Tag Archives: Willowdale

Scenes From Earl Bales Park

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.

Bales House, south-east view, date unknown. From North York Historical Society. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Tremaine’s Map of the County of York, Canada West, 1860. Credit: Historical Maps of Toronto.

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.

York Downs Golf and Country Club near Armour Heights, North Toronto, 1926. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

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.

“York Downs Course Ready Next Summer” The Globe, February 6, 1922. Credit: Toronto Public Library

Map of the Townships, York, Scarboro, and Etobicoke, 1916. Credit: University of Toronto Map and Data Library.

Ownership map – township of york showing unsubdivided area of 10 acres and over with names of owners and acreages, 1922. Credit: City of Toronto Archives

York Downs Golf and Country Club, 1953. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

Ownership map for the region formerly known as the Township of York including York, North York, East York, Forest Hill, Swansea, 1932. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

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.

“Max Tanenbaum and Morry Smith”, Toronto Daily Star, April 16, 1971. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

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.

York Downs Golf Course & Earl Bales Park, 1947 & 2019. Credit: Sidewalk Labs OldTO.

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.

“North York’s Big Opener”, Globe and Mail, Jan 9, 1974. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

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.

“Bathurst Manor Shopping Plaza Grand Opening”, Globe and Mail, November 21, 1957. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

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.

Armour Heights – being the subdivision of parts t lots 11, 12, 13, Concession 1, west of Yonge Street, circa 1913. Credit: City of Toronto Library.

“The Highlands of Toronto”, Toronto Daily Star, April 13, 1923. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

“Why People Are Buying in Armour Heights”, The Globe, April 9, 1923. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

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.

Robins Country Estate, Wilson Avenue west of Yonge Street, circa 1930. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

“Robins Limited Motor Bus Service”, Toronto Daily Star, May 21, 1914. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

“A Plan of The Splendid Site on Armour Heights”, Toronto Daily Star, December 24, 1926. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

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.

Don Valley Golf Course, Yonge St., w. side, from s. to n. of Macdonald-Cartier Freeway; looking n.w. to Macdonald-Cartier Freeway bridge over West Don River., 1955. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

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.

Plan of west branch Don River Valley from Lawrence Avenue to corner Sheppard and Bathurst, 1915. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

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.

West Don River, 1953-1956. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

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).

Sheppard Avenue bridge over the Don River near Bathurst Street., 1910. From North York Historical Society. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Wooden bridge over Don, 1908-1910. From North York Historical Society. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

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.

Sheppard Avenue West bridge over West Don River, 1920. This is the same view as the above wooden bridge photo. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.

“Find Flood Damage, Close Sheppard Bridge” Globe and Mail, November 26, 1954. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

Don River (West Don R.), looking w. across Sheppard Ave. bridge, 1954. Photographer James Salmon notes the bridge’s washout after Hurricane Hazel. Credit: Toronto Public Library.

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 was replaced. 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.

Sheppard Avenue over Don River, 1962 & 1963. Credit: City of Toronto Archives.


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.

Useful Links

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

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”