History of the Danforth

 

Danforth Avenue in Toronto, Ontario, Canada was named after Asa Danforth, an American contractor who was commissioned in 1799 to cut the Danforth but didn't actually build it. The Don and Danforth Plank Road Company built Danforth Ave in 1851, connecting it to Broadview Ave and creating a viable route to the more populous surrounding communities down near Queen St East and Kingston Road. With the barriers of the Don Valley and Don River, the Danforth started out as a remote area. It was remembered as "a dusty country road - a sleepy byway that ran through open fields, market gardens, brickyards, scattered houses, the odd church, and occasional hotel or roadhouse, where Torontonians would go for weekend revels." In the early 1790s just north of the Danforth, industries began settling along the east bank of the Don Valley to take advantage of the water power potential of the Don, and later to exploit the valley's rich clay deposits for brick-making purposes.

In the late 1800s, as the City of Toronto grew because of an increasing immigrant population, the City decided in 1884 to annex the previously un-serviced lands south of the Danforth, north of Queen St East and east of the Don to Greenwood. The lands north of the Danforth and east of Donlands Ave, and Chester Village were later annexed to the City of Toronto in 1909.

The Danforth area began to prosper as a result of major transportation improvements that created more access to the area.

In 1888 the Toronto Street Railway established a streetcar line along Broadview Ave from Queen St East to the corner of Danforth Ave and in 1913 the Danforth line of the municipally-owned Toronto Civic Railways began service east of Broadview Ave.

The single most important event in the Danforth's history came in 1919 with the completion of the Bloor Viaduct bridge over the Don Valley, finally connecting the Danforth to the City via Bloor Street.

Initially the bridge was called the Bloor Street Viaduct, but on September 11, 1919 Toronto's City Council unanimously agreed to rename it the Prince Edward Viaduct to honour Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) who had received an enthusiastic welcome a few weeks before on his first visit to Toronto. First inhabitants to the new lower middle class suburb of Toronto were mainly immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland. In the 1950s an influx of Italians came to the area, followed by Greeks and other immigrants in the 1960s. In the mid-1970s second generation Greeks and Italians moved to the outer suburbs, while children of Anglo-Saxon suburbanites, attracted by low real estate prices and closeness to downtown Toronto (the Bloor-Danforth subway line opened in 1966), returned and launched a major wave of home renovations and restoration in the area.

 

Local Attractions

Playter Farmhouse - 28 Playter Cres.

The Playter family were among the earliest settlers in Toronto. Captain George Playter, a Loyalist officer, was granted lots totalling 500 acres in York Township, including some around the Danforth. He established a farm on the river meadows of his 200 acres on the west side of the Don, and built his home on the western edge of the hills above Castle Frank. George Playter had five daughters and five sons. John, James and Ely patented land grants on the Don River in 1796.

The farmhouse at 28 Playter Crescent was built in the mid-1870's by John Lea Playter, a grandson of John Playter and his wife, Sarah Ellerbeck. Like many Playters, he was a dairy farmer and market gardener and was also involved in government. The red-brick, rectangular house at 28 Playter Cres decorated  with "white" brick patterns, was altered in the early 1900's by John Lea Playter's brothers, Albert E. and William. The land around the house continued to be used for farming until approximately 1910. By 1912 the property was sub-divided, streets were opened up and substantial houses were built on what is still known as the Playter Estates. This farmhouse can be seen from the Danforth when you look north on Playter.

The Playter Society Building - 757 Broadview Ave

The first commercial building in the area was at the southeast corner of Danforth Ave at Broadview Ave, built by Albert E. Playter and his brother William around 1909. Two market gardeners interested in developing the area, they strategically placed the building where the Broadview Ave streetcars turned around, and it soon became a commercial and social centre for the district. Stores were on the bottom floors, doctors' and dentists' offices and other businesses on the second. The third floor was for meetings of associations, societies, card parties, and bingo games. The hall (third floor) also became the east end place to dance nightly to big-name bands in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s - Guy Lombardo's orchestra played at the Playters' regularly in the 1930s. Initially the retail section that started at Broadview Ave extended only to Pape by the beginning of the First World War but building activity continued throughout the 1920s, stretching the long line of two-storey, brick and mortar commercial buildings - many are still standing today.

Allen's Danforth Theatre - (now known as the Danforth Music Hall) - 147 Danforth Ave

Allen's Danforth Theatre was one of ten playhouses constructed in Toronto following the First World War in 1919, by the national chain owned by Julie and John J. Allen. The architects Hynes, Feldman & Watson designed it to provide "artistic and comfortable surroundings," where distracting interior decorations were carefully eliminated, unlike most movie theatres of the day which were "remodeled structures with a plethora of heavy ornament." Exterior architectural features that are still visible today include extensive patterned brickwork in Flemish bond and herringbone band course; windows with concrete surrounds, entablature and sills; opal glass windows; and a marquee of chains.

Carrot Common - 348 Danforth Ave

This site was part of the original crown grant to the Playter family in the 1890s. John Lea Playter built a grand, three-storey brick house on the northeast corner of Danforth and Jackman Avenues. In the 1960s the house was torn down and replaced with a used car lot.

When the Prince Edward Viaduct opened, automobile traffic to the area increased.  W.S. Giles opened one of the district's first car dealerships in 1919, and built a second showroom in 1926 near this location.  Soon other entrepreneurs followed suit and virtually every block along Danforth Ave had at least one car lot.  Used car lots became the next big thing along the Danforth in the 1950s.  A decade later many lots left to spread out over the city and suburbs, but this location remained a car dealership until about 1982.

As land values along the Danforth boomed during the 1980s, Tridel took out an option on the Danforth-Jackman property in about 1985 and planned to build a high-rise building, but was forced to cancel the project due to strong neighbourhood opposition.

In July 1986, The Big Carrot Natural Food Market, a cooperatively-owned natural food store founded in 1984, located across the street at Danforth and Hampton (where the Second Cup is today), acquired the site and the following year in October 1987, they along with other partners, opened the Carrot Common, named in tribute to the mall's most famous tenant (The Big Carrot Natural Food Market).  The 17-store shopping centre with a central courtyard was and still is a popular neighbourhood meeting place.

Riverdale Park

In 1856 the City of Toronto paid the Scadding family $40,000 for the remaining 119.75 acres of the farm that had been a crown grant to John Scadding in 1793. It originally consisted of 230 acres, running from the waterfront to Danforth Ave between the Don River and today's Broadview Ave. The City considered this a safe location for a jail and industrial farm, that at that time was still outside city limits and unpopulated, except for farmers and market gardeners. The Don Jail opened in 1865. In the early 1960s, Riverdale Park was bisected by the Don Valley Parkway and its area reduced to 104 acres. To compensate, Toronto Parks Department unveiled in 1962 a $1,250,000 plan to improve the parks recreational facilities with soccer and football fields, baseball diamonds, a quarter-mile track, a wading pool, a fifty-foot toboggan slope, a swimming pool, an ice rink, field houses, and tennis courts, that are all still available for recreation today.

Street Name Origins

Broadview Ave.

For the broad view obtained from it. Renamed in 1884; originally it was Mill Road, being but a wagon trail through the woods from Kingston Road (Queen Street) to the mills on the Don. In 1798, the government instructed Timothy Skinner, owner of the mills, to build the road. The section south of Queen was called Scadding Street; parts north of the Danforth were called Don Mills Road until 1913 and 1922.

Danforth Ave.

Asa Danforth, an American contractor, was hired by the government of Upper Canada in 1799 to construct a road from York east to the Bay of Quinte. Today Danforth Avenue spans approximately 91 blocks (10 km), beginning at the east side of the Don River Valley to merge with Kingston Road in Scarborough.

Playter Cres.

(Branches off north of the Danforth to the Playter Estates) - The Playter family, Loyalists, who patented crown land grants in the area in 1796.

Jackman Ave.

(Branches off north of the Danforth @ Carrot Common) Mary Jackman, who married John Lea Playter in 1875.

Bowden St.

(Branches off south of the Danforth @ Danforth Baptist Church) John Wilson Bowden, a builder who purchased land in the area in 1858 and subdivided it in 1871.

Sources

The area history was taken from the following Toronto Public Library Board Publications by Barbara Myrvold:
Myrvold, Barbara (1992) An historical walking tour of the Danforth. Toronto Public Library Board.
Myrvold, Barbara (1979) The Danforth in Pictures. Toronto Public Library Board Local History Handbooks

Other helpful references include:
"Up and Down the Danforth: the Sights, Sounds and Succulent Smells of a Neighborhood in Transition." Toronto Life, April 1981, pg38
The Danforth Report (1994, January) Number 8

 

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