The R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant is located at 2701 Queen St E (at the foot of Victoria Park Ave), just east of the Beaches neighbourhood in Scarborough. Standing like a fortress on the edge of Lake Ontario, the landmark is on a sloped 19-acre site and features a vast grassy lawn.
Drinking Water History
In 1837, Toronto was the first city in Ontario to have a piped freshwater supply. Drawn from Lake Ontario, the privately-owned and operated water systems supplied untreated water.
By the mid-1800s, water distribution was starting to be managed by local municipalities. While towns and cities were not forced to supply water to their citizens, disasters like fires and disease compelled municipalities to improve their water supply systems.
The newly created Toronto Water Works Commission assumed the assets of the existing private franchise and, after an overhaul, began supplying drinking water in 1873.
In 1910, Toronto began chlorinating its water supply to kill off harmful bacteria. By 1915, the number of people dying from typhoid fever had dropped substantially.
Construction of the Facility
Now Toronto’s most outstanding collection of Art Deco buildings, the water treatment facility was part of a city-wide project to improve the drinking water system. It was masterminded by Toronto’s then Commissioner of Works, R.C. Harris.
The civil engineers for the site were Gore, Nasmith & Storrie, the hydraulic engineers were HG Acres & Co, and the architect was Thomas Pomphrey. Construction began in 1932, and by the time it was completed in 1939, the facility cost $15 million (1930s value) to build.
The palatial plant sat idle for over two years as City Council wanted to save operating costs. It was finally put into operation in November 1941.
The Architecture of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant
The group of magnificent buildings includes the Filter Building, the Service Building and the Pumping Station. All three are clad with buff brick and Queenston limestone. Along with beautiful arched windows, they feature sophisticated Art Deco details like flattened geometrical ornamentation in stone, brick and metal.
The Filter Building is the largest of the three structures and is located at the top of the hill, overlooking the lake. Construction began on the west wing and centre block of this building in 1932 and was completed in 1935.
Architectural elements of the Filter Building include marble walls, terrazzo floors, and a sleek signal pylon in the rotunda. Along with showing the time, the signal pylon also displays the filter backwash conditions and the reservoir tank levels. It’s made of Valternache (green-black) and Rosata Clair (honey-beige) marble and sits on a terrazzo floor that features a compass pattern. The rotunda’s polygonal ceiling dome is embossed with geometric patterns and then crowned with a spider’s web skylight. The east wing of this building was not added until the 1950s.
The Service Building is the centre of the three buildings. Constructed between 1935 through 1937, it’s located at the bottom of the hill, just north of the Pump Station. It features a five-storey alum tower.
The Pump Station is right at the edge of Lake Ontario. Also built between 1935 through 1937, inside banks of the deafening engines draw in Toronto’s drinking water.
The terrace on the south side of the Filter Building features a bronze fountain. There’s also a striking staircase linking the buildings together. Along the lake’s edge are a promenade and a protection wall.
Perched on Scarborough’s waterfront, the landmark was designated a national historic site by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineers in 1992. Six years later, the City of Toronto designated the site under the Ontario Heritage Act.
How Does the Water Filtration Process Work?
Raw water is pumped into the facility from intakes located about 2.5 km out into Lake Ontario. Screens remove the larger debris. That raw lake water is pushed by the pumps in the Pump Station up the hill to the Filter Building. Chlorine and alum are added to begin the water treatment. The alum coagulates smaller debris so it will settle and be easily filtered. The water then sits in the settling basins for several hours, allowing the impurities to settle to the bottom. The water is then filtered, and chlorine, fluoride, phosphate and ammonia are added. The treated water is ready for distribution and gets pumped throughout Toronto and as far as York Region to the north.
Roland Caldwell (R.C.) Harris
In 1875, he was born in what we know today as North York. At the age of 12, he began working as a messenger boy for the City. Outside of working for a local newspaper for a few short months, R.C. Harris worked for the City of Toronto for the remainder of his life. Through the years, he held various positions and, in 1912, was appointed as the Commissioner of Works and City Engineering.
While in office, his second child passed away from complications due to an infectious disease. From this personal tragedy, Mr Harris took a great interest in improving the health and welfare of the citizens of Toronto.
During his time in office, the city was growing tremendously, and along with maintaining current municipal services, he oversaw new ones. R.C. Harris began planning for a new water treatment plant in 1913. He was the mastermind behind much of Toronto’s essential infrastructure that is used to this day.
Another major project he oversaw was the construction of the Prince Edward Viaduct. By insisting a lower deck be added to the bridge, though financially controversial at the time, that later saved millions of dollars when used for the Bloor-Danforth subway.
Mr Harris passed away while in office in 1945. In his honour, the water treatment facility, originally known as the Victoria Park Filtration Plant and Pumping Station, was renamed the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant.
Did You Know?
- Before the water filtration plant was constructed, the property was known as Victoria Park. In the late 1800s, city-dwellers would take boat excursions from downtown to Victoria Park for a day of entertainment and enjoyment. In the early 1900s, the park was the Forest School in Victoria Park.
- Four people lost their lives during the water treatment facility construction from cave-ins and other accidents.
- The intake pipes stretch about 2.5 km out into Lake Ontario. Their size was so large that then-Mayor Day said: “a truck could drive through it with ease.” He also mentioned that 80% of the project’s $15 million costs were from the underground excavation work.
- On opening day in 1941, then-Mayor Conboy threw the switch for setting the plant into operation. The public could not attend the ceremonies because of wartime regulations.
- When constructed, the facility was considered just outside Toronto’s city limits.
- A 1946 Globe and Mail newspaper article mentioned that the plant employed four water tasters who conducted tests every 30 minutes. It also said, “Most men can detect the taste of one part phenol in five billion parts of water when it comes in contact with chlorine. But some women can taste a single part of phenol in ten billion parts of water.”
- The largest water treatment facility in Toronto, the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, produces, on average, 400 million litres of water each day, supplying 30% of the City’s drinking water.
- The building of the plant and the Prince Edward Viaduct are recounted in the book, In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje.
- The historic site has been featured in films and T.V. shows. It’s also the backdrop for many wedding, engagement and fashion photos.
- In 2015, the facility began a multi-year, $22 million overhaul of the settling basins, completed in 2018.
Toronto’s Other Treatment Plants
There are three other treatment plants supplying water to Toronto.
- F.J. Horgan Water Treatment Plant – Located in Scarborough and built in 1979, it supplies 20% of Toronto’s drinking water.
- Island Water Treatment Plant – Located on Toronto Island, the first plant was built in the 1900s. A new facility was constructed in 1977 and supplies 20% of the City’s drinking water.
- R.L. Clark Water Treatment Plant – Located in South Etobicoke, it was built in 1968 and supplies 30% of Toronto’s drinking water.
Along with over 6,000 km of distribution water mains, there are also 18 pumping stations, 11 underground reservoirs and four elevated storage tanks.
R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant Photos
- City of Toronto Heritage Register: 2701 Queen St E
- Ontario Heritage Trust: 2701 Queen St E
- Heritage Toronto
- Journal AWWA: R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant: A Civic Vision for Toronto’s Water Supply – September 2016
- Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association: Drinking Water Management in Ontario: A Brief History – January 2001
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jun 7, 1913, pg 11
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jul 26, 1938, pg 1
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Feb 1, 1940, pg 4
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Oct 18, 1941, pg 4
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jun 5, 1946, pg 5
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jul 29, 1992, pg C2
- R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant information sheets (received at 2022 Doors Open Toronto)
- City of Toronto: Fast Facts about the City’s Water Treatment Plants
- City of Toronto: Tap Water in Toronto
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives & Toronto Public Library