bonus features: the don runneth over

The following offers supplementary material for a recent Torontoist post, which you should read first before diving into this post.

Don River flood, looking south from Wilton Avenue (now Dundas Street) bridge, March 27, 1916. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1170. Click on image for larger version.
The City of Toronto Archives’ online treasure chest of images includes plenty of pictures of floods along the Don River between 1916 and 1920. A few stories about those shots, starting with the March 28, 1916 edition of the Globe:
Swelling of the Don, Humber, and Credit Rivers by the heavy rain of yesterday put much land around Toronto beneath a tide of ice and rushing water, while the flooding of the Canadian Northern Railway yards at Rosedale to a depth of four feet suspended traffic to and from Toronto over their lines for some hours, the eastbound afternoon trains being cancelled…So far as the Don is concerned, this is the worst flood since 1897. One of the remarkable features was the flight of thousands of rats driven from their homes in the garbage-made land at the foot of the Winchester street hill.

The crisis in the Don Valley arose when ice cakes piled up at the lower bridges and the water could not escape as rapidly as it poured down from the upper reaches of the river.

So rapidly did the Don rise and flood the flats and yards that it was impossible for the CNR to draw passenger coaches in the coach yard on the east side of the river to the main line over a trestle. Heavy coal cars were placed on the light bridge to hold it down and prevent it from being swept from its light fastenings…At four in the afternoon the course of the river was hardly distinguishable in the lake of water which spread from the hills on the east side of the river to the CPR railway embankment on the east side.

Railway employees who returned from repairing the damage done by a washout just north of the yards found that they could not reach their cars and were forced to spend the night on dry ground, awaiting an opportunity to reach their clothes and food by means of light engines, which were keeping the mainline open…Cellars in factories along the Esplanade were filled with water.
Don River flood, north of the Bloor Viaduct, February 26, 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 34. Click on image for larger version.

 The Globe’s account also demonstrated some people were determined to carry out their duties, even if it seemed absurd under the circumstances:
A civic garbage collector ventured into the dump, which was then under water to the extent of several inches, to deposit his load. Before he could back out he was forced to wade in water five feet deep to unhitch his horse and then to struggle to the Winchester Street subway. He narrowly escaped drowning.
(If anybody knows what or where the Winchester Street “subway” was, I’d love to know – I’m assuming it was some sort of railway crossing?)

That day’s edition of the World observed that the Don rose eight feet over the course of two hours. “Old timers have been predicting such a state of affairs, and their warnings have come true.” Spectators lined along the Gerrard Street, Queen Street and Wilton Avenue (present-day Dundas Street) bridges to watch the river spill out.

Don River flood, south from Wilton Avenue (now Dundas Street) bridge, February 26, 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41, Item 65a. Click on image for larger version.
I used the February 1918 flood over others from the period because of the parallel story with this week’s storm of people trapped on trains, even if it was only Canadian Northern employees. The World’s account from February 26, 1918 offered more details. Besides those who fled the scene or sought refuge in cars, several employees were forced to climb to the roof of a nearby roundhouse. Fire crews were sent from Rose Avenue and Yorkville to rescue the men, but “owing to the insecure footing and the lack of apparatus, the firemen were unable to reach the men.”
Captain Chapman, of the life-saving crew stationed at the Island, was then notified, and men were dispatched to bring rockets and a firing tube from the Island in order that a line could be shot across the river to the roundhouse on which the men were isolated, it being the intention of the life-saving crew and the firemen to rig a breeches buoy if possible. Arrangements were made by the police to have a patrol wagon stationed at the foot of Yonge Street to meet the life-saving crew and to assist them in moving the apparatus with the greatest of speed.

For some time the residents in the vicinity of the Don have been alarmed at the rapid rise of the water, but no great excitement prevailed until early this morning when wild rumours to the effect that an avalanche of water was sweeping down the valley alarmed all who had property there. Speaking to the press this morning, J. McCarthur, who lives on Park Drove, said that he was cut off from his cattle sheds and that he expected to lose about five head of cattle.
Don Valley flood, north of the Bloor Viaduct, March 12, 1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41, Item 113. Click on image for larger version.
Railway workers marooned during one flood took their situation in stride. The March 13, 1920 edition of the World depicted plenty of jokes coming from 12 of them stuck on a freight train, while their wives watched anxiously from the bank:
One satisfaction remains to the castaways, they have food in plenty in the store, now an island, beside which the train drawn up; drink is all too plentiful, tho mud replaces alcohol, and they have golden hopes of full pay with overtime for their hours of inaction and anxiety…

Anxious wives stand impotently on the banks. From across the seething waters come the cheery voices of the men bidding them have no fear. No raft built by the hands of man could withstand the angry onslaught of that rushing stream; no swimmer could battle against the angry currents.

Whatever the wives may be thinking, the men themselves seem to be taking the situation (several illegible words) cheerfully. “How many teaspoons of tea ought I to put in?” shouted one to the World, putting his head out of the caboose, where was acting as cook. Sing-songs were also the order of the day…An offer of rubber boots to walk ashore in provoked a laugh.


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