The history of Earl Bales Park starts with the John Bales House. The family arrived in the Bathurst and Sheppard area in 1824, finding a hilly topography bordering on the West Don River. John Bales cleared the land and built a log farmhouse south of Sheppard and east of Bathurst. From there, the layers of story build.
Steps from the John Bales House is the Earl Bales Community Centre. The meeting place for classes and events came to us by 1981 (a revitalization project took place in 2018 too). Before its arrival, another complex of buildings were neighbours to the John Bales House: The York Downs Golf and Country Club.
In 1922, the York Downs Golf Course opened on the former Bales land (albeit by then property passed into the hands of Shedden Company). The John Bales homestead was actually the residence of the groundskeeper and the barn was part of the clubhouse.
In 1968, the club’s executive voted to move to Unionville and to sell the property to Max Tanenbaum of Pinetree Developments for $6,400,000. Tanenbaum intended to build apartments and houses on the former course. After much debate, local protests under the banner of ‘Save York Downs’ stopped the proposal. Ultimately, Metro Toronto Council purchased the property in 1972 for $9 million to use for parkland. Council also did the same with the Tam O’Shanter Golf and Country Club in Scarborough, although that ultimately became mostly a municipally owned golf course. Earl Bales Park — named for a former North York Reeve and great-grandson of John Bales — opened on a chilly December 2, 1973 with one last round of golf on the 163 acre site.
Walking south from the Bales homestead, the landscaping leftovers of the York Downs course are still evident on the land with sand traps, mounds, and trees. Then and now aerial maps provide an interesting comparison of the layouts of the course and the park.
Walking down the western half of Earl Bales Park, you can see several attractions added to the park over the years. Taking advantage of the park’s elevation, the North York Ski Centre came in 1973 to provide local skiing to the residents of North York and Toronto.
There is also the Barry Zukerman Amphitheatre, which came by 1989 and named for a prominent Canadian Jewish businessman. The theatre is notable for its great performances in the summer.
The most powerful installation in Earl Bales Park is undoubtedly the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. It was unveiled in 1991 with The Wall of Remembrance devoted to victims and survivors coming in 2001. Particularly sombre is the portion dedicated to children, including Anne Frank. The obelisk is the Spirit of Bravery Memorial.
Finally, a bust of Philippine National Hero Dr. Jose P. Rizal came as a gift from the Philippine Government to the City of Toronto in 1998.
These additions to Earl Bales Park represent the notion that parks can be and should be reflections of their environs. For example, the John Bales House — a representation of British colonial York — is now the Russian House Toronto. Since the end of the World War II, the area around the park along Bathurst Street gradually grew with new subdivisions and new populations. Toronto’s Jewish population (and Eastern Europeans in general) moved north on Bathurst to Forest Hill by 1950 and even further to Bathurst Manor in 1957. Toronto’s Filipino population arrived to the city mostly in the 1960s, first to St. Jamestown and then to ‘Little Manila’ at the Bathurst and Wilson area.
One neighbouring area tied to the history of the York Down Golf Course is Armour Heights. The community, located directly south of Earl Bales Park, is named for the Armour family who were contemporaries of the Bales clan. The Armour lands came under the control of the Robins Real Estate Limited in the early 20th century, who in the 1910s and 1920s intended on making three master-planned, upscale communities in north Toronto: Armour Heights, Ridley Park, and Melrose Park. Together these were to be the ‘Highlands of Toronto‘. Robins Ltd also had a hand in Cedarvale’s ambitious genesis. Much in the same way as that suburb, Armour Heights was planned with lavish roundabouts, gardens, squares, and tennis courts and bowling greens.
The owner, Colonel Frederick Burton Robins, built a Tudor-style estate house near Yonge Street and Wilson Avenue. Marketing pieces highlighted a bus line between Yonge and Bathurst Streets via Yonge Boulevard and Armour Heights’ proximity to the York Downs Golf Course. Armour Heights hosted air demonstrations and was even considered by McMaster University for a campus.
Like in Cedarvale, Colonel F.B. Robins’ vision for Armour Heights never fully materialized. By 1929, he sold the 300 acres to R. K. Lillico and associates for $930,000. Their idea was to re-brand the area as ‘Beverley Hills’, but the moniker never caught on. The street grid developed under its current form, filling out completely by 1950. It did eventually receive its bus line with the Toronto Transit Commission’s Armour Heights route in 1952. Armour Heights Robins’ grand estate house is now used by the Canadian Forces College. Today York Downs Boulevard — one of the early streets — remains as a tribute to the golf club and fittingly connects the park and subdivision.
Back in Earl Bales Park, a man-made pond exists on the southern end. Earl Bales Lake is a storm-water management pond. Beyond it is the Don Valley Golf Course. The Hoggs Hollow Bridge portion of Highway 401 runs over the course. The Toronto By-Pass, as the expressway was known before it was numbered, opened here in 1953, splitting up the golf course and Armour Heights.
The east side of Earl Bales Park is scenic walk through nature. One is struck by the tree cover, both on this hills and in the valley. A topographical map of the West Don River from 1915 shows off the contours and some cases the tree types of the land that would become the park.
One also gets a look from below at the ski slope. ‘Downs’ refers to a grassy hill, so this might explain the naming of golf course.
A shallow west branch of the Don River runs through the edge of the property. The river and the way across it has had a few interventions in the second have the 20th century. At one time, albeit north and south of the park, the waterway hosted saw and grist mills. In 1956, the river’s winding course was straightened.
Further up, at the park’s northern entrance, one looks up at the massive bridge carrying Sheppard Avenue West over the West Don River Valley. A marker dates the bridge to 1961, but it is not the first structure in this location
The history is unclear, but the first photographed bridge was a wooden construction that existed until at least from 1910 (its construction date is unknown).
Its replacement — a more sturdy setup — came by 1920. Flood damage from Hurricane Hazel briefly closed the bridge in November 1954. The storm did, however, completely wipe out the nearby Bathurst Street Bridge. The event might have led to the bridge’s replacement in the following decade.
The third – and present – bridge began construction in 1961 and opened by 1962 or 1963. The section of the West Don River below it was channelized with concrete holdings. Also in 1962, the Don River Boulevard bridge replaced an earlier bridge opened in 1928. The short and quiet street curiously dates to the 19th century – at least to 1860 by cartographic accounts – and ran through the Shepard family property in Lansing to Bathurst. When both bridges were replaced in the 1960s, Don River Boulevard was also reconfigured to circle up the Sheppard Avenue, linking the street with the park.
Exiting Earl Bales Park, one may go up to the main street or cross the bridge into the Hinder Property, leaving behind a great history.
Marshall’s Musings – “Exploring Earl Bales Park”
North York Historical Society – “June-August 2015 Newsletter”
OldTO Mapping historical photos
Scott Kennedy – Willowdale: Yesterday’s Farms, Today’s Legacy