Cool Vintage Maps from Digital Archive Ontario

March 25, 2019 | Bill V.

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Collage of vintage Ontario maps

Digital Archive Ontario — a website by Toronto Public Library — is a treasure chest of interesting digitized maps, postcards, bird's-eye views, vintage photos, ephemera and older books. There are over 160,000 items and the collection is expanding daily. 

Hundreds of maps are available and I wanted to share a selection from across the province to give you a small taste of our rich resources. There are many maps and other items from communities (big and small) from all over the province in Digital Archive Ontario, so feel free to check out any town of interest. 

(For further research on maps of Ontario, or Upper Canada as it was called in the 1700s/1800s and then Canada West in the 1840s/50s, you may want to seek out Joan Winearl's book Mapping Upper Canada, 1780-1867: An Annotated Bibliography of Manuscript and Printed maps. This book is available for use in the Toronto Reference Library only, and cannot be borrowed.)


1792 Map of the North Shore of Lake Ontario  the Trent River  and Rice Lake

Map of the North Shore of Lake Ontario, the Trent River, and Rice Lake (1792).

The oldest maps are hand drawn (manuscripts). This one by John Collins shows portage routes. Notes for the routes include the heights of waterfalls and distances of carrying, measured in both miles and chains. (Did you know a chain is 66 feet long, and 80 chains equals one statue mile?) All of this would be important information in a time when travel was by water and foot — I think of it as a kind of GPS for the 1700s. There's also an interesting note: "A salt spring discharges into this river, three gallons of water makes one gallon of salt."


1818 A map of the province of Upper Canada describing all the settlements and townships etc with the countries adjacent from Quebec to Lake Huron

A map of the province of Upper Canada describing all the settlements and townships &c. with the countries adjacent from Quebec to Lake Huron (1818).

A note in our record for this map lists it as the first printed map of Upper Canada, second edition. 


1836 map of Upper Canada

Upper Canada map (1836).

I thought this smaller map was really beautiful with its hand-tinted colouring.


1865 Pocket map of Upper Canada corrected to the latest surveys

Pocket map of Upper Canada (1865)

By 1865 you have this pocket-sized map. (It would have been folded — and something acidic has stained the edges.) You can see the expansion of the settlement along the Ottawa River and north from both lakes. Also, a helpful legend in the bottom right indicates canals, railways, proposed railways, plank and gravelled roads and other roads. 


1820 map of Welland Canal

Map of Welland Canal (1820).

Also check out a 1907 map showing the same canal. Canals played a key economic, transportation and political role in early Ontario history. See this broadside from 1841 about a meeting in support of the Trent Severn Canal


1877 Map of the North Simcoe Railway  and its connections

Map of the North Simcoe Railway, and its connections (1877).

Speaking of transportation, railways also played a key role in Ontario's history. Two related maps: the Muskoka Lake map later in this post and also a proposed South Simcoe Junction Railway map from 1873.


1856 Map of the city of London surveyed and drawn by Samuel Peters

Map of the city of London surveyed and drawn by Samuel Peters (1856).

The grid pattern of street layout (as well as surveying in the countryside) was the preferred surveying method for town planning. 


1876 Bird's eye view of the city of Ottawa from the Ontario Digital Archive

Bird's eye view of the city of Ottawa (1876).

See also the Kingston view from 1855 which uses a similar etching style and aerial perspective.


1950 Aerial view of Goderich showing central round area Toronto Star Photograph Archive

Aerial view of Goderich (1950).

I love the "Square"  with radiating streets going out — very French Paris Arc de Triomphe like. The community was planned on paper and then built in the early mid 1800s — and is at odds with the general grid pattern in much of the rest of Ontario (see the below biking map). And like the Ottawa photo above, this aerial view shows you the community and buildings in a more lively way than a simple map. There's another photo from 1946 and a slightly different angle which shows the "Square" in winter. (Image from Toronto Star Photograph Archive.)


1896 Cyclists' road map for the county of York  including portions of Ontario  Peel and Simcoe counties

Cyclists' road map for the county of York including portions of Ontario, Peel and Simcoe counties (1896).

I like this map because it demonstrates the real grid/linear feel to surveying in Ontario. It's especially in contrast to Goderich Square, above, with streets that radiate out. I also like that it was a biking map from the late 1800s.  If you're interested in early biking in Ontario, we have a few more photos. And you may also enjoy this blog post, “Bicycle Face!” Women and Cycling in the Victorian Age.


1899 Map & chart of the Muskoka Lakes including Rosseau  Joseph  Muskoka

Map & chart of the Muskoka Lakes : Rosseau, Joseph, Muskoka (1899).

This Muskoka Lakes map is one of the most popular maps in our collection. A closer look reveals the importance of rail travel, especially local small route railroads in a pre-automobile era. The map's insert includes a more detailed rail map. Names of hotels and inns are also listed. For a more detailed view with the names of property owners, see a map of the Canadian Northern Railway in the Muskokas (1914).


Port Arthur Fire Plan 1908 close up (see full pdf in link)

Fire insurance plan of Port Arthur, Ont: population 15500 (1908).

Another type of map in Digital Archive Ontario is fire insurance plans; there are currently over 30 fire insurance plans available from the province, made in the early 1900s. They are incredibly detailed and really useful for historical, architectural and genealogical research. Above is a snapshot of page one of a large multi-page PDF scanned book that's available online (unrestricted access).


1920 Map of the Border Cities of Windsor  Walkerville  Ford City  Sandwich and Ojibway Canada

Map of the Border Cities of Windsor, Walkerville, Ford City, Sandwich and Ojibway Canada (1920).

This fold-out map was created as a promotion for real estate in a newly laid out suburb of the small rural town of Ojibway. It represents some advertising savvy by Fred Martin (realtor) on behalf of the Newman Park subdivision (it even includes comparisons to new subdivisions in Gary, Indiana and the increase in value they had). What's interesting with some of these proposal maps is that they weren't always built. 



Visit Digital Archive Ontario for more maps and other rare and unique items from Toronto Public Library's collections.