Thames River

Location: London, Ontario
Region: Southwestern
Character: Heritage River
Length/Size: 273 km

Thames River
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

Canada's Deep South

The Thames flows 273 km through southern Ontario, meandering quietly past the cities of London and Chatham to Lake St. Clair. Along much of its length, it is flanked by rich Carolinean forest. The names of the trees here have a definite southern accent - tulip, pawpaw, Kentucky coffee tree, sassafras... Wildlife and fish species also have a southern flavour, and include many that are rarely found elsewhere in Canada, such as the eastern spiny softshell turtle, queen snake, southern flying squirrel, and Virginia opossum.
The diversity of species is reflected in the rich cultural heritage of the Thames. Its fertile valley has been home to people for over 11,000 years. Wars have been fought here, and commercial farming in Canada had its roots here. Much of the Thames valley still appears as it did 200 years ago, and many early buildings are still standing. From a recreational viewpoint, the Thames is also a most diverse watershed. Explore Canada's deep south by canoe or along hiking trails that crisscross the watershed. Catch a fish, or a Shakespearean play at the Stratford Festival. The Thames River - a rich southern blend.

The Thames River watershed is nestled in the agricultural heartland of southwestern Ontario in close proximity to Lakes Huron, St. Clair and Erie. The river is 273 km long and drains some 5,825 square kilometres of land, making it the second largest watershed in southwestern Ontario. The river is easily accessible to the half million people who reside in its watershed.

The river's long and rich cultural heritage and diverse recreational opportunities formed the basis for its designation to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System in 2000. The Thames River represents an important addition to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System by:

-contributing a unique post-glacial landscape that contains ancient glacial spillways and terminal moraines, as well as younger channels carved from the flat clay and sand plains of old glacial lake beds;

-showcasing 11,000 years of continuous occupancy by Canada's aboriginal peoples;

-featuring a rich history of European exploration and settlement that dates back to the 17th century, encompassing the fur trade, British exploration and early settlement, military battles, and intensive agricultural and urban settlement; and

-offering a diversity of recreational opportunities including traditional uses of the river valley (fishing, hunting and trapping, boating, canoeing, rowing and hiking) and modern day celebrations of its multi-ethnic heritage.

The Thames rises at three distinct points near Mitchell (North Thames), Hickson (Middle Thames) and Tavistock (South Thames). The Middle and South Thames join east of London and the North and South Branches meet at the Forks in London, the city's most important historical landmark. From there, the river flows southwest passing through several communities including Chatham and four First Nations Reserves before it empties into Lake St. Clair at Lighthouse Cove.

The upper branches of the river flow through ancient glacial spillways that formed following the last glacial retreat. The river beds are rocky and the valley slopes are steep, with bluffs or terraces on at least one side. In contrast, the lower Thames carved its own shallow channel into the flat plains of clay and sand. Here, the river bed is soft and the water flow is gentle.

The majority (about 98%) of the Thames watershed is in private ownership with several parcels of publicly owned land scattered throughout.

Natural Heritage
The Thames watershed spans the Carolinian and Great Lakes-St. Lawrence floristic zones. Broad leaved, deciduous trees characterize the Carolinian Forest Region, one of the most biologically diverse regions in Canada. Carolinian trees such as sycamore, black walnut and hackberry grow along the Thames River valley. Numerous species of wildflowers, ferns and sedges occupy the forest floor. Some of the showy rarities include American ginseng, green dragon and wood poppy.

The Thames sustains one of the most diverse fish communities in Canada. The watershed's complex system provides a broad range of habitats for some 88 fish species. Walleye, longnose gar, bullheads, bass and Chinook salmon are just some of the species found here. Approximately 30 species of freshwater mussels are also recorded.

Thirty-six species of mammals have been recorded within the watershed including deer, coyotes, beaver and mink. Approximately 157 species of birds breed in the watershed including river users such as the great blue heron, belted kingfisher, and many species of waterfowl.

While the natural features of the watershed have been altered by human activities, especially the removal of the forests for agriculture and settlement, the river corridor remains largely unchanged. From a canoe, the mainly tree-lined Thames still appears much as it did 300 years ago.

Human Heritage
The Thames River watershed possesses an outstanding cultural heritage reflecting thousands of years of human settlement, conflict and development.

The Thames is the site of over 11,000 years of continuous occupancy by Canada's Aboriginal Peoples. From the Paleo Indians to the present day, the river has been used for sustenance and settlement. The Thames watershed is the place where agriculture, derived from the Meso-Americans, first entered Canada sometime after 500 A.D.

Four distinct First Nations groups reside along the Thames: Chippewa, Moravian, Munsee Delaware and Oneida. Each was forced northward from their homelands in the United States after 1600.

The Thames River was one of the major theatres of the War of 1812. The legendary Shawnee Chief Tecumseh died at the Battle of Moraviantown. Subsequently, a peace treaty confirmed the Canadian-American border in what is now southwestern Ontario.

Pioneer farmers cleared much of the local forest for agriculture by the 1850s. The river served as an important access route for settlement, linking lake transport with road and later rail development.

Settlement was highly focussed on the Thames and its tributaries. Many early saw and grist mill complexes grew to become today's large urban settlements (e.g. London, Chatham, Stratford).

The navigable section of the Thames below London allowed small crafts and barges to transport goods from London to Lake St. Clair. Chatham, just 31 km upstream of the lake, grew as a major ship building centre and inland port.

The Thames has been associated with people and events of Canadian significance:

-Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe visited the area between 1792 and 1795 and gave the river its current name;

-John Carling and John Labatt founded successful breweries in London in 1843 and 1847 respectively; and

-Fugitive American slaves travelled the 'Underground Railway' to settle near Chatham in the mid 19th Century.

The Thames also played a leading role in the history of Canadian conservation with the development of watershed-based Conservation Authorities.

The Thames River and its watershed support a great diversity of recreational activities.

The dams and reservoirs built for flood control (Fanshawe, Pittock, Wildwood) provide significant boating, sailing and fishing opportunities. The public land around these three reservoirs totals 70 square kilometers and is used for camping, picnicking and hiking.

There is a long history of boating on the river and there are several rowing and canoeing clubs throughout the watershed. Of note, the High Performance Rowing Centre at Fanshawe Reservoir trains Canada's national and Olympic rowers. The London Canoe Club has the largest membership of any canoe club in North America. The Thames provides excellent scenic canoe travel with few difficult rapids.

Cruising is popular on the 31 km stretch from Chatham to Lighthouse Cove, with excellent docking facilities at Chatham and marinas at Lighthouse Cove. Boaters from Canadian and American ports frequent these facilities.

Fishing is a popular recreational activity along the entire Thames River and its many tributaries. Numerous docks and access points entice anglers to the river. For hikers, the 109 km long Thames Valley Trail extends from Delaware (west of London), northeast to St. Marys where it joins the Avon Trail which extends another 100 km and meets the Grand River Trail. The newly developed North Thames River Trail extends 14 km from Mitchell to Motherwell.

Visitor Information
Visitor information services are provided at the larger towns and cities in the watershed including London, Stratford, Woodstock, and Chatham-Kent. For more information contact: Tourism London (519) 661-5000;, Tourism Stratford (519) 273-3352; , Woodstock and District Chamber of Commerce (519) 539-9411, , or Chatham-Kent Tourist Bureau (519) 354-6125,

Cruising: Pleasure craft can berth at Lighthouse Cove on Lake St. Clair and dock in Chatham. For more information call: Cove Marina (519) 682-3841, Radlin's Marina (519) 682-2706, or Chatham City Docks (519) 352-3888.

Canoeing: The Thames River upstream of Delaware offers over 100 km of scenic canoeing. Spring is the preferred season as water levels are generally too low in the summer. Class 1 rapids occur regularly. The reservoirs provide year-round canoeing. From Delaware to the mouth, the river is quieter and deeper and can be canoed throughout the summer. A brochure on canoe routes is available from the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (519) 451-2800 www.thamesriver.on.caor the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority (519) 354-7310.

Thames Valley Trail: This 109 km valley trail can be accessed at numerous road crossings from Delaware to St. Marys. The Thames Valley Trail Guide is available at local book stores.

Camping: Overnight and seasonal campsites are available at Fanshawe Conservation Area (CA) in London, Wildwood CA in St. Marys and Pittock CA in Woodstock. Call (519) 451-2800 for more details. Private campgrounds are listed at local visitor centres.

Topographic Maps: The Thames River watershed is covered by 16 National Topographic Series maps at a scale of 1:50,000. The maps are: 40P/ 01,02,03,06,07,08; 40I/ 05,11,12,13,14,15; and 40J/ 01,02,07,08,09. They can be purchased from: Canada Map Office, 615 Booth St., Ottawa, K1A 0E9, or, OMNR Map Office, Whitney Block, Toronto, M7A 1W3.

Further Information
The Canadian Heritage Rivers System:
The Secretary, Canadian Heritage Rivers Board,
c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0M5.

The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority:
Tel. : (519) 451-2800

The Lower Thames River Conservation Authority:
Tel. : (519) 354-7310