Tag Archives: Willowdale

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 Lansing & Willowdale

Outside of a McDonald’s and 7-Eleven at Yonge and Sheppard, there’s a blue plaque. The City of Toronto and TTC marker commemorates the 1860 Joseph Shepard/Dempsey Brothers Store which once stood at this site. The plaque tracks the building’s history as a nexus in the historic Lansing community – from the residence of the pioneering Shepard family (for which Sheppard Avenue is named) and post office which gave birth to Lansing to the long-standing hardware store of the Dempseys.

Joseph Shepard House plaque

The funny thing is the building still exists – just not here. The store was transplanted to Dempsey Park on Beecroft Road in 1996.

Yonge looking north at Sheppard 1911

Yonge Street looking north at Sheppard Avenue, 1911. Joseph Shepard House/Dempsey Brothers Store at left. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Nearby, the Joseph Shepard Government Building, built in 1977, also pays tribute to Mr. Shepard (albeit, sometimes  spelled with inexplicably added “P”).

Joseph Shepard Building
Despite running parallel to it only 300 metres to the east, Doris Avenue is noticeably more quiet than Yonge. It offers a great view of its tower-filled skyline.

Yonge Street Doris Avenue

Also on Doris: Willowdale Park. In addition to a large central space with tennis courts and playgrounds, a curving path continues north, crossing a few residential streets.

Willowdale Park

Willowdale Park 3              Willowdale Park 2

The linear park is a little peculiar to me – until I realize that the indent in the land and the sewer grates probably signify a buried waterway.

Willowdale Park Wilket Creek

Willowdale Park Wilket Creek 2

As it turns out, Wilket Creek flows under Willowdale! A section of the creek running northwest from York Mills and Bayview was buried and put into storm sewers in the early 1970s.

Lansing Willowdale 1916

Lansing & Willowdale from the Map of the Townships, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke, 1916. Source: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

Willowdale 1966

Lansing & Willowdale, 1966. Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Willowdale 2016

Lansing & Willowdale, 2016.

Another surprise in Willowdale Park: Lee Lifeson Art Park! The soon-to-be art and green space honours founding Rush members and Willowdale natives, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson. The park was conceived by the local city councillor and voted on in 2014. Construction began the following year. It – river and all – awaits opening some day.

Lee Lifeson Art Park 1

Lee Lifeson Art Park 2

Lee Lifeson Art Park 3

Across the street, Princess Park looks like a grand courtyard leading up to 1999’s Empress Walk mall and condos. It’s probably my own impression, but something about it seems a little too “planned”.

Princess Park
I suppose it functions well for a park, though: things to see, places to sit and linger. No skateboarding, however.

Princess Park 4

The focal point is a restored hose tower, part of North York’s First Fire Hall. A plaque dates it to 1941. It was moved here from Yonge & Empress.

Princess Park Hose Tower 1

North York's First Fire Hall plaque

A second plaque tells the story of North York’s First Municipal Building, completed in 1923 on the south east corner of Yonge and Empress. The building is largely  gone, but its facade was built into the mall’s eastern entrance.

North York's First Municipal Building plaque

There’s also a floor tile with what looks like a plow. An homage to Willowdale’s farms.

Princess Park 2

If one thing comes out of Princess Park, it’s that Yonge and Empress was a historic nexus. But you’d never know it. As is the case with Dempsey Store, it’s great that the fire hall and civic building still exist in some capacity, but the transplanting of the buildings and plaques away from Yonge Street literally pushes heritage to the side. Their context is diminished.

Yonge and Empress

North York Fire Hall 1957

North York Fire Hall, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

North York Municipal offices 1957

North York Municipal Offices, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

The intersection is surrounded on three sides by towers and the mall. On the remaining corner: a much more modest two-storey shop. A cornerstone dates it to 1929. Uptown Yonge has a few of these tiny older stores mixed in with the towers, but the street doesn’t have the character of downtown Yonge, whose history as a retail strip still prevails even among intensification.

North York Waterworks Yonge Street 1
The store, a beauty supply shop, was oddly enough the North York Waterworks. Again, you wouldn’t know it. A parking lot surrounds the building; one wonders how long it will last before another condo takes over the corner.

Waterworks Yonge and Empress

North York Waterworks, Yonge Street, 1957. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Finally, on Parkview  Avenue, there’s the John McKenzie House, a beautiful Queen Anne/Edwardian/Arts and Crafts farmhouse built in 1913. The McKenzies were pioneers in Willowdale who in 1884 purchased a portion of land from the Cummers, the original European settlers of Willowdale in 1797. The McKenzie farm came to amass some 140 acres from Yonge to Bayview.

Ontario Historical Society John McKenzie House

In 1993, the Ontario Historical Society took the house on as their new headquarters, saving it from demolition. Before moving in, the City of North York agreed to  fund the $600,000 restoration of the heritage house. In 2016, the John McKenzie House is getting a new roof.

Useful Links

Scenes From A City – “Scenes From North York Centre, Gibson House Museum, and Mel Lastman Square”

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

Toronto Star – “John McKenzie House a part of North York history” by Shawn Micallef

Vanishing Point – “Wilket Creek Storm Trunk Sewer”