The Prince Edward Viaduct


“The bridge goes up in a dream. It will link the east end with the centre of the city. It will carry traffic, water and electricity across the Don Valley. It will carry trains that have not even been invented yet.

Night and day. Fall light. Snow light. They are always working – horses and wagons and men arriving for work on the Danforth side at the far end of the valley.

There are over 4,000 photographs from various angles of the bridge in its time lapse evolution. The piers sink into the bedrock fifty feet below the surface through clay and shale and quicksand – 45,000 cubic yards are excavated. The network of scaffolding stretches up.

Men in a maze of scattered planks climb deep into the shattered light of blond wood. A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame. Drill smoke in his hair. A cap falls into the valley, gloves are buried in stone dust.

The new men arrive, “the electricals,” laying grids of wire across the five arches, carrying the exotic three-bowl lights, and on October 18, 1918 it is completed. Lounging in mid-air.

The bridge. The bridge. Christened “Prince Edward.” The Bloor Street Viaduct.” — Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion


Take a few steps backward on the Lower Don Trail and look up at the Prince Edward Viaduct. It’s a grey afternoon in late November with snow flurries and there are few sounds other than the rattle of subway trains passing under the bridge. The Bloor-Danforth subway line did not open until 1966 but the design for the bridge anticipated future trains. A bridge for both road traffic and a possible subway line drove up the cost to $2.5 million (35.5 million in 2015 Canadian dollars). Torontonians objected to this money being spent during wartime for a bridge to carry trains that had not yet been invented to the region east of the Don Valley where few people lived.


The controversial bridge received a much needed royal seal of approval when it was named after Prince Edward, the future King Edward VIII. Edward is better known today for his abdication in 1936 to marry the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson but during the First World War, he was one of the most popular members of the royal family, admired in Canada for visiting Canadian troops on the Western front.

“This ideal, this mold for his outward man, was no one less than Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the Prince of Wales. The papers were full of the Prince at that time. He was the great ambassador of the Commonwealth but he also had the common touch. . .” — Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

In 1919, Prince Edward visited Toronto as part of a two month cross country tour of Canada. There are many similarities between the 1919 tour and the 2011 Canadian visit by William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Like William and Kate, Edward was praised for modernizing the royal family and his fashions were widely imitated. (In True Style: The History and Principles of Classic Menswear, G. Bruce Boyer  credits the future Edward VIII with persuading a generation of young men to trade in their tailcoats for shorter dinner jackets). Edward made the cover of Vogue magazine and his tour was one of the first Canadian national events to be captured on film.

The Lower Don Trail continues north-east from the Viaduct. Across the Don Valley parkway, the chimney of the restored paper mill at Todmorden Mills (now a heritage site) is just visible, marking the border between the old city of Toronto and the former borough of East York. The Prince Edward Viaduct brought new residents to the east of the city, first working class English immigrants then a thriving Greektown along the Danforth. Residents living east of the Don Valley complained they were not receiving the same level of municipal services. In 1924, East York became a township then a borough in 1967 before amalgamating into the “megacity” of Toronto in 1998.


Todmorden Mills and the former Don Valley Brickworks, visible across the river as we walk along the Lower Don Trail, were both owned by the Taylor family. We’ll visit the lands once owned by the Taylors, now Taylor Creek Park, in the next walk.

Getting there by public transit: Subway to Broadview 

Further Reading:

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

King Edward VIII by Philip Ziegler

Next: Taylor Creek Park



The Lower Don Trail

IMG_20151123_144907[1] At Queen and River street in Toronto’s Corktown, the Don river is a shallow green trickle that absorbs the first snow flurries of the season into its much depleted waters. On one side of the Lower Don Trail – a narrow ashphalt bike path – are metal fences and railroad tracks, separating the path from a series of fancy car dealerships: Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus.


On the other side of the trail, across the river, is the Don Valley Parkway. There is a constant roar of passing traffic that cannot be blocked out by the BBC world service documentaries on my iPod. My phone is buzzing in my purse as it’s a Monday afternoon and there are e-mails to answer and tweets to retweet. I reach for it, tangling myself up with the wire of my headphones. A passing jogger, seeing that I’m juggling multiple electronic devices, points to his wrist with a theatrical gesture so that I will remove an earbud and let him know the time. The walk, the Don, the city: none of it bears the slightest resemblance to the description in the 1790s diary of Elizabeth Simcoe – an artist, geographer and wife of Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe.

“This Evening, we went to see a Creek which is to be called the River Don. It falls into the Bay near the Peninsula. After we entered, we rowed some distance among Low lands covered with Rushes abounding with wild ducks & swamp black birds with red wings. About a mile beyond the bay, the banks become high & wooded as the river contracts its width.” — Diary of Elizabeth Simcoe, August 11, 1793

As I walk northward, under the Riverdale Park bridge toward the Bloor Street Viaduct, the designs on the path remind me that I am not looking at the same Don River as Elizabeth Simcoe did in the eighteenth century. “The Don Narrows” is  far more narrow that it was a couple centuries ago.

IMG_20151123_154452[1] By the late nineteenth century, the wetlands were polluted by the Don Valley Brickworks and other factories along the river. The swamps were blamed for cholera epidemics. As a result, the river was straightened and narrowed in a series of public works projects with varying degrees of success. In the early 20th century, dozens of sewage treatment plants were built along the Don and parts of the ravine became landfills for industrial waste. The building of the Don Valley Parkway in the 1950s and 1960s caused further environmental devastation and the Don became one of the filthiest rivers in Canada. Efforts are now underway to restore the Don to a more natural state.


“There is a great deal of snow on the River Don which is so well frozen that we walked some miles upon it today, but in returning, I found it so cold near the Lake that I was benumbed & almost despaired of ever reaching my own house & when I came near it the Hill was frightfully slippery. Near the river, we saw the track of Wolves and & the Head and hoofs of a deer.” — Diary of Elizabeth Simcoe, January 11, 1794

The Simcoes were so enchanted by the Don Valley that they made their home – named Castle Frank after their son Francis – on a bluff overlooking the ravine. North of the Bloor Street Viaduct, the landscape bears a greater resemblance to the wooded tracts of centuries past. The roar of the Don Valley Parkway, however, is never out of earshot, even when the sight of passing traffic is obscured  by the restored Crothers woods.IMG_20151123_160717[1]




We will resume the walk on the Lower Don Trail at the Bloor Street Viaduct then continue northeast to Taylor Creek Park.


Getting there by public transit: Subway to Queen, 501 streetcar eastbound

Further Reading: Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary by Elizabeth Posthuma Simcoe and Mary Quayle Innis

The embroidered tent: Five gentlewomen in early Canada, Elizabeth Simcoe, Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie, Anna Jameson, Lady Dufferin by Marian Fowler

Next: The Bloor Street Viaduct

The Distillery District and Toronto Christmas Market

There’s a high school business class receiving a tour of the Distillery Historic District. “You are surrounded by the largest surviving collection of Victorian industrial architecture in all of the North America,” the tour guide proclaims with such enthusiasm that passing Christmas shoppers stop to listen. The students, however, quietly talk among themselves despite their teacher’s intermittent attempts to shush them. The tour guide tries again, “You might have heard of some of the hundreds of movies and TV series that have been filmed here: Tommy Boy, Cinderella Man , Chicago, Murdoch Mysteries, Road to Avonlea.”


I remember how the Distillery District stood in for Halifax harbour in Road to Avonlea but there’s no sign of recognition from the students. The tour guide takes a deep breath and tries once more, “Al Capone’s Canadian office was just over there, where thumbs were chopped off and kneecaps were broken.” Now the students are listening.


During Prohibition, Toronto’s Gooderham and Worts Distillery sold liquor to American bootleggers including the famous Al Capone. James Worts and his brother-in-law William Gooderham established a grist mill on the site in 1832. In 1834, a distraught James Worts threw himself into the company well after his wife died in childbirth. (His ghost is said to haunt the Distillery District to the present day).


Gooderham added a distillery in 1837, the year of the Upper Canada Rebellion. In the hard drinking 19th century, distilling whiskey was a lucrative trade. By 1871, the distillery was producing 2.1 million gallons of whiskey and spirits every year. During the First World War, production switched to the acetone needed for antifreeze.


In 1916, the Ontario Temperance Act banned sales of alcohol in the province. The act followed a decades long campaign by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Canada, the largest non-denominational Canadian women’s organization of the time, which raised awareness of the domestic abuse and economic hardship that men’s heavy drinking outside the home caused for women. The act remained in force until 1927 and the Gooderham and Worts distillery seemed destined for bankruptcy.

In Quebec, where alcohol was traditionally consumed more moderately by men and women inside the home, Prohibition lasted only two weeks. The Gooderham and Worts distillery skirted the laws in Ontario by sending their spirits to Montreal to “age” overnight then importing their products back to the distillery. Bootleggers like Capone bought up Canadian Club whiskey and resold it for an enormous profit in the United States, where Prohibition was in force from 1920 until 1933. The distillery survived Prohibition and continued to be in business until 1990.


Today, the Distillery District is one of Toronto’s most popular tourist attractions, filled with unique shops, restaurants and galleries. From November 20 until December 20, the historic neighbourhood is the setting of the Toronto Christmas Market. There’s a gigantic Christmas tree, gingerbread house shaped kiosks selling tasty treats and unique crafts, and Christmas carolers. In between live carol singing sets, the sound system plays a uniquely Canadian mix of Christmas songs from the melancholy strains of Gordon Lightfoot’s Song for a Winter’s Night to the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan medley of We Three Kings and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.


Enjoy the Christmas Market and sample the desserts. (I recommend the giant nanaimo bars at the Brick Street bakery). The next set of walks will take us north along the Don Valley Ravine, under the Bloor Street Viaduct to Taylor Creek Park.

Getting there by public transit: Subway to King station, 504 King streetcar eastbound to Parliament Street.

Further Reading: Toronto’s Distillery District by Sally Gibson

Next: The Lower Don Trail

Sugar Beach

IMG_20151120_132558[1]Sugar Beach used be an abandoned parking lot on a neglected industrial strip. Now, it’s a sand covered park named for the nearby Redpath Sugar refinery that we bypassed during the last walk. This beach is not designed for swimming or wading in Lake Ontario. At the moment, that’s just as well. The sun is shining but the water looks choppy and cold. We’ll settle into the white Muskoka chairs under the umbrellas and admire the view of the Toronto Islands instead.



Sugar beach made headlines in 2014 when former mayor Rob Ford falsely claimed that $900,000 had been spent on the umbrellas and rocks there while he was in rehab, a supposed example of “the gravy train” chugging along in his absence. Sugar beach in fact opened in 2010 and Ford posed for pictures there that same year. Sigh.


In August, Sugar Beach becomes the setting of Toronto’s only sail-in cinema. The movies are projected onto a giant inflatable two-sided screen on a floating barge for landlubbers and seafarers alike to enjoy. I doubt there is any other cinema that has a Frequently Asked Questions page quite like this one:

Q: Do I need a ticket if I’m coming by boat?

A: No…just sail in and drop your anchor.

Q: What if I have a rowboat, kayak or canoe?

A: We recommend that you watch from land or use a powered vessel.


Let’s get out of the wind and step inside the nearby Corus Quay building. There’s an aquarium style art installation on the ceiling where the “fish” swim in schools and change colour. There’s also a nice restaurant, Against the Grain, with views of the waterfront. If we head back outside and continue to walk east along the waterfront trail (keeping to the sidewalk to avoid wandering in front of the cyclists), we pass part of George Brown College and the Sherbourne Common, which has an ice rink in the winter, a splash pad in the summer and is pretty deserted this time of year.


Beyond Sherbourne Common is one long construction site as condos rise up on Toronto’s old industrial waterfront with names like “Aquavista.” Let’s step away from the dump trucks and cement mixers and visit one of the best preserved historic neighbourhoods in Toronto. We’re going to leave the waterfront path at Parliament Street, walk north under a particularly crumbly looking section of the Gardiner Expressway and follow the smell of gingerbread and the sound of carolling to the Toronto Christmas Market in the Distillery District.


Getting there by Public Transit: Subway to Sherbourne then 75 Sherbourne bus (southbound)

Further Reading: Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto by Shawn Micallef and Marlena Zuber

Next: The Distillery District and the Toronto Christmas Market

The St. Lawrence Market and the Santa Claus Parade

Yonge_St_to_St__LawrenceThe waterfront trail between Yonge Street and Lower Jarvis Street is not particularly scenic. On the lakefront, there is a gigantic Redpath sugar refinery, which contains a museum that is not open on weekends. Across the road, is the only slightly less imposing Queen’s Quay Loblaws, which is currently selling every conceivable variety of Christmas wreath and poinsettia arrangement in addition to the usual groceries. We’re going to take a different route: north on Yonge Street, under the Gardiner expressway, which sadly discourages so many Toronto pedestrians from strolling to the waterfront, then east on Front street to the St. Lawrence Market.

St. Lawrence Market

The St. Lawrence Market has existed for more than 200 years. In 1803, Lieutenant Governor Peter Hunt declared that the land north of Front, west of Jarvis, south of King and east of Church was officially Market Block (please refer to your maps) and the first permanent farmer’s market was built facing King Street that same year. At the time, Front Street faced onto Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence district became one of the most fashionable areas of Toronto after the War of 1812. Today, there’s a Saturday farmers market (I’ve received reliable second hand accounts that it’s open at 5am) a Sunday antiques market and a south market  open all day long from Tuesdays to Saturdays (I recommend the pies). The banners outside the market remind visitors to come on an empty stomach. Good advice.


Upstairs from the St. Lawrence market is Market Gallery, in the council chamber of Toronto’s first City Hall and the site of the first electric telegraph sent in Canada. The Gallery displays rotating exhibitions of Toronto history and art. When I gave a lecture there in May about the Georgian royal image for the Toronto Regency Society’s Jane Austen festival, the exhibition was about the history of sports in Toronto, in honour of the Pan-Am Games and there’s now a display of Toronto artwork from the past 100 years. The Gallery is accessible by elevator, in case you’re having trouble getting up the stairs after all that pie.

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On the third Sunday of November, the St. Lawrence Market is the final stop on the Santa Claus Parade route. The parade has been a Toronto institution since Eaton’s department store imported live reindeer from Labrador to pull Santa’s sleigh in 1913. If you grew up in Toronto in the last century, chances are you have attended the Santa Claus parade – I recommend the Booky Trilogy of children’s novels for a glimpse at what the parade was like during the 1930s. The Santa Claus parade today is broadly similar to how it was when I was I kid in the early 1990s – marching bands playing Christmas carols, troops of clowns, spectators pushing strollers overflowing with red licorice, Oreos, juice boxes and goldfish crackers as well as small children – but there are a few key differences. First, the weather seems to have improved. The 2015 parade was definitely hat and mittens optional. Second, the clowns now carry oversize picture frames and encourage selfies.

Then, there are the floats. The classic Mother Goose float, which has started the parade since the First World War, is still there but the number of dinosaur floats seems to have increased considerably in recent years. It’s not just the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Raptors anymore. Now, there is a float inspired by “The Good Dinosaur” an upcoming Dinosaur  Pixar movie. The festive holiday dinosaurs have taken over.


The parade ends with the arrival of Santa Claus, who is dispensing more advice than ever before. “It’s a Merry Christmas” Santa declared as he turned the corner in his sleigh pulled by imitation reindeer onto Lower Jarvis street. Rather than end on that note, he continued, “It’s a say please and thank you Christmas! It’s a finish your ho-ho-homework Christmas.” No doubt Santa is following the same trend that led to Cookie Monster declaring that a cookie is a sometimes food.

Lower Jarvis Street returns us to the waterfront. We will resume at Sugar Beach park near Corus Quay and continue eastward, toward the Christmas Market, which opens on Friday, November 20 in the historic Distillery District.

Getting there by public transit: Subway to Union then walk east on Front street or the Esplanade.

Further Reading on Market Gallery on other Toronto museums: Inside the Museums: Toronto’s Heritage Sites and their Most Prized Objects by John Goddard

Further Reading on the Santa Claus Parade:  Booky: A Trilogy by Bernice Thurman Hunter

Next: Sugar Beach

On Yonge Street

Let’s begin at the start of Yonge Street, on the shores of Toronto Bay, Lake Ontario. A cool breeze is blowing across the water but otherwise, it’s unseasonably bright and sunny. The kind of weather that makes starting an urban hiking blog in the middle of November seem like a perfectly reasonable idea. The monument at the water’s edge repeats the legend that Yonge Street is the longest street in the world, beginning in downtown Toronto and continuing 1896 km to Rainy River, near the Ontario-Minnesota border.The distances to other cities on or near Yonge St. and Highway 11 are listed in brass letters on the pavement.

Rainy River

The street’s namesake, Sir George Yonge (1731-1812), might have been fascinated by the current debate over whether Yonge Street and Highway 11 should be considered one long roadway since he was an expert on Roman roads and thoroughfares in Britain in addition being Britain’s Secretary at War (1782–1783 and 1783–1794). Yonge never visited his street but he was a close friend of John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from 1791 to 1796 and so his name was added to the map of Toronto without him ever crossing the Atlantic.


Unlike Sir George Yonge, I have lived in Toronto for most of my life. I grew up in Etobicoke and now live in Midtown and work at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. I never stood at the start of Yonge Street, however, until the fall of 2015 when I presented my 1st book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights, at the International Festival of Authors. The festival was at the Harbourfront Centre and Fort York and I spent more time exploring Toronto’s waterfront that week than in all my other years in Toronto combined. It’s time to spend some more quality time with the city I call home.

The start of Yonge Street intersects with Toronto’s Martin Goodman waterfront trail (named for a late President and Editor and Chief of the Toronto Star newspaper), part of the Trans-Canada trail. Yonge Street and Highway 11 combined are short compared to the expanding Trans Canada Trail. When the trail is completed in time for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017, it will be more than 23,000 kilometres long, stretching from the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, the longest system of recreational trails in the world. From these bronze letters at the beginning of Yonge Street, I am going to walk a small portion of the trail in segments, wandering off the trail to explore interesting places along the way. I’ll be hiking and commuting rather than hiking and camping. I enjoy the outdoors but I am not outdoorsy. That is an important distinction. Also, it will soon be winter. In Canada.

My photos and thoughts on local history and travel will be posted here. An interactive map of the entire trans-Canada trail is available here.

The final destination of my travels on the trail is unknown but it will be sometime after I hear the words “That is a long walk from Toronto.”

Getting there on public transit: Subway to Union, Streetcar to Queen’s Quay, walk east

Further Reading: 200 Years Yonge: A History by Ralph Magel

Next: The St. Lawrence Market