History of The Don

By Nicole Czorny

When Toronto was founded in 1793, the pristine Don River, once teaming with fish and wildlife, soon lost its sparkle, with mills, quarries and factories lining the river banks instead of forests, meadows and wetlands.

The Don quickly became a ‘working river’, with factories providing much needed construction supplies, food, beer and liquor to Toronto’s growing population. By the 1850’s, pollution from gas, petrochemical and other heavy industrial plants setup shop along the Don River. Ashbridge’s Marsh at the base of the river became unhealthy and unable to support wildlife and other areas of the Don Valley were used as dumpsites.

The Don Improvement project was launched towards the end of the 19th century to improve the Don, create more open land near the lake and  to create a shipping channel for the city.

After WWII, new suburbs like Don Mills and North York were popping up along the river. As the rapid expansion of these neighbourhoods continued, the Don Valley Parkway and Bayview Avenue Extension were created. Restricting access to the valley, these new roads were built directly through the valley, with no regard to the impact this would have on the environment.

At this time, heavy industries started moving out away from the Don Valley, leaving their pollution behind. This mixed with urban storm run-off, the once thriving Don River was dying.

When Hurricane Hazel struck Toronto in 1954, the Humber and Don River flooded, causing terrible damage and destruction. In response, the Ontario government restricted future development on the Don River floodplains, preserving much of the remaining natural space in the Don Valley.

Flooding of the Don River after Hurricane Hazel.

In 1989, advocates of the Don River convinced city council to create the Task Force to Bring Back the Don.While these new parks offered a natural escape for residents in the suburbs, much of the valley remained an unusable wasteland. Promoting the environmental group Pollution Probe to hold a mock funeral for the Don in 1969, ushering in a new wave of urban environmentalism.

Looking to get involved and help bring back the Don? Check out the city of Toronto’s Community Stewardship Program and become a green volunteer.

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