Online Toronto maps project puts the history of familiar streets a click away
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In each map, Nathan Ng sees a story.
Each drawing is a tale of tension, a snapshot of Toronto as a city still tethered to its military past, crashing towards its future as a metropolis.
The maps from Toronto’s first century were available to the public before, but buried in online catalogues like those maintained by the Toronto Public Library or City of Toronto archives. Ng’s contribution was to unearth, collect and post them in an easy-to-browse format.
Now, with a few clicks, anyone can travel back to Sir Sandford Fleming’s 1851 vision of Toronto — then in the throes of development, but only a foreshadowing of today’s city. The waters of Lake Ontario still touched Front St., the Fort York garrison occupied much of what is now Liberty Village, and what’s now called the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street was labeled the “Lunatic Asylum.”
“Each of them has a different story to tell,” said Ng, 40. “They give you an insight into the perspective of the world that the mapmaker is trying to show.”
The march of development drew Ng into the world of historical maps when a condo developer bought the building that housed Rock Oasis, a climbing gym where he practised. Concerned about his gym, Ng went on a quest to trace its heritage.
He eventually found Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto — a series of fire insurance maps from the late 19th century and beyond. The material itself was available online through the Toronto Public Library website and others. But Ng found it difficult to browse.
So he took the publicly available data and made his own collection, sorted and displayed in a format that even the most casual user can follow.
Putting together the web collection of Goad’s atlas made Ng hungry for more mapping projects and prompted the start of his latest collection, gathered at oldtorontomaps.blogspot.ca under the title Historical Maps of Toronto.
“I wanted to provide an aggregated source for these maps that is simple for someone like me. If you’re a serious historian, you know these maps exist, but if you’re a casual researcher or a student, you might literally not know they exist,” he said.
Ng’s website contains not just the maps but also background information gleaned from his many plunges into the depths of the Toronto Reference Library collections. He tracked down a transcript of a 1984 exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum titled “Mapping Toronto’s First Century 1787-1884” — a stack of typed pages tucked away where few would ever find them.
Between the descriptions in the exhibit transcript and maps gathered from the library, as well as Library and Archives Canada and the City of Toronto archives, Ng’s project catalogues more than 100 years of Toronto’s history.
“I’ve seen many of these items but have never seen a large collection of historical Toronto maps pulled together like this,” said Larry Richards, former dean of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto.
“Like many young, dynamic, modern cities, Toronto has a reckless side that ventures forward without much regard for its origins and history.”