How the Don River Defined Toronto

By Mark Brosens. Originally published on The Inside Agenda Blog, 14 August 2014

The Don River is easy to dismiss as a muddy stream surrounded by some of Toronto’s busiest roads. But a new book is coming out that argues the Don is an integral and valuable part of the city’s landscape.

Jennifer L. Bonnell is a professor at the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. Her book, Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley, will be published in September, 2014. Below she answers some questions about her book and about the Don.

Compared to many other Canadian rivers, the Don River is not a large, long or powerful river. Why write a book about it? 

The Don River Valley is one of Toronto’s most iconic landscapes. It gives character to this city; it has provided inspiration for Toronto writers and artists; and it is place that people have fought to protect over the years. It is also a place full of stories. How people have responded to and interacted with this river valley over the last two hundred years has a lot to tell us about changing ideas about nature and city building, and why and how the city developed as it did.

It’s difficult to talk about the history of Toronto, in other words, without talking about the Don. Despite its size, the Don River and its valley played a significant role in shaping the development of the city. In 1793, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe chose an area west of the river mouth as the location for the future capital of Upper Canada, York (later Toronto), taking into account the sheltering curve of the peninsula (later the Toronto Islands) near the river mouth, and the clay deposits and tall white pines of the Lower Valley as raw materials for construction and industry. By the 1860s the three branches of this small river supported over fifty mills producing lumber, paper, and flour.

Simcoe’s choice of location for his town plot, however, would prove a bit short-sighted. By the early 1800s, the area around the mouth of the Don was widely perceived as an unhealthy place and a source of disease. Before the germ theory of disease took hold later in the century, people believed that certain places were healthier than others. Low-lying, swampy landscapes were thought to be particularly unhealthy: places where miasmas, or disease-producing vapours, emanated from rotting organic matter. In fact, they weren’t far off: the vast marshlands around the mouth of the Don were a source of disease, not from vapours, but from malaria-carrying mosquitos. As a direct result of this association of the Lower Don Lands with disease, the city expanded to the west and north, stretching away from its origins in the east end.

The river valley continued to shape the city’s development into the twentieth century. Until the Bloor Street Viaduct was constructed in 1918, the wide lower valley constrained the eastward development of the city. No bridges existed across the Lower River north of Gerrard Street, and those that did exist were fairly precarious, washing out periodically with spring melts and fall rainstorms. As much as the valley was a barrier to movement east-west, it provided a natural corridor for movement north-south — for wildlife, and later, for rail, automobiles, hydro and gas lines. The construction of the Don Valley Parkway (DVP) in the late 1950s capitalized on this natural corridor function; with it, the north-eastern quadrant of the city was opened for development. Hurricane Hazel in 1954 gave us a new appreciation of the valley’s significance, as we came to recognize importance as a drainage corridor. So the Don is really inextricably linked with the story of Toronto: the river valley both enabled and constrained the city’s development, and helped to determine the kind of city that we live in today.

It can be difficult to imagine how natural spaces change over time. How have people changed the Don River Valley over the years? 

The first significant changes occurred with European settlement in the early nineteenth century, when agricultural development deforested large expanses of the watershed, filled wetlands, and sent large quantities of topsoil into the river system. Milling activity along the river in the same period obstructed fish movement and polluted spawning grounds, contributing to the loss of salmon runs on the river by the 1890s.

In the late nineteenth century, the Don was the subject of a grandiose improvement scheme to address concerns about pollution and flooding, and to capitalize on the industrial potential of the river. By the 1880s, sewage outfalls and wastes from tanneries, oil refineries, and other industries led to extremely polluted conditions along the lower river, and area residents began to petition city council to address the “Don problem.” The idea was not to remove pollutants from the river, but rather to make it more efficient in flushing wastes out to Lake Ontario. Real estate speculators, politicians and area businessmen imagined the lower river as a future industrial hub for the city, and their vision saw the meandering lower river straightened, widened, and deepened. Completed in the early 1890s, the Don Improvement Project created new land for industry and, importantly, a straightened river corridor that could accommodate the CPR’s new eastern rail entrance to the city. Pollution would get worse instead of better, however, and flooding continued unabated.

By far the biggest change that people have made to the river valley, however, comes from urbanization. Today, about 90 per cent of the river’s watershed is urbanized. The watershed has lost most of its forest cover and almost all of its wetlands. The rapid expansion of paved surfaces throughout the watershed has meant that water enters the river more quickly, and at higher temperatures, than in areas where it can be absorbed into the ground. Water moving over pavement brings with it oil deposits, road salt, animal feces, and other substances that are harmful for aquatic life. The result is an increased frequency of flash floods, and in heavy rainfalls, overflows within the city’s older combined sewers, releasing raw sewage into the river system.

More than just being a river, the Don River area is a place. How has people’s perception of that place changed over the years? 

For much of the last two hundred years, the valley has been perceived as a kind of urban periphery, a place at the edges to put things that were unsightly or unsavoury. After its brief moment in the sun as the central provider for Simcoe’s fledgling town of York, the Lower Don River suffered a decline in reputation. As I noted above, by the early 1800s people viewed the marshlands at the mouth of the Don as a source of disease. When the city incorporated in 1834, the Lower Don formed its eastern margin, cementing its status as a place at the edges and a fitting location for noxious industries and sewage outfalls. For the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, the ravines themselves were perceived, by city engineers and residents alike, as “levelling-up places” — convenient landfills or places to tip a carload of garbage. That there are almost 150 abandoned landfill sites in the valley is testament to this.

There are interesting correlations with the social history of the valley. As much as the valley was a repository for material undesirables, it was also a repository, and a refuge, for social “undesirables” — those who, through poverty, physical or mental disability, found themselves at the edges of society. In the 1860s the area around Riverdale Park became host to several institutions designed to isolate and reform their inmates in mind and body, including the Toronto (Don) Jail and the Industrial House of Refuge for the poor and mentally unfit (later converted to the Riverdale Isolation Hospital for infectious disease). The history of homelessness in the valley dates back to the early 1800s, when York newspapers and other sources referenced squatters along the river banks. Homelessness in the valley became more visible still with the presence of Roma encampments along the upper river in the 1910s and 20s, and in 1930, with the establishment of a large hobo jungle on the river flats near the Don Valley Brick Works. These developments, combined with instances of gangster activity in the lower valley in the nineteenth century, contributed to perceptions of the river valley as a kind of dangerous, unpredictable underworld: things could happen here that were less likely to happen on the streets above.

Over the last forty years, public perceptions of the river valley have become more positive. In the years following Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) set out to purchase and protect floodplain lands, and the Metropolitan Toronto government invested considerable funds to improve sewage infrastructure in the valley — two changes that dramatically improved people’s experience of the valley. Today, the river valley is enjoyed by thousands of Torontonians as a recreational corridor and a pleasant backdrop to an otherwise unpleasant commute along the DVP. But in some respects not much has changed: makeshift tents of the homeless can still be seen on the banks of the river in the lower valley, and each winter, the City uses the valley as a receptacle for huge amounts of filthy, salt-laced snow from Toronto’s roads.

Can you tell us about how conservation efforts have affected the Don? 

Conservation activities began in the valley as early as the 1940s. At the time, farmers, scientists and foresters across the province were expressing growing concern about soil erosion and flooding, and the need for watershed conservation. The biggest champion of conservation in the Don Valley was Charles Sauriol (1904-1995). Sauriol came to love the valley as a boy, hiking and camping along the river on Boy Scout expeditions. He eventually purchased a cottage near the Forks of the Don, just a few kilometres from his home in East York. In 1949, Sauriol established the Don Valley Conservation Association, working with other valley enthusiasts to oppose development in the valley and raise public awareness about the urban wilderness at their doorsteps.

Sauriol lived to see a lot of disappointments: the construction of the Don Valley Parkway through the valley in the late 1950s, which resulted in the expropriation and destruction of his beloved family cottage, and the ongoing pollution of the river from sewage and valley industries. But he also experienced some important victories. The acquisition of floodplain lands by the conservation authority in the 1950s and 60s saw large portions of the valley protected from development. Near the end of his life in 1989, Sauriol was honoured with the creation of the Charles Sauriol Conservation Reserve in the East Don Valley. That same year, concerned Torontonians obtained support from the city to create the Task Force to Bring Back the Don, which coordinated the efforts of hundreds of volunteers to plant trees and restore a number of wetlands in the watershed.

Today, the river is much cleaner than it was in the 1950s, but salt levels and water temperatures remain high enough to make it inhospitable to all but the hardiest of fish species. The TRCA continues to do really excellent work in rehabilitating natural landscapes in the valley and encouraging Toronto residents to use and understand this place that has played such an important role in the city’s history.