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This fleet of small airplanes flew over Toronto in September 1938 and landed at North York's Barker Field so that their pilots could visit the CNE. This photograph is taken prior to take-off in Hamilton. - Toronto Star file photo
This fleet of small airplanes flew over Toronto in September 1938 and landed at North York's Barker Field so that their pilots could visit the CNE. This photograph is taken prior to take-off in Hamilton. - Toronto Star file photo

Dufferin, Lawrence Business District Used to be Busy North York Airport

‘North York’s attraction was its proximity to the then-separate city of Toronto,’ writes Susan Goldenberg

Hard to believe perhaps but what is now a business district at Dufferin and Lawrence near the Allen Expressway was a busy airport in the first half of last century.

Nameless originally, it became Barker Field in honour of World War 1 Manitoba-born flying ace Lieutenant-Colonel William George Barker, recipient of the Victoria Cross and many other medals. He downed 50 enemy planes in the War. His buddy Billy Bishop from Owen Sound had the largest total — 72.

After the war the two briefly operated a small airfield near Wilson Avenue and Avenue Road. Barker was killed March 12, 1930, age 35, when a plane he was testing near Ottawa crashed.

The 120-acre field, in operation between 1927 and 1953, was the largest of the many opened on unused farmland in largely unoccupied North York in the 1920s when civil aviation began to develop. Pearson Airport is 4,613 acres.

North York’s attraction was its proximity to the then-separate city of Toronto.

The field’s first occupant, 1927-1930, was Century Aircraft, managed by future Toronto mayor Allan Lamport, then in his twenties. National Air Transport Ltd., Toronto’s largest airline with eight planes, established in 1928 by wartime pilot Earl Hand, bought the field in 1930. “National” wasn’t national; it only flew to Windsor and Buffalo. Following Barker’s death, Hand decided to name the field after him.

Hundreds of spectators braved heavy rain to watch the June 6, 1931, dedication at which Barker’s widow Jean, Bishop and numerous officials spoke. There was then an air show. Bishop went for a brief ride on a new type of aircraft, the “Autogiro,” a forerunner of helicopters, his first time on one. People were astounded that it rose and descended perpendicularly. “It’s the most amazing sensation in the world. There’s a great kick in it,” Bishop said.

In 1937 Barker Field was purchased by Belleville, Ont., brothers Walter, Clare, and Arthur Leavens. They opened a flying training school; 1,000 people qualified to be pilots.

Barker Field was hemmed in by buildings as North York urbanized. Leavens sold it in 1953 to an industrial developer for $500,000.

Written by Susan Goldenberg.

Originally published on December 2, 2021, on toronto.com.