Historicist: John Howard's Enduring Monument
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Historicist: John Howard’s Enduring Monument

High Park's transition from private property to public space.

Watercolour of the southern gate to High Park by John Howard, 1870. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

On June 16, 1873, the Globe published a letter from William H. Boulton, written on behalf of John George Howard, stating that Howard had authorized him to “hand to his Worship the Mayor an offer of 165 acres of land belonging to him on Humber Bay, to be conveyed to the City as a Public Park.” The offer seemed to attract little initial fanfare from the public, but in the years to come this would be recognized as a momentous event, with High Park seen today as the “jewel of Toronto’s park system.”

John Howard first came to the Town of York in 1832, two years before Toronto was incorporated as a city. In the decades that followed, Howard had a profound influence on the emerging city, assuming a role as the city’s premier architect and civil engineer, while simultaneously teaching drawing at Upper Canada College. Howard’s work includes numerous houses, churches, and public buildings, not the least of which was the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, the forerunner of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street.

Howard acquired several properties in the vicinity of Toronto, including a considerable piece of today’s High Park. On this property he built Colborne Lodge, which became the primary residence for him and his wife Jemima. The Howards moved into Colborne Lodge in December of 1837, mere weeks after he had led a group of loyalists to help quell William Lyon Mackenzie‘s rebellion at Montgomery’s Tavern. Colborne Lodge would be John Howard’s home for more than 50 years, during which time he formed ideas about the property which helped steer its later development as a public park.


Initially, however, Howard had other plans for the land. In the 1850s, some of it was used as farmland, specifically to cultivate wheat and clover. Howard also grew currants on his property which he used to make wine. He was an avid shooter, and his journals frequently recount his successes on the property; he wrote that on his first Christmas at Colborne Lodge, he “shot a deer and some quail at the rear part of High Park, near Bloor Street.”

(Right: John Howard, ca. 1860. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.)

His decision to keep High Park intact appears to have come to him relatively late in life; early Howard plans involved subdividing the property, and he offered High Park up for sale as late as 1862, although he evidently did not receive any sufficiently enticing offers. For many years, Howard saw his High Park property not just as his home, but also as a collection of resources which could be exploited. Writing in 2009, historian David Bain notes that Howard sometimes harvested timber from the property for his other building projects and that “despite his love of High Park, Howard always viewed it, and all his other scattered land holdings, as investments.”

Although Toronto had some smaller parks at this time in the form of Queen’s Park and what would later be known as Allan Gardens, the rapid growth of the city soon made the need for new parks apparent. An editorial in the February 12, 1873 Globe noted that “[public parks] are found to pay in many ways. They so promote the health of the inhabitants as to be amply worth all the money expended in purchasing and keeping them in order. They not only are directly promotive of health, but they afford the means for so large an amount of innocent amusement and healthful recreation as could scarcely be estimated, in this way tending to the sobriety and good order of the community far more than any restrictive regulations ever could.” Parks were not only pleasant, but they were seen as wholesome institutions which could help keep the riffraff in check.

Watercolour of Grenadier Pond by John Howard, date unknown. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Howard may well have had this editorial in mind when he offered his property to the City a few months later. Before agreeing to Howard’s offer, Mayor Alexander Manning and several aldermen paid a visit to the property, with the Globe writing that “the gentlemen of the Civic Board were unanimously delighted with the place, and from their expression it would not be venturing a great deal to predict that Mr. Howard’s offer will be accepted.” Indeed, that November the City agreed to a deal that would give them the bulk of the Howard property in three years’ time, with 45 acres remaining as the Howards’ private property until both John and Jemima had died.

The deal was not without conditions. Howard received an annual pension from the City, affording him further financial security. In addition to requiring that the City maintain the High Park land as a public park, he also insisted upon restrictions that prevented the harvesting of timber, and included a clause forbidding the sale of alcohol within the property.

With High Park’s transfer to the City set to take effect in 1876, Howard worked to find ways to improve the property for its new purpose.

One of his first objectives was to increase the park’s total size. Howard negotiated with landowner Joseph Ridout, eventually securing the purchase of an additional 172 acres to the east of Howard’s property, thus extending High Park to its present eastern boundary. He was less successful in negotiating with John Ellis for additional land to the west, such that the western portion of today’s park, including much of Grenadier Pond, was not added to High Park until well into the 20th century.

Charles E. Goad fire insurance map showing the High Park area in 1893. The line cutting through Grenadier Pond represents what was then the park’s western boundary. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Following the City’s acquisition of the park property in 1876, Howard became the “forest ranger” of High Park at his own request, thereby maintaining some influence over the future of the site. This arrangement likely helped the City, as it lacked a formal Parks Department at the time, and instead made do with the quaintly named “Walks and Gardens Committee,” of little evident means. Commenting on the need for better parks administration, an 1880 Globe editorial offered up Buffalo as an example for Toronto to learn from, noting Buffalo’s Park Commission‘s ability to borrow money so as to make sizeable investments in its city parks. “Whereas we have done almost nothing in our corporate capacity toward self-improvement,” the Globe wrote, “our neighbour is just now stepping into the enjoyment of a bold, extensive, and farsighted scheme initiated several years ago, and at last carried out almost to completion.”

Over the next two decades, however, the primary concern for High Park was accessibility, as its location was initially too remote for many Torontonians. In the 1870s, Toronto’s western boundary was still Dufferin Street; in High Park, Toronto had acquired property that was not directly connected to the city, a situation unresolved until the annexation of Brockton in 1884. The area between the park and the city did not yet have sufficient population to entice the private suburban streetcar companies to offer connecting service to the downtown.

Few roads led to the park, and those that did were often of poor quality. One 1876 proposal included in the city council minutes claims that due to “the narrowness of these streets, combined with their crowded state, a drive for pleasure along them would be anything but pleasure, going to or returning from the park.” As such, Howard devoted much of his time to trying to improve roads and facilitate other convenient transportation options.

Amongst those who felt that the park was underutilized in its early years was City Alderman Garratt Frank Frankland who, in 1885, wrote that “I am under the impression that the citizens of Toronto are still ignorant of the beauty and grandeur of this tract whose edge is washed by Ontario. High Park has…a wide stretch of varied surface composed of brooks, rivulets, and streams, landscape and forest, where the Indian Trail is still seen, and where under the shade of many dells the pure air can be enjoyed much better than in places farther away.”

Watchman’s house at High Park, ca. 1890. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 376, File 5, Item 55.

The most common accounts of park visits during the 1870s and 80s are picnics, and it appears that most of the early amenities were designed with picnickers in mind. In addition to road improvements, these include the addition of latrines and some small shelters which Howard designed himself. An item from the City’s Property Committee in 1877 calls for the installation of a water pump near the picnic grounds, “as there is at present no supply of water for [picnickers’] accommodation beyond that gathered during rainy weather from the roof of the caretaker’s cottage.”

As Howard was now considerably advanced in years, it was necessary to hire a caretaker to look after the vast grounds. The caretaker also served as a constable whose duty it was to keep visitors within the actual public park, and to ensure that they behaved accordingly. In 1877, Howard wrote a letter to the Globe, complaining that several cabs transporting park visitors had trespassed onto his Colborne Lodge property. “The cabmen,” he wrote, “had forced the lock off my front gate and driven the cabs off the road into my meadow, and although my cook informed them they were trespassing on my private property, one tall, big woman in black silk (I am sorry I cannot say ‘lady’) was determined to take possession of that spot in spite of all remonstrance.” The Globe editorialized that better signage was needed to indicate the private property boundaries, and that additional staff might be necessary for so large a property.

Unfortunately, there was some difficulty in finding adequate park staff. In July of 1882, caretaker and park constable John Albert fatally shot a teenage boy who was boating with friends on Grenadier Pond. Albert’s actions were roundly condemned as an extreme overreaction, with one Globe editorial noting that “the original error was committed not by [Albert], but by the persons who selected a man of ungovernable temper for appointment as [park] constable.” Albert was found guilty of murder at the subsequent trial, and was sentenced to the gallows that autumn. The City’s first candidate for his replacement, a Mr. Woodhouse, had to be rejected after a check with the Police Courts revealed that Woodhouse was in their books, having been accused of “suspected larceny,” “threatening,” and “assault.”

Watercolour of the Howard grave marker by John Howard, 1870. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

John Howard died on February 3, 1890 at the age of 86, 13 years after the death of his wife, Jemima. Under the conditions of the property conveyance, Colborne Lodge and the remaining 45 acres of property were soon added to High Park. As per the agreement, the Howards are interred in the park, their graves marked by a cairn which the City is required to keep in good maintenance.

By the time of Howard’s death, High Park was gradually becoming more accessible to Torontonians, and its usage increasing. Population growth in Brockton and Parkdale helped spur streetcar service to within walking distance of the park, and various factors, including a boom in bicycling, brought more people to the park and helped instigate road upgrades.

Even though Howard made numerous other significant contributions to Toronto, the Toronto Telegram’s obituary for him proclaimed High Park to be his “enduring monument,” predicting that its natural beauty “will forever make High Park the favourite resort of the citizens of Toronto…As long as this city exists, children to whom wild flowers and green fields are a well-spring of delight will have reason to bless the memory of one who was the means of assuring them a heritage such as is possessed by the children of no other city on the continent.”

Additional material from: Davin Bain, “John Howard’s High Park: A Square Mile or Two of Rough Ground” in Ontario History, 101.1 (Spring 2009); Martin L. Friedland, A Century of Criminal Justice: Perspectives on the Development of Canadian Law (Carswell, 1984: Toronto); The Globe (February 12, June 16, July 15, 1873; August 2, May 16, 1877; July 22, 1879; July 28, October 19, 1880; January 11, 1881; July 24, July 25, October 13, 1882; July 8, 1885; May 26, July 14, 1888; February 4, February 7, 1890); High Park: A Park Lover’s Quarterly (Summer 1994; Spring 1995; Winter 1998); Incidents in the Life of John G. Howard, Esq., of Colborne Lodge, High Park, Near Toronto; Chiefly Adapted from his Journals (Copp Clark, 1888: Toronto); The Evening Telegram (February 4, February 7, 1890).

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