R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant – Toronto’s Palace of Purification

2021 - The Filtration Building of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant at 2701 Queen St E in Scarborough
2021 – The Filtration Building of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant at 2701 Queen St E in Scarborough

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. By the 1880s, while towns and cities were not forced to supply water to their citizens, disasters like fires and disease compelled municipalities to make improvements to their water supply systems.

In 1910, Toronto began chlorinating its water supply to kill off harmful bacteria. By 1928, the number of people dying from typhoid fever had dropped.

Construction of the Facility

1935 - Excavation for the Pumping Station and Service Building with the west wing and centre block of the Filtration Building in the background, looking northeast
1935 – Excavation for the Pumping Station and Service Building with the west wing and centre block of the Filtration Building in the background, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 77, Item 15)

Now Toronto’s greatest collection of Art Deco buildings, the water treatment facility was part of a city-wide project to improve the drinking water system. It was all 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 while the architect was Thomas Pomphrey. Construction began in 1932 by the time it was completed in 1939, the facility cost $15 million (1930’s 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 include the Filtration 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 the stone, brick and metal.

The Filtration 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 Filtration Building include marble walls, terrazzo floors and in the rotunda, a pedestal clock. The sleek timepiece also shows the filter backwash conditions and the reservoir tank levels. The east wing of this building was not added until the 1950s.

2021 - Service Building with alum tower and Pumping Station
2021 – Service Building with alum tower and Pumping Station

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 are banks of the deafening engines that draw in Toronto’s drinking water

The terrace on the south side of the Filtration 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 also gave the site heritage designation.

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 engines in the Pump Station up the hill to the Filtration Building. Chlorine and alum are added to begin the water treatment. The alum coagulates smaller debris so it can easily be filtered. The water then sits in basins for several hours which allows the impurities to settle at the bottom. The water is then filtered, and chlorine, fluoride and ammonia are added. The treated water is ready for distribution and gets pumped throughout the City.

Roland Caldwell (R.C.) Harris

1930 - R.C. Harris the Commissioner of Works and City Engineering with Mayor Bert Wemp
1930 – R.C. Harris the Commissioner of Works and City Engineering with Mayor Bert Wemp (City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail Fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 19628)

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 to 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 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 the 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 him insisting a lower deck be added to the bridge, though financially controversial at the time, that later saved millions of dollars when it was used for the Bloor-Danforth subway.

Mr Harris passed away while in office in 1945. The water treatment facility, which was originally known as the Victoria Park Waterworks Plant, was renamed the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant in his honour.

Did You Know?

1933 - Submerging of an intake in Lake Ontario for the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant
1933 – Submerging of an intake in Lake Ontario for the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 36, Item 56)
  • Prior to the water filtration plant being constructed, the property was known as Victoria Park. In the late 1800’s, 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.
  • During construction of the water treatment facility, four people lost their lives 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 cost was 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 4 water tasters who conducted tests every 30 minutes. It also said that “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 about 950 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 TV shows. It’s also the backdrop for many wedding, engagement and fashion photos.
  • In 2015, the facility began a multi-year, $22 million overhaul.

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 Centre Island, the first plant was built in the 1900s. A new facility was constructed in 1977 and it 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 4 elevated storage tanks.

R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant Photos

2021 - The Filtration Building of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant at 2701 Queen St E in Scarborough, looking north up the terrace
2021 – The Filtration Building of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant at 2701 Queen St E in Scarborough, looking north up the terrace
1933 - During construction of the Filtration Building
1933 – During construction of the Filtration Building (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 76, Item 86)
2021 - Service Building with alum tower and Pumping Station
2021 – Service Building with alum tower and Pumping Station
1936 - Steel roof frame of the Pumping Station during construction
1936 – Steel roof frame of the Pumping Station during construction (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 77, Item 75)
2021 - Centre Block and the bronze fountain at the top of the terrace
2021 – Centre Block and the bronze fountain at the top of the terrace
2021 - Hallway of the Filtration Building
2021 – Hallway of the Filtration Building
2021 - South entrance of the Filtration Building - notice the insignia for the Toronto Water Works above the door
2021 – South entrance of the Filtration Building – notice the insignia for the Toronto Water Works above the door
2021 - Art Deco details on the Centre Block of the Filtration Building
2021 – Art Deco details on the Centre Block of the Filtration Building
2011 - Inside the Pumping Station
2011 – Inside the Pumping Station (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 582, Item 180)
1990's - An aerial view of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, looking northeast
1990’s – An aerial view of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 391, Item 5)
1936 - Excavation along with the construction of the Pumping Station and Service Building - the Filtration Building is in the background
1936 – Excavation along with the construction of the Pumping Station and Service Building – the Filtration Building is in the background (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 77, Item 87)
1936 - Construction on the south side of the Pumping Station with the Service Building's alum tower behind, looking east
1936 – Construction on the south side of the Pumping Station with the Service Building’s alum tower behind, looking east (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 77, Item 88)
1935 - Discharge conduits beneath the Pumping Station and Service Building during the construction, looking west
1935 – Discharge conduits beneath the Pumping Station and Service Building during the construction, looking west (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 77, Item 66)
1935 - Raw water discharge conduits during the construction of the Pumping Station at the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant
1935 – Raw water discharge conduits during the construction of the Pumping Station at the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 77, Item 55)
1935 - Trestle for conveying concrete during construction of the Pumping Station and Service Building
1935 – Trestle for conveying concrete during construction of the Pumping Station and Service Building (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 77, Item 18)
1935 - Excavation for the Pumping Station and Service Building with the west wing and centre block of the Filtration Building in the background, looking northeast
1935 – Excavation for the Pumping Station and Service Building with the west wing and centre block of the Filtration Building in the background, looking northeast (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 77, Item 15)
1933 - The membrane waterproofing in the reservoir floor of the Filtration Building
1933 – The membrane waterproofing in the reservoir floor of the Filtration Building (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 76, Item 138)
1933 - Timbering for main drain during the construction of the Filtration Building with Lake Ontario in the background
1933 – Timbering for main drain during the construction of the Filtration Building with Lake Ontario in the background (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 76, Item 50)
1933 - Beachgoers in front of retaining wall during the construction of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant
1933 – Beachgoers in front of retaining wall during the construction of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 78, Item 18)
1933 - Construction of the retaining wall along Lake Ontario for what was known then as the Victoria Park Waterworks Plant
1933 – Construction of the retaining wall along Lake Ontario for what was known then as the Victoria Park Waterworks Plant (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 78, Item 2)
1933 - Submerging of an intake in Lake Ontario for the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant
1933 – Submerging of an intake in Lake Ontario for the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 36, Item 56)
1932 - Workers from Toronto Iron Works beside a mammoth intake pipe - before being transported via tugboat to somewhere out in Lake Ontario
1932 – Workers from Toronto Iron Works beside a mammoth intake pipe – before being transported via tugboat to somewhere out in Lake Ontario (Toronto Public Library 0116119F)
1932 - The Scarboro and Tow boats moving an intake pipe in Lake Ontario for the water treatment plant
1932 – The Scarboro and Tow boats moving an intake pipe in Lake Ontario for the water treatment plant (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 36, Item 33)
1932 - Excavation of Victora Park for what became known as the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, looking west
1932 – Excavation of Victora Park for what became known as the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, looking west (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 86, Item 16)
2021 - R.C Harris Water Treatment Plant heritage plaque
2021 – R.C Harris Water Treatment Plant heritage plaque
1930 - R.C. Harris the Commissioner of Works and City Engineering with Mayor Bert Wemp
1930 – R.C. Harris the Commissioner of Works and City Engineering with Mayor Bert Wemp (City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail Fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 19628)
2021 - R.C Harris heritage plaque located at Toronto's Old City Hall
2021 – R.C Harris heritage plaque located at Toronto’s Old City Hall
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