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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.

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