The Humber River is one of two major rivers between which the settlement that would evolve into Toronto would grow, the other being the Don River. The Humber collects from about 750 creeks and tributaries in a fan-shaped area north of Toronto. One main branch runs for about 100km from the Niagara Escarpment to the north-west, while the other major branch starts in the Lake St. George in the Oak Ridges Moraine near Aurora, Ontario to the north-east, joining each other north of Toronto and then flowing in a generally south-easterly direction until exiting into Lake Ontario on what was once the far western portions of the city.
The Humber has a long history of human settlement along its banks. Native settlement of the area is well documented archaeologically, and occured in three waves. The first settlers were the Palaeo-Indians who lived in the area from 10,000 to 7,000BC. The second wave, people of the Archaic period, settled the area between 7,000 and 1,000BC. and began to adopt seasonal migration patterns to take advantage of available plants, fish and game. The third wave of native settlement was the Woodland period, which saw the introduction of the bow and arrow and the growing of crops which allowed for larger, more permanent villages. The Woodland period was also characterized by movement of native groups along what is known today as the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail, running from Lake Ontario up the Humber to Lake Simcoe and eventually to the northern Great Lakes.
Étienne Brűlé was the first European to encounter the Humber while travelling the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail. Brűlé passed through the watershed in 1615, on a mission from Samuel de Champlain to build alliances with native peoples. The Trail became a convenient shortcut to the upper Great Lakes for traders, explorers, and missionaries. A major landmark on the northern end of the trail in Lake Simcoe was used to describe the trail as a whole, and eventually the southern end became known simply as "Toronto" to the Europeans. A fort was constructed about 1km inland from the mouth of the Humber to protect the Trail, and was known as Fort Toronto, thereby eventually leading to the modern name of the city that grew around it.
French missionaries used the area for a number of years, being home to Jean de Brebéuf and Joseph Chaumonot in 1641, Louis Hennepin in 1678, and Rene-Robert Cavelier de La Salle in 1680. However there was no permanent european settlement until the arrival of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (not the famous author) in the late 1700s. Rousseau piloted John Graves Simcoe's ship into Toronto Bay to officially begin the British era of control in 1793. Most of the British attention was focussed to the east of the Humber, around the protected Toronto Bay closer to the Don River. Settlement was scattered until after the War of 1812 when many loyalists moved to the area, and were joined by immigrants from Ireland and Scotland who chose to remain in British lands.
As the Toronto area grew the lands around the Humber became important farming areas, and the land was extensive deforestated. This led to serious runoff problems in the 1940s, and in order to address these the Humber Valley Conservation Authority was established. These duties were later folded into the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority in 1957. More recently a task force within the TRCA was formed to further clear the Humber as a part of the Great Lakes 2000 Cleanup Fund.
Unlike the Don to the east, the Humber remained relativily free from industrialization during the grown of Toronto in the 1950s. This is due largely to it being much flatter and not providing a large river valley to build in. This has allowed it to be extensively developed as parkland, as well as leaving the extensive and important wetlands on the southern end to remain unmolested. Whereas the mouth of the Don is often clogged with flotsam, the Humber is navigatable and a major sporting and fishing area.
Today the majority of the Toronto portion of the Humber is parkand, with paved trails running from the lakeshore all the way to the northern border of the city some 30km away. Trails following the various branches of the river form some 50km of bicycling trails, much of which is of excellent quality. Similar trails on the Don tend to be narrower and in somewhat worse condition, but the complete set of trails is connected along the lakeshort for some 100km of off-road paved trails.