A tour through the former town of East Toronto

This photo shows the view west from the corner of Main Street and Gerrard Street East in 1915, seven years after the town of East Toronto was annexed by the City of Toronto. PHOTO: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 2211

I have been asked several times about the town of East Toronto: Where was it? What is it? Here we go, my historical friends.

The Town of East Toronto was a separate municipality from the current city of Toronto. It had its own elected politicians, including a mayor, aldermen, police department, schools, fire department, etc. It was the only town to be incorporated by the provincial government – all of the other historic hamlets such as Leslieville, Don Mount, Chester, Riverdale, Norway, Berkeley, Ben Lamond, Little York, and Riverside were just names given to areas not officially recognized by the province.

The reason for the existence of East Toronto was the Grand Trunk Railway. It was established in 1853 and later became the Canadian National Railroad. The City of Toronto didn’t have the capacity for hundreds of acres of railroad in the city, so the railways had to look for land outside the city. The GTR found a spot outside the city at the time, on the site presently bounded by Gerrard Street north to Danforth, from Woodbine Avenue in the west to Victoria Park Avenue.

By acquiring this land it became one of the largest freight marshalling yards with the largest roundhouse in the vicinity. To do all this work they needed employees – hundreds of them –and a place to house them, and this is where the town of East Toronto came in.

In 1884 Dawes Road came through the GTR tracks straight to Kingston Road. The railway petitioned the government to stop Dawes Road from passing through their tracks. Permission was granted, but there had to be a better way to get over the tracks.

The GTR built a street called Main Street, with a bridge over the railroad tracks, and this started a major thoroughfare.

At this time there were several hundred workers and their families – but where to house and feed them? A movement started to build a village in the vicinity. It took a few years to develop into fruition and many meetings took place to establish a community.

There were several people involved in the town planning. Two of them were Benjamin Morton, the largest land owner in the area, and Donald Stephenson, a lumber merchant who, along with others, petitioned the government for the town. There were different names proposed for the town – one was East Bourne, another East Dale. Finally the name of East Toronto was settled on.

Community Centre 55 is housed in a former police station, built, as seen here, in 1911. The building was constructed on the site of the original East Toronto town hall. PHOTO: City of Toronto Archives series 372, sub-series 100, item 175
Community Centre 55 is housed in a former police station, built, as seen here, in 1911. The building was constructed on the site of the original East Toronto town hall.
PHOTO: City of Toronto Archives series 372, sub-series 100, item 175

In 1880 the village of East Toronto became a reality. Boundaries and electoral districts were established. Ward 2 covered the Beach area, from McLean Avenue to Beech Avenue, north and northwest to Kingston Road. Ward 1 went north within about the same boundaries up to Gerrard Street, sometimes known as Lakeview Avenue. Ward 3 went north from there to the Danforth. Later, in 1903, when the village became a town, the boundaries included Little York and other areas north of the Danforth.

Though it began with only 700 or 800 people, East Toronto became the largest town in the East End, with a population of 4,800 people. The town existed from 1888 until 1908 when the City of Toronto annexed East Toronto.

On January 16, 1888, the first council was composed of Reeve D. G. Stephenson and councillors Benjamin Morton, R. Luttrell, Charles Pickering, and Frank Boston. You will note that some of our streets were named for these elected officials.

The first meeting was held in a building called Morton’s Hall that still exists on Swanwick Avenue. There was some controversy to where the original Morton’s Hall was – I thought it was in a church on Swanwick Avenue, but my historic colleague Mary Campbell pointed out to me the original town hall was next door to the church.

Later, as the village and revenue grew, the village erected a combination fire hall and town hall on Main Street, where Community Centre 55 is now. The past fire hall is now an empty space.

For 20 years the village/town council met at the location on Main Street. At the back of the East Toronto town hall was a small jail for holding prisoners, and a ‘pen’ which held runaway animals such as pigs, horses, cows and dogs. (Owners had to pay a fine if they wanted their animals back.)

The village organized itself as a responsible municipality. It had a town clerk, a Mr. Monteith. The Dominion Bank became the financial institution.

The town also employed a police constable, a Mr. James Hodge, at the princely sum of $20 a year. Mr. Hodge later became one of the top policemen for the Grand Trunk Railroad.

The council started a volunteer fire department. The municipality began maintaining the roads, as bad as they were. A school and a school board were created. Council started assessing the village for taxes – they now had expenses to meet and salaries to be met among other financial needs.

There seemed to be some controversy as to who was to be the permanent town clerk. W.H. Clay, who also worked for the GTR for a while, became the ‘backbone’ of the East Toronto Village until its demise in 1908.

The GTR started enlarging and the village and surrounding area expanded greatly. At the same time a municipality known as West Toronto existed in the western section of York County. It was also a railroad town and handled mainly cows, pigs, sheep, etc., and was sometimes confused with East Toronto.

The area known as the Beach would not have been built up if it wasn’t for the GTR. In those days there were a few cottages and homes and very small businesses on Queen Street. The amount of capital and people and businesses that the railroad and East Toronto brought to the area was the major reason for the Beach being built up to its present status. Without this great railway it would have been many years before the city expanded in this area.

I will go on further in my next column, as there is too much to cover in this issue.

Those interested in the former town are invited to join a historic walking tour on May 28. We will start at Main and Gerrard, and see the site of the GTR YMCA, later Ted Reeve Arena, and the location of the former  Snell’s Bakery. We will stop at the first post office of East Toronto, the largest house on Gerrard at one time. We will visit some of the historic streets such as Lyall Avenue, one of the few designated heritage conservation districts in the city.

We will visit St. Saviour’s Church, celebrating its 125th anniversary. We will note the original railroad houses on Swanwick Avenue. We will discuss the old fire hall, and talk about Kimberley School, and the original East Toronto High School. We will visit the sites of some unusual homes and architectural gems. We will discuss some historical happenings and some interesting characters. We will try our best to show you a little bit of the history of the 20 years of the town of East Toronto.

Meet at 1 p.m. on May 28 at the corner of Main and Gerrard. The walk will end  at Community Centre 55 with light refreshments.

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1 comments

Thanks for the interesting article. I am interested in Ontario fire station histories and from what I know, and from what I have read in your article I am now getting the impression there have been three fire halls. The one in your article depicts the old town hall / police station “Community Centre 55” building, then there was a two-storey wood frame fire hall south of there on Main Street, and the current fire hall opened in 1911. Please let me know if I am correct in my thinking.

Thanks

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