A geographic history of a North York neighbourhood

Note: This article is written without any prior affiliation to or contextual knowledge of the history of the Highland Memory Gardens or the family farms of North York. Their inclusion is as a reference tool to show change.

This is Highland Memory Gardens. It is located near the intersection of Don Mills and Steeles Avenues, in Toronto’s north end. The development of this cemetery and its surrounding area is an interesting look into the creation and evolution of this inner suburbs.

This is the area around Highland Memory Gardens in 1860. Historically, the area consisted of lot 21 (at today’s Finch Avenue) to lot 25 (at Steeles Avenue) of the Third Concession East of Yonge Street (Leslie Street), which were generally 200-acre lots extending to the Fourth Concession East (Woodbine Avenue/Highway 404). Notably absent is a middle road (now Don Mills Road) between the two concession roads. The cemetery itself is located along the east side of the top half lot 23 and the bottom half of lot 24.

1860 Tremaine’s Map of York Country.
Source: Old Toronto Maps

As seen this 1878 map, the area was part of the larger community of L’Amoreaux (also spelled L’Amaroux). The village crossed both sides of the North York-Scaborough townline, with its spine running along Finch Avenue and lots extending to Steeles and Sheppard Avenue.

The L’Amoreaux Post Office stood just west of Victoria Park Avenue on the south side of a lost section of Finch Avenue (it would be re-aligned through the townline in the 1970s). Further west, a Methodist Church and cemetery, a Temperance Hall, and School House stood near Leslie Street.

1878 Illustrated Atlas of York Country.
Source: Old Toronto Maps
Looking west across Finch Avenue, 1955. The road jogs at Woodbine Avenue. In the distance, York School Section 12 (now Zion Schoolhouse) stands on the left of the street and Zion Primitive Methodist Church (now Zion Church Cultural Centre) stands on the right.

Below: York School Section 12 and Zion Primitive Methodist Church, 1957.

Source: Toronto Public Library.

Cutting diagonally through the large block was a creek, now named Duncan Creek. It ran from near Leslie and Steeles (where its namesake’s farming lots stood) to its terminus near Victoria Park and Finch. It does not to seem to have been a major source of industry, compared to the adjacent Don River which hosted a number of mills. In the 1916 map below, the creek slinks its away across lots, although its course is a bit off compared to the earlier maps and later aerial photographs.

1916 Map of Toronto, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke.
Source: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

This 1954 aerial photograph is a visual of the area and tells us that even by this decade, the area still maintained its largely rural character. A more precise view of the creek is visible along with the greenery running along its course.

1954 Aerial Image.
Source: University of Toronto Map & Data Library.

For the area plot that would become the Highland Memory Gardens, 1953 was last year it existed as farm fields. A key reference point is the small roadway leading from Woodbine Avenue to a farm near the banks of Duncan Creek. This roadway was the divisor between lots 23 and 24.

1953 Aerial Image.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The cemetery found a home to the west of Woodbine Avenue, with an entrance leading off the street. The initial layout of the cemetery is a circular path. Some “offshooting” paths seem to laid out as well.

1954 Aerial Image.
Source: University of Toronto Map & Data Library

By 1956, an “arm” shoots off the southern half of the main circle, looping west to connect to the main roadway.

1956 Aerial Image.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

By the close of the decade, the layout of the cemetery increased more with off shoots on the north of the main circle.

1959 Aerial Image
Source: City of Toronto Archives

In 1962, more acreage is added westward and a pond on the north east corner of the plot seems to be more completed. The lawns of the ground look to be landscaped. A tiny building, potentially the administrative centre, appears at the top of the lot.

1962 Aerial Image
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The midpoint of the decade saw few geographic changes, but the notable start of residential development to the west of the creek.

1965 Aerial Image
Source: City of Toronto Archives

By 1968, the cemetery expands again to the west. It would be its last major territorial expansion. The subdivision to the west of the creek appears complete, clearly stopping at the property line midway between Woodbine and Leslie.

1968 Aerial Image
Source: City of Toronto Archives

By the start of the 1970s, development starts to grow to the south of the cemetery, replacing the longtime farm buildings. An early Don Mills Road begins to curl in from the the south as well as an early McNiccol Avenue slinks from west to east.

1970 Aerial Image
Source: City of Toronto Archives

By 1973, the farm buildings near the creek are razed as the land is about to be filled in by housing. The creek itself disappears under the subdivision to the south of the cemetery. The land north of the cemetery also sees new subdivisions.

1973 Aerial Image
Source: City of Toronto Archives

By 1976, Don Mills Road is completed, seemingly bending through the area to provide a second access point to the cemetery. Townhouses are built between the creek and Don Mills Road.

1976 Aerial Image
Source: City of Toronto Archives

By the 1980s, Highland Memory Gardens took on the form seen today. Highway 404 was completed in the late 1970s replacing the former Woodbine Avenue right of way. With that, the main entrance to the cemetery shifted to Don Mills Road with the old entrance off Woodbine being built over. Several other buildings would later fill the northeast corner.

1981 Aerial Image
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Today, Highland Memory Gardens is part of the Hillcrest Village neighbourhood of Toronto, an area roughly encompassed by Steeles Avenue, Finch Avenue, Leslie Street, and Victoria Park Avenue.

The Zion Church and Schoolhouse still stand today as 19th century reminders, but references to the area as L’Amoreaux are non-existent today. The post office and its street are gone, with the Old Finch Avenue closed in 1977 and Pawnee Avenue roughly replacing it as the two Finches were connected. (The L’Amoreaux name does live on in Scarborough, of course.)

“Borough of North York Notice of Road Closing”, The Globe and Mail, September 9, 1977.
Source: The Globe and Mail Archives

There is a trail and parkland which follows Duncan Creek; the Seneca Newnham Campus, founded in the late 1960s, now runs over a buried portion of the creek. The property lines of the 40-acre Highland Memory Gardens reference the old concession lots, offering a forgotten link to the past.

1975 Aerial Image of Victoria Park and Finch Avenue
Source: City of Toronto Archives

“Know Agincourt, but Their Maps Ignore Toronto”: A Quick History of The Agincourt Magnetic Observatory

When one thinks of the history of Scarborough, the intersection of Midland Avenue and the 401 might not be the first thought. However, a site that once stood there for more the half the 20th century literally put the local community on the international scientific map. This was the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory.

Aerial image of the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory, 1957.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The story of the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory begins not in Scarborough, but on the grounds of King’s College in downtown Toronto in 1840. The school became the University of Toronto in 1850. Contrary to the dense district of today, the university was then sparsely populated – in other words, perfect conditions to minimize interference. The University granted 2.5 acres for a site that was located on the southwest side of today’s King’s College Circle.

“The Old Toronto Observatory” painted by William Armstrong, 1852.
Source: University of Toronto Archives
Boulton Atlas, 1858.
Source: Goad’s Toronto

The Globe described the laboratory:

“The first observatory was of logs, rough cast on the outside and plastered on the inside; it was completed during the summer of 1840 and observations were begun in September.”

The Globe, October 1, 1898
University of Toronto Campus Map, 1859.
Source: University of Toronto Archives

The second observatory was built in the autumn of 1853, replacing the wooden observatory on the same site. It was built of stone and the nails and fastenings were of copper and zinc.

The Toronto Observatory as seen looking south from University College, 1857.
Source: Toronto Public Library.
Dominion of Canada Observatory, 1880s.
Source: University of Toronto Archives

In 1892, Toronto’s growing infrastructure began to spell the beginning of the end for the observatory. To be sure, as early as 1876, new structures on the university grounds began to impact the observatory, but it was nothing like the electric railway to come. Streetcars were electrified, first beginning with the Church Street line opened on August 17, 1892, and then the College Street line only steps from the building. Instead of recording magnetic changes, the observatory recorded the starting and stoppings of the trolleys. In 1896, Sir Frederick Stupart, the director at the observatory, took up the issue with the government. There would be no action until a report was received from a committee of meteorologists visiting from England that year. This report recommended the centre be moved far away — to Scarborough.

Goad’s Fire Insurance Map, 1889.
Source: Goad’s Toronto.

The observatory was relocated just south of the Agincourt Village centre at the current intersection of Midland Avenue and Sheppard Avenue where a Presbyterian Church and nearby Canadian National and Canadian Pacific stations stood. It was perfect in that no electric railway lines existed – at least not in seven miles and there was little prospect of any lines for many years (the railway did not interfere either). The observatory stood in a 4-acre field at the north end of the southern half of lot 16 (Midland Avenue) and Concession II (Ellesmere Avenue), belonging to the Forfar family. It was constructed over the summer of 1898 and opened in September. The first observations were made on September 10 and by the end of the month, all instruments had been moved from Toronto to the new site.

Map of the Townships, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke, 1916.
Source: University of Toronto Map & Data Library
Aerial image of the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory, 1947.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

This Observatory was described in The Globe:

“…[It] consists of two parts, a circular stone collar nineteen feet in diameter, the walls two feet in thickness, the floor concrete and the roof covered with felt and gravel, in which on stone piers sunk in concrete to a depth of six feet below the floor are place the self-recording photographic instruments, namely, the declinometer for recording changes in the direction of the magnetic needle and the bifilar and vertical force instrument, for registering respectively changes in the horizontal and vertical components of the earth’s magnetism: above ground and connected with the cellar by a flight of steps is an erection which divided into two portions, in the larger of which absolute magnetic determinations will be made, piers being provided on which to place the necessary instruments, and an adjustable opening on the roof for transit work – and the smaller, an office, which will be heated by a copper stove.”

The Globe, October 1, 1898
The Agincourt Magnetic Observatory, The Globe and Mail, November 26, 1952.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives
Basement of Magnetic Building, Agincourt, early 20th Century.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The old Toronto Observatory continued to serve as the central office of the Dominion Meteorological Service. All photographic records from Agincourt were sent there for development. It also conducted astronomical studies. In 1908, the observatory was dismantled to accommodate an extension to King’s College Circle and possibly a new physics building. It was reconstructed brick by brick near Hart House, where it stands today as a students’ union. Some installations stand near its former location between Convocation Hall and the Sandford Fleming Building.

Convocation Hall – East side and Old Observatory, 1907.
Source: University of Toronto Archives
Goad’s Fire Insurance Map, 1930.
Source: University of Toronto Archives
Louis B. Stewart Observatory (UTSU), 12 Hart House Circle, 1980s or 1990s.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

In 1899, severe earthquakes in Alaska were recorded at the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory. In 1903, the observatory recorded the largest magnetic storm on October 30 and 31, which Director Stupart “intimately” connected sunspots and magnetic disturbances on earth. The centre recorded more such magnetic storms attributed to sun sports on Aug 8, 1917. The Agincourt labs were useful in World War II against Germany for “calibration of master compasses and other apparatuses”.

The Toronto Daily Star, September 12, 1917
Source: Toronto Star Archives.

The Globe and Mail, November 26, 1952.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives

The significance of the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory and its activities were very well documented and even world-renowned. In 1919, the Observatory was threatened by a proposed Toronto to Port Perry Hydro Radial, which had officials looking for a new site where electricity would not penetrate that observatory’s environment. It was of significant alarm as the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory was one of two of its kind in Canada and by far the more important of the pair. In 1957, a contagion of scientists from around the world visited Agincourt as a part of some sessions by the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics held at the University of Toronto. They asserted that they knew Agincourt better than Toronto as the village appeared in “thousands of International Geophysical maps” around the world.

Despite its importance, city growth once again spelled the end for the site. Meeting a similar fate to the Toronto Observatory seventy years before, the Agincourt Magnetic Observatory closed in March 1969. In the 1950s, Highway 401 was constructed next to the laboratory. Farms adjacent to the observatory began to turn into housing. Factories were built on either side of the property in the 1960s. On July 1, 1968, a new observatory opened in Ottawa. By 1971, the Agincourt structures were gone completely. Today, government offices stand in its place, hiding the great landmark once housed there.

Aerial image of recently demolished Agincourt Magnetic Observatory, 1971.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
Site of Agincourt Magnetic Observatory, 2022.
Source: Google Maps

Works Referenced

“Astronomical Conversation.” The Globe, 21 Jan. 1903, p. 12.

“Chilly Weather.” The Globe, 14 Dec. 1898, p. 2.

Dobson, Jack. “Magnetic Observatory One of Canada’s First.” The Globe and Mail, 26 Nov. 1952, p. 3.

Government of Canada, Natural Resources Canada. “Government of Canada / Gouvernement Du Canada.” Government of Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Hazards Information Service, Government of Canada / Gouvernement Du Canada, 1 Mar. 2019, https://www.geomag.nrcan.gc.ca/obs/ott-en.php.

“Heritage of 315 Bloor Street West.” Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, 28 June 2018, https://munkschool.utoronto.ca/at-the-observatory/.

“Know Agincourt But Their Maps Ignore Toronto.” The Globe and Mail, 12 Sept. 1957, p. 7.

“The Mounted Police.” The Globe, 7 Mar. 1900, p. 9.

“The New Observatory at Agincourt.” The Globe, 12 Dec. 1898, p. 2.

“The New Observatory.” The Globe, 1 Oct. 1898, p. 5.

“New Radial Line Will Compel Removal of Observatory.” The Globe, 2 Apr. 1919, p. 9.

“Safe From Wires.” The Evening Star, 27 Sept. 1898, p. 1.

“The Spots on the Sun.” The Globe, 6 Nov. 1903, p. 7.

“Studying Magnetic Storms By Diagram.” The Toronto Daily Star, 12 Sept. 1917, p. 2.

“To Remove Observatory.” The Globe, 1 May 1906, p. 14.

“Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 Oct. 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toronto_Magnetic_and_Meteorological_Observatory.

Torontoist. “Historicist: The Toronto Magnetic Observatory.” Torontoist, 13 Oct. 2012, https://torontoist.com/2012/10/historicist-the-toronto-magnetic-observatory/.

“University of Toronto.” Google Books, Google, https://books.google.ca/books?id=kZ61LfzVhJkC&pg=PA353&lpg=PA353&dq=Agincourt%2BMagnetic%2BObservatory%2Bdemolished&source=bl&ots=J5xhggL2Kp&sig=ACfU3U3shyLGTOksTCogpU3LkY1g-zYbSA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjL3KiDx_31AhVZkYkEHcsiDGIQ6AF6BAgPEAM#v=onepage&q=Agincourt%20Magnetic%20Observatory%20demolished&f=false.

“University of Toronto: An Architectural Tour (the Campus Guide) 2nd Edition.” Google Books, Google, https://books.google.ca/books?id=ZTKODwAAQBAJ&pg=PA66&lpg=PA66&dq=toronto%2Bmagnetic%2Bobservatory%2Bking%27s%2Bcollege%2Bcircle&source=bl&ots=T4jfUxams4&sig=ACfU3U0gAQKK9gQj9HbunIK0Z4YFwkdfpQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi3iI682_31AhWEk4kEHXmTBDEQ6AF6BAhOEAM#v=onepage&q=toronto%20magnetic%20observatory%20king’s%20college%20circle&f=false.

“World Weather.” The Globe and Mail, 26 Nov. 1952, p. 3.

“A World-Shaking Earthquake.” The Globe, 27 Sept. 1899, p. 8.