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.
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.
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
Next: The Bloor Street Viaduct