Tag Archives: Riverdale Farm

Riverdale Park

Sunday, August 6, 2018

One of the first settlers in York (Toronto) was John Scadding.  He worked as secretary to Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe.  In 1794 he built a log cabin on his estate as a first home.  In 1856 the city purchased the Scadding homestead for use as a park and to give the city a place to build a new jail.  Thankfully, the early settlers of Toronto preserved some history for us and his home was moved to the CNE in 1879 to make way for the park.  I parked on Carlton Street near Riverdale Farm and went down the stairs into Riverdale Park West.  On my return trip I walked through Riverdale Farm which is also a great place to visit.


Originally, Riverdale Park was 120 acres but it was later expanded to 162 acres.  When the Don Valley Parkway was built it split the park in two and reduced the size to the current 104 acres.  The two halves of the park are joined by a pedestrian bridge that gives access to the Lower Don Trail which leads north toward The Bloor Viaduct.  The eastern part of the park is smaller and retains the distinct shape of the old riverbed as can be seen in the picture below.


In the 1880’s the lower portion of The Don River, the Don Narrows, was straightened out and a couple of sections were cut off from the river.  These sections of the former river now form the ponds in Riverdale Farm.


The east half of Riverale Park was used as a landfill in the 1920’s and exhaust pipes still line the sides of the park where methane gas is allowed to escape from below.  Along with a sports track there is a swimming pool on the east side of the park.  The north end has been naturalized again and there are many mature trees along the various hiking trails.


The Task Force To Bring Back The Don has been working on various projects in the park including several tree planting sessions.  The first one on the eastern slopes was actually the first action in the 40 Steps to a New Don River program.  They have also created a small wetland at the base of the ravine where the runoff from the embankment is collected and bulrushes now grow.  Maximilian Sunflowers are growing in a large cluster at an intersection of trails in the woodlot.  They are not native plants and this cluster was likely planted here.  They are often found in the wild as escaped garden plants.


At the north end of the park a set of accessible ramps leads to a bridge that allows you to cross one of the on-ramps for the DVP.  This bridge makes a great place to get a look at the top end of the park.


Purple Loosestrife was once considered to be a real threat as an invasive species with fears that it would choke out native wetland plants.  There appears to be a balance now where the plant co-exists with native plants and it may eventually be considered naturalized.  Monarch butterflies were taking advantage of the flowers and the sunshine.


In 1881 five cannons were brought to Riverdale Park for decorations.  The one that stands near the old jail was cast in 1806 and bears the insignia of King George III who ruled from 1760 until 1820 making him the third longest serving monarch in British history.


Riverdale Park was once the garden for the Don Jail.  Prisoners were used to tend the gardens as well as look after the buildings and animals at Riverale Zoo.  The Don Jail was built in 1864 as the third jail in the city.  It was considered to be a modern facility at the time with better accommodations than other jails of the era.  It wasn’t too long before overcrowding led to it becoming a dreadful place to spend any time.  There was an addition built in the 1950’s and the original jail was closed in 1977.  The addition has since been closed and demolished.  The remaining jail building is one of the oldest pre-confederation buildings in the city.


The front entrance to the jail was very ornate with Father Time looking down on all the inmates as they entered the building that would be their new home for the duration of their sentence.  The cover photo shows the front of the building with all of the artwork that decorates it.  The Latin phrase meaning Abandon Hope All Who Enter used to adorn the lintle above the door.  With the old jail now serving as part of a rehab hospital it was considered inappropriate and has been removed.  The inside of the old jail has been renovated but it used to be similar to the Owen Sound Jail we featured earlier this year.  Seventy people were executed at the jail, the last two in 1962.  Unclaimed bodies were buried on the property under what would become a parking lot.  Recent demolition and construction on the site revealed several skeletons.


Starting in the 1860’s the south corner of Riverdale Park was used for healthcare facilities, originally known as the House of Refuge.  A small pox epidemic in 1875 saw the facility changed into the Riverdale Isolation Hospital.  Patients with contagious diseases were treated here until the late 1950’s.  By 1957 the threat of contagion was greatly reduced and the facility was given a new mandate.  They began taking care of chronic illnesses and rehabilitation.  In 1959 a new building was designed for the Riverdale Hospital.  Mushroom shaped canopies were designed for the entrance to the new facility.  With the construction of the new 10-story Bridgepoint building the mushroom canopies have been preserved as part of the architectural heritage of the site.


The new healthcare facility also has become a place of public artwork.  The Max Tanenbaum Sculpture Garden contains twenty life-sized sculptures made of metal strips.  They celebrate life through a display of dance and sport themes.


Riverdale Park has a long history and has seen many changes over the years but remains an interesting place to explore.

Google Maps Link: Riverdale Park

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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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