Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: St. John’s York Mills

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This one is all-new, all-different, not a reprint, etc

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Perched high above Yonge Street near Hogg’s Hollow, St. John’s York Mills may be Toronto’s oldest active cemetery. Its history, alongside St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church, ties into the early development of York Mills and North York.

History

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Pen and ink drawing of the original St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church (used 1817-1844), produced by an unknown artist around 1904. Toronto Public Library, JRR 3579 Cab.

The land St. John’s sits on was donated in 1816 by Joseph and Catherine Shepard, who also owned the land York Cemetery was eventually built upon. According to the land transfer document, the site was intended as a place for “Divine Worship according to the rites, ceremonies and articles of the established Church of England, and for the burial of the dead.” The cornerstone of the first church building was laid on September 17, 1816 by Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada Francis Gore and future Anglican Bishop John Strachan. A torrential downpour shortened the ceremony.

Burials appear to have begun soon afterwards. The January 2, 1817 edition of the Upper Canada Gazette reported the recent funeral service for John Willson, who “was killed by the fall of a log from a small house that he was assisting a poor man to raise.” The sermon was delivered by Strachan “to a large and respectable assemblage of friends and acquaintances of this much lamented young man.”

The church’s congregation included many who participated in the Rebellion of 1837, many of whom are buried here

Grounds

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Located northeast of Yonge Street and York Mills Road, you can either enter by foot off Old Yonge Street or by vehicle via Don Ridge Drive. From the parking lot, head east from the current church building. The cemetery is compact and flat, making it an easy stroll.

Burials are limited to members of the St. John’s York Mills Anglican congregation.

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The west side of the church grounds connect to a trail leading from the Don Valley.

Notable Names

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Lionel “The Big Train” Conacher was voted “Canada’s Athlete of the Half Century” in 1950 for his versatility. Conacher is a member of the Canadian football, hockey, and lacrosse halls of fame, and was also skilled at baseball, boxing, and track. He was also a successful politician, serving as both an MP and MPP for downtown Toronto ridings. He was a competitor to the end, dying of a heart attack in 1954 after hitting a triple during a charity parliamentary softball game.

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Sculptor Walter Allward designed the Canadian National Vimy Monument (1936) in France. His Toronto works include numerous statues around Queen’s Park, honouring John Sandfield Macdonald, Oliver Mowat, and John Graves Simcoe. Other notable commissions include the South African War Memorial at Queen and University and the Bell Memorial in Brantford. The plaque honouring Allward was dedicated in 2007.

Favourite Spots

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A monument in the southeast corner honours seven generations of the Van Nostrand family who have been buried here since the cemetery’s beginning. A Loyalist originally from Long Island, Cornelius van Nostrand settled in York Mills in 1805. He was too ill to attend the laying of the church cornerstone in 1816, but was able to view the ceremony from his home. “It is said,” church archivist M. Audrey Graham observed, “he was assisted to the window of his chamber that he might witness before his dissolution the germ, as it were, of the sacred edifice, and then, though feeble and infirm, expressed his joy and gladness at the prospect of leaving behind him the means of grace in the form he loved best for his numerous family.” He died the following year.

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At least 90 members of the family are buried in the cemetery, stretching back to a seven-year-old who died before the cemetery was officially established.

Sources: 150 Years at St. John’s, York Mills by M. Audrey Graham (Toronto: General Publishing, 1966); Pioneering in North York by Patricia W. Hart (Toronto: General Publishing, 1968); and 200 Years at St. John’s York Mills by Scott Kennedy and Jeanne Hopkins (Toronto: Dundurn, 2016).

 

 

Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: York

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece was originally published on Torontoist on November 1, 2012

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A block west of Mel Lastman Square, the greenery of York Cemetery provides an escape from the endless concrete of North York’s central strip. Amid its gardens and monuments reside tales of heroes, rebels, and royalty.

History

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The property was settled around 1805 by Joseph Shepard, one of several people Sheppard Avenue may have been named after. The site passed to his son Michael, a farmer who operated a mill near the present-day North York IKEA. Michael and his brothers were prominent supporters of William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto’s first mayor and leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.

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The Shepards are said to have hidden the rebel mayor before he fled to the United States after his uprising fizzled. When Michael and his brother Thomas were released from jail after a brief stay, they followed Mackenzie south. Michael was pardoned in 1843, and he returned to the farm. By 1850, he had completed the farmhouse that currently serves as the cemetery’s office.

The property was purchased in 1916 by the Toronto General Burying Grounds, the forerunner of the Mount Pleasant Group, but no one was interred until July 1948. Some of the Shepard land, between Beecroft Road and Yonge Street, was later sold to build the North York Civic Centre and its associated projects.

Grounds

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The entrance from Beecroft Road is a divided boulevard dominated by a massive war-memorial cenotaph, dedicated in 1963. It bears a quote from 19th-century politician Joseph Howe:

A wise nation preserves its records—gathers up its muniments, decorates the tombs of its illustrious dead, repairs its great public structures and fosters national pride and love of country by perpetual reference to the sacrifices and glories of the past.

In 1986, the width of the roadway prompted then-city controller Howard Moscoe to ask North York council to study turning it into an extension of North York Boulevard, as a way of relieving traffic. Deemed an “intolerable desecration” by a fellow controller, the idea was quickly rejected. An apology letter was sent to cemetery officials.

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The grounds are dotted with special memorials ranging from a section devoted to the military to a monument to the Hungarian community. Near the office are a waterfall-laden “Garden of Remembrance” and a recently built columbarium, powered by solar and geothermal energy.

Like Mount Pleasant Cemetery, York is divided in half by a busy street. While the section east of Senlac Road is flat, hills dot the western portion.

Notable Names

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You won’t find stacks of coffee cups or empty doughnut boxes placed beside the grave of Tim Horton. What you will see is the epitaph “T.T.F.N. Daddy-O.” (That is, ta-ta for now.) Architect Uno Prii, also buried at York, was responsible for the curving modernist apartment buildings of the Annex. Broadcaster Barbara Frum’s gravesite bears an ornate gate and is lined with red stones. Percy Saltzman’s tombstone recognizes his role as “Canada’s First TV Weatherman.”

Favourite Spots

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Not far from Tim Horton’s gravesite lies genuine royalty. Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna was the youngest sister of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and cousin of King George V of England. Forced to marry an older duke, she had the unconsummated marriage annulled by her brother in 1916 to wed her true love, Colonel Nikolai Kulikovsky. After the Russian Revolution, the Kulikovskys fled to the Crimea, which prevented them from being murdered by the Bolsheviks alongside the Tsar’s family. There were close calls on their flight out of Russia. (After being arrested, they were saved when officials argued at length over executing the couple.) They stayed in Olga’s mother’s homeland, Denmark, until 1948, where the duchess was often called upon to debunk pretenders, like the woman who claimed to be her niece Anastasia.

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Fearing assassination by the KGB to extinguish the her claim to the Russian throne, the Kulikovskys moved to Canada in 1948. They settled in Cooksville, where the duchess preferred to be known as Olga. She developed a reputation as cat lady, and showcased her art at Eaton’s College Street store. Before her death in 1960, Olga briefly lived with friends above a beauty salon on Gerrard Street East. She is memorialized with a sizable cross and a special plaque.

Sources: The Final Word: The Book of Canadian Epitaphs by Nancy Millar (Victoria: Brindle & Glass, 2004), the November 25, 1960 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the July 4, 1986 and August 26, 1996 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, November 25, 1960.

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Toronto Star, November 25, 1960.

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“Last farewell: Carrying Tim Horton’s casket to burial plot in York Cemetery yesterday are pall bearers (clockwise) Dave Keon, Bobby Baun, Allan Stanley, Billy Harris, George Armstrong and Dick Duff–all former Maple Leaf teammates of Horton.” Photo by Ron Bull, originally published in the February 26, 1974 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0055643f.

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Toronto Star, February 26, 1974.

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Gravesite of architect Uno Prii, noted for his space-age, curvy apartment towers in the city

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More photos from my 2012 stroll through the grounds. 

Goin’ Down the Coalition Road

Originally published on Torontoist on April 12, 2011. Keep in mind while reading this that “current” means the 2011 federal campaign, not 2019 (see update section).

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Why is Bob Rae so happy? The Globe and Mail, June 19, 1985.

Throughout the current election campaign, Conservative leader Stephen Harper has blasted the opposition parties for conspiring to form a “reckless” coalition government that would ruin the nation’s stability, despite his own participation in talks to form an alliance in 2004 with horrifying socialists in the NDP and unholy separatists in the Bloc Québécois. While the long-term results of Harper’s fear-mongering and of other candidates’ denials regarding their willingness to form governing alliances are yet to be determined, it is not necessarily true that a coalition would result in disaster. Heck, if it wasn’t for a coalition, Harper might not be campaigning to retain his role as Canadian prime minister.

Since the colonies that formed Canada gained responsible government in the mid-19th century, coalitions, or written accords between parties, occasionally dotted the political landscape. The following three examples show the benefits and pitfalls of forming ruling alliances: one formed a nation, one nearly tore it apart, and one broke four decades of uninterrupted rule by the same party.

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Three figures of the Grand Coalition: Sir John A. Macdonald, George Brown, and Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché. Library and Archives Canada.

 

Government: The Great Coalition
When: 1864 to 1867
Where: The United Province of Canada, composed of Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec)
Parties involved: Pretty much everyone—Clear Grits, Liberal-Conservatives, Bleus, and some Rouges
Leaders: Premiers John A. Macdonald (Canada West), Étienne-Paschal Taché, followed by Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau (Canada East)
Why: Deadlock. The government of the United Province was designed so that, instead of dividing seats by population, each half had equal representation. Unfortunately, like a relationship on the rocks, one half frequently disagreed with the other. By the dawn of the 1860s, the double majority that was effectively required to pass legislation rarely occurred, which led to a succession of short-lived governments. Frustration grew in English-dominated Canada West over its proportion of seats, as its population surpassed that of French-dominated Canada East. When the movement toward uniting the British North American colonies gained steam, a committee headed by Clear Grit leader George Brown looked into the constitutional difficulties the United Province faced. A crisis point was reached when a government headed by Liberal-Conservatives Macdonald and Taché fell by two votes on June 14, 1864. Rather than grant a dissolution of the legislature, Governor General Lord Monck suggested that the fallen government leaders talk to Brown. Despite his deep enmity toward Brown, Macdonald insisted that he be brought into any new government. When Macdonald announced the proposed coalition a few days later, the legislators, as historian W.L. Morton described in his book The Critical Years, reacted with joy:

The House, wearied of piecemeal and sterile politics, wearied of a prolonged crisis, rose cheering, and leaders and backbenchers alike stumbled into the aisles and poured onto the floor. The leaders shook hands and clapped shoulders; with a spring the little Bleu member for Montcalm, Joseph Dufresne, embraced the tall Brown and hung from the neck of the embarrassed giant. The tension of years of frustration broke in the frantic rejoicing.

Results: Within a few months, the coalition organized conferences in Charlottetown and Quebec City to woo the Maritime colonies into a permanent union. Under the new government framework, seats in the House of Commons were roughly divided by population. Once confederation was achieved in 1867, the coalition dissolved to fight for seats in the Dominion of Canada’s first federal election.

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A typical cartoon from the Unionist camp during the 1917 election campaign. The Telegram, December 14, 1917.

Government: The Union Government
When: 1917 to 1921
Where: Dominion of Canada
Parties involved: Conservatives, pro-conscription Liberals, a few independents
Leaders: Prime Ministers Robert Borden (1917 to 1920) and Arthur Meighen (1920 to 1921)
Why: As the First World War entered its fourth year, casualties among Canadian troops outpaced the number of fresh volunteers. Under pressure from Great Britain (which experienced two coalition governments during the war) to provide more manpower, Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden determined that, despite the objections he knew would arise from farmers bemoaning the loss of family labour and Quebec voters who despised military officials who refused to create French-only battalions, conscription was required. Borden hoped for support from all parties when a conscription bill was introduced in May 1917 and began coalition talks with Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier. A sticking point was Laurier’s wish to hold an overdue election as a referendum on the issue (Canadians should have voted in 1916, but Borden received a year’s reprieve from the governor general due to the conflict), which Borden felt would be a waste of energy better expended for the war effort.

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Harsh words directed at the “quitters” in Quebec, along with the extension of the federal vote to women for the first time (under certain conditions), are among the highlights of this Unionist ad. The Telegram, December 10, 1917.

By the end of August 1917, conscription was law. Despite objections from some highly partisan members of the Tory caucus (whom Borden felt lacked “the spirit which prompted our young men to cross the sea and go over the parapet. All of them are backward and cowardly”), Borden assembled a cabinet in mid-October that included a handful of pro-conscription Liberals and independent MPs. When an election was called, Borden’s coalition ran under the Unionist banner against Liberals still loyal to Laurier. During the campaign, Unionist propaganda demonized Quebec and anyone else who didn’t support conscription, and tarred Laurier for forcing an election the country didn’t need. To warp the vote their way, the government enfranchised female relatives of soldiers and disenfranchised anyone who emigrated to Canada after 1902 from certain so-called enemy nations. After the votes were cast on December 17, the Unionists won 153 seats. The Liberals won all but three of the 65 seats in Quebec, but only captured 20 outside of la belle province.

Results: Conscription proved problematic, as most conscripts sought exemptions to service (which led the government to cancel all exemptions in April 1918), and riots broke out in Quebec. After the war ended, the government continued to wield a heavy hand as it attempted to crush postwar outbreaks of labour unrest such as the Winnipeg General Strike. After Borden’s retirement in 1920, new Prime Minister Meighen hoped to forge the coalition into a new permanent party and campaigned during the following year’s election under the banner of the National Liberal and Conservative party. It wasn’t to be, as Meighen finished third behind William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberals and the new Progressive party. Long term, Quebec proved its capacity for a long memory by refusing to provide the majority of its federal seats to the Tories until John Diefenbaker’s landslide victory in 1958. During the Second World War, the Conservatives again proposed a coalition government, but King refused to go along.

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David Peterson and Bob Rae sign the accord under which they soon governed Ontario. The Toronto Sun, May 29, 1985.

Government: Liberal-NDP Accord
When: 1985 to 1987
Where: Ontario
Parties involved: Liberals, New Democrats
Leaders: Premier David Peterson, NDP leader Bob Rae
Why: After 42 years in power, the wheels fell off the Big Blue Machine. Whether it was due to the Progressive Conservative party’s rightward shift under new leader Frank Miller, outrage from the party base over outgoing Premier William Davis’s announcement of full funding for Catholic schools to grade 13, or general fatigue with the party having been in power for so long, May 2, 1985, was not a good night for Ontario Tories. Though the Tories wound up with the most seats, the seat numbers (52 PC, 48 Liberal, 25 NDP) made it all but impossible for Miller to provide a functional government. With Bob Rae in a kingmaking position, talks began between the NDP and the other parties. Though the progressive party traditionally found the Liberals more odious than the Tories, the rightward tilt of the government-in-waiting Miller was assembling (which included fresh-faced ministers Ernie Eves, Mike Harris, and Bob Runciman) made Liberal leader David Peterson a more attractive partner. Key NDP officials were nervous about forming a proper coalition, worried that the party would be subsumed into the Liberal fold or experience heavy losses in the following election as the federal NDP had after it propped up Pierre Trudeau’s government from 1972 to 1974. An accord was reached whereby for two years Peterson would be premier, the NDP would not trigger any non-confidence votes, and both parties would support legislation for programs ranging from reforming rent regulations to pay equity for women.
On June 18, 1985, the Miller government was defeated on a non-confidence vote over its throne speech. After his defeat, Miller launched a vicious attack on the opposition, suggesting that Peterson and Rae were engaged in unnatural acts to kill his government, and that Ontario would be “held economic hostage by a Liberal and NDP lynch mob.” He also noted that the NDP had “prostituted themselves for power” and warned that the accord would be the party’s death warrant. The next day, Miller advised Lieutenant-Governor John Black Aird to ask Peterson to form a government instead of dissolving the legislature for another election.

Results: As per the accord, legislation for pay equity and other issues of shared importance to the Liberals and the NDP passed, and Ontarians were spared an election for two years. Peterson reaped the benefits of the accord, as he led the Liberals to a landslide victory in 1987. Though the NDP lost four seats, Bob Rae became leader of the opposition thanks to a total collapse of the Tories under Miller’s successor Larry Grossman.

Additional material from The Critical Years: The Union of British North America 1857-1873 by W.L. Morton (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1964), Blue Thunder by Bob Plamondon (Toronto: Key Porter, 2009), Rae Days by Thomas Walkom (Toronto: Key Porter, 1994), and the June 19, 1985 editions of the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

Coalition was a hot topic during the 2019 federal election campaign. In retrospect, I should have republished this piece during the campaign, but my brain was deep into other election-related stuff.

Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: Richview

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons of 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece combines a story originally published by Torontoist on October 29, 2012 with a “Ghost City” column published online by The Grid on June 11, 2013.

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It seems like a strange location for a graveyard. Tucked within the massive interchange of Highways 401 and 427, Richview Memorial Cemetery stands calmly amid the traffic chaos surrounding it. The heritage site provides the final resting place for members of western Etobicoke’s pioneer farming families.

History

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To read the plaque, check out Toronto’s Historical Plaques.

Though burials were made onsite as early as 1846, Richview wasn’t officially a graveyard until the Union Chapel was completed, around 1853. According to a historical plaque, farmer William Knaggs (who is buried at Richview) sold the land that became the cemetery for use as “a chapel and lot without belonging to any particular church or denomination, to be respectively devoted exclusively to religious purposes in the discretion of certain trustees.”

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The congregation nearly split when the church acquired a pipe organ from Cooke’s Presbyterian Church in Toronto in 1855; several members believed that music was a form of devilish temptation. Perhaps they were on to something, as legend has it the organ met its demise in a barn fire before it could be installed.

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Map depicting location of Union, later Richview, taken from the Illustrated Historical Atlas of York (Toronto: Miles & Company, 1878). The east-west road through Union would become Richview Sideroad, then Eglinton Avenue. Future Highway 27/427 runs north/south through Union. The road to the west became Renforth Drive, while the road to the east became Martin Grove Road. Modern-day Rathburn Road runs along the bottom of the map. For the full map of Etobicoke Township, check out Historical Maps of Toronto.

Up until the late 1880s, the intersection was known either as Union (after the church) or Kit’s Corners (after blacksmith Christopher “Kit” Thirkle). It became known as Richview after 1887, when a post office bearing that name moved south from present-day Airport Road. The Knaggs family offered more land to build a larger church, which opened as Richview Methodist in 1888. The new building, renamed Richview United in 1925, was a gathering spot for local farmers to enjoy activities ranging from crokinole tournaments to oyster suppers.

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Richview’s long run as a quiet farming community ended in the 1950s with the encroachment of suburbia. The cemetery and church found themselves in an isolated island in the middle of the interchange of Highways 27 and 401. The church was demolished soon after its last service was held in February 1959, with the congregation moving into its present home on Wellesworth Drive west of present-day Highway 427 three years later. Cemetery trustees resisted moving the dead, leaving local pioneers undisturbed amid the growing volume of traffic around them.

Maintaining Richview Cemetery proved handy when development elsewhere in Etobicoke crept toward pioneer burial grounds. During discussions of how to move remains from Willow Grove Burial Grove on Rexdale Boulevard to Richview in January 1968, Etobicoke councillors couldn’t resist cracking jokes. When the cemetery board chairman was asked to provide more information on relocation logistics, one councillor told him to “keep digging.” Around 110 bodies were moved to the south end of Richview in 1970, followed by re-interments from the McFarlane Cemetery on Dundas Street West.

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Around 300 people are estimated to be buried in Richview, of which only 90 have markers. Only descendants of those resting there can buy plots. The most recent burial was Victor Kimber, who maintained the grounds for over 40 years before he died in 2005. Kimber’s burial revealed one problem with holding services at the site—traffic roaring by on Highway 427 made it difficult to hear the minister.

Grounds

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Finding the entrance is tricky if you aren’t paying attention. A hidden driveway runs south from Eglinton Avenue, just west of the exits from the surrounding highways. The road leads to a high, gated fence, which may or may not be locked when you arrive.

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Don’t expect a tree-shaded vista: grass and shrubs provide the only hints of greenery. What you will see are plenty of century-old tombstones mixed in with historical plaques telling the cemetery’s story. Around 300 people are buried in Richview, with the oldest tombstone dating to 1846. While some markers have been restored, age and vehicle exhaust threaten to make others illegible.

“This is a final resting place,” local historian Randall Reid told the Globe and Mail in 2006. “That has to be respected.”

Notable Names

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At least one family name is recognizable, if only because of the Etobicoke road named after them: Dixon.

Favourite Spots

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Several tombstones provide glimpses into the lives of those buried below them. Take Elizabeth Coulter, who passed away at age 22, in November 1852. Though her marker is missing a few pieces, enough remains to hint at the pain surrounding her passing:

Affliction sore long time I bore
Physicians were in vain,
Till God was pleased to send me [home?]
And free me of my pain.
Repent in time make no delay
I in my bloom was called away.

Sources: Etobicoke Remembered by Robert A. Given (Toronto: Pro Familia, 2007), Villages of Etobicoke (Etobicoke: Etobicoke Historical Board, 1985), the October 28, 2006 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the January 4, 1968 and October 20, 1987 editions of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, January 4, 1968.

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Toronto Star, October 20, 1987.

Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: Mount Pleasant

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece was originally published on Torontoist on October 27, 2011.

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Mount Pleasant Cemetery is much more than a burial spot for a century’s worth of Toronto elites. Beyond its historic tombs, it serves as one of North Toronto’s major parks, suitable for a leisurely run or quiet contemplation. The grounds act as an arboretum preserving a wide variety of tree species. A walk from the oldest to newest sections traces Toronto’s evolution from Anglo-Saxon stronghold to multicultural city. You could spend days uncovering Mount Pleasant’s many gems, from surveying the personal mementos inside the main mausoleum to reading epitaphs that ask a simple question: “Well, now what?”

History

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To forestall overcrowding at the Necropolis, the Toronto Burying Grounds Trust purchased a 200-acre farm on Yonge Street in 1873. Designer Henry Engelhardt’s layout was inspired by the park-like graveyards emerging in American cities. The early appearance of Mount Pleasant was described in the cemetery’s 1876 rule book:

Commodious and inviting foot-paths wind around every hill, and explore each dale and shady nook, whence crystal springs bubble forth into beautiful streams. The waters of Spring Creek have been dammed up in several places, and Cascades, Lakes and Ponds have been formed with rustic bridges leading over them; and what was once a rough and impassable ravine bears now the impress of art, and can be visited by persons either in carriages or on foot.

Among the first burials were the remaining unclaimed remains from the Potter’s Field cemetery at Bloor and Yonge, which had officially closed 20 years earlier. When the cemetery officially opened on November 4, 1876, the Globe called Mount Pleasant “a quiet resting place for the people’s dead.” Among the early rules: tickets were required for entry; children had to be accompanied by adults; horses were allowed by special permit only; carriage drivers had to remain in their coach seats during funeral services; burials were not permitted on Sunday unless a doctor determined that the person being placed in the ground had a communicable disease; and no bathing, dogs, fishing, picnics, skating, smoking, or washing were allowed.

Grounds

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The cemetery is divided by Mount Pleasant Road—to get from one side to the other, we recommend taking the underpass on the north side. The older western section is where you’ll find the earliest burials, main mausoleum, grand tombs, and most of the recognizable names. The eastern portion includes the Garden of Remembrance, scattering grounds, and, especially as you approach Bayview Avenue, a better representation of the multicultural diversity of present-day Toronto. The winding roads are part of the Belt Line trail and attract plenty of cyclists, joggers, and runners.

Notable Names

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It’s easier to list off who isn’t buried in Mount Pleasant than who is. Pick up a copy of Mike Filey’s book Mount Pleasant Cemetery: An Illustrated Guide for a comprehensive who’s who of the cemetery’s permanent residents. Memorials that we suspect are among the most visited are those for Frederick Banting, Charles Best, war hero Billy Barker, the Eaton family, Glenn Gould, Foster Hewitt, Punch Imlach, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and the Massey family (whose mausoleum was designed by Old City Hall architect E.J. Lennox).

Favourite Spots

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The Garden of Remembrance and its neighbouring wooded trail provide a relaxing atmosphere to rest and reflect. On the day of our photo shoot, we noticed a man quietly working on his computer while sitting next to the fountain pond.

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For over-the-top absurdity, it’s hard to beat the ego-driven monument to Knob Hill Farms founder and onetime Maple Leafs owner Steve Stavro that greets visitors to the western section as they enter from Mount Pleasant Road. There’s some self-inflation at work in depicting yourself as a classical emperor wearing a laurel-leaf crown, with a pack of lions standing guard. Top it off with a statue of Alexander the Great on horseback, and you’re left with a memorial that might cause business titans of old, like the Eatons and Masseys, to turn in their graves.

Additional material from Rules and Regulations of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery (Toronto: Toronto Burying Grounds Trust, 1876) and the November 6, 1876 edition of the Globe.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Report from the November 6, 1876 edition of The Globe. The paper also printed the trustees’ report, which summed up the historical path to the creation of Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

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While I can’t track down my original set of photos from 2011, it appears this one was left on the cutting room floor. This memorial to the Cutten family was sculpted by Emanuel Hahn, who was also responsible for statues of Ned Hanlan at Exhibition Place and Sir Adam Beck along University Avenue.

Toronto Cemetery Sojourns: Potter’s Field

As Halloween approaches, we are surrounded by images of death. Most focus on the ghoulish aspects, from bony skeletons to creepy tombstones with punny names for the deceased. But the mock graveyards decorating residential lawns bear little resemblance to Toronto’s real cemeteries. Instead of depressing, scary final resting places, these spaces are full of life.

During the Halloween seasons in 2011 and 2012, I wrote a series of articles for Torontoist on the city’s cemeteries. This year I’m mixing those pieces with updates and new stories. This piece was originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on October 29, 2011.

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Bloor and Yonge: subway junction, pedestrian scramble, long-term construction hoarding, gateway to Yorkville’s high-end shopping. While waiting on the northwest corner for the traffic light to turn, you may notice a silver plaque on the side of 2 Bloor West. Long before the beautiful people entered the neighbourhood, this was a site where the city’s pioneering outcasts received a respectful final rest. As the first cemetery in Toronto that wasn’t tied to a particular religious faith, it set the course for future burial grounds where almost anyone could be buried.

By the mid-1820s, burying the dead was becoming an issue in “Muddy York.” As people moved into small dwellings, graves on personal property grew rare. Cemeteries existed, but only for particular faiths. If you were a good Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, there wasn’t a problem. But if you didn’t subscribe to those branches of Christianity, suffered from mental illness, embraced a dissipated lifestyle, or had committed murder, your remains were bound for rejection out of fear they would foul consecrated ground.

This raised the ire of prominent local figures like the ever-fiery William Lyon Mackenzie. “We think that to perpetuate sectarianism even beyond the grave,” Mackenzie wrote in a December 1825 edition of the Colonial Advocate, “is very preposterous in a Christian country, and are sure that the majority of the liberal and well-informed throughout the earth, think as we do on this subject.” Mackenzie urged the government of Upper Canada to create legislation so that in “some convenient part of each township” of the colony, land would be set aside for a publicly operated non-denominational burial ground.

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Grave of Thomas Carfrae Jr. in the Necropolis

Mackenzie was among those present at a meeting held the previous month for “inhabitants of York friendly to the purchasing of a public burial place for all classes and sects.” Another attendee was merchant Thomas Carfrae Jr., who shared Mackenzie’s Scottish background but not his radical politics. Carfrae’s campaigning for a petition to support an open cemetery resulted in a parliamentary act approving the creation of such a site in January 1826. Five months later, six acres were purchased for 75 pounds by Carfrae and four other men, all of whom served as the new cemetery’s first trustees.

Sadly, the first burial was Carfrae’s infant daughter Mary, who was laid to rest on July 18, 1826. Four more members of his family joined Mary in the cemetery over the next seven years. Despite these many causes for grief, Carfrae was a busy man—besides his role in establishing Potter’s Field, he was also involved in the founding of the York Fire Company, St. Andrew’s Church, and the York Mechanics institute (the forerunner of the Toronto Public Library). He served as an alderman on Toronto’s first city council in 1834, was appointed customs collector in 1835, and was named harbour master in 1838. He reunited with his family in Potter’s Field following his death from a stroke in June 1841 at the age of 44.

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One of the surviving Potter’s Field tombstones at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Throughout its existence, the cemetery was known by a variety of names. The official name was the York General Burying Ground (which was changed to Toronto after the city renamed itself in 1834), but was alternately known as the Strangers’ Burying Ground, as those tended to be the types who made up the early burials. The name that caught on, Potter’s Field, was a biblical reference to the fate of Judas and his blood money in Matthew 27:7, which was used to buy a “potter’s field, to bury strangers in.”

Burials were light during the early years, until a cholera epidemic hit during the summer of 1832. Besides the heavy toll that disease claimed, burials increased as the new village of Yorkville grew around the cemetery. When compiling the causes of death for those buried in Potter’s Field, genealogist Elizabeth Hancocks was struck by “the nature of the bare-fact entries, many of which seem to possess an eloquence that carries well beyond the grave.” Among the frequent forms of death that caught her attention: “felled by tree.”

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The original tombstone for hanged rebels Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews. A larger memorial was built beside it in the Necropolis in 1893.

By the end of the 1840s, the cemetery neared capacity. As the population grew in Toronto and Yorkville, there was concern that Potter’s Field would run out of space for future burials. The trustees successfully lobbied the colonial government for legislation that widened their ranks and allowed the purchase of more land. The Necropolis, which had been established independently of the trust in 1850, relieved the pressure on Potter’s Field, but not enough for the residents of Yorkville. Just as bohemians and hippies were redeveloped out of the neighbourhood a century later, the dead were given the boot in 1855 after the government honoured a petition to close the cemetery.

The trustees were given the power to sell the land once all 6,685 people buried there were moved elsewhere. Families of the deceased were offered the choice of moving their loved ones’ remains themselves or having the remains transplanted to new plots in the Necropolis. Among those moved east were the Carfrae family and 1837 rebellion martyrs Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews.

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Plaque at the corner of Sumach Street and Winchester Street noting the move of remains from Potter’s Field to the Necropolis.

One problem: there were plenty of remains that nobody claimed. To the consternation of Yorkville residents, and presumably those eager to redevelop the land, the cemetery sat for two more decades. By 1874 everyone’s patience had run out, so the Ontario government gave the trustees the right to remove any remains that were still in Potter’s Field 20 years after it had officially closed. When the anniversary passed, the unclaimed were moved to both the Necropolis and the new Mount Pleasant Cemetery. As the Globe noted when Mount Pleasant officially opened in 1876, “In a mound here lie the bones of about 3,000 persons which could not be identified. The remains of old and young persons of every Christian denomination, coloured and white people alike, here rest together in one common grave.”

By 1881, moving was finished and the site was soon built over. “Where the marble columns once stood, and the house to receive the departed was once erected,” wrote the anonymous scribe of an early 20th century guide to Toronto’s cemeteries, “now stand the splendid villas of the living.” Though the silver plaque is the only reminder of Potter’s Field’s existence within Yorkville, grave markers survive in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the Necropolis. The trust that operated the cemetery went through numerous name changes before adopting its current identity as the Mount Pleasant Group. Some graveyards that had been strictly denominational, like the Anglican-run St. James, gradually began permitting burials of those who didn’t subscribe to the operator’s faith. Though sectarian cemeteries continue to exist, the inclusive visions of Thomas Carfrae Jr. and William Lyon Mackenzie that created Potter’s Field were realized throughout Ontario.

Additional material from Historical Sketch Toronto, Canada 1826-1905 (Toronto: Toronto General Burying Grounds Trust, 1905), Potter’s Field Cemetery 1826-1855 otherwise called The Strangers’ Burying Ground compiled by Elizabeth Hancock (Toronto: Generation Press, 1983), the December 8, 1825 edition of the Colonial Advocate, and the November 6, 1876 edition of the Globe.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Colonial Advocate, December 8, 1825.

1833 potters field description

York Commercial Directory, Street Guide, and Register 1833-4 (York: Thomas Dalton, 1833)

Vintage Toronto Ads: A Home University Fit For an Empire

Originally published on Torontoist on March 2, 2010, though the image was long-missing there.

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The Empire, January 26, 1895.

Ah, nothing like using the bait of personal enlightenment to lure people hoping to expand their knowledge base into buying newspaper subscriptions and a set of encyclopaedias. The only cost to unlocking the “sum of all knowledge” and avoid being forever disparaged for having only attended a little red school house was to read the news of the day filtered through the official viewpoint of the governing political party in Ottawa. It may have mattered little which of the five great classes of humanity an Empire reader belonged to, as long as they ultimately used the knowledge gained to cast their ballots for the Conservatives (or, to go with the party name that was fading from official use, Liberal-Conservatives).

Based on these ads, the heart of the Empire’s library was the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Also known as the “scholar’s edition,” this incarnation of the popular series was published in twenty-four volumes between 1875 and 1889. Perhaps special note was made of this version being the “Edinburgh Edition” to distinguish it from the cheap forgeries that floated around the United States.

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Toronto Daily Mail, December 17, 1887.

As for the newspaper offering the means of expanding one’s knowledge, the Empire was launched when the Conservatives found they could no longer trust the Mail (which the party had backed since the paper’s founding in 1872) to always push party policies. The editorial direction of the Empire was clear when the first edition hit the streets of Toronto on December 27, 1887:

It is proposed to strengthen by all legitimate means the hands of the Party and the Government that have controlled the politics of the Dominion (with the exception of a term of five years) ever since the foundations of Confederation were laid. Believing that the public affairs of Canada have been, on the whole, wisely and ably administrated under the premiership of Sir John A. Macdonald, and holding that the remarkable progress of our country has been due in large measure to his far-sighted and patriotic administration, The Empire will extend to the Leader and his Government its fullest confidence and heartiest support.

In short, if you liked new Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier, the Empire wasn’t going to be high on your daily reading list. Based on random flips through its pages, we recommend the Empire to those readers who have deep interests in the National Policy, coverage of the death of Sir John A. in 1891, and gatherings of late nineteenth-century cheese producers.

Faithful readers who dithered about buying a set of encyclopaedias had little time to ponder a purchase. Two days after the last of today’s ads appeared, the Empire published its final edition and merged with the Mail to form the Mail and Empire (which merged with the Globe in 1936). The newspapers on the left were mixed in their reactions to the Empire’s demise—the Star noted it was a “sorry good-bye” but that Empire staff “know how the chicken felt” on this “cold day” before the Star editorial writer criticized the Tories, while the Globe gave a front-page thank you to Empire staff for temporarily housing their paper after a fire in January 1895 destroyed the Globe’s office.

Additional material from the December 27, 1887, edition of the Empire and the February 6, 1895, edition of the Toronto Star.