Fire on the Don River

It shouldn't have happened. But at some point during the night on February 2, 1931, a fire started on Toronto's Don River.

City waterways have long been used as dumping grounds by industry and the general public. The Don is no exception. Sufficiently polluted with flammable compounds, the river caught fire when a spark from a passing train landed on an oil patch. Thanks to an eagle-eyed watchman, the fire department was promptly dispatched and the fire was tamed. No injuries were reported, but the Eastern Avenue footbridge was sufficiently damaged that the structure had to be torn down.

No doubt things could have been worse. A strong wind raised concern that the fire might spread to the neighboring industrial area. Likewise, tragedy was narrowly averted when bridge planks gave way beneath two firemen. They fell, but managed to scramble to safety.

Truth be told, river fires were not uncommon features on the industrial landscape. The Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 has gained a somewhat mythic spot within the lore of the emergent environmental movement, with many claiming that this fire helped spark concern throughout the United States in regards to ecological degradation. Well, yes and no. As Mark Hamilton Lytle notes in The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), the same river had been on fire numerous times over the years. In fact, the fire that gained infamy in 1969 was of relatively minor scale … it did not last long enough for journalists to snap photographs, which led newspapers to utilize more dramatic photographs of river fires from years prior. Why, then, did this 1969 event strike an interest in the general public? According to Lytle, “Timing, more than the fire itself, made the Cuyahoga a symbol of environmental abuse.” In other words, the general public was sufficiently ready in 1969 to be concerned about such matters.

Of course, the story of the Don River and environmentalism doesn’t end with the 1931 fire. In 1955 the municipality of Richmond Hill was sued by a resident for polluting the river with sewage. When Pollution Probe arrived on the Toronto scene in 1969, one of their first projects concerned raising awareness about the sickly state of the Don. They proceeded to hold a funeral for the river, which gained considerable publicity. While the Don River remains a toxic dumping ground, at least there is a widespread understanding that such is the case. Of course, recognizing a problem is the easy part. If only there was the public and political will to clean it up ....