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cityscape

Ask Torontoist: The Afterlife is a Highway

Ask Torontoist features questions posed by you, and answered by our elite team of specially trained investigative experts (also known as our staff). Send your questions to ask@torontoist.com.
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Reader Jennifer Jones asks:

I’ve only recently noticed the very small cemetery between the highways where the 427 merges with the 401, right in the middle of the clover shape of the roads. How is it still there? When were people buried there and who are they? Is there a way to access it if people want to visit the gravestones?


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Torontoist answers:

King’s Highways 401 and 427 are two of the busiest in North America, carrying goods to and from Ontario consumers and delivering GTAers from their places of work to their homes. But what most drivers don’t realize is that if it weren’t for those buried in a tiny cemetery they pass on their daily commute, they probably wouldn’t have that home in the first place.
Over a century and a half ago, bordered by what is now Dixon Road, Rathburn Road, Kipling Avenue, and Renforth Drive, stood a small community named Richview. It was home to some of the GTA’s founding families—families that to this day rest in peace in the Richview Cemetery, sandwiched between the two concrete corridors of the 401 and the 427. Today, as commuters head to Dixon Road, they pass a large grey monument marking the resting places of its namesakes—John Dixon, his wife Eliza, and their sons Edwin, John Jr., and little Freddie. Surrounded by a tangled arrangement of on-ramps, overpasses, speedways, and powerlines, the Richview Cemetery’s location is not the scenic setting one usually associates with a final resting place. But it’s a reminder that there was a time before stone, glass, concrete, and gravel of the Toronto we know today.
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In 1853, Richview resident William Knaggs sold the north corner of his farmland to be used as the location for a non-denominational chapel and gravesite to serve the community. But according to Etobicoke historian and the cemetery’s Restoration Project coordinator, Randall Reid, as the neighbouring towns of Toronto Township and Toronto Gore urbanized, the farming community in Richview moved on to the greener pastures of Milton and Woodstock, initiating a general exodus from the small hamlet. Finally, the last farmers sold their land in the 1950s to make way for the highways and Eglinton Road, and the remaining buildings were demolished. But when descendants of Richview citizens refused to see their loved ones disturbed, city planners decided to spare the land (now valueless anyway) and leave the site as is.
“They were there first,” Reid said. “‘Last resting place’ means exactly that. It does not mean ‘last resting place’ until a developer wants the site for his personal financial gain.”
But even though the graves were untouched, there is still a question of whether the Dixons, Pearsons, Graceys, Thirkles, and many others are getting the respect they deserve in their roadside resting place. With virtually no greenery to provide shelter from decades of exposure to exhaust fumes and air pollution, many monuments in Richview have fallen into unrecognizable decay (restoration efforts in 2003 mended much of the damage, but more funding is needed to complete the repairs, which remains Reid’s biggest challenge). And over the years it unofficially became a dumping ground for construction refuge—that is until this past spring, when the Ministry of Transportation locked the gate at the site’s only entrance off the south side of Eglinton Avenue West, in between the East Mall and Renforth Drive, blocking access to waste-dumpers and well-wishers alike.
The Richview Cemetery was designated a heritage site in 2003, officiating the importance of the town and its residents in this city’s history. But unless your municipal pride is so strong it can break through barriers or propel you over them, last respects for our founding fathers will have to remain confined to the driver’s seat at 110 km/h down our very own Route 666.
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.
Illustration by Sasha Plotnikova/Torontoist.

CORRECTION: JULY 14, 2010 This article originally referred to Randall Reid as a Mississauga historian; more correctly, he’s an Etobicoke one.

Comments

  • http://www.blog.canoe.ca/canoedossier David Newland

    Great work! I’ve been wanting to know the story of that cemetery for years. I point it out to absolutely everyone when driving to the airport.
    How does one visit the graves?

  • http://undefined Jennifer J

    Awesome, thanks for answering my question! Much appreciated. Every time I drive by I’m curious about the people buried there, now I feel I know a little more about them.
    And David – if you reread the last paragraph, you’ll see that access has been blocked off, you can’t visit the graves any longer.

  • http://www.blog.canoe.ca/canoedossier David Newland

    Yes, I saw that, but I’m curious because I still see flowers laid out there.

  • http://undefined bigdaddyhame

    “On a windswept summer day in 2005, a small congregation gathered beside a cloverleaf off-ramp at the western fringe of Toronto. In Richview-Willow Grove Cemetery, amid the high-pitched whine of speeding cars and merging semi-trailers, they held a memorial service commemorating Etobicoke’s founding families.
    Richview Cemetery officially opened in 1853 to serve a small rural community located in what is now central Etobicoke. The site’s chapel, the Richview Methodist Church, was still active in 1959 when the confluence of the Macdonald Cartier Freeway (the 401) and Highway 427 was developed on a colossal scale. The chapel was demolished and the congregation relocated. But at the community’s request, the traffic engineers’ high-speed ramps avoided the cemetery. This remaining land – girdled and rendered valueless for real estate development – was disturbed no further.
    In the 1970s, two other local historic cemeteries, Willow Grove Burying Ground and the McFarlane family cemetery, were closed and relocated to make way for development. Their occupants, numbering about 110, were removed and re-interred alongside Richview Cemetery, between the concrete ramparts. And so it was that the graves of many of Etobicoke Township’s founding families found an unexpected resting place in Richview-Willow Grove Cemetery in the middle of a busy highway cloverleaf.
    As memories fade, so did the markers of the pioneer families, each marker subject to its own natural process of deterioration and decay. What remained was a variety of block, slab and obelisk style monuments at various angles of repose and in various conditions. Those carved from limestone and marble showed the most wear, interestingly being made of sedimentary and metamorphic rock that was itself created by a process of decline and transformation.
    Into the midst of this cycle stepped the Etobicoke Historical Society and Etobicoke Heritage Foundation. These groups count among their membership a number of descendants of those interred at Richview-Willow Grove Cemetery. They raised $20,000 in funding for conservation of the monuments and these funds were matched by the Ontario Heritage Foundation Community Challenge Fund. Broken stones were repaired with stainless steel pins, cracks were grouted and the markers set on new slab footings. The thin, white marble slabs with carved scrollwork and inscriptions stand upright once again, as did the pioneers in their day.”
    from
    http://www.heritagefdn.on.ca/userfiles/page_attachments/Library/1/2022690_HM_Volume_4_Issue_3_2006_ENG.pdf

  • Carly Maga

    You’re right, there is still a small wreath and bouquet beside the grave for Victor Kimber, who died in 2005 (Reid said the last person to be buried at Richview was the former caretaker which, if I put two and two together, must be this guy). But they don’t look too fresh now, I’m guessing they were put there before the access was blocked off this past spring.

  • http://undefined Neil

    There is an access road to this cemetery from Eglinton. I have often seen the gates open – and realistically, even if closed, Fort Knox this isn’t for any one who was curious and wanted to take a poke around.
    Street view:
    http://maps.google.ca/maps?client=safari&q=highway+427+and+401&oe=UTF-8&ie=UTF8&hl=en&t=h&sll=43.670314,-79.574798&sspn=0.00098,0.002135&split=1&filter=0&rq=1&ev=p&radius=0.06&hq=highway+427+and+401&hnear=&ll=43.670613,-79.57531&spn=0,0.002135&z=19&layer=c&cbll=43.670825,-79.575829&panoid=No0-_1EBR6cbXQ2z1JVTpg&cbp=12,116.67,,0,5

  • http://undefined Barbara

    What a great article and thanks to Jennifer for asking the question. It is one of my little secrets but I love cemeteries. Not for the death and morbidity but who were these people? I want to know! It is a great way to look at history. There is an unknown book that I found called, “Once Upon a Tomb” by Nancy Millar. (Available through Chapters online.) She has traveled across Canada searching our cemeteries. The stories are fantastic.. Worth the read if you have a secret love of cemeteries too. Just don’t tell anyone or you will get some strange looks! :-)

  • http://undefined EricSmith
    s/construction refuge/construction refuse/
  • 416adam

    The rumour in high school (I went to Richview CI) was that anyone who died on the 400 series highways could be buried here for free. There was even a story of a teen whose family had taken advantage of this offer. Maybe it was a tactic to keep young drivers in line?