Scenes From Rouge National Urban Park – Vista Trail

Gem. Treasure. These rich descriptors are often paired with Rouge Park — and for good reason. The beauty and cultural and natural history make it a must-visit in Scarborough and Toronto.

In October 2017, Rouge Park, which previously fell under mostly provincial protection, was officially transferred to the federal government. The event completed a process to make it into Canada’s first National Urban Park administered by Parks Canada. The title says it all: massive green space within a busy metropolis. It’s not a new idea for Toronto, though. The City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Department’s motto, “City Within Park”, neatly captures the sentiment its own parklands and trails.

Rouge Park and its trails Credit: Rouge Park.

Rouge Valley’s physical landscape dates to the last Ice Age, when the retreating ice sheet covering the Toronto area left grooves, dips, basins, and indents in the land. This is how the landscape became hilly and flat, and also how we get water bodies. Lakes, rivers, and streams form as meltwater rushes to fill the “holes” in the land. Human activity began from this point with Aboriginal hunters and farmers making use of the valley.

Although evidence is perhaps scarce for the entire period, there was a now well-known Seneca Village Ganatsekwyagon located where the Rouge meets Lake Ontario. The waterway was a portage Carrying Place Trail, too. Ganatsekwyagon is a National Historic Site (although strangely listed under Bead Hill instead of its true name), which perhaps plays into the desire to include the Rouge lands under Parks Canada.

Map of Lake Ontario, ca. 1680. The villages of Teiaiagon and Ganestiquiagon appear in place of modern day Toronto at the Humber and Rouge Rivers, respectively.Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Although there are many access points within Rouge National Urban Park, a popular locale is the Vista Trail, located off Zoo Road at Meadowvale Road — right across, well, Toronto Zoo. The ‘welcome centre’ is a gorgeous Victorian farmhouse known today as the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre. Operated by the volunteer-based Rouge Valley Foundation, the centre’s mandate is to promote and engage in environmental conservation and offer interpretive and education programming within the Park. The homestead itself was built as the 1893 James Pearse House.

The Pearse House is named for the family who came to amass several hundred acres of land in the Rouge River Valley, including the present plot of the Vista Trail and Conservation Centre. This is not the house’s original location, however; it was restored and moved here in 1995 through efforts of volunteers.

Rouge Valley area from the Map of the Townships, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke, 1916. A winding Meadowvale is located in the centre. Names like Pearse, Sewell, Beare, and Reesor still are prominent names in Scarborough today. Credit: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

European settler presence since the 1800s has had the most transformative effect on the land, with maybe the most changes coming after World War II. In the 1950s, the (Metro) Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was created to put greater emphasis and protection in the Toronto area’s natural ravines. A couple of decades later, the Riverdale Zoo moved from Cabbagetown to the Rouge, further reorganizing the land.

Rouge Valley, 1969-1975. Apple orchards belonging to Joseph Burr Tyrell came to be the site of the Toronto Zoo. Meadowvale Road was reconfigured to bridge over Rouge River as its main right of way. Its former course still remains as a portion of Kirkhams Road. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

The Vista Trail itself is a scenic walk, offering a number of fabulous views along its 1.5 kilometre route. An observation deck in particular allows for a great panorama of the Carolinian forest within the Little Rouge River and its dale.

Its pathway winds through that forest on a central ridge-like formation. On either side, the land dips down to give one a great look of the trees and colours of fall. The trail itself rolls up and down with tree roots serving as defacto stairs.

But speaking to the urban park aspect, the Vista Trail passes through an open space where Gatineau Hydro Corridor power lines run above. It’s a reminder that despite the perceived seclusion, civilization is not actually that far way.

Like the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre, the Parks Canada team host various guided hikes through the Rouge’s trails, ranging from topics like bird watching to tree identification to the wildlife in the valley to even a social hike. These walks run in all seasons too, offering the chance to see what Rouge Park has to show year-round.

Guided or not, a walk through the Vista Trail might offer one the opportunity to engage in some ‘forest pathing’ or shinrin-yoku. The Japanese practice invites one to engage with his or her surroundings in a way to cleanse oneself and relieve stress. And indeed, a calmness follows from taking in all Rouge National Urban Park’s richness.

 

Scenes From Milliken Park

Milliken District Park lies in Scarborough’s northern reaches, hugging Steeles Avenue East between McCowan Road and Middlefield Road. Its story includes the transformative move from farmland to suburbia, as well as its importance to the community both past and present.

The park’s focal point is Milliken Pond, famed for the great wildlife that frequent its waters – most notably, the trumpeter swans. If one is lucky, one might also catch a look at the great blue heron. (I don’t have the pleasure on this day.)

Beyond its great aesthetic, the body of water also serves a functional purpose as a storm-water management pond. According to The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, which manages the larger Highland Creek Watershed (of which the park is part of), Milliken Park was built in a low-lying area, and this basin collects the run-off rainwater from the surrounding environment and deposits it into the Highland Creek via underground pipes.

Adjacent to the pond is a great bit of greenspace (and my favourite aspect of the park) called Milliken Forest. This wooded area predates the creation of Milliken Park and has remained in tact even when the farmland around it was redeveloped (more on this below). It joins spaces like Passmore Forest, Brimley Woods, and Wishing Well Woods as woodlots that exist as what I call ‘rural leftovers’.

Milliken Park before redevelopment, 1965. The area that became Milliken Park was Lots 22 and 23 of Concession Road 5, historically farmed by families such as the Mitchells and Myles’. That also looks to be a creek running through the western third. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

While they aren’t the great expansive forests of the Don Valley or the more untouched areas closer to the mouth of the Highland Creek, these spaces are important. They are key as homes to wildlife and help to mitigate the larger impact urbanization has had to the Highland Creek Watershed as a whole. For people, they are gems and escapes.

Exploring Milliken Forest piques my interest in labyrinths (albeit sans a mythological beast in the middle). One walks with hopefully a general sense of where they are, but ultimately not knowing where one path may lead. There are several forks in the road, leading me to also think of the Robert Frost poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ about choice, regret, and self-discovery.

On the theme of discovery, moving out of the trees, I locate a cache placed within the park. Geocaching is a global scavenger hunt where individuals hide trinkets of many sizes and shapes in personally significant locales in hopes of drawing folks to those places. I would say Milliken Park is perfect for that — people should know about this place.

A gaze around and one can see this is a well-designed, well-utilized park. In addition to the variety of programming at the community centre, there are walkers, picnickers (barbeque, anyone?), people-watchers, children on various playgrounds, and athletes. A regular sight for a beautiful Sunday morning I imagine. This connection goes back to the intent of the park in the first place: to serve the great amounts of new residents. News articles at the time wrote about the integral part greenspace played in linking new neighbourhoods.

Globe and Mail, January 7, 1984. Credit: Toronto Public Library Globe and Mail Archives.

For historical context, the Millken Park area was subdivided in the 1980s, continuing a process that had been going on in Scarborough since the 1950s. Going through historical aerial maps, one can see suburbia marching northward with every decade. It’s interesting when you get to a year like 1975 and you see that a good part of the borough up until Finch Avenue has been populated, yet still a simple drive or even look north produces agricultural fields. It’s a weird in-between period for Scarborough. For the areas of North Scarborough around Steeles Avenue, it’s odd to think of them as fields as late as the 1990s in some spots.

Milliken Park and its subdivisions under development, 1985. The farmhouses look to be gone. The creek that might have ran through the property has been buried and the stormwater pond has taken shape. Previously two parallel roads north and south of Steeles Avenue, McCowan road has been rerouted to curve through the intersection, eliminating the jog. To the south, Passmore Avenue (5th Concession) has been largely overtaken by housing and today only remains in segments.

Milliken Park looks to have been possibly created as a ‘deal’ between developers and local government to allow greenspace in new areas of suburbia. The article below outlines the design, planning, and marketability of new parks in new suburbs, and the views different cities and developers take on the form and utility of parks. It also states that Milliken Park was supposed to have ‘model farms’.

Globe and Mail, July 20, 1985. Credit: Toronto Public Library Globe and Mail Archives.

A final feature of the park is the beautiful meadow and garden area towards the northwest quadrant. The gorgeous space is prime for wedding shoots, which indeed happened on this day, or just quiet contemplation.

    

    

 

Scenes From Berczy Park

If I could sum up the new Berczy Park, it would be a heavy expression of changing landscapes mixed in with a bit of whimsy — in a city that perhaps needs a lot more whimsy. One gets that immediately with the cat greeting patrons on Scott Street.

Dogs populate the inside and outside of the pool, water cascading out of their mouths and into the bone-topped fountain. Well, there is one confused feline among the canines, too.

Part of the appeal of parks is the context they exist in. Think Withrow Park, Christie Pits, and Trinity Bellwoods and how crucial they are to the larger Riverdale, Christie Pits, and Queen West Queen neighbourhoods, respectively. While the revitalized Berczy Park is going to be huge in the Old Town-Downtown Core area, the interplay between the park and its immediate surroundings is most intriguing. Having the fountain and the 19th century streetscape to its south as a backdrop makes for a perfect scene.

Robert Rotenberg in Old City Hall describes this stretch of Front East as having a  “comfortable, almost European feel”. With the addition of the park, I think this holds even more true. In particular, the Beardmore Building, 1872, is my favourite of the row with its beautifully restored yellow brick and arched windows.

The existence of Berczy Park is bittersweet in that the triangular block was once filled with warehouses and shops like the Beardmore. Beginning in the late 1950s but accelerating in the 1960s, these historic rows were knocked down, became parking, and then finally usable public space in 1980.

It’s easy to lament the loss – and indeed, we should (a plaque showcasing the former streetscape, anyone?) – but at some point we should move forward and make the best with what exists. Fortunately, that point has been taken very well Berczy Park.

Looking east, above more seating and gardens, one sees the giant mural draped across the back of the Gooderham Flatiron Building. The artwork was commissioned for the opening of the park in 1980.

Below it, an art piece stands for the park’s namesake, William Berczy, a settler in the Town of York and the communities along German Mills Creek in Markham.

Then, there’s the Gooderham Flatiron Building itself, at one time the great headquarters of Toronto’s brewing and distilling industry. It’s perhaps the most imaged structure in the city. With the updated Berczy Park, it’s in a position to be captured even more.

While its lasting existence seems so natural, the Coffin Block actually manned the odd intersection before it. I would say this is a case where heritage replacing potential heritage was not so bad.

Wellington St. E., looking w. from Church St., 1888. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Scenes From Eglinton Avenue West

Eglinton Avenue is Toronto’s east-west midpoint. It is the only street in the city (although took some doing in the 1950s and 60s to make it so) that traverses all six former municipalities. This attribute has made it perfect for a crosstown transit line. Although it was laid out in 1793 as the Third Concession from Lot (Queen) Street, I would argue that Eglinton’s form, at least from Yonge Street to Latimer Avenue, as we know it today does not begin to take shape until 130 years after it was laid out.

Might’s correct city directory map of Greater Toronto, ca. 1940. The extension across the Don River branches were completed by 1956. In 1967, Richview Sideroad in Etobicoke was absorbed into Eglinton Avenue when the two streets were joined via a bridge across the Humber River. Credit: Map and Data Library, University of Toronto.

This stretch of Eglinton Avenue west of Yonge Street and the surrounding area was historically part of the Village of North Toronto. Even though the village was absorbed into the City of Toronto in 1912, allowing it to reap the benefits of better service delivery, the street was still a sparsely populated dirt road. It wasn’t until the coming decades when Eglinton’s fields morphed into a mixed residential and commercial zone. By 1930, the road was paved and possibly widened.

Eglinton Ave, west from Yonge, October 19, 1922. Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 1637.
Credit: City of Toronto Archives

Eglinton Avenue west from Yonge Street, April 23, 1930. Fonds 1231, Item 1646. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

At Duplex and Eglinton stands a power station. The yellow-bricked structure was built in 1920 at a time of rapid expansion in Toronto. With the Toronto Hydro-Electric System (now known as just Toronto Hydro) becoming the only distributor of power in Toronto at the tail end of the 1910s, Toronto was experiencing the pressures of an electrified transit network and a growing population.

The Eglinton sub-station was one of many built in this era to cope with this demand, specifically serving the surrounding residential community and “the Metropolitan radial line on north Yonge Street and subsequently to the TTC Yonge route and Eglinton Carhouse in the area.”

Eglinton Sub-station, August 10, 1925. Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 3975. Credit: City of Toronto Archives

Related, a short distance across from the station, there’s a row of mid-rise apartments. The positioning of these 1930s Art-Deco inspired buildings one after the other leads one to conclude that this was by design, although I wonder at their context considering the larger history the Toronto has with this kind of housing stock.

One historical narrative has been that whereas at the time the City of Toronto avoided this housing style, outlying communities like York and Forest Hill including them in their planning. For example, a more prominent row of these decorative lofts exists further west on Eglinton near Bathurst Street in the former Village of Forest Hill. These ones close to Yonge would have existed on land already annexed to the city, though. Curious.

Next, Eglinton Park has a neat past. As Lost Rivers explains, long before its colonial period, Huron peoples occupied its land and the nearby area – notably, the site of Allenby Public School – in the 15th century. In more recent history, the park was a brickyard! Capitalizing on the clay beds created by the now buried Mud Creek, James Pears ran his establishment here beginning in the 1880s.

The Eglinton Hunt Club (foreground) & Pears Brickyard (background), looking southeast,1920. The Pears home (now gone) can be seen at the top of the image at 214 Eglinton Avenue. A water tower stood on Roselawn Avenue near Avenue Road. A communications tower is in its place today. Credit: Toronto Public Libary

The modern geography within the park shows off the layers of time: the ‘dug-in’ escarpment leading up to Oriole Parkway, the hilly topography of Roselawn Avenue. Pears formerly worked out of today’s Ramsden Park in Yorkville before moving up Yonge Street, which has similar rolling features. These are the former lives of our parks.

Later, with North Toronto annexed, the City of Toronto attempted to purchase the yard from Pears before outright expropriating it in 1922 when he refused. The entire exercise came at a time in the 1920s and 30s when the City’s Parks Department was expanding, creating parkland and accompanying infrastructure such as shelters, gazebos, and bandshells. In fact, the Toronto Archives has a wonderful collection of ink & pencil drawings as a part of an Architectural Drawings Scrapbook prepared by the Department of Buildings for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Eglinton Park (Roselawn Avenue) Shelter, August 12, 1930. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 934. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Pears’ legacy did live on for a while as the space was unofficially known as Pears Park for a time (and still might be?). Modern amenities have been added to the park since then of course, including a community centre, playground, and a Cretan maze via the Toronto City of Labyrinths Project!

A final sign of the street’s arrival was the eventual population of the street with commercial activity. The north side of Eglinton east of Avenue was one of the first retail blocks, coming to us around 1930.

CANATCO house index map of Toronto and environs, 1932. Credit: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

Eglinton Ave. north side Avenue Rd. looking east, April 23, 1930. Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 58, Item 1223. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

With the opening of the Eglinton Theatre in 1936 to serve the growing local community, another commercial dimension was added. Neighbourhood theatres were abundant in Toronto by World War II, but The Eglinton was a benchmark in grandeur.

Whereas other ‘nabes‘ were more low-key in aesthetic, the Kaplan and Sprachman-designed Art Deco movie house and its neon-lit tower announced itself on the commercial strip. It’s amazing considering this was also during the Great Depression. It was operational until 2002, remarkably late in the history of comparable theatres. Today it’s the Eglinton Grand.

 

Useful Links

City of Toronto Archives – “Turning on Toronto: Toronto Hydro-Electric System” Web Exhibit

City of Toronto Planning Department – “Eglinton Connects Planning Study July 2013 Draft”

Historic Toronto – “Memories of Toronto’s Eglinton Theatre” by Doug Taylor

Lost Rivers – “The Eglinton Park Hill”

Scenes From A City – “Scenes From Yorkville”

Silent Toronto

Spacing – “Toronto’s Art Deco district? Take a walk along Eglinton Avenue West” by Daniel Rotsztain 

Torontoist – “Historicist: The ‘Manifest Destiny’ of North Toronto” by David Wencer

Scenes From Humber Lakeshore Campus/Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital

Near the western terminus of the 501 streetcar line at the foot of Kipling Avenue is Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus Welcome Centre. The LEED Silver certified building, completed in 2016, is a Moriyama and Teshima design, and the latest addition to an institution that dates back several decades and an overall area that’s even centuries older.

Indeed, while students have been frequenting Humber since 1991, the built and natural environment certainly predate this current era. Its historical incarnations: an aboriginal meeting point, land later ‘granted’ to Colonel Samuel Smith (the namesake of its waterfront park), and most famously as the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.

The Town of New Toronto, 1947. Source: University of Toronto Map and Data Library.

Across from the Welcome Centre is another introduction of sorts to the history of the place. On the walkway leading to the hospital’s former Assembly Hall, itself incorporating a glass addition, are messages etched in the sidewalk. The quotes, presumably from patients, date to as late as 1979 (when the hospital closed), and make for a nice yet sad exercise in telling the stories of this lost locale. More on that later.

A tour through the campus is a look into how this old asylum was re-adapted into a learning institution – even down to the old stables/garbage, now a Tim Horton’s.

The main part of the campus though consists of the Lakeshore Hospital’s majestic administrative building and the defining cottages which flank it. They now host classes.

These buildings were erected as early as the 1890s when they were a part of the Mimico Branch Asylum, the successor to the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto (now the site of CAMH). Since then it has appeared in maps and records as the Mimico Asylum (or simply the Asylum), the ‘Lakeside Sanatorium’ (albeit, never officially taking on the title), and the ‘Ontario Hospital’, perhaps reflecting shifting attitudes towards mental health. The last naming change to the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital took place in 1964 – quite recent.

Mimico Asylum (Lakeside Sanatorium), Toronto, Canada, 1910. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Grounds and Office Building. Mimico Asylum, Toronto, Canada. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Beyond the main hospital/school buildings, the campus boasts at least two other connected heritage buildings. The Cumberland House, a beautifully restored Victorian residence, once housed the Asylum’s superintendent. Now it’s home to Jean Tweed Centre, which only continues the property’s association with mental health. 

Second, the 1930s Power House, a gorgeous industrial construction, now serves as a recreational centre. There’s a path outside it which floods in winter to create a skating trail.

When a place ceases to functiom under its original purpose or even exist at all, the narratives associated with it risk being lost. The potential for story-telling is diminished. With the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, there is fortunately a movement towards commemorating this important site.

Asylum By the Lake compiles the history of Mimico Asylum, offering insights into evolution of uses in the built heritge as well as great archival maps and images. It also tells the stories of some of its patients, which is the main focus of the Lakeshore Asylum Cemetery Project. Heritage Toronto recognized the work of the LACP’s volunteers in maintaining the property, which is located off Kipling Ave on Evans Ave, with a Community Heritage Award. 

Similarly, the Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre, located in the Welcome Centre, has mandate to uncover (or rather recover) and present the Asylum’s lost narratives. The organization has hosted fascinating tunnel tours of the hospital grounds. Lakeshore Grounds’ Behind the Walls exhibition looks like an excellent interpretive endeavour.


Useful Links

Asylum By the Lake

BlogTO – ‘A Brief History of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital’ by Agatha Barc

Hiking The GTA – Mimico Branch Asylum

Lakeshore Asylum Cemetery Project

Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre

Sane About Town – Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery Project Installation 

Spacing – ‘Campus Perspectives: Humber College’s Lakeshore and North Campuses’ by Matthew Hague

Scenes From East Don Parkland

It’s all about the layers in the East Don Parkland. The residual landscape from the last Ice Age, the ravine, which stretches from Leslie and Steeles to Don Mills and Sheppard, has come to see pre-contact wilderness, colonial farming and industry, and post-war revitalization and reconfiguration.

But ‘East Don Parkland’ is a bit of a misnomer if only because it encompasses not only the east branch of the Don River but another – albeit smaller – tributary waterway.

German Mills Creek originates just to the north of Steeles in its historic namesake Markham community (sadly, now lost). The label is pretty literal, too: German Mills was once an industrious village along John Street founded by Bavarian-born William Berczy and a group of his countrymen and women. In addition to being a prosperous settlement, the community was instrumental in the early development of York too. The goods supplied by the mills aided in constructing the actual built form of the young town. The German Mills pioneers also cleared Yonge Street from Eglinton to Thornhill before the Queen’s Rangers finished the job.

East Don Parkland became part of Toronto’s parks network in the 1980s after efforts to remediate and rehabilate a river that had been worn out by European activity. Today, it is home to a number of flora and fauna, most notably salmon and white-tailed deer, the latter which are prominently displayed on the park’s signage. A neat tidbit: the deer’s precense in Toronto dates back to around 9000 years after the end of the last Ice Age.

Cummer Avenue bisects (or trisects?) East Don Parkland and offers more history. Unsurprisingly, the street’s name plays homage to the family who toiled around and built it – although to different designs.

Jacob and Elizabeth Kummer (the name was inexplicably changed to a ‘C’ around 1820), like the pioneers of Markham were of German descent, and came to the Toronto area in 1795, first settling near Yonge and Eglinton. They would relocate further up the main street to Willowdale where they would amass an extraordinary fortune. Their original property was a 190-acre lot fronting Yonge and stretching to Bayview. With subsequent generations of Cummers, their holdings grew to encompass not only large plots fronting Yonge but portions of the East Don Valley too. Whereas the former real estate was good for farming and commercial activities, the power of the river allowed the Cummers to engage in some industry. In 1819, they built and began operating a sawmill.

The Don property was interestingly significant in that early settlers as well as First Nations peoples took part in church and camp activities there. Through the meetings, the area was famously known as “Scripture Town” and “Angel Valley”.

East Don from Tremaine’s Map, 1860. Source: Toronto Historic Maps.

Around the 1850s, Jacob III, grandson of Jacob Kummer, built a farmhouse to overlook the valley. The home isn’t perfectly parallel to the street it rests on, making it a bit of an intriguing anomaly with the surrounding post-war subdivision.

To connect the Cummers’ Yonge and East Don holdings, a side road was constructed. Today, we know that road allowance as Cummer Avenue. Where the street crossed the East Don, it veered south to follow the curve of the river on its way to Leslie Street. The aforementioned mill was also located near this junction.

East Don River and Old Cummer, 1950. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

In the mid-1960s, Cummer was re-oriented away from the valley. A bridge that used to carry car traffic across the river serves as a reminder of its former course. One has to think of the vehicular ghosts when traversing the recreational trail that replaced the street.

A paved portion also leads to Old Cummer GO Station, where the street once passed through before the station’s construction in 1978. For years I puzzled about the station’s name. 

South of Finch Avenue, with golden foliage of fall to accentuate the walk, the trail winds on. 

So does the river, although not as it once did. Like Cummer Avenue, the Don’s history has come with some alterations. Along the way is at least one algae-covered oxbow – an orphaned or even ghost segments separated from the river’s course. This particular one was severed around the early 1950s.

East Don River, 1950. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

East Don River oxbow, 1965. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

One has to note the monstrosity of human construction that is the CNR Richmond Hill GO line looming above the park.

A fallen tree trunk spanning across the river instantly urges me of more pioneering connections. It reminds me of an Elizabeth Simcoe depiction of an early bridge across the Lower Don River.

Winchester Street, bridge over Don R. (Playter’s bridge), 1794. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Finally, at the park’s southern end is Old Leslie Street. Just like Old Cummer, Leslie used to take on a different route. Heading south, the street used to jogged west at Sheppard before continuing south, all presumably to avoid crossing the Don River.

Sheppard and Leslie, 1961. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

The junction of Old Leslie and Sheppard was the nexus of the tiny, lost mill community of Oriole, named for George S. Henry’s homestead located off the Betty Sutherland Trail

Old Leslie Street and Sheppard, 1956. Source: Toronto Public Library. Oriole Wesleyan Methodist Church stood on the southwest corner from 1873 to the 1950s.

By 1969, the street was rerouted directly through Sheppard. Old Leslie remains mainly as a service road for the Leslie TTC Station, terminating across from North York General Hospital.

Useful Links

City in the Trees – Retrospective: Sheppard, Leslie, and the Don

Discover the Don – Walk The Don – East Don Parkland 

City in the Trees – Treasures on the Doorstep

Hiking The GTA – Old Cummer Road 

Lone Primate – Closed Old Cummer Avenue

Patricia W. Hart – Pioneering in North York: A History of the Borough

Richard Fiennes-Clinton – Muddy York: A History of Toronto Until 1834

Scott Kennedy – Willowdale: Yesterday’s Farms, Today’s Legacy 

Scenes From Knox United Church & Cemetery

If you wanted to discover North Scarborough’s past, a heritage walking tour through Knox Church just might do it. It is, after all, an Agincourt landmark. Long before tower complexes dotted the sky of the neighbourhood, the church steeple was the tallest structure around.

A congregation – first Presbyterian and then United  – has been at the corner of Midland and Sheppard Avenues since the 1840s, but the existing Gothic Revival structure has been with us since 1872. Its adjoined cemetery aids in telling some of the area’s stories through its movers and shakers who lie under its grounds.

Knox United Church

Knox United Scarborough Historic Site
A walk through Knox’s field of gravestones is a neat experience. The names that lend themselves to Scarborough and Agincourt’s streets, schools, parks…they’re all here. The community’s early history – or at least, a segment of it – converges at Knox United Cemetery.

Knox Cemetery

Browsing each row, I see a lot of familiar names. They are the pioneering European families I have encountered in my explorations of Scarborough and Agincourt. They are the bloodlines that once farmed the lots that would eventually come to be filled with post-war housing subdivisions, apartment towers, and shopping centres:

The Patersons of Kennedy Road…

Patersons

…the Kennedys, the namesakes of the above mentioned street – who actually donated the land for Knox…

John Kennedy             Amos Egbert Kennedy

Kennedy Family

…the Macklins whose ‘bush’ and farm lay at Brimley and Finch…

Macklin

…and the Vradenburghs and Muirheads further down Sheppard Avenue (sadly, poor Ichabod V’s tribute is fading).

Vradenburgh      Muirhead

One family I haven’t encountered is the Hastings. According to Lost Toronto, the Hastings farmstead was located at Markham and Finch and was later moved to Whitby. The grave marker makes reference to the beautiful house and the family’s farming (and bridle?) roots. Also of note: the Freemason symbol.

Scarborough Hastings

There’s also the Elliots and Glendinnings too (the latter settling in the very northwestern corner of the borough in historic L’Amoreaux).

Elliot      Glendinning

And of course, one can’t not mention the first family of Scarborough: the Thomsons (some of which are also buried at St. Andrew’s in Bendale near the historic Thomson Settlement). All these families are intertwined in marriage too.

Thomson

It’s interesting to go through the dates and ages on the stones. Many people lived long lives, experiencing Agincourt through two world wars and a transition from farms to subdivisions. There’s a story or two there in itself.

Knox United Kennedy

On the other end, there’s sadly the occasional young life who had not the gift of longevity.

EleanorHarris

Knox’s stones themselves are largely in tact, although a great deal of the older markers – the ones in the ground – have succumbed to time and the elements. Fortunately, the Ontario Genealogical Society has transcribed them.

Knox Cemetery stone         Knox Cemetery broken stone

While I was meandering around, a church staffer approached me with some great details about the past and present (and future) of Knox. Apparently soon after it was built, a huge gust blew the top off the steeple! The church has seen a number of additions to its facilities, including a ‘big dig’ to carve out a basement, a rear annex,  a Christian Centre to the north, the widening of the front entrance, and an elevator. Hopefully the impact on the heritage features was mitigated through all the work. Lastly, the plots of the cemetery are largely filled, but a lovely cremation garden was recently created.

Knox Church

Knox Cemetery rows

The decades following the war were particularly good to the church, with returning veterans building a robust membership and their children – now the boomers – filling its Sunday school. The congregation today itself isn’t what it used to be in terms of numbers, a trend within the United Church which has seen memberships dwindle as older church-goers pass away and younger generations fail to take up the torch. This decline has led other houses from other denominations to shut down completely. Their buildings have gone on to be re-adapted into residences, like the Glebe Lofts (Riverdale Presbyterian Church) and the recently converted College Street Baptist Church and Temple Baptist Church. Fortunately, this hasn’t happened for Knox United.

Knox United fenestration

If there’s one way to see how time has affected Knox United Church, though, it’s through a ‘then and now’ shot of its grounds since the early 20th century. Not only is the field and building sparse, but the surrounding pines have grown just a wee bit. If they could talk, eh?

Knox United Church, after 1900. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Knox United 2016