Historicist: The Birth of Leaside
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Historicist: The Birth of Leaside

How a railroad planned a community around its expansion plans a century ago.

Map of plan for Leaside, the Toronto Star, December 2, 1912

Map of plan for Leaside, the Toronto Star, December 2, 1912.

When the provincial government passed a bill incorporating the Town of Leaside on April 23, 1913, it legislated into existence a municipality which was little more than a developer’s dream. While only 43 people called Leaside home, the planned community spearheaded by the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR) was envisioned to accommodate up to 700 times that number.

Formed by railway financiers Sir William Mackenzie and Sir Donald Mann in 1899, the CNR built a national network of lines which relied on land grants and government bond issues. By the second decade of the 20th century the company was in expansion mode, aiming to build a transcontinental line. Part of the company’s growth plan involved creating planned communities built around new shops and sidings. Leaside would be the third of these model towns, following Mount Royal, Quebec and Port Mann, British Columbia.

A feature on the historic homes of the Lea family, including the Lea brick house from 1829 (top left, burned 1912), and William Lea's "Leaside" (top right, demolished between 1913 and 1918)  The Toronto Star, April 15, 1913

A feature on the historic homes of the Lea family, including the Lea brick house from 1829 (top left, burned 1912), and William Lea’s “Leaside” (top right, demolished between 1913 and 1918). The Toronto Star, April 15, 1913.

The site that became Leaside was first settled by John Lea, who built a log cabin near present-day Laird Drive and Lea Avenue when he brought his family from England in 1819. A decade late, Lea built what was claimed to be the first brick house in York Township on his farm, where he raised cows and grew apples. His son William, described on a historical plaque as “a York County councillor and magistrate, amateur poet, and nature lover,” built an octagonal farmhouse known as “Leaside” in the early 1850s (it would disappear by the end of the First World War). It was William who began Leaside’s association with railways when he sold part of his property around 1881 for a right-of-way. Within a few years the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) built Leaside Junction station, which served passengers until 1970.

Toronto newspapers in late March 1912 were abuzz about a mysterious buyer who was assembling land near Leaside Junction. Early reports identified the CPR as the purchaser, which officials quickly dismissed. The World raised the possibility of the CNR’s involvement in a front page story on March 22, 1912, which called the purchase “the biggest real estate operation ever carried out in Toronto or neighbourhood.” All that was certain was that over 1,000 acres of land had been purchased from farmers in the vicinity of Bayview and Eglinton at rates ranging from $900 to $4,000 per acre.

The CNR’s plans for Leaside slowly dribbled out. The new community would house repair shops and other facilities serving the company’s expanding network of lines in Toronto, which included shared tracks with the CPR through Leaside, and a new grand North Toronto train station (now the Summerhill LCBO). The facilities at Leaside, combined with work along the train viaduct which currently runs alongside Dupont Street, would allow the CNR’s new station to handle routes from Parry Sound and Ottawa without having to go through Union Station.

As with Mount Royal and Port Mann, the CNR hired Frederick Gage Todd to design Leaside’s layout. One of the first major landscape architects to be based in Canada, he first came to prominence via a report he prepared for the federal government in 1903 on improving the aesthetics of Ottawa. The report revealed his planning philosophy:

We have only to study the history of the older cities and note at what enormous cost they have to overcome the lack of provision for growth, to realize that the future prosperity and beauty of the city depends in a great measure on the ability to look ahead, and the power to grasp the needs and requirements of the great population it is destined to have.

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Frederick Gage Todd, 1909. McCord Museum, item 175018.

Todd advocated the use of boulevards, diagonal streets, parks, and squares as key development elements. He felt it was important to define the extent of a community, with plans designed for its maximum population. In the case of Leaside, this meant laying out a town which could hold up to 30,000 residents. Todd’s original plan included gently curving streets, six parks, and a section set out specifically for industrial development. Rather than use Eglinton Avenue as the major east-west artery, Todd envisioned an eastern extension of Soudan Avenue (now Parkhurst Boulevard) to play that role. The other primary commercial strips would have been along the winding routes of Edith Avenue (now Bessborough Drive) and McRae Drive. Todd’s plans were so detailed that five of them were submitted to the York County Registry Office. Developers looking at the plan envisioned a new northern version of Rosedale.

For a time, the CNR tried to entice Leaside’s neighbours into annexing the unbuilt community. In June 1912 CNR officials approached the Town of North Toronto for a merger, promising that a large railway shop and factories employing 3,000 people would open immediately. North Toronto turned the offer down, noting that “it was time to call a halt in the matrer of reckless annexation of outside properties.” Not that North Toronto was immune to merger fever; one month later, it agreed to be annexed by Toronto.

Adding Leaside to Toronto was the subject of heated debates among city councillors and municipal departments during March and April 1913. In late March, Donald Mann sent Hocken a letter from the CNR indicating that either Toronto annex Leaside immediately or he would push the province to incorporate it as an independent municipality. Mann pointed out that the CNR was the only major railway based in Toronto and that it employed many citizens. He wanted to build the Leaside shops as soon as possible. “The company has avoided as much as possible asking favours from the City of Toronto,” he wrote, “and has not made any request for bonuses or cash assistance which elsewhere, under similar circumstances, have been readily granted.” Other CNR officials argued that annexing Leaside now rather than when it was better established would save plenty of bureaucratic and financial headaches later on.

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Sir Donald Mann, circa 1909. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1047.

Mayor Horatio Hocken supported annexation. “Where inside the city limits could they get such a large site without having to pay a fabulous price?” he told the Star. “Nowhere. In Leaside they can have their shops, and their employees can live near them where they should.” Yet Hocken admitted that “it is quite possible for a man to oppose the question without being unreasonable.” Such opposition came from top city officials like Commissioner of Works R.C. Harris, who worried about the city being burdened with heavy financial obligations to provide necessary infrastructure like fire service, police, sewer systems, and street lighting. Controller Thomas Foster estimated annexation would cost Toronto $5 million, a figure Hocken disputed.

At the end of a March 25, 1913 city council meeting, fiery alderman Sam McBride spoke out against the annexation. He thought it was a shame that so much land would be added to the city when it already had other sections that hadn’t been developed or were in dire need of improved infrastructure. “It is a speculative boom,” he observed. “Should we help a few people to make a couple of million dollars and sit back and laugh at the poor fellows who will get left?” At a subsequent meeting, McBride maintained road improvements in the city were a higher priority than adding Leaside. He illustrated his point by telling a story about an incident in Earlscourt where a hearse couldn’t approach a home and a father had to walk his deceased baby to the vehicle.

After bouncing back and forth between the Board of Control (who supported annexation) and the rest of city council (who didn’t), the issue was rejected during a tie vote on April 7, 1913. The meeting was a shambles, as it came close to losing quorum as it ran into the night. At least one frustrated annexation supporter took off when a motion to adjourn was defeated. The CNR and its real estate arm, the York Land Company, went ahead with incorporation plans, which were approved by the province two weeks later.

Advertisement, the Toronto Star, June 27, 1913

Advertisement, the Toronto Star, June 27, 1913.

Just before incorporation, the Star sent an unnamed reporter to survey the state of Leaside. He asked a farmer if he had come to the right place.

“This is Leaside, all right,” replied the farmer, who was carrying a basket full of groceries. “There isn’t much town now—the place hasn’t changed much for 40 years—but inside of 40 weeks you won’t be able to see this field for the houses and streets. Leaside’s been a long time waiting to be made into a town, but now that incorporation’s come you’re going to see some fast moving. But it’s a little early yet.”

It would turn out to be a lot early yet. Industrial development proceeded thanks to the arrival of companies like Canada Wire and Cable, whose facilities was converted to munitions production during the First World War. Despite plenty of advertising in 1913, residential growth proved much slower. The fledging municipality quickly ran into problems ranging from its isolated location to financial issues stemming from so few inhabitants—instead of 10,000 citizens predicted by 1916, the population didn’t hit 500 until 1924. The foreseen home boom didn’t materialize until the Second World War and wasn’t completed until the early 1950s. While Todd’s curving street pattern was maintained in south Leaside, his visions of Bessborough and Parkhurst as major arteries didn’t happen. When Leaside was annexed to East York in 1967, its population was just over 23,000.

As for the CNR, its rapid expansion proved its undoing. While its transcontinental link was completed in 1915, financial pressures during the First World War led to its takeover by the federal government in 1917. The company was merged with other faltering railways to form Canadian National Railways. The Leaside shops were finished after the First World War and operated for just over a decade before closing during the 1930s. The locomotive building was designated as a heritage building, redeveloped, and currently houses a Longo’s supermarket. The names of CNR officials live on in street names like Annesley, Hanna, McRae, and Wicksteed.

Additional material from Leaside, Jane Pitfield, editor (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2000), The Town of Leaside: Origins and Development by Kathleen Rennick (Toronto: University of Toronto research project, 1986), the April 2, 1912, June 3, 1912, March 1, 1913, March 15, 1913, March 26, 1913, and the March 28, 1913 editions of the Globe, the March 20, 1913, April 8, 1913, and April 18, 1913 editions of the Toronto Star, and the March 22, 1912 edition of the World.

CORRECTION: June 9, 2013, 6:43 PM This article originally stated that financial pressures during the Second World War led to the CNR’s takeover by the federal government in 1918, when in fact it was during the First World War.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.