(A timely look at the Don Valley, once again awash with flood waters this week. What were the city fathers thinking, when they planned a major highway on the Don Valley flood plain? Ed.)
Toronto's Don Valley once produced choke cherries, apples, blueberries, gooseberries, elderberries, blackberries, red, purple and black raspberries, red and black currants, rhubarb, wild grapes and strawberries. There were over 2,000 plant species allowing fat bees to ponder catnip, corn tassels, buckwheat, clover, alfalfa, willow herb, fire weed, trilliums, sunflowers and milkweed. There was such a profusion of wild roses growing on the west side of the valley it was named Rosedale. Groves of huge white pines, large rabbles of butterflies and flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the sky in flight. Hollow trees colonized by bees contained 20 to 100 lb. of succulent honey.
The Don River watershed flows in two branches from Major McKenzie Drive down to O'Connor Avenue where it forks east to Taylor-Massey Creek, and forks west to its mouth at Lake Ontario about half a mile east of Cherry Street at Lake Shore Blvd. In the 1800's trout and 25 lb. salmon swam in the Don River while herds of cattle roamed along its banks. In 1852 almost 40 mills (grist, woolen, paper, saw), distilleries and breweries were dependant on river water. Schooners and steam barges travelled to Gerrard St. delivering freight to nearby wharves, a swing bridge allowed the ferry ‘Minnie Kidd' to continue to Winchester Street where the Don Vale Tavern served thirsty travellers.
In the winter heavy sleds moved commercial goods down the frozen river and on weekends city inhabitants used it for recreational skating and curling. Toronto Belt Line Railway (later Canadian National Railways) ran the first passenger rail service from 1892-1894 from Mt. Pleasant cemetery to Union Station stopping at Moore Park Station in the west side of the Don Valley. Canadian Pacific Railway ran a line south from Leaside stopping at the Don Station near Queen Street. CNR laid a connector line in 1906 and trains from Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal in the 1920's stopped at the Don Station - it was active until 1967. The Don is the only surviving 19th century Toronto railway station.
During the fight for the Siege of Toronto, between Loyalists and Rebels, on the night of December 4, 1837 Phillipe de Grassi, a former captain in Napoleon's army, and his two teenage daughters horse-backed from their homestead at O'Connor and Don Mills Road toward government headquarters at King & Jarvis to lend assistance. They encountered rebel forces near the bottom of what is now Pottery Road. Cornelia 13, an excellent rider, rode to Montgomery Tavern at Yonge & Eglinton to spy on the Rebels but was immediately spotted and captured.
William Lyon McKenzie (first mayor of Toronto in 1834) was the Rebel leader hoping to oust the circle of Loyalists that controlled Upper Canada in an undemocratic way. When he came out of the tavern in great excitement to talk to his men Cornelia managed to escape, bullets grazed her clothing as she fled. She was able to tell the Loyalists how many rebels there were and that they were hungry, a game-changer that advantaged the Loyalists.
Riding homeward her sister Charlotte 15 was shot and wounded by rebels near Broadview and O'Connor. Today the de Grassi name is associated with the highly successful television series Degrassi High about middle-school drama created by Linda Schuyler a former teacher at Earl Grey Senior Public School. The show took its name from the street in south Riverdale where filming first began. Historically the street of De Grassi was named for Captain de Grassi.
For a bigger picture of the Don Valley I recommend Remembering the Don by Charles Sauriol. (By the way, there is small parkette on Braodview just north of the Estonian House, named in Sauriol's honour. There is also a trailhead park beside the river carrying hte naturalist's name, access opff Lawrence Avenue, just east of the Parkway. Worth the walk! ed.)
Don Valley, Once So Grand (1)