Monthly Archives: February 2015

Frank O’Connor – Estates of the GTA

Sunday Feb. 22, 2015

Family emergencies precluded any extended hike this weekend but I was able to take a few minutes to visit an historic estate in my neighbourhood.

Frank O’Connor was born in Desoronto in 1885 and after marrying Mary Ellen Hayes he moved to Toronto.  In 1913 they opened a small candy store at 354 Yonge Street.  The city was busy celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of York (Apr. 27, 1813) from the war of 1812. To capitalize on the current air of patriotism the O’Connors decided to name their candy store after Canada’s most famous war heroine and mark the 100th anniversary of her legendary walk.

On the evening of June 21, 1813 the American military entered the Secord home in Queenston and forced Laura to serve them dinner.  After dinner she overheard their plans to carry out a surprise attack on the small British force at Beaver Dams (Thorold).  The following morning she began a 10 mile journey through swamps and briers to the stone house where the British lieutenant James Fitzgibbon was stationed.  As she climbed out of the swamp several hours later she was surrounded by a band of Iroquois who escorted her to her destination.  After an ambush by 400 Indian warriors, the American forces were ready to surrender and Fitzgibbon took 462 prisoners.  Laura Secord’s advance notice of the impending attack led to a decisive British victory and the use of her name led to a successful candy franchise.  Today there are over 120 Laura Secord stores, making it Canada’s largest chocolatier.


In the early 1930’s Frank O’Connor had become wealthy enough to purchase 600 acres of land north west of Lawrence Avenue and Victoria Park Avenue on which to build his estate.  He built stables, barns and raised a herd of Ayrshire cattle.  His prime Clydesdale and thoroughbred horses were shown each year at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.  Frank named his farm Maryvale after his wife, Mary.  The restored house stands near today’s Rowena Park.


The coach house has been restored for use as a conference centre while the smaller maintenance building on the left remains shuttered and off limits to the public.


The cupola on the coach house has a weather vane on it with the four points of the compass and an arrow to indicate the direction of the wind.


All three of the remaining buildings were constructed at the same time.  The date stone was placed in the coach house and it reads 1932.


Frank O’Connor was a key player in the Liberal Party of Ontario and helped Mitchell Hepburn win the 1934 Ontario election to become the Premier of the province.  He was also involved in the federal election of 1935 in which Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King became the 10th Prime Minister of Canada.  The cover photo shows Prime Minster King on the left, Premier Hepburn on the right and O’Connor in the back (like a typical back-bencher) on the steps of the legislature.  For his loyalty, O’Connor was awarded with a senate position in 1935.  O’Connor routinely gave his fortune away to several charities and when he died in 1939 he bequeathed his estate to a local religious community.  Over the year’s the estate was sold off for development and by the year 2000 the three remaining buildings were unoccupied and in danger of demolition.  The efforts of local community groups as well as federal, provincial and local governments were required to make the restoration possible and save the buildings, which have since been designated as historical sites.  O’Connor Drive is named after Senator Frank O’Connor.

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Riverdale Farm

Monday Feb. 16, 2015

Minus 19 feeling like minus 27 but it is Family Day in Ontario thus requiring that I do something with my day off other than sit around and worry about how cold it is.  I parked on Carlton Street near West Riverdale Park.

John Scadding had come to Upper Canada with Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe and after working as a government clerk he was granted land near York.  In 1856 the city purchased 119 acres from the Scadding estate on which to build a jail farm (Don Jail) and a park.  On Aug. 11, 1880 Riverdale Park officially opened.  In 1888 some deer were donated and by 1894 there were enough exotic animals to open Riverdale Zoo.

Around the same time that the animals were being collected, the city was hatching a plan to straighten the Don river where it flowed through the lower part of the city.  The Lower Don snaked back and forth and flowed through a series of marshes and wetlands similar to the Humber Marshes.  By placing the Don into a straight deep channel they hoped to make shipping accessible to the local industry.  Flooding and mosquitoes were also supposed to be better controlled by eliminating the marsh land  The project started where the river flowed through this piece of property.  The river was moved to the east and the section on the site of Riverdale Zoo was cut off from the rest of the river.  The ponds that exist on the lower zoo property are, in fact, left over pieces of the river.  In the May 1888 map below the river is shown on the Riverdale Park and Jail farm near the right side of the map.

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Sitting in the middle of this section of the old river is an island which can only be reached by means of a stone arch bridge.  There are only three buildings remaining from the days of the Riverdale Zoo and one of them stands on the island.  Known as the Island House it still has the bars in the windows from its days as The Monkey House.  The picture below is from Dec. 14, 1921 when there were no trees on the little island.

below we see a stone bridge leading to what is variously known as the Island House or the Monkey House in the middle of a pond. All still exist.   1921

The Monkey House today serves as a storage shed for garden equipment.


The residence was built in 1902 by captives of the Don Jail.  It served as a zoo keeper’s residence, staff building, animal hospital and temporary morgue for the Necropolis across the street.  The bricks on this home are made of regular pressed brick as well as a material that looks like coal slag.  The bricks have not been placed in even rows and some stick out from the side of the building giving it a most unusual look.


The Donnybrook ruins stand near the cow paddock.  This building was originally a two story building with a tower but only the lower floor remains.  When the floor was poured, a hippopotamus sat in the wet concrete and left his rump print for posterity.  Kids have been sticking their feet in wet cement ever since.


Riverdale Zoo, like other Victorian zoos, took little care to display the animals in their natural settings.  The city began to look for a new location for a modern zoo and a site in Scarborough was selected.  The new zoo opened in 1974 and the Riverdale zoo closed on June 30, 1974.

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Over the next 4 years most of the zoo buildings and cages were torn down except for the three described above.  It was decided to turn the zoo into a working farm as an educational site for local school children.  Riverdale Farm opened in 1978 as a free public park.  Several new buildings were constructed to illustrate life in a 19th century farm.  The Simpson House is a replica of an 1852 home that stood on the Francey farm in Markham.


Inside the pig and poultry barn there are several different types of chickens, ducks and turkeys.


The Francey Barn was built in 1858 in Markham and was donated to Riverdale farm.  It is a rare surviving sample of a Pennsylvania bank barn.  Designed and built into a hill side or river bank these barns have ground floor access to both the upper and lower floors.  The picture below shows the huge hand hewn timbers that the barn was constructed from.  The trees on an individual’s land grant would be used to build their homes and barns.  This barn was taken apart, moved here and re-assembled in 1975.  Having grown up in small town Ontario I was taken back to my youth by the familiar smell inside the barn.


When the dutch came to Ontario from Pennsylvania they brought some of their traditions with them.  The Mennonite’s call their places of worship a meeting house and one of the largest church groups in Ontario is called The Meeting House.  In keeping with the theme of the farm, the drop in centre is called the Meeting House.


In the Francey barn are many antique items including old sleighs and carriages.  One that I found particularly interesting is this old wooden barrel washing machine.  Gilson was a manufacturer of washing machines, dryers, gas engines and furnaces that operated in Guelph from 1907 until 1977.  By 1920 enamel barrels had replaced the wooden ones to make cleaning easier and the machine much quieter.  Electric washing machines were first made in 1907 and the machine in the picture below was likely made within the first decade of production.


Across the street from the farm sits the Necropolis.  This burying ground was opened in 1850 when the “potter’s field” cemetery at the north west corner of Yonge and Bloor was found to be on prime development land and was closed and moved.  A crematorium was added in 1933. Some of the early founders of the city are interred here including the old rebel himself, William Lyon Mackenzie.


For now the Polar Bears have moved to the new Toronto Zoo where they have a much more natural habitat than the concrete pond they used to call home and the animals on the farm now enjoy a pastoral setting.

Polar bear cubs

Thanks to my brother Allan who suggested I visit this site.  It was a lot of fun and may need some more exploration in the summer.

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National Flag Day

Saturday Feb. 14, 2015

The weatherman has been calling for a very cold weekend with wind chills in the range of -40, but this morning it was only -7 feeling like -18.  We parked in West Deane Park and headed south along the east side of Mimico Creek.  After the trail passes under Martin Grove Road the park changes names to become Ravenscrest Park.

Sumacs are one of the first plants to take hold on previously cleared land.  They can reach heights of over thirty feet and produce a type of fruit known as a drupe.  These clusters of reddish fruit are known as sumac bobs and form the tips of each branch.  Sumac is used as a spice in some middle eastern foods and also as a dye.  The drupes are used as a winter source of food for birds who spread the seeds through their droppings.  In the picture below sumac bobs frame the sun as it was peeking out from behind the clouds.


On July 21, 1793 the Queen’s Rangers under the direction of Lieutenant-Governor General Simcoe landed on the north shore of Lake Ontario and stuck a British flag in the soil where they would build Fort York.  This was the founding of the town of York (Toronto) and the beginning of Simcoe’s plans for the defense of Upper Canada.  Simcoe moved the capital of the colony from Newark (Niagara) to York in 1797.  In 1801 the British flag was modified to include a red saltire inside of the existing white one to represent the Irish who were united with England that year.  The British flag is known as the union flag.  It is only correctly called a union jack if it is flying on a naval vessel.

During the war of 1812 the Americans attacked Fort York on April 27, 1813.  The British, sensing defeat, decided to retreat to Kingston to prevent the army from being captured.  They left their flag flying at Fort York to fool the attackers into thinking they remained inside.  On the way out they detonated their munitions store to prevent it from falling into enemy hands.  When the dust settled the Americans replaced the British flag with their own and used the British one for a pillow for General Pike who was mortally wounded in the explosion.  This is the only British flag ever captured in battle that was never recovered.

British Union Jack sewn flag linen cotton cloth

The Union Flag was used in Canada until after confederation.  In 1868 Canada adopted a Red Ensign with the union flag in the upper corner, and featuring the arms of each of the four original provinces.  In 1922 the Royal Arms of Canada replaced the provincial arms and 3 green maple leaves adorned the bottom of the crest.  In 1957 the maple leaves were changed to red.


Having the union flag as part of the Canadian flag became an issue during the Suez Crisis in 1956 as the Egyptian government objected to Canadian Peacekeepers because of it.  The flag was never popular in french Canada, also because of the union flag it contained.  In the early 1960’s a proposal came to create a uniquely Canadian Flag.  The new flag was to feature nothing distinctive to any group of people which meant it could not contain the union flag or the french fleur-de-lis.  A symmetrical design was chosen so the the front and back would look the same in the wind.  An 11 point maple leaf was selected because wind tunnel experiments showed there was the least distortion of the leaf in high winds.  The flag was officially flown for the first time in a ceremony on Parliament Hill on Feb. 15, 1965.  As I write this on Sunday afternoon of Feb. 15, 2015 the flag is celebrating it’s 50th birthday.  Happy Birthday to our flag!

As we walked through Ravenscrest Park we saw that one of the homes on the top of the ravine was flying our flag.  The picture below and the cover photo illustrate the majesty of the Canadian Flag.


We followed the trail under Rathburn road into Echo Valley Park.  There is section of trail here that passes through a wooded area.  If you stand on the side of the trail for a few minutes all the birds that have been scattering in front of you will return.  We saw a selection of Blue Jays, Cardinals, Doves, Downey and Hairy Woodpeckers and Chickadees.  A Kestrel appears to have seen them as well.

Along here we saw an old utility pole on which someone has spray painted a heart with an arrow through it.  Since it was Valentine’s Day when we noticed the pole it seemed to be appropriate.  There are several traditions surrounding the origins of Valentine’s Day, some suggesting Christian roots and others Roman.  Either way, greeting card companies manage to sell 150 million cards each each year.  Valentine’s Day is special to me and my wife as well because eight years ago we got engaged on this day.


A common tool used for inventory control in manufacturing is known as the Kanban System.  A tag is used to identify a quantity of an item.  When that quantity is consumed the tag becomes the ticket to order replacement stock.  Toyota has been credited with developing the system in 1953 but in reality it has been in use far longer than that.  In Toronto there were community dairies in various parts of the city.  Due to poor refrigeration, milk had to be delivered almost daily.  Houses had a milk chute (delivery door) like the one featured in the picture below.  If you needed milk you just left your empties and the money in the chute and when you came home there were fresh bottles of milk there instead.


As we continued down stream we saw that someone’s playground toys have ended up frozen in the middle of Mimico Creek.


The ice on Mimico Creek is several inches thick in most places and people have been going back and forth.  On the opposite side of the creek is an ornate bench that someone has crossed over to examine.  Perhaps it was just a two minute bench minor.


There is a foot of snow on the ground but there appear to be some interesting areas here for exploring later in the year.

The Arsenal Lands

Saturday Feb. 7, 2015

Along the Lakeshore stands an abandoned water tower, part of a WW2 small arms factory and rifle testing range.  Today we are 49 days into winter with only 42 remaining which to me means its almost over. The forecasters are calling for up to 30 cm of snow over the next couple of days.  Even so, this is the first hike of the winter where I’ve switched from hiking to winter boots.  It was minus 4 with almost no wind chill and a steady light snow. I parked in the parking lot for Marie Curtis Park on the west side of the Etobicoke Creek.

Col. Samuel Smith was granted lots 4-7 in 1806 and they remained in his family until they were sold to the Halliday’s in 1877.  They were used for mixed farming for the next few years. Following confederation in 1867 the British Government wanted the new country of Canada to assume greater responsibility for its own defense.  In 1868 the Ontario Rifle Association was formed for the training of militia.  They used the garrison common at Fort York until 1891 but the increase in the use of the CNE grounds and the addition of a passenger wharf at the foot of Dufferin Street made firing rifles at the fort increasingly unsafe.  The property on the west side of Etobicoke Creek was purchased as the Long Branch Rifle Ranges.  A militia and cadet training camp was maintained on the site until WWI when the Royal  Air Force administration offices were located here.  Canada’s first aerodrome was at Long Branch and over 130 students had graduated, at a cost of $400 each, by the time it closed in December 1916.  William Faulkner, the famous author, was stationed here while training for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The most prominent structure remaining on the site today is the old water tower.  It was built in 1941 to serve the needs of the industry on the site.


In 1935 the Department of National Defense purchased the property with the idea of creating an arms manufacturing site.  Small Arms Limited was founded as a crown corporation on August 7, 1940 to supply the Canadian Military with rifles for use in WWII.  The 1957 picture below shows the factory and several out buildings.  The large building with the lines on the top is shaped like an “L” with the black circle in the inner corner of the “L” being the water tower. The rifle range building is in the lower left and the first several baffles can be seen below it.

arsenal 3

Women played a major role in the workforce at Small Arms Limited as can be seen in the cover photo making up most of the staff by 1943.  The factory produced its first weapons in June 1941 and by the end of the year had made 7,589.  By 1943 the plant was working three shifts, using 5,500 employees to produce over 30,000 units per month.  World War Two ended in 1945 and war-time production was completed in December with over 900,000 rifles and 126,00 machine guns having been produced.  Various military parts were produced in the facility from then until it closed in 1974. At the foot of the water tower stand two yellow gas regulators that were installed at the time the Small Arms company was founded.  They are dated 1940.


In 1910 Canada’s Department of Militia and Defense (renamed the Department of National Defense in 1922) acquired the property and built the wooden baffles that remain in place today. The DND built firing booths in 1940 to assist with the training of militiamen for service in WWII. The rows of baffles and concrete backstop can be seen in the centre of the 1957 aerial picture below.

arsenal 4

On the short rifle range there are 16 remaining baffles after 105 years exposed to the elements. Originally there were 30 of these which were hollow and filled with sand and soil.  They were intended to stop any stray bullets from leaving the range but also served to provide sound barriers for the adjacent small arms factory.  The picture below shows one of the few that is intact and not over grown with brush.  These wooden baffles are the last of their kind from this era in Ontario and are considered a militarily significant heritage site.


At the back end of the rifle range is a fifteen foot high and thirty-five foot wide concrete backstop which was constructed around 1925.  It’s surface is dotted with the impacts of hundreds of bullets from over the years.


The only manufacturing building remaining on site is building number 12.  Dating to 1939, it was used as the rifle inspection facility.  It has a double fence, each with three strands of barbed wire surrounding it.  I guess they don’t want you to go in there.


The various uses of the site over the years has taken the farm land and left it with a mix of PBC’s, VOC’s, metals and radioactive waste.  Over 72,000 tonnes of contaminated soil was removed from the site between 1998 and 2002.  The consolidation mound pictured here contains low level radioactive soil that has been buried in a containment facility since 2005.  It sits inside a third barbed wire fence behind the inspection building.  I guess they really don’t want you to go in there.


Circling back through the Small Arms Ltd property I noticed that someone left the door open at the top of the water tower.  Anyone want to climb up that ladder on the roof and close it?


Making my way across the Lakeshore Road edge of the arsenal lands I came to Etobicoke Creek. The trail along the creek’s edge brings you to a bridge that crosses the creek to the east side. Following the disaster of Hurricane Hazel in 1954 when the creek flooded destroying the homes along 43rd street (see Middle Road Bridge) this area was taken under authority of the conservation authority and Marie Curtis Park was created.  I walked that side of the creek to where it spills into the lake.  The ice on the railing at the edge of the lake is several inches thick and, to me, resembles baleen plates like those in the mouth of a baleen whale.


Bufflehead ducks suddenly disappear when they are feeding and can pop back up several metres from where they dove.  They are distinct with their white and black markings and spend the winter in sheltered bays and inlets.  I watched a few of them right in the mouth of the creek.


There are likely artifacts located here that will only be visible when the snow is melted.  I guess we’ll have to see sometime.

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West Deane Park

Sat. Jan. 31, 2015

It was -11 feeling like -12 which seemed like a nice temperature considering that the weatherman had been calling for -18 with a wind chill of -30. It started off cloudy but the sun came out a little later on.  We parked in the parking lot off of Martin Grove at West Deane Park.

Andrew and Martha Coulter emigrated to Etobicoke from Ireland in 1822 along with the first two of nine children.  They bought 100 acres of land which lay between highway 27 and Martin Grove Road, halfway between Rathburn and Eglinton in an area known as Richview.  Over the next few years they acquired an additional 150 acres.   The Coulter’s operated the farm until the 1880’s and in 1939 the land was purchased by construction magnate Percy Law.  He kept race horses here until he sold it for development in 1956.

We crossed Mimico Creek and headed uphill on the south side of the bridge.  At the top of the hill we found a small playground where there was a coyote sitting in the distance in  the snow. Coyote are related to the grey wolf and have become quite adept at living in close proximity to humans in urban environments.


We started to sneak up on what we believe was a female but when she saw us she ran into the trees.  One advantage of fresh snow is the ability to follow animal tracks and we soon found where she had gone.  Following her we found ourselves in the middle of her hunting ground. The coyote started circling us at a distance and we were soon able to capture the short video below and the picture in the cover photo.

Tracking the coyote we found that the footprints were smaller than some we had seen previously suggesting that perhaps the animal was not fully grown.


We came across the remnants of a Christmas party hanging in the trees.


The sun came out at one point and lit up the valley in front of us.  For scale, the large tree laying in the bottom of the ravine once stood at the base of the hill but would not have been tall enough for the canopy to reach the upper rim.


We followed the west side of Mimico Creek north and soon came to an area full of winter birds. A cardinal was singing in the trees above us and we soon spotted him.  Cardinals eat insects in the summer, raising their young almost exclusively on them.  In the winter cardinals will live off of seeds and will also eat the bark of elm trees.  There were several pairs of doves sitting in the trees.  Doves are one of 11 animals that mate for life, along with termites and Schistosoma mansoni worms.  Wolves, which are related to Coyotes, also mate for life.  This is perhaps the reason that doves come in pairs in the Twelve Days of Christmas.


There was a flock of a dozen or more woodpeckers moving through.  There were both the larger Hairy, pictured below, and the smaller Downey flocking together.  These two birds are not actually birds of a feather as they are unrelated in spite of their nearly exact same marking and appearance.


Andew Coulter built a saw mill on Mimico Creek and operated a farm on his property.  After his death in 1857 the farm was run by his 4 sons.  Andrew Coulter and his sons are buried in the Richview Methodist Cemetery which sits in the very middle of the highway 401 and 427 interchange.  By 1852 Andrew had built an 11 room 5 bay Georgian style farmhouse on the property.  The Coulter’s house was built of red brick with yellow quoins and lintels.  Percy Law modified this brick farm house to create a Kentucky colonial revival style home by adding white clapboard siding and a two story classical portico with four Corinthian columns.  He also built himself a horse ranch complete with stables and a carriage house.  The picture below shows the Coulter’s 1852 house as it appeared in 1929.


The house remains today at 59 Beaver Bend Crescent but the white siding has been replaced with yellow aluminum.  The Law family retained the house and 11 acres surrounding it until it was sold for development in 1981.  The original patterned brick house is still hiding inside the veneer that has been added to the outside over the years.  I think I’d strip it all off.


Law built a house for his farm manager which stands at 18 Deanewood Crescent.  It is conspicuous among the surrounding homes as it faces sideways to the rest of them.  It also sports a tv antenna indicating that it was constructed prior to the arrival of cable in the neighbourhood.  In Sept. 1952 CBLT, the Toronto CBC station began experimenting with cable broadcasts in the city.  By the time this part of the the farm was sold for development in 1981 cable would have been installed in the new built homes on the street.


The Coulter’s oldest son, Robert built his house around the same time as his father’s.  It still shows it’s yellow brick quoins and lintels.  The house originally faced east and Martin Grove Road, overlooking what is now Glen Agar Park.  The board and batten addition that now serves as a front entrance and garage would have been a later addition.


This was our first visit to this section of Mimico Creek but there is lots of unexplored area here for future visits both in the winter and after the snow has melted.