Smith’s Grounds: A Lost Riverside Athletic Field
As I was preparing for a talk on the lost sports fields in the East End, I had a weak spot – I knew little about Sunlight Park, Toronto’s first professional baseball stadium just south of Queen and west of Broadview, built in 1886. I, as usual, began at the beginning before the start of settler history and long before baseball, but not lacrosse. The Anishinaabe families and Kichigo who were here when Simcoe arrived with William Smith, a master carpenter, in his retinue.
Sometimes history can seem by and about people who are almost-automatons, people doing things but without souls. But some writers have the gift for prose that captures so much. One such writer was John Ross Robertson, editor of The Toronto Telegram.
To animate this story of the John Smith’s lost athletic grounds I include a quote from John Ross Robertson’s Landmarks, apparently drawing on interviews with the Smiths, as well as depictions of some of the Smith family and their home. Their farm would become the Toronto Baseball Grounds later renamed Sunlight Park, an industrial complex around the time of World War One, and, as I write, contractors are digging a deep hole on the site to build Riverside Square, a complex of apartments, boutique shops, etc. that will re-define the whole area.
William Smith Sr. built many of York’s first houses, the first Anglican church (the forerunner of St. James Cathedral), Castle Frank, the Don Bridge, and helped to lay out York which became Toronto in 1834. According to John Ross Robertson, William Smith Sr. was not the only builder who came from Nova Scotia to York with Simcoe:
That these early log and frame houses have stood in such good condition down to the present time is due mainly to the excellence of their construction. Among the men whom Governor Simcoe brought with him to build his embryo city were timbermen from Nova Scotia and other lower province expert hewers and dovetailers of logs, and Englishmen skilled in whipsawing and cutting joists and rafters.
John Ross Robertson
As a reward for his work, Simcoe allowed William Smith to be the first to choose a building lot for a home in York. He picked a fifth of an acre at the corner of King and Sherbourne. There Smith built a log cabin as a temporary home. In 1794 he tore it down and built a new frame house on the eastern side of his lot. This was believed to be the first frame house in the new settlement. That fall he went back to Niagara-on-the-Lake to stay with his family for the winter.
John Scadding, father of the Rev. Dr. Henry Scadding, Anglican priest and author of “Toronto of Old,” also came with the Simcoes to Toronto. He had been their estate manager in England. William Smith Sr. helped to build the Scadding cabin beside the Don River in 1794. In 1796 the Government granted John Scadding all of farm lot No. 15 on the Don River.
Simcoe had a fractious relationship with his superior Governor Dorchester in Quebec City and, in 1796, was recalled and returned to England, taking his family and faithful and no doubt indispensable servant, John Scadding with him. Before Scadding sailed away, he put George Playter in charge of his property east of the Don and Playter and his family moved into Scadding’s log cabin. Around this time an orchard had been planted, with trees imported from the U.S. Lot 14, just to the east was granted to John Cox. In 1807 Mary Cox, the widow of John Cox, sold Lot 14 to Gerhard Kuck for £156 in 1807. In 1814 William Smith’s son, also called William, bought the 270-acre Lot 14 from the Kucks for £1250.
In 1817, John Scadding came back to York. He laid out a subdivision of one, two, three and five acre lots on his property north of Queen Street [Kingston Road, as it was called then]. He sold the lots and, in 1818, George Playter bought one of the lots north of Queen just east of the Don and build a storey-and-a-half frame house, and 18 x 32 feet [5.4 x 9.7 meters]. The next year William Smith Jr. bought all of Lot 15 south of Queen about 50 acres [20 ha] from Scadding. Smith Sr. died in 1819 in his town house at King and Sherbourne. William Smith Jr. took up his father’s contracting business on his death. That year William Jr. bought Lot 15 south of Queen Street, about 50 acres [20 ha], from John Scadding. This was an excellent location for his favourite sport, hunting, with easy access to Ashbridge’s Bay, a stop over point for many thousands of migrating waterfowl as well as the high pine-covered plains and ridges that Henry Scadding described so well:
Southward in all the distance was a great stretch of marsh with the blue lake along the horizon. In the summer this marsh was one vast jungle of tall flags and reeds, where would be found the conical huts of the muskrat, and where would be heard at certain seasons the peculiar gulp of the Bittern…
About the dry, sandy table-land…the burrows of the fox, often with little families within, were plentifully to be met with. The marmot, too, popularly known as the woodchuck, was to be seen on sunny days sitting up upon its haunches at holes in the hillside. We could at this moment point out the ancient home of a particular animal of this species whose ways we used to note with some curiosity. Here were to be found raccoons also; but these, like the numerous squirrels–black, red, flying, and striped–were visible only towards the decline of summer when the maize and the [nuts] began to ripen.
At that period also bears, he-bears and she-bears accompanied by their cubs, were not unfamiliar objects wherever the blackberry and raspberry grew.
In the forest, moreover, hereabout a rustle in the underbrush and something white seen dancing up and down in the distance like the plume of a mounted knight might at any moment indicate that a group of deer had caught sight of one of the dreaded human race and, with tails uplifted, had bounded incontinently away.
In 1820 William Jr. built a tannery on the Don. Not long after that he opened a store in an extension of the family home at King and Sherbourne, branching out as a retailer. Not long after the tannery began operating, he opened a store in an extension of the family home at King and Sherbourne, branching out as a retailer. After William Smith’s wife, Julianne Lewis, died in 1827, George Playter sold William Smith Jr. his new frame house and Smith moved it across the street to his own property. Settlers were skilled at moving buildings and frequently did so, to the confusion of later historians. This move was particularly easy since the ground was quite flat. Initially tannery employees lived in the house and, at some point, Smith built an 18 x 13 feet [5.4 x 3.9 meters] addition on the east side of the building to house more of his workers.
William Smith Jr. ran the store until 1832 when he moved from King and Sherbourne to the frame house beside the river. An astute businessman, his store was successful, winning him the capital to buy up a large amount of real estate and hold it on speculation. William Smith Jr. died in 1839 at the age of 58. John Smith, born at the family home at King and Sherbourne in 1811, as the oldest surviving son, took over the family business and inherited the property. In 1846 John Smith married Mary McGarran. They had nine children (I can’t find records of all – not surprising with high infant mortality.) He moved to Lot 15 on the Don where he farmed and also dealt in real estate.
In 1852 the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) incorporated with the goal of building and operating a rail line between Montreal and Toronto. In 1856 John Smith sold a strip of his property to the GTR and by the end of the year, the GTR reached the eastern bank of the Don River and the Montreal to Toronto line opened. By the next year John Smith had divided Lot 15 into two fields, separated by a new street, later called “Pioneer Avenue”, which ran south from Queen street. It later became known as “Baseball Place”. The field east of Pioneer Avenue was subdivided under Plan 150 with Smith Street running on a north-south axis again dividing that eastern field into two sections.
As the Smith family grew, John added more extensions to the house until the whole first storey of Playter’s house was the Smith’s sitting room. A prize family heirloom was a tall “grandfather” clock, made by Jordan Post, an early settler. At the time it was believed to be the first clock made in York, now Toronto. Family portraits graced the parlour, the formal reception area, at the east end of the house.
In 1866 John Smith leased some 30 acres of his property on Ashbridge’s Bay to Gooderham Worts and they moved their cow byres (barns) east across the Don. He also leased some of his property to a race track a pottery. The 1871 Dominion of Canada Census showed John Smith (59), Mary (40), Rebecca (20), William John (18), Joseph (16), Henrietta (13), Mary (10), Sarah (8) and Edward (6) living in the frame house built by George Playter over 50 years before. John and William John Smith were listed as farmers.
Parkdale and Riverside began to slowly develop in the 1870’s to the west and to the east of the city limits. Parkdale has large detached houses, the homes of Toronto business and professional men attracted by the healthy lake air and lower tax rates. Riverside also had lower taxes but was less desirable, in part because of the unhealthy reputation of Ashbridges Bay and the sewage from the cattle sheds south of Front Street. Riverside became a residential area for workers in the factories along the Don and the eastern waterfront. The area east of the Don began to be laid out in roads: Eastern Ave, Blong, Saulter, Carlaw, McGee, Lewis, Morse, Strange, Scadding, DeGrassi, and Heward. However, in 1873 the “Long Depression” began with a stock market crash and the economy didn’t fully recover until 1896.
John Smith’s subdivision plan 150 and some other developments failed to materialize. Growth was slow, but there were changes. In 1878 the Christie Brothers started the Don Rowing Club, on the west side of the Don River across from John Smith’s home on the east side. By 1878, the Don Mount post office was on the northeast corner of Smith’s property, at Queen St. E. and Broadview Avenue. William John. Smith, John’s son, worked there as a clerk. None of his sons took up farming, leaning more to the real estate and financial professions.
John and Mary Smith’s oldest daughter Rebecca (married to Walter George Willis) passed away on March 22, 1878, in the Smith family home, at the age of 30 after two years of fighting pulmonary consumption or tuberculosis as it is now called. Around this time, John Smith planned on tearing down the old Scadding cabin of 1794. Instead, in 1879, Smith gave it to the York Pioneer Society who moved it by oxcart to the Exhibition Grounds where it still stands.
In 1880 Queen Street was opened from Woodbine Race Track to the Scarborough Township boundary at Nursewood Road. In 1882, the streetcar tracks were extended from Parliament to the Don and connected to the Queen Crosstown route. The stables were built on the south side of King at River to accommodate the streetcar horses.
By this time, “Uncle John”, as Smith was known locally, allowed his neighbourhood and their sports teams to use his two fields south of Queen as an unofficial athletic field. Like his father, he was a sports man himself, a proficient cricket player and a founding member of the Toronto Curling Club which played on the Don conveniently near the Smith home.
His son, William John, would become a Director of the Toronto Baseball Association. In 1884, the first “World Series” marked a milestone in baseball history which was now beginning to become popular in Canada. That year residents of Riverside and Leslieville approved a referendum to join the City of Toronto and the City annexed the area to Greenwood Avenue.
In his later years, John Smith was known as a story teller, blessed with an excellent memory, a good source for those interested in local history.
His love of sports and his son’s interest in baseball laid the way for his lease of his fields to the Toronto Baseball Association, a group of enthusiastic “cranks”, as fans were known in the day. On May 24, 1886, the Toronto Baseball Grounds opened on Smith’s fields.
A NEW CLUB FOR TORONTO.
Since the Toronto Baseball Club disbanded a movement has been on foot to organize a new club to represent Toronto in this popular game. A meeting will be held in the Rossin House on Tuesday night, when it is expected there will be a large attendance of those interested in the formation of a club that will be a credit to the city. Every effort is being made to induce a number of our leading citizens to interest themselves in the club, which it is proposed to form on a joint stock basis.
Globe, May 8, 1885
In 1888 the City of Toronto expropriated part of the Smith property, including the area where family home stood, to straighten the Don River.
The old Smith house was torn down and John Smith build a new brick house on higher ground further east and nearer to Queen Street (about where my doctor’s office is today). In 1889 John Smith engaged the architects John W. Mallory and Frank S. Mallory to design the Smith Block at 639-655 Queen St. E.
“The Smith Block” today remains, without its pivotal centre section, on the south side of Queen just east of the Queen Street Bridge. Owner John Smith died on September 24, 1890 before the Smith Block was completed. He was buried in St. James Cemetery. His will left $611,000 of which $600,000 was real estate.
In 1900 Lever Brothers built their Sunlight Soap factory on property sold to them by the Smith heirs, property that included the fields of the Toronto Baseball Grounds. In 1902 the ball field became Sunlight Park. In 1906 a syndicate of Buffalo investors, the Erie Real Estate Company, bought the baseball park and initially planned to develop Subdivision #150 as housing, but heavy industry proved more lucrative and the field was lost to the community and largely forgotten to history until recent years.
Adam, G. Mercer, Charles Pelham Mulvany and Christopher Blackett Robinson, History of Toronto And County of York, Vol. II, Toronto C. Blackett Robinson, 1885, pp. 147-149
City of Toronto By-Laws No. 1995-0569
City of Toronto Directories, 1834 ff
Decennial Census of Canada, 1861, 1871, 1881
Don Valley Conservation Report Toronto, Department of Planning and Development, Conservation Branch Library, 1950
Globe, May 25, 1882 ff
Goad’s Insurance Atlas, 1882, 1884, 1890
Heritage Property Research and Evaluation Report Attachment 9
Middleton, J. E.,Municipality of Toronto, Vol. 1, 1923
Nickerson, Janice. York’s Sacrifice. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2012
Robertson, John Ross, Landmarks of Toronto, Vol. 1, Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894, p.136
Robertson, John Ross. The Diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe, wife of the First Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Upper Canada 1792-6, with notes and biography. Toronto: Ontario Publishing Company, 1934
Scadding, Henry. Toronto of Old. Toronto: Adam, Stevenson & Co., 1873. Reprinted with Ed. Frederick H. Armstrong. Toronto & Oxford: Dundurn Press, 1987
Seven Sketch Sheets of a Winter Reconnaissance in the Country East of Toronto, 1868. Map Room, Robarts Library
Tremaine’s Atlas, County of York, 1860
Robertson, John Ross. Landmarks of Toronto A Collection of Historical Sketches of the Old Town of York from 1792 until 1833 and of Toronto from 1834 to 1893, Published from the Toronto “Evening Telegram” Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894. Vol. 1, p. 136
Sauriol, Charles. Remembering the Don. Scarborough, Ont.: Consolidated Amethyst Communications, 1981