West Don High Bridge

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5-min read | Last updated on July 17, 2019

Let's start with some facts

Shall we dive in?

Nowadays, if you were asked to name the country’s largest employer, you might intuitively select a company with a large brick-and-mortar presence; a company on every street corner and deep in rural Canada. Perhaps a retailer or a bank? But surely not Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) or Canadian National (CN), right? 1900 was a very difference time and railways were “the thing”! In fact, at the dawn of the 20th century, the CPR was in the top spot, at the helm of Canada’s largest workforce, while the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), one of CN’s predecessor, was a close second.

In the wake of the war of 1812, Britain feared for its ongoing sovereignty over its North American colonies. Although its subjects had remained loyal to the Crown and had resisted the American invaders, concerns emerged around how to maintain control over such vast and sparsely populated land in the face of a growing and strengthening nation south of the border. As one might assume, the superpower’s first move was to arm its possessions by building forts and military outposts in strategic locations across the area and in relative proximity to the US border (Fort York in Toronto is one example). However, the invention of the steam locomotive by Stephenson in 1825 and the opening of the first commercial railway system between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830, both of which took place in England, suggested that the solution might be otherwise. From then on, the UK insisted that a railway be built in British North America to unify the colonies and solidity its influence over them. The enterprise, the so-called “Intercolonial Railway”, would provide for speedy transportation of troops and improved communication. Furthermore, it would establish a year-round connection with Europe by reaching as far east as the Atlantic Ocean defeating the winter freeze which clogged the St. Lawrence River seaway.

The Intercolonial Railway would not materialized until 1872 and became a reality only after the Maritime colonies insisted that its construction be written into the British North America Act of 1867 which gave birth to Canada. British financiers, on the other hand, did not have as much patience and by the end of 1859, the first passengers were riding trains on the Grand Trunk Railway’s Montreal to Toronto line. The company was operated out of and headquartered in London, England and was financed with capital raised in Britain but with interest payments in part guaranteed by the Province of Canada. Government support was essential to the development of railways during what is referred to as the golden age of railways in Canada (roughly from the mid-1850’s until the end of WWI). Public aid took various shapes and forms in that period including cash, construction loans, loan interest guarantees, land grants, subsidized route surveys and extension of monopolies.

At Confederation, in 1867, the GTR was Canada’s and the world’s largest railway by trackage spanning more than 2,000km. Three years later, British Colombia agreed to join the new country on the condition that a railway be constructed within ten years to connect it to Eastern Canada. The stakes were high; a connection to the west would open new markets to the burgeoning industries of Ontario and Quebec, allow for farming in the fertile plains of the Prairies and settlement of the western provinces. In order to fulfill the promise made to BC, the federal government of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald logically sought the GTR’s expertise in building, operating and financing railways. The GTR and its London-backers, far from the field and more excited about extending their railway south of the border to a market which they saw as more promising, balked at the government’s request. Nonetheless, not without controversies surrounding government incentives, kickbacks to public officials and expropriation of aboriginal land, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) opened to much fanfare in 1886 connecting Montreal, QC to Port Moody, BC in a mere five to seven days. St John, NB on the Atlantic coast was reached three years later, in 1889, completing the country’s then largest engineering undertaking.

As part of its charter to build a transcontinental railway, the CPR was authorized and encouraged to amalgamate with existing railways so as to provide through freight and passenger service. In 1881, shareholders of the CPR incorporated the Ontario and Quebec Railway Company (O&Q) as a separate organization. O&Q went onto assemble a system of its own in Ontario and Quebec by leasing or outright purchasing not less than six railway companies. By 1888, the system linked Windsor, ON at the Canada-US border to Montreal, QC through Toronto, ON and joined the CPR’s east-west line at North Bay, ON via Ottawa, ON. The O&Q was always intended to be a “paper” railway set up as a standalone legal entity for marketability of its bonds in the United Kingdom. The bond payments were guaranteed by CPR and the segregation of the Ontario and Quebec business from the rest of CPR presumably sheltered its assets from CPR’s creditors. Accordingly, the entire O&Q railway was leased to the CPR from its phased opening in 1884 and the CPR has been operating it ever since as an integral part of its network and in its own name. The CPR eventually simplified its corporate structure in the 1990’s and purchased 100% of the O&Q’s shares.

The O&Q’s Windsor to Montreal route is better known as the CPR’s main line. It enters the city at the West Toronto Junction and passes through its core south of St. Clair Ave and North of Dupont St. onto Leaside where it then moves northeast to Agincourt, ON and the CPR Toronto Yard. This section of the line was opened to traffic in August 1884 and a decision was made to double-track it 20 years later. The second track was laid in stages between 1905 and 1918, delayed by the construction of overpasses in the city’s core, negotiation of an agreement with Canadian Northern Railway over shared use of the route and revenue and the war effort which claimed much of the supply of iron, workers and railway workshop space. Nowadays, the CPR’s main line remains the backbone of the company’s network in Central Canada experiencing heavy freight traffic. Passenger service was discontinued in 1930 when all trains were rerouted from North Toronto Station (at Yonge St.) to Union Station.

The West Don High Bridge was built around 1884 along with the rest of the O&Q’s Toronto main line with single trackage. The bridge’s official name in CPR records is unknown and so is its height which we estimate to be approximately 30m at its highest point. We named it as such as it spans 250m over the West Don River valley just east of Leaside and south of Eglinton Ave. East. A second bridge was put in service 1914 to supplement the original structure. The two works of engineering share the same footprint and their support structures are closely intertwined, though disjointed. Both of them stand on legs made up of iron struts (the columns) and reinforced with lattice ties. Structures akin to the West Don High Bridge are commonly referred to as trestle bridges. Piers are stone for the 1884 structure and concrete for the most recent bridge.

Beneath the structure, the City of Toronto maintains an expansive network of forested trails. Down the river, these trails merge into the E.T. Seton Park at the back of the Ontario Science Centre before continuing south and eventually meeting the Lower Don River Trail. The latter trail will take you as far south as Parliament St., just south of the Distillery District. We recommend the park for families and individuals who wish to have some quiet fun time away from the city commotion. The trails to downtown may be of interest to bikers and hikers alike.

TTC access to the bridge is through bus routes servicing the Science Centre at Eglinton Ave. East and Don Mills Rd. and via the Leslie St. bus from/to Eglinton Station. Parking is available at Eglinton Ave. East and Leslie St.

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