Points of Interest > The Don Narrows

By the 1880s, the Don was widely recognized as a menace to public health, and an obstacle to the development of the city’s east end. Heavily polluted waters stagnated in the slow moving, serpentine reaches of the lower river and the massive reach of marshlands at its mouth. Annual accumulations of silt and debris at the mouth of the Don threatened navigation in Toronto harbour and clogged access to industrial wharves, presenting a persistent challenge to waterfront industry. Frequent floods in spring and fall created further problems, damaging river-side properties, drowning livestock, and occasionally taking human lives as well. The “Don problem,” as it became known, prompted a series of unsuccessful interventions in the 1870s and 80s, culminating in the Don Improvement Plan of 1886.

A sketch of the course of the river prior to straightening, by Charles Sauriol (Remembering the Don, p.125). Sauriol writes: "Early in the [18]80s the Don pursued a meandering course down the lower Don Valley, and particularly so from Bloor Street to the bay. Here it flowed through weedy marshes… and entered Lake Ontario southwest of the current river mouth” (p.122).

In the early 1880s, city politicians and business interests forwarded a proposal to "widen, straighten, deepen and otherwise improve the River Don” with the goal of creating a navigable channel for ship traffic south of Gerrard Street, expanding industrial lands in the area, and flushing out pollution in the Lower River and Ashbridge’s Bay. Straightening the course of the river in its lower reaches would also allow for the construction of riverside railway tracks, and with them, the creation of an additional railway entrance into Toronto through the Don Valley. In March 1886 the Don Improvement Act was passed by the provincial legislature, empowering the City to borrow funds and expropriate lands to complete the improvement works. Toronto ratepayers gave Council the final go-ahead in a public referendum in September 1886, and construction began the following month.

River Don Straightening Plan, 1886, City of Toronto Archives, Series 725, File 12. Concentrating on a portion of the Lower River between Winchester Street and the Grand Trunk Railway bridge at Eastern Avenue, the Don Improvement Plan (1886-1891) saw the meandering Lower River straightened, widened, and deepened, dramatically transforming the landscape and hydrology of the marshy lower valley.

What was initially conceived as a two-year, $300,000 project proved far more complicated and time-consuming to implement than planners originally thought.  Even more damning was the fact that it largely failed to fulfill expectations. Certainly, stronger bridges at the major crossing points along the Lower Don allowed for more reliable travel between communities east and west of the river, the construction of a passenger rail station at King Street allowed greater mobility for east end residents, and the growth of industry along the river south of Gerrard Street brought jobs for the area’s growing working class population. But the major problems it set out to address—flooding, poor sanitary conditions, and the lack of navigability of the Lower River—persisted for years after the dredges had retired and the money had been spent. Losses to the human experience of the Lower Don would also have been apparent to area residents. As local historian George Rust D’Eye comments, the improvement “included the removal of five small islands between Queen and Winchester Streets, and the straightening of three big meanders and two small ones…. [while] fill taken from the hillsides surrounding the Don Valley permanently altered the appearance of the landscape.” Work on the new channel was finally completed in 1891, at cost of almost $580,000—almost double original estimates.

The construction of the Don Valley Parkway in the late 1950s and early 1960s fortified channel supports and extended the straightened portion of the river further north. Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority are currently considering plans to enhance habitat features in the Don Narrows as part of the Don Mouth Naturalization and Port Lands Flood Protection Project

Don Channel from Winchester Street bridge, looking south
Photo: Jennifer Bonnell, May 2006

Text: Jennifer Bonnell


George H. Rust-D’Eye. Cabbagetown Remembered. Erin, Ontario: The Boston Mills Press, 1984.

Charles Sauriol, Remembering the Don: A Rare Record of Earlier Times within the Don River Valley, Toronto: Consolidated Amethyst Communications, 1981.

City of Toronto Council Minutes, 1880-1891, City of Toronto Archives.

Jennifer Bonnell & Marcel Fortin, 2009. A member project of NiCHE in partnership
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