Exhuming Taddle Creek


I met up with my editor on Friday after the OLA Super Conference. Although it will still be a couple of weeks before we can get into the serious editing of The Young City, we discussed some ideas. I also revised the catalogue copy, which was due that day. He liked the old version, but thought that one element of the time travel story needed mentioning to provide more of a hook. Here is the catalogue copy as it now stands:

Rosemary Watson and Peter McAllister think their future lies clear before them: they’re finally out of high school and heading off for university. They’re thinking about finding apartments, picking courses, living like adults. Everything is certain, especially the life that they’ll share together.

But what happens when the future becomes the past? While helping Rosemary’s brother move into his basement apartment in downtown Toronto, Peter and Rosemary fall into an underground river and are swept back in time, to the City of Toronto in August 1884. It’s a struggle to survive in a strange new city, to adapt to the alien culture of the late 19th century. Peter and Rosemary are forced to work together, to live together, and become the adults they’ve only been pretending to be.

As the days stranded turn to weeks, then months, Rosemary and Peter begin to wonder if they’re really ready for a future together - and what they will do if they can’t get back.

Then someone brings them a watch, powered by a battery, made in Taiwan.

The Young City is going to be a very different book from the two previous in The Unwritten Books series. Yes, it features Peter and Rosemary, but this time at 18, whereas Fathom Five had them at 15 and The Unwritten Girl had them at 12. More importantly, the story is set in Toronto whereas the previous two were in small town Clarksbury, and the fantasy element is time travel, rather than a connection to a strange parallel world like the Siren settlement or the Land of Fiction. But it is still a story that I’ve long wanted to write.

I spent most of my childhood years living in Toronto living in a townhouse in McCaul Street, on the edge of the downtown core, staring east at the rising towers of the hospital district and the Ontario Hydro headquarters, just south of the University of Toronto. It is an old residential street being transformed by the city’s expanding core. Our townhouse, we believe, was originally built in the 1890s, on the site of old cricket grounds and, before that, a peculiar old creek bed.

Two blocks from my house is a short stub of a street, mostly a delivery lane for the University of Toronto, known as Taddle Creek Road. This street is one of the few reminders of a significant river that used to flow through Toronto’s downtown core. Taddle Creek started life in the neighbourhood of Wychwood near the Bathurst/Davenport intersection and meandered southeast through the University grounds, possibly even beneath our house, before reaching Lake Ontario near where the St. Lawrence Market is today.

By all accounts, the creek was a treasure. The University of Toronto was originally built with prime views of the creek and its associated wetlands, but encroaching development polluted the Taddle, and gradually the City of Toronto built over it, transforming the meandering course into a series of bricked up storm sewers. The stretch through the University grounds, of which Philosopher’s Walk follows a great portion of it, was the last to be covered over in 1884.

There is mystique about this buried river. Garrison Creek was longer, and still has a greater impact on the city’s topology, but Taddle seems to capture the imagination, much like the Fleet in London, England. Perhaps because of its downtown course, the Taddle is a symbol of both the folly and might of industrial progress. For locals, we remembered the Taddle with a strange pride: here’s a river we built over. Here is a great watercourse that we killed. Urban legends built up around the Taddle. I was told that there were caverns associated with the buried river beneath Queen’s Park. I was told that the University subway made use of these caverns during construction. Most of these tales are probably apocryphal, but they are a part of my identification of this river.

And at the back basement of our house on McCaul Street, there was a small hole in the concrete foundation, and a strange patch of floor that sounded a little hollow. We had no idea what this was. Could it have been a secret chamber that was used when the house was owned by bootleggers during the 1920s and 30s? (My father has a pretty good idea that the house was used as such during Prohibition because, during his childhood in the 50s, after his father had bought it, it was amazing how many drunks showed up at the door at the middle of the night asking for a bottle). Or was it one of these caverns associated with the Taddle?

Of course, it was probably nothing. But the idea that there was something under my place stayed with me, in the years since we moved to Kitchener. And as I tackled the tale of Peter and Rosemary at 18, these elements decided to make their contribution. What if Peter and Rosemary, helping Theo move into that basement apartment, fell through that floor, fell into the Taddle, and walked through the storm drains back into time, emerging on the University grounds in 1884, just as the Taddle was being buried.

My story probably takes several artistic licenses. The size and shape of the storm sewer tunnels are probably larger than what reality calls for (although given that the Infiltration crew have little difficulty in exploring the storm drains of Toronto, perhaps I’m not that far off. Also, the picture above gives me a lot of comfort in this respect), and the cavern Peter and Rosemary fall into probably doesn’t exist. But it’s still a part of the city’s collective imagination. And I hope that this lends my story the validity it needs. This is a fantasy, after all — an urban fantasy. And if I can’t take some liberties with reality to tell a fantastical story about my childhood city, what’s the point of being an author?

Today, the Taddle is remembered in plaques and in flooded basements. There has been talk about exhuming the water course, though it seems unlikely given the cost. But various groups are coming together to remember the many rivers that Toronto has buried.

Further Reading

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