7 News Archive

Many bridges have spanned the Don River

By George Rust-D'eye Seven News, December 4, 1976

“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 and swamp black birds with red wings. About a mile beyond the bay the banks became high and wooded as the river contracts its width.”
- Elizabeth Gwillim Simcoe, August 11th, 1793.

Mrs. Simcoe, writing later in her diary, on July 6th, 1796, described the first bridge built across the Don: “I passed Playter’s picturesque bridge over the Don; it is a butternut tree fallen across the river, the branches still growing full leaf. Mrs. Playter being timorous, a pole was fastened through the branches to hold by.” This bridge was situated at the foot of Winchester Street, placed there in 1794.

In the same year, a bridge was built over the Don near John Scadding’s cottage, at what is now Queen Street. This bridge provided access into the Town of York when the Kingston Road was opened by Asa Danforth in 1799-1800. Built of logs, this “corduroy” bridge had so rotted away by 1803 that it was considered impassable.

People coming into town had to ford the river on horseback or by means of a scow pulled back and forth across the river by means of a rope. A cow, a horse, or a person could cross on this ferry for 7-1/2 pence, a sheep or a hog for 3 pence.

Further south, a floating bridge constructed in 1806 across the mouth of the Don, allowed townspeople to gain access to the peninsula (as the Toronto Island was then known) where fox-hunting, horse-racing, picnics and other ‘healthy’ pursuits were carried on. This bridge, about 60 feet long, was only strong enough for horseback riders and pedestrians. The public was warned not to draw sand or loaded carts across it. This bridge, and another like it over the ‘Lesser Don’, another channel by which the river entered the bay, were removed in 1812 for the erection of an earthwork defence against the expected American invasion.

Meanwhile, in 1809, a second log bridge was built across the Don at the Kingston Road. It consisted of ten stone-filled wood cribs across water and ravine, with a plank road platform supported on trusses spanning from crib to crib. The road was about 20 feet above the water. In April 1813, this bridge was burned, not by the invading Americans, but by British Regulars retreating eastward to Kingston. It was repaired, but by 1824 had become almost impassable.

With peace restored, the new bridges to the peninsula were commenced, in 1822. However, financial problems delayed their completion for 13 years, during which time visitors to the peninsula were forced to travel by boat, or to ride to a point three miles east of the mouth of the Don.

On August 22nd, 1835. the military authorities in charge of the building of the bridges, formally turned them over to the City, amidst great pomp and ceremony. Lengthy speeches were delivered, the band struck up ‘God Save the King’, and Mayor Sullivan and other City officials strode across the bridge, followed by a throng of joyful inhabitants. Within a few years these bridges were damaged by ice and carried off, according to Dr. Scadding, “by one of the spring freshets to which the Don is subject.”

The new Kingston Road bridge, a tubular, roofed, suspension structure, was the scene, on December 7th, 1837, of an incident in the Upper Canada Rebellion, when the British American Fire Company drove off a number of rebels who had set fire to the bridge. The bridge was later carried off, in 1850, by another disastrous freshet, which also did a great deal of damage to mills at Todmorden and at the Forks of the Don.

In 1851, a new bridge was built across the Don at Queen Street by Emerson Coatsworth, City Commissioner. During its construction a craft known as the ‘Cigar Ferry Boat’ was used to convey passengers and vehicles to and from the City. This boat, a side-wheel steam vessel, consisted of three hollow cylinders bolted together. Other ferry operators, annoyed at this new competition, sank the ‘cigar boat’ the first night she was moored on the Don.

A map of the City in 1862 showed the Don spanned by narrow bridges at Winchester Street, Don Street (now Gerrard) and South Park Street (now Eastern Avenue), in addition to the bridge at Queen and that serving the Grand Trunk Railway.

The 1851 bridge at Queen Street (formerly the Kingston Road), was much more solid than its predecessors. It was another tubular frame of timber, but was not provided with a roof or covered in at the sides until 20 years after it was built. On September 13th, 1878, it was swept away by the worst flooding of the Don in history. It was caused by a severe storm which swept away almost all of the bridges and dams on the Don, flooded the flats, and damaged many buildings. It was the wreckage of a River Street warehouse floating by which caused the destruction of this, the last of the early bridges over the Don.

This article was published in Seven News, Volume 9, Number 23, December 4, 1976