Monthly Archives: June 2022

Buildings of York Prior to Toronto

Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Town of York officially became a city in 1834 and changed its name to Toronto. There are still quite a few buildings that have survived from this era in spite of the ongoing redevelopment and construction that is occurring all over the city. We’ve visited many of these places over the years and the following post brings some of them together along with links to the original larger posts and the Google Maps links to find them for yourself.

The oldest surviving building from York is known as Scadding Cabin. York was founded in 1793 and this small home was built in 1794 on the east side of the Don River. In 1879 it was moved to the grounds of The Canadian National Exhibition in time for the grand opening of the Ex.

The house that we know as Elm Bank was also known as Lavinia Cottage. It was built of stone around 1802 and is one of two old stone cottages on the property. The stone was taken from the Humber River and the home was built in the former community of Thistletown.

Gibraltar Lighthouse on Toronto Islands was built in 1809 and originally stood just a few metres from the water’s edge but now is isolated in a wooded area on the island. It is the oldest surviving lighthouse on the Great Lakes.

Several of the oldest buildings in the city are contained in Fort York. Following the War of 1812 in which Fort York was partially destroyed many of the buildings were rebuilt. In 1815 the blockhouses, barracks and the powder magazine were all replaced. At that time the fort stood near the edge of Lake Ontario and the city hadn’t been built up around it as it has today.

Black Creek Pioneer Village is also home to several of the earliest buildings from the time of York. The first one built there was the log cabin of Daniel and Elizabeth Stong which was erected in 1816. A couple of further buildings from the Stong farm have been preserved as well as a few other structures that date back to the town of York which have been moved there.

The original Gray Grist Mill dates back to 1819 and has been preserved on Donalda Farm, now part of the Donalda Golf Club.

John Bales built a log cabin in 1822 that was later expanded and covered with cement and pebbles. The balance of his farm has been converted into Earl Bales Park.

In 1822 there was a race to open the first paper mill in Upper Canada and one was built at Todmorden Mills but it came in second. Located at the same site are a couple of older houses and a brewery that date to the town of York.

In 1827 The Bank of Upper Canada opened their second building in the original ten-block part of York. The building has seen a couple of expansions and the addition of a portico over the years.

In the early years of York all the streets were muddy and the town was often called Muddy York. Eventually the roads were covered with planks and a toll was charged for using them. This cottage is where one of the Tollkeepers lived and it was built around 1827.

Montgomery’s Inn was built in 1830 by Thomas and Margaret Montgomery near the village of Islington. It sat abandoned for more than a decade but has now been restored and is operating as a museum.

On Thursday March 6, 1834 the town of York ceased to exist and was incorporated as the City of Toronto. One of the last buildings to be completed before this change took place was the fourth post office in the community. This would become Toronto’s First Post Office.

The Town of York has been gone for nearly 200 years but there’s still quite a number of the old buildings still in existence. There’s many others that are not featured in this post that might come up in future explorations.

For a listing of our top 50 posts check out Back Tracks – 8 Years of Trails.

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Casa Loma

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Casa Loma stands as a testament to the lavish lifestyles of some of the wealthiest people in Toronto’s history. As the city of Toronto grew the wealthy classes looked for a place to establish their garden estates and one of the primary areas was on top of the Davenport Escarpment. Here, they built large homes amongst lavish gardens with views out over the city and Lake Ontario to the south of them. The earliest estate built here was known as Davenport and was constructed in 1797. It was followed by Spadina and Russell Hill in 1818. These homes are long gone but several others still remain to remind us of the former glory of the area. For example, Lenwill the home of prominent Toronto architect E. J. Lennox was built in 1914 and still stands just to the west of Casa Loma. An early picture of Casa Loma from the Toronto Archives is featured below.

In 1903 Sir Henry Pellatt purchased 40 acres from the Austin Estate so that he could build his mansion which he called Casa Loma. The name Casa Loma means Hill House and reflects the fact that it was built on top of the escarpment that was the shoreline of Lake Ontario after the last ice age. Henry Pellatt was born in 1859 in Kingston and was instrumental in bringing hydro-electric power to the city of Toronto. Henry was a soldier in The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada as well as a financier having worked in his fathers firm of Pellatt and Pellatt.

Casa Loma was built between 1911 and 1914 and is the largest private residence ever built in Canada. It has 98 rooms and covers 64,700 square feet of floor space. A team of 299 workers spent three years building it until construction was stopped by the start of World War 1. The home contains secret passages and a swimming pool. There were plans to put three bowling alleys in the basement but only one of them was ever completed. The bowling alley is now used as a gift shop.

Casa Loma is currently hosting a collection of photographs that were taken by Princess Diana’s personal photographers. These larger than life photos and the stories behind them reveal a side of Diana that hasn’t been seen by the public before now. The exhibit is open until June 26, 2022 and has an additional ticket price on top of the regular cost of exploring the castle. The car that is parked outside to advertise the exhibit is a replica of Diana’s car.

Casa Loma cost $3.5 million dollars which would be over $100 million dollars today. When the government decided to remove the private ownership of electricity and make it public, Henry Pellatt started to have financial troubles. After World War 1 the economy suffered a downturn and Pellatt found himself owing the bank about $20 million dollars. This, combined with the huge property tax bill, caused him to have to auction off the castle and his assets. In 1924 he moved to his country estate in King Township and today Casa Loma has become a tourist attraction. His country home was also lost to him and has been turned into Marylake, a religious retreat.

The grounds contain extensive gardens and fountains in both the front and back yards.

A private gate leads from Casa Loma to the neighbouring property where Spadina house is located. This is one of the other estates that have survived the construction of newer residences in the area.

Casa Loma has an extensive stables that were built in 1906 just a short distance north of the main castle. They were designed to look like Casa Loma and compliment the main structure.

The Hunting Lodge is also known as the Coach House and is a two story building with 4,380 feet of living space that was eventually used as servants quarters. Pellatt and his wife lived here while the main castle was being built. The stables are now used to house a classic car collection.

An underground tunnel connects the stables to the castle and it was used during World War 2 as a secret factory for the assembly of ASDIC. This was a type of sonar that was critical for the Allies to help them in the battles that were fought in the Atlantic Ocean.

This story features some of the history of Casa Loma but there are tours available which will allow you to see the inside of Toronto’s most famous castle.

Also see our feature on Spadina House and also Marylake

For a listing of our top 50 stories please check out our post Back Tracks – 8 Years of Trails

Google Maps Link: Casa Loma

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Ontario Powder

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The town of Tweed is situated on the shores of Stoco Lake and business takes me there every two months. On my visit of April 24th, 2022 I had the opportunity to spend some time walking the Trans Canada Trail while I had my lunch. As I made my way along the trail I crossed the old CPR bridge, and stopped to admire the lake which was in a condition of high water.

A little further along the trail you come to a series of old ruins on the woods along the shore of the lake. They date back to 1883 when Ontario Powder was founded in town to produce dynamite.

Just two years later there was a tragic explosion when two workers were in the process of transporting dynamite from the factory to Burleigh Falls. No one is sure what happened but James Simmon and George Morton both lost their lives when a crater 70 feet across and 10 feet deep was blown in the ground. The blast could be heard as far away as Peterborough and only a few pieces of the men, their horses and the cart were recovered. It wasn’t until 2006 that a memorial plaque was placed at the site of the blast. The image below shows the remains of the water tower from the factory and is the largest remaining artifact from Ontario Powder.

By August 22, 1903 the factory was producing 750 pounds of dynamite per day but then an explosion occurred at the facility. It happened so suddenly that three workers lost their lives and others were injured because they couldn’t get away in time. Barrels of nitroglycerin were being stored on the site and they exploded causing a concussion that could be heard for 50 miles around.

The factory was rebuilt and this time additional precautions were taken. Ontario Powder purchased several neighbouring properties as well as five of the local islands in the lake. After building a tall fence around the property to contain shrapnel they planted the property with a heavy forest to help stop the effects of any future blasts.

The explosion of 1903 was expensive for the company because it cost $25,000 to rebuild and they paid $1000 in damages to the community. The rebuilt factory went back into production and in fact got even busier. Within 5 years they were producing 1500 pounds of dynamite every day. This wasn’t to last and disaster came again on the morning of February 4, 1908. Early that day the vats of nitroglycerine began to overflow onto the floor and a fire broke out. Workers in the mixing room ran out into the -35 degree weather and shouted for everyone to run for their lives. By the time they had reached the CPR bridge just down the tracks the factory blew up for a second time sending pieces of the building across the lake. The bottom of the lake is still littered with artifacts from the explosion.

All the buildings within 5 miles were rattled and windows were broken. You would think this should have been the end of Ontario Powder but they set out to rebuild the factory again. This time it was only used for storage of dynamite but public outcry meant that the trust was gone and local residents were happy when the business was bought out by a competitor. Most of the buildings were dismantled but a few were saved and relocated. The employee change house was moved to Louisa Street and converted into a residence. The office was dragged across the ice the following winter and put on an island in the middle of the lake to serve as a summer home.

The Tweed Heritage Centre has one picture of part of the Ontario Powder factory and along with the ruins featured above is all that remains of this industry in town.

Although its been gone for over a century, Ontario Powder has left its mark on the town of Tweed in the form of these crumbling ruins. Many of the older buildings in town still have structural bracing that was installed after the two explosions at the factory.

Also from Tweed is our feature on Tweed’s Tiny Jailhouse

For a list of our top 50 stories check out Back Tracks – 8 Years of Trails

Google Maps Link: Tweed

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