OPINION: Enigmatic story of Thames River yet to be revealed

11379211_1612201072355549_220469954_nThe Thames River is an iconic feature of London and is important to the city, both historically and culturally. In fact, without the river London would not have existed.

During London’s initial settlement, the Thames provided an efficient transportation corridor and supplied power to the mills dotting the river’s length.

The majority of the time the river calmly meanders through the city, passively observing the city’s day-to-day activities. Occasionally though, we’ve been reminded of the river’s destructive temperament and have tried to control it by adding flood control dams and reinforcing the riverbanks.

Presently, the river affords us many recreational opportunities. We can kayak down the river, bike or hike along the forests and parks next to it, and fish its waters.

Most of us have experienced the river in some way, yet how much do we actually know about it?

Much of our knowledge relates to the economic and cultural benefits we’ve accrued over the last couple centuries. Yet the river is so much more than 200 years worth of history. It has its own natural history that started long before the settlement of London, the remnants of which are etched onto the city’s surface and that largely go unnoticed as people move about daily.

The Thames isn’t just a river confined to a narrow corridor of London – its history reaches across most of the city.

It would likely come as a surprise to most that much of London is actually built in a former lake basin that stretched from North Centre Road in the north to Commissioners Road in the south, and which provided the canvas that the Thames sculpted the city’s topography from.

Many of the hills that we drive on every day are actually remnant terraces of the river.

Admittedly, like many other rivers in southern Ontario, the pre-historic record of the Thames is quite poor and very little information is presently available regarding the river’s evolution.

The only piece of information accessible to the public is that of a 4100 year-old paleochannel over which the Cherryhill Mall and adjacent apartment buildings are built.

This paucity of information stems from the growth of the city over river remnants before paleo-features could be properly analyzed; a situation that is certainly not unique to London.

In much the same way that cultural information in some cities is lost due to urban expansion over unmapped archaeological sites, much of the city’s natural history has been similarly lost.

However, fragments of the Thames’ past do exist in isolated locations and continuous, albeit limited, records of the river’s history exist along the river’s floodplain corridor. Medway Valley, one of the largest tributaries of the Thames, has a largely undisturbed record of river activity, which should be closely synchronous with the Thames.

With initiatives such as Back To The River raising awareness about the cultural and economic impacts of the river and revitalizing the riverfront, it would certainly be beneficial to unravel the dynamic history of the Thames and broaden our understanding of one of the city’s most iconic features before the remaining fragments of the river’s past are also lost to urban development.

James Thayer
James Thayer
James Thayer is a Senior Research Fellow for the London Institute. He is a graduate of the universities of Western Ontario and Toronto where he received, respectively, his Honours Bachelor of Science in Geography and Geology and his Master of Science in Geography, specializing in fluvial and Quaternary geomorphology. He can be reached at james@londoninstitute.ca.
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