The Don River winding through North York originally had an Indigenous Mississaugas of the Credit name, Wonscotonach (“burning bright point”). It was inspired by the torchlight used to light up the darkness for nighttime spearing of salmon that then filled the river.
One of the first things John Graves Simcoe did when the British government appointed him Upper Canada’s (Ontario) first lieutenant-governor in 1792 was to replace Indigenous and French place names given by early French explorers with English ones. He renamed Wonscotonach the Don after a Don River in Yorkshire, England.
In his 1873 book “Toronto Of Old,” clergyman and author Henry Scadding wrote: “To the northwest can be seen the remains of a shallow, winding ravine which in winter the sleighs used to ascend to the level of the river and then regain the high road into town through a grove of pines and hemlocks. In winter the river is frozen and coated with a good depth of snow, bordered on each side by wild willow, alder, dogwood, cranberry and wild grape. After it snowed the surface of the Don was covered with footprints of field mice, minks, martens, musk rats, foxes, and wolves. In the snow of the meadows that skirt the river are bloodstained spots where sheep had been killed by wolves.
“Some salmon weighed as much as 25 pounds. There also were bass, perch, pike, and speckled trout.”
The Don was a major fur trading route connecting with Lake Ontario and thence to the St. Lawrence River. Water from the river was used to power saw, grist, and wool mills erected alongside.
In 1878, a flood swept away bridges as well as numerous mills. According to “Pioneering in North York” by Patricia Hart, published in 1968: “A dog house was swept down the river. A howling dog tied to his kennel sat on the roof, unable to swim to shore. At the end of Don Mills Road, a house was carried away. The occupant got his wife and baby to safety. The cradle went merrily down the river with a hen perched on top.”
Susan Goldenberg is a director and membership chair of the North York Historical Society which preserves North York’s heritage.