Leaside’s proud history

As we approach the 150th birthday of Canada, I am reminded of the significant contribution the Town of Leaside has made to Canada especially since incorporation in 1913.

The Town of Leaside existed for 54 years until amalgamation with East York in 1967. It was again amalgamated in 1998 when East York became part of the current megacity.

At the heart of the history of Leaside is the Lea family. In no other part of the Toronto area has a family been more closely associated with the development of a community than the Leas were in Leaside.

John Lea arrived from Lancashire, England to in 1820 and chose a 200-acre parcel of land to farm that was inexpensive and well drained as it was 150 feet above Lake Ontario. He farmed Northern Spy apples. The farm extended from where the hydro station is to Thorncliffe Park.

Eldest son William inherited part of the family farm and produced tomatoes, opened a cannery, and supplied the Old Queen’s Hotel (where the present Royal York stands.) He built an octagonal home and named it “Leaside,” from which the name originated.

Leaside, by Jane PitfieldIn the late 1870s Canada experienced a railway craze. The Ontario and Quebec Railway needed a line from Toronto to Peterborough, Ottawa and Montreal. To avoid building an expensive railway trestle across the Don River and valley, the railway company purchased some land from William Lea at the point where the valley was narrow and shallow.

In 1884 the Canadian Pacific Railway needed level farmland to build their massive new railway repair shop and the assembling of trains’ facilities. In 1894 the train station built for freight and passenger service was named “Leaside Junction,” honouring William Lea.

The principal owners of the Canadian Northern Railway, Donald Mann and William Mackenzie, had built two successful railway towns in the early 1900s and were now looking to build a third in the Toronto area. They chose the land north of Leaside Junction to build new railway facilities, financing this through the creation of a model railway town in Leaside. They established the York Land Company and began purchasing acreage to a total of 900 acres. It was to be known as “Rosedale to the North.” They hired Frederick Todd as the planner. By April 1913 he’d designed a model town and the project became the incorporated Town of Leaside. The railway service provided by the Canadian Northern was to boost residential growth and attract industries.

It was not to be, thanks to a global recession, the outbreak of World War I, and the bankruptcy of the Canadian Northern Railway largely owing to Leaside’s isolated location.

Industrial growth flourished along the CPR corridor, accelerated by munitions factories in World War I. Canada Wire and Cable purchased 16 acres at Wicksteed and Laird, but because of the war the Leaside Munitions Company Limited occupied the plant.

The Town of Leaside made an amazing contribution in both world wars. Britain awarded a contract to Leaside in 1916 to produce 54,000 shells. Leaside, which employed 4,000 people at the plant, was able to produce faster and more cheaply than any other company.

By late 1916, the Canadian government had leased 220 acres from Canada Wire and Cable. An airfield built to train pilots from the 43rd Wing Royal Flying Corps was named the Leaside Aerodrome. By the end of the war there were 600 servicemen stationed there.

In 1940, Research Enterprises incorporated, and occupied 55 acres east of Laird on Research Rd. At its peak it employed 7,500; buildings covered 750,000 sq. ft.; and the company produced $220 million worth of high tech radio equipment and precision optical instruments in six years. Highly skilled engineers and scientists enabled planes to have radar and be able to fly at night. The company closed at the end of the war in 1946.

On May 1, 1943, the Leaside RCAF Squadron, which recruited from Leaside, formed in England. Leaside residents sent clothing, cigarettes and letters to support the men. Also during World War II, Leaside schools fundraised to purchase a heavy-duty army truck and outfitted the navy corvette named “Leaside,” which was an ocean escort.

Leaside’s residential taxes were among the lowest in Canada because of its thriving industrial area and large commercial tax base. Some of the most successful factories were Canada Wire and Cable, Frigidaire, Colgate Palmolive, Honeywell, Phillips, Sangamo, Corning, Tremco Lincoln Electric, Canada Varnish, Regal, Apco, Diesel Equipment Limited, and the Dorothea Knitting Mills.

Car manufacturing put Leaside on the map with Durant Motors. Between 1922 and 1924 Durant shipped cars from Leaside to Britain and produced 13,000 cars. Reo Motor Company produced trucks and buses through World War II.

When the Ontario Hydro Electric Commission chose Leaside as the location for a power plant to carry hydro from the Gatineau River to Leaside, it became the longest 220,000 volt line in Canada.

Leaside will always be a unique neighbourhood boasting a rich heritage. Despite the proximity to downtown it will always have the attributes of the smaller town it was built to be.

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Article by Jane Pitfield.