BY SUSAN GOLDENBERG | NORTH YORK MIRROR NOV 29, 2022
In the 19th century travelling circuses headed to Ontario’s north from the City of Toronto via a Yonge Street bridge over the West Don River, linking Toronto’s northern end with rural North York. Short, the wood bridge ended south of present York Mills Road.
In the summer of 1890, according to North York folklore, a travelling circus elephant stopped traffic when he refused to cross the bridge because it was shaking, and he was scared — justifiably. His keepers took him instead through the river.
There were a number of later bridges and they, too, had storied histories.
In 1897 an irate local farmer named Charles P. Rolls swung a pitchfork at builders of a new bridge at the spot when they attempted to remove a fence that he had erected to prevent the public from detouring over his property during construction. He was charged with “assault”; and the head contractor, James Gowanlock, who was also a Toronto alderman, with “forcible entry.” At a trial held in General Sessions Court in Toronto on Dec. 3, 1897, Gowanlock, according to The Globe newspaper, said Rolls had contractually agreed to unobstructed passage “until the bridge’s completion.”
On Jan. 5, 1929, a crowd of 1,000 watched Ontario minister of Highways George S. Henry, who lived in North York (where he now has a high school named after him), officially open a new, longer, higher bridge by cutting ribbon barricades at each end with gold scissors. Construction costs were split between the City of Toronto, York County, and the Provincial Government. North York paid for sidewalks and lighting.
Following Hurricane Hazel, Oct. 15-16 1954, a wide crack occurred on the roadway of the then bridge. Drivers reported that the bridge shook and was sinking. Nevertheless, the Metro Toronto roads department declared it safe. Soon it was proved wrong.
On Nov. 21, the bridge broke apart and tumbled into the river due to the hurricane having weakened its foundation. A small panel truck was swept into the water and its roof crushed by falling chunks. Driver Bruce Logan, 21, and passenger Ronald Kennedy, 16, escaped death by smashing a window and wriggling out.
A stronger, wider bridge was built.
Susan Goldenberg is a director and membership chair of the North York Historical Society which preserves North York’s heritage.