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North York History

For thousands of years, the First Nations lived, hunted, travelled and bartered in the North York area. When John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, moved the capital from Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Town of York in 1793, the foundations of the future growth were laid. York became an economic centre attracting merchants, entrepreneurs and settlers.

With about 50,000 acres of gently rolling countryside, and Yonge Street as the main road, villages sprang up at crossroads, and wherever there was water-power for mills. In 1922, the Township of North York was incorporated, with a population of 6,000.

North York Timeline

Map of North York – click image for full size

North York Pioneers and Landmarks
North York Pioneers and Landmarks c. 1878, by Ted Chirnside, 1956 (public domain courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Local History Articles

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson signs autographs for Carol and Ian Bury on Jan. 22, 1965 at the official opening of Newtonbrook Secondary School in the area where Canada's 14th prime minister was born. - Harold Whyte/Toronto Star file photo
Former PM Lester Pearson’s Father a North York Minister

Former childhood home turned into ‘the first office skyscraper in the area,’ writes Susan Godenberg Lester Bowles Pearson, Canada’s 14th prime minister (1963-1968) as well as a Nobel Peace Prize winner (1957), was born April 23, 1897, in the Newton Brook Wesleyan Methodist Church manse, 5642 Yonge St. Newton Brook, named after the church, was the northernmost part of North York, stretching up to Steeles from around Cummer/Drewry Avenue. Lester’s father, Edwin Arthur Pearson, was… Read more

Willow Theatre
North York’s First Movie Theatre Opened on Yonge Street 1948

Willow theatre sold in 1987, demolished and replaced with condos, offices North York’s first movie theatre – the Willow, opened June 18, 1948, at Yonge Street and Norton Avenue, between Sheppard and Finch avenues, in the Willowdale area – signified that the community was no longer a rural backwater. The theatre had a distinctive yellow tiled marquee trimmed in red, plus an attached tall vertical sign that said in yellow vertical letters on a red… Read more

Toronto Mayor David Crombie donned a conductor's hat and took the controls of a subway train carrying VIPs to officially open York Mills station. - Fred Ross/Toronto Star file photo
The Subway Comes to North York

‘The extension helped transform North York from mainly rural to urban,’ writes Susan Goldenberg March 30 marks two very significant milestones for when the subway finally came to North York. On March 30, 1973 the North Yonge subway extension to York Mills opened, and on March 30, 1974 the Sheppard and Finch stations followed — on the 20th anniversary of the opening of the original line from Union Station to Eglinton. The extension helped transform… Read more

Yorkdale Shopping Centre, the world’s largest enclosed shopping mall of its time, opened in North York on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 1964. - Rick Madonik/Toronto Star file photo
Yorkdale Shopping Centre Opened as World’s Largest Enclosed Shopping Mall

‘Yorkdale was regarded as a shopping wonder,’ writes Susan Goldenberg On Wednesday February 26, 1964, Yorkdale Shopping Centre, the world’s largest enclosed shopping mall of its time, opened in North York, attracting a huge crowd of 100,000 people. “It was like the Friday before Christmas,” the Toronto Star wrote. The official opening was at noon. The reigning Miss Canada cut an 18-inch wide ribbon before an invited audience of 100 VIPs who subsequently had a… Read more

Yonge and Sheppard, looking north, in 1897. - North York Historical Society photo
The Pioneer Life a Hard One and North York No Exception

Longest lasting log cabin in area survived 141 years, was demolished in 1956, writes Susan Goldenberg Next time you grumble about electrical, heating or plumbing problems, reflect on the hard life of North York’s pioneers in much of the 1800s. Land was cleared and log-cabin homes built by “bees” — co-operative gatherings of neighbours. Logs were notched to fit together at the corners, with cracks filled with wedge-shaped pieces of wood plastered with clay. The… Read more

Patricia Hart, surrounded by a cheerful crowd, at her 1968 book signing, Gladys Allison Library, North York (Photo: Bill Chambers)
From the Archives: Patricia Hart’s “Pioneering in North York” 1968 Book Signing

See Rare Photos of an NYHS Special Event from 50 Years Ago Bill Chambers was a reporter/photographer at the old Willowdale Enterprise newspaper, just before Doug Dempsey sold his stake to the Mirror newspaper. In 1968, Mr. Chambers was on an Enterprise photo assignment covering Patricia Hart’s book signing of her Pioneering in North York: A History of the Borough, during a North York Historical Society meeting at the old Gladys Allison Library building (5126… Read more

Prosperous land surveyor David Gibson was part of the Upper Canada Rebellion and was later pardoned. - North York Historical Society photo
North York’s Original Gibson House Torched by Government Soldiers

Pardoned for treason, David Gibson rebuilt his home which ‘still stands today, 170 years later,’ writes Susan Goldenberg There are two good reasons to visit Gibson House, North York’s best known historic site, at Park Home and Yonge Street across from the North York Civic Centre, in December. One, the enjoyable Christmastime festivities. Two, Dec. 7 marks the 181st anniversary of when the original house, built by prosperous land surveyor David Gibson, was burned down… Read more

Herb Carnegie, in 1987, poses with Flemington Public School students participating in his Future ACES, a program on the fundamentals of living. - Jim Russell/Toronto Star file photo
North Yorker Herb Carnegie a Hockey Trailblazer

‘He retired in 1954, then became a successful businessperson and philanthropist,’ writes Susan Goldenberg North Yorker Herb Carnegie was a trailblazer, the first black hockey star, in the 1940s into the early 1950s. Yet, he never made it into the National Hockey League because of his skin colour. The NHL was all-white. Born in 1919 to Jamaican immigrants, “Herbie” started playing hockey on North York’s frozen ponds at eight. At 18 he joined the junior… Read more

‘War Savings Bonds sales were huge in North York,’ recalls Allan Westwood. - Hamilton Spectator file photo
Remembering North York during the Second World War

Susan Goldenberg details life on the homefront during wartime Most North Yorkers during the Second World War were of English descent and strongly supported England. “They believed that England was always in the right, that it must be saved, that Canada should be at war because England was in trouble,” former North Yorker Allan Westwood said. He grew up in North York in the 1940s. “War Savings Bonds sales were huge in North York, out… Read more

In the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, Etobicoke residents are rescued from the overflowing banks of the Humber River. - Courtesy TRCA
North York Constable Helped Out when Hurricane Hazel Slammed into Etobicoke

‘In Ontario 81 people were killed, 35 of them on one street alone,’ says Susan Goldenberg On October 15, 1954 Hurricane Hazel, the most famous and worst hurricane in Canadian history, roared through Toronto, leaving death and destruction in its wake. One of the witnesses was then-North Yorker Brian Weller who shared his recollections for this article. “As a four year old I clearly recall standing at the master bedroom of our home at 22… Read more

From left, Norman Boyd, Edwin Alonzo Boyd and William Jackson pictured escorted by police in Oct. 1952. - Toronto Star file photo
Where was Boyd Gang in September 1952? Hiding in North York, as it turns out

‘A mile north of Leslie and Sheppard they found an abandoned barn far back from the road and moved in,’ writes Susan Goldenberg Something all Canada wanted to know for eight nerve-racking days in September 1952 – where was the Boyd Gang, Canada’s most notorious cop killers, bank robbers and prison escapees? Surprisingly, hiding in a remote part of North York. On Sept. 16, 1952, North York police were catapulted into national attention and acclaim… Read more

At right in this 1897 photo is Brown (Willowdale) School (1892-1963), a later school, on the west side of Yonge St., looking north from Park Home Ave. (Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library)
North York’s First Schools — in Newtonbrook and Willowdale — Opened in 1801

‘Expenditures were frugal; at one school, $2.50 on repairs for the year,’ writes Susan Goldenberg With the fall school season approaching, it’s a good time to look back at education in North York in its early days. In 1801 the community’s first two schools were opened, one in Newtonbrook and the other in Willowdale, both centrally located. They were simple log structures, built within the road allowance because parents worried that if they were built… Read more

Susan Goldenberg Portrait
Overtaxed and Underserviced, North York Broke Away from Toronto in 1922

‘Residents hauled ashes to fill potholes,’ writes Susan Goldenberg What is now North York has been around a very long time. In the early 1920s proof was found that animal life in North York dated back thousands of years when a farmer digging in a pit on his land discovered a six-foot tusk that an archaeologist estimated was between 10,000 and 25,000 years old. North York has a strong First Nations legacy. Between 1400 and… Read more

Mazo de la Roche
The Home of Mazo de la Roche, 3950 Bayview Avenue

For more than two years, between 1976 and 1978, the fate of the onetime home in North York of Mazo de la Riche, author of the bestselling Jalna books about nineteenth-century Ontario, was fought over by preservationists versus developers. The struggle was as melodramatic in its way as the soap opera plot of her Jalna books. At issue was whether the 17-room fieldstone and stucco house would be razed to make way for a housing… Read more

Milne House, Edwards Gardens
Fire Destroys Landmark House (Milne House, Edwards Gardens)

On November 27, 1962, an important part of North York history was destroyed, when a three-alarm fire swept through the 150-year-old Milne Homestead, a showpiece of the Metro Parks’ Edward Gardens (now the Toronto Botanical Gardens). After being alerted at 1.55 a.m., firefighters from five stations rushed to the scene. They fought to control the fire in a struggle that lasted until 7.00 a.m., but were unsuccessful. Fortunately, nobody was injured. According to The Enterprise newspaper, the blaze may have started… Read more

York Mills Presbyterian Church Plaque
Some Interesting Early York Mills Residents

Thomas Mercer The Thomas Mercer family drove from Pennsylvania in 1794 in a wagon with a cow tethered behind, and when requesting land Mercer was offered one hundred acres in exchange for his wagon. Cornelius Anderson Cornelius Anderson, with his family of nine children, settled in York Mills around the time the Mercers did. During the War of 1812 he lost a horse pressed into service by the government and many years later he received… Read more

William McDougall
Hon. William McDougall: Father of Confederation

William McDougall was born to Daniel McDougall and Hannah Matthews on January 25, 1822 He was raised on his grandfather John McDougall’s farm, lot 4, con.1 west of Yonge which his father acquired in 1826. (The property ran from Yonge to Bathurst and comprised the present-day streets of Glenview, Glengrove and Glencairn.) Among the events which the young McDougall witnessed was the burning of Montgomery’s Tavern during the Rebellion of 1837. Following his studies at… Read more

Swing Bridge Between Robert and James Hogg Farms
The Hogg Family

The Hogg family played an influential role in the early days of North York. James Hogg emigrated from Scotland and bought Thomas Arnold’s Mills and farm in 1824. Gradually he extended his holdings and renamed his property York Mills. In 1851, his sons were old enough to take over the property. John and William opened a subdivision called Hogg’s Hollow, and James, the youngest son, became a miller. John Hogg owned extensive property on both… Read more

Taylor Brothers Paper Mill, Don River, east side, south of Pottery Road; watercolour by Owen Staples, 1909 (courtesy Toronto Public Library)
The Taylor Brothers

John Taylor, Senior, a Methodist (1773-1868), his wife, Margaret Hawthorne, and seven children emigrated from Uttoxeter, County of Staffordshire, England, in 1821, settling initially in Cherry Valley, near Albany, New York. In 1825 they moved to Vaughan Township in Upper Canada and pioneered there for about nine years before coming to the forks of the Don River. In 1839, three sons, John, Thomas and George, purchased land from Samuel Sinclair (1797-1852), except for a portion… Read more

Author Pat Hart in 1968, at the launch of her book "Pioneering in North York," by Bill Chambers for The Enterprise
The Enterprise: North York’s First Newspaper

North York’s first newspaper was founded November 11, 1926 in Willowdale. Called The Enterprise, it was established by Robert Rankin, a printer, and Thomas Osbourne, a linotype operator. They thought the market was ripe for a community paper, as North York transitioned from a rural community to an urban one. The four-page weekly paper was first produced, in what used to be a store, just north of Yonge and Sheppard. The paper was given the… Read more

St Johns York Mills
St. John’s Anglican Church York Mills, 1816-2016

The bicentennial is just one year away for St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church, the oldest church in North York and the second oldest in Toronto. The oldest is St. James Cathedral, which is a parish church as well as a cathedral. St. James, at King and Church Streets in downtown Toronto, was started in 1807. St. John’s, located on Don Ridge Drive in the York Mills-Old Yonge Street district, was started in 1816. Before… Read more

Ann O'Reilly Road
Heritage Street Names in the North York Community Area: Ann O’Reilly Road

2205 Sheppard Avenue East (new development) Ann O’Reilly married Patrick O’Sullivan, and in 1860 they opened a hotel on her father’s property, on the north-west corner of Victoria Park and Sheppard, near the proposed street. Patrick died the following year and his wife carried on the business. Their son, Michael, opened the O’Sullivan’s Corners Post Office in the hotel and became its first postmaster in 1892. Dinner at O’Sullivan’s Hotel was very popular until the… Read more

Winnie Roach Leuszler
Willowdale Woman First Canadian to Swim English Channel

The recent brave attempt by five women to swim Lake Ontario length-wise by relay, brings back memories of a Willowdale woman, Winnifred “Winnie” Roach Leuszler, who was the first Canadian to swim the English Channel, doing so August 16, 1951. The Daily Mail of London, England, had invited the top 20 swimmers from around the world to compete in a cross-channel swim from France to England. The conditions were daunting – the temperature was only… Read more

John Goulding Barns
Heritage Street Names in the North York Community Area: Goulding Avenue

Goulding Avenue, west of Yonge Street between Steeles Avenue West and Drewry Avenue, and nearby Goulding Park and Goulding Community Centre, are named for the Thomas Goulding family. The family owned land in the area in the 1800s. Thomas was the first to purchase property. He had served in the Peninsular War as a veterinary surgeon and was able to practice over a wide area in Upper Canada. One son, Robert, purchased adjoining property. William,… Read more

The golden lion, nicknamed "Henry" by library staff, is now located at North York Central Library (Photo: Sarah McCabe)
Golden Lion Hotel

February 2019 Update: The rare and exceptional golden lion sculpture, belonging to the North York Historical Society and on long-term loan to Toronto Public Library at the North York Central Library branch, is currently off view as the library completes renovations. If you’ve been on the sixth floor Canadiana department at the North York Central Library you will have seen a life-size golden lion in a glass case near the elevator. You probably wondered how… Read more

Threshing on west side of Yonge Street, north of the North York Civic Centre, circa 1945. Given to the NYHS by Robert McQuillan.
Tales of Old North York

In 1960, long time North York resident, Harold Gray, collected and recounted anecdotes about early North York life. These stories are in the North York Historical Society’s scrapbooks which are currently being integrated into the North York Central Library’s Canadiana Department. Grinding for Tolls: In his grandfather’s time there was not much money around and a lot of the grinding was done by toll; that is, the miller charged a certain number of pounds (currency)… Read more

John Perkins Bull House, 450 Rustic Road, North York, built 1844, in 1964 photo by Pat Hart (NYHS photo)
Early Downsview Personalities

Downsview derives its name from prominent Downsview early settler John Perkins Bull’s farm, Downs View. The Perkins home was the location for many civic activities. After his marriage in 1844, John opened his house for religious services. As a Justice of the Peace for over thirty-five years, he was known as “Squire Bull” and court was held in his house and the jail was in the cellar. Later, Bull built a courtroom on the southwest… Read more

The 1850 Stong Farmhouse at Keele St. and Steeles Ave. in 1975
Historic Stong Family

Stong College, at York University, is named in honour of the loyalist family, whose land provided a significant portion of the university, and of nearby Black Creek Pioneer Village. The college provides courses in liberal arts, health services and creative writing, in what the university describes, as the “enriched pioneer spirit” of the Stongs. The Stong family came to Upper Canada from Pennsylvania as part of the loyalist migration from the U.S., following the American… Read more

Charlotte de Grassi's father, Phillipe de Grassi
Cornelia de Grassi and the Upper Canada Rebellion: A Tale of Old North York

A thirteen-year-old girl, in acts of derring-do, helped the government side win in the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion. Cornelia de Grassi was the daughter of Phillipe de Grassi (shown in picture), descendant of a noble Italian family, who settled in what is now the Don Mills-Lawrence Avenue East area, on a 200-acre grant in 1831. He was a supporter of the government side in Upper Canada and wrote in his diary, “After a fire (in… Read more

Gibson House Museum, photo: Sarah McCabe
Gibson House Museum

The David Gibson House is located at 5172 Yonge Street (Ward 23 Willowdale). It is a designated heritage site under by-law 27975 passed by North York City Council on December 15, 1980. The Gibson House Museum in North York is a red brick Georgian Revival farmhouse located on land that was acquired by the Gibson family in 1829. David and Elizabeth Gibson lived in a wood frame house on the site until they were forced… Read more

Zion School, S.S. #12, Finch Ave. east of Leslie St., built 1869, photo circa 1890, North York Historical Society photo
Historic Zion Schoolhouse

The Schoolhouse is located at 1091 Finch Avenue East, (Ward 33, Don Valley East). It is a designated heritage site under by-law 27974 passed the North York City Council on December 15, 1980. Zion Schoolhouse has been owned by the City of Toronto since amalgamation of the City’s heritage museums in 2000, and is now managed and operated by the Toronto’s Cultural Services. The schoolhouse was built in 1869 by the citizens of the farming… Read more