asylum and Exhibition Place. As far as Ng and his collaborators can tell, this is the largest collection of Fort-York-related maps ever to have been presented to the public in one place.

Click through our image gallery for a closer look at several of the maps Ng has collected. Hopefully, they’ll inspire new fascinations with these mementos of Toronto’s past.

(Once you’re in the gallery, you can click on the the map titles to access full-size versions.)

Images used with the permission of Nathan Ng.

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