Discovering Toronto: The Don, the Forks and Charles Sauriol (Part 2)

Any historical discussion of the Don River and Don Valley must include mention of the man who helped document the area’s history, geography and happenings: Charles Sauriol.

Charles Sauriol was born 113 years ago on this day, within five miles of the Forks of the Don, and would go on to spend his whole life along the river.

He first discovered the Forks of the Don in his early teens, through camping trips with the 45th East Toronto Troop of Boy Scouts (Sauriol 1995). It was during these expeditions that Sauriol became captivated with the Don. Eventually, he would dedicate his life to researching, documenting and preserving the Don Valley.

Today, the history of the Don Valley can be revisited through the collections of stories and photograph preserved in his numerous books, which commemorate the people and places once scattered along the Don, before urban expansion so dramatically transformed the landscape.

collection of books by Charles Sauriol
A collection of Charles Sauriol’s books about the Don.

Many of the homes depicted in Sauriol’s photographs were built in the 19th century in response to the increased demand for paper production in the City. Sauriol writes that many of the families who lived in these homes during the early 1900’s often called them their “cottages”. Their children could often be found swimming and skipping stones in the river, playing games and sports in the valley, building forts and setting up camping spots in the forest.

archival photograph of the area south of the Forks
South of the Forks, Don Mills Road on the Left, 1958. (Sauriol 1995)
archival photograph of children playing along the Don River
Kids playing along the Don River. (Sauriol Fonds, Series 80, Box 103635, Folio 4, City of Toronto Archives)
archival photographs of bridges across the Don River
Left: Footbridge over the Don River. (Sauriol Fonds, Series 80, Box 103635, Folio 4, City of Toronto Archives); Right: Rail bridge over the Don River. (Sauriol Fonds, Series 80, Box 103635, Folio 4, City of Toronto Archives)

In 1907, the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway (which would merge with the Canadian National Railway in 1923) constructed a rail line through the Don Valley, adjacent to the river. This marked the first time a rail line had been built through the valley, and it resulted in diversion of the Don River, as well as significant alterations to the floor of the valley. A large swath was cut through the valley to provide sufficient room for railway construction.

READ: Discovering Toronto: The Forks of the Don (Part 1)

In his book Trails of the Don (1992), Sauriol gathers stories from those who lived in the Don Valley around the time the railway was built:

Every once in a while we met an old-timer who had known the valley as it was before the railway went through…he would say, ‘That goldarned railway ruined a lot of this valley…It was awful with those steam shovels, horses, dump trucks, and saws. That poor old valley was ripped to pieces'” (Sauriol 1992:86).

Sauriol recalls pictures of the construction, noting the “…swarthy men, with big handlebar moustaches, tearing into the soil or sitting in what looked like a graveyard but was in effect whole slopes of tree stumps” (Sauriol 1992: 86).

By the 1920’s, the valley’s flora had begun to recover, but much of the old growth along the path of the rail line and the slopes beside it were trimmed bare. The railway’s impact was felt much more strongly in the city’s centre, where a struggle for dominance over the shipping and supply trade was ensuing between the established docks and shipyards and the burgeoning railway industry.

In addition to the cutting of old growth along parts of the valley, the railway also affected the course of the Don River, though to a much lesser extent than the trees. Of those areas where the river was not diverted, large ponds were formed, wherein many species of wildlife flourished. Sauriol mentions fresh springs being uncovered through the digging of the railway.

archival photograph of railway through the Don Valley
Looking north towards Don Mills Road. (Sauriol Fonds, Series 80, Box 103635, Folio 4, City of Toronto Archives)

As Toronto’s population grew, construction and infrastructure works along the Don River and valley increased as well. Road construction became a constant sight in the valley and Sauriol quipped that it felt like they were always building bridges. On the back of one of his photographs, he notes “a sad day”; the photo was taken as he watched the construction of Eglinton Avenue East stretch across the valley.

archival photograph of the construction of Eglinton Avenue East through the Don Valley
“A Sad Day”, Construction of Eglinton Avenue East through the Don Valley, 1955 (Sauriol Fonds, Series 80, Box 103635, Folio 4, City of Toronto Archives)

The construction of the Don Valley Parkway (DVP) was another major undertaking within the Don Valley. Initial plans started in 1946 and the final plans were completed in 1955 by engineering company Fenco-Harris.

Extensive civil engineering was required to construct the part of the parkway through the valley, including the rerouting of 3.2 kilometres of the Don River, the installation of 1.6 kilometres of reinforced retaining walls, and the removal of two hills.

READ: Honouring an Historical Journey Between the Humber and Don Rivers

One of these hills, Tumper’s Hill, once stood as a landmark near Don Mills Road at the Forks of the Don, measuring 36 metres higher than the land today. The earth from Tumper’s Hill was extracted for fill to build the DVP.

In 1954, the Don was hit by Hurricane Hazel, which brought severe flooding, destroyed property, and washed out many bridges. In the aftermath, Sauriol was forced to move out of his cottage in the flood plains, and into the neighbouring de Grassi cottage.

This second cottage survived the the hurricane only because of deliberate action taken by Sauriol himself. He and a man named Joe Giguere placed a slab of concrete they mixed from stones taken from the Don; this slab held up the cottage’s chimney and fireplace, and is still in evidence today.

The only other markers indicating the location of the “de Grassi Place” are two steel rails protruding from the river bank, upon which once rested the cable bridge Sauriol built over the river, as well as the grove of walnut, butternut, hemlock, maple and ash trees that Sauriol planted behind his first cottage in 1929.

archival photograph of damage caused by Hurricane Hazel
Hurricane Hazel damage along the Don, 1954. (Sauriol Fonds, Series 80, Box 103635, Folio 4, City of Toronto Archives)

The first section of the DVP was completed in 1961 between Bloor Street and Eglinton Avenue, and the second between Eglinton Avenue and Lawrence Avenue in 1963. The entire stretch was opened to commuters and fully completed by 1967. Sadly, the completion of the Don Valley Parkway saw Sauriol’s beloved cottage, property and surrounding community at the Forks of the Don demolished.

archival photograph of the construction of the Don Valley Parkway
Construction of the Don Valley Parkway adjacent to Don Mills Road (left), 1958. (Fonds 220, Series 65, File 66, City of Toronto Archives)

Sauriol’s photograph collection includes numerous pictures of his cottage. In 1939, the Canadian National Railway (CNR) accepted Sauriol’s offer of $1,000 to purchase 4.13 acres of land at the Forks of the Don, including the small, white cottage he had been renting from the CNR since 1927 and the de Grassi cottage on an adjoining parcel (Sauriol 1992:220).

READ: Looking Back: A Pickering Connection to the Underground Railroad?

Sauriol wrote of cottage life:

“There, during the first years, I experienced rustic living. I gave up electricity for kerosene lamps, tap water for water hand-pumped from a well, a cozy bathroom for an outhouse, gas or electric heating for a wood stove and coped with other ‘inconveniences’ which at the time I thoroughly enjoyed” (Sauriol 1992: 16).

archival photograph of Charles Sauriol's cottage at the Forks of the Don
Sauriol’s cottage looking southwest. (Sauriol Fonds, Series 81, Box 103710, Folio 44, File 1, City of Toronto Archives)
archival photograph of Charles Sauriol at his cottage
Sauriol and his cottage. (Sauriol Fonds, Series 81, Box 103710, Folio 44, File 1, City of Toronto Archives)

An author, conservationist, environmentalist, historian and lecturer, Charles Sauriol was an advocate for preserving both the cultural and environmental value and heritage of the Don. He was a co-founder of the Don Valley Conservation Association (DVCA) and sat on the executive board of the MTRCA (today Toronto and Region Conservation).

READ: From the Toronto Star: When the Don Valley was Cottage Country

Sauriol was also chairman of the Conservation Areas Advisory Board and joined the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), becoming the executive director until his retirement in 1989. He co-founded Trees for Today and Tomorrow and was responsible for the TRCA’s acquisition of most of the land along the Don River, as well as Bruce’s Mill, Claremont, Glen Haffy, Cold Creek, and Black Creek Pioneer Village.

Charles Sauriol passed away in 1995 at the age of 91 years old, but not before the TRCA honoured his legacy by preserving a tract of greenspace in his name at the Forks of the Don: the Charles Sauriol Conservation Reserve.

archival photograph of Charles Sauriol carving his name into a tree trunk
Charles. (Sauriol Fonds, Series 80, Box 103635, Folio 4, City of Toronto Archives)

Written By Loren Scott and Alvina Tam. View the Archaeology web page.


Sauriol, Charles 1992 – Trails of the Don. The Alger Press and Hemlock Press, Orillia, Ontario.

Sauriol, Charles 1995 – Pioneers of the Don. East York, Ontario: Serv-a-Trade, a division of
Wadamaka Litho Ltd.