By the 1880s, the Grand Trunk Railway needed a new main freight yard. Their yards along the Esplanade were squeezed for lack of room. The company selected farmland five and half miles to the east of Toronto in 1883. The new freight yard at York Station would serve the company's main line between Toronto and Montreal, as well as the traffic from the recently acquired Midland Railway.

The railway yard was built south of the Danforth, just below Little York and Coleman's Corners crossroads, where the Grand Trunk line to Montreal crossed Dawes Road. The road was closed and traffic diverted to a new street called Main. The yard could store 420 cars on seven miles of track and 31 engines in a roundhouse with adjacent repair shops. The York Passenger Station was built on the north side of the tracks. In 1890 and again in 1903 local people tried to rename the station "East Toronto", but the railroad refused. Soon, industries that relied on bulk transport, such as fuel and lumber, grew up next to the tracks near the station.

As the yard was built on farmland, Grand Trunk had to put up workers' houses. They were constructed on Lakeview Avenue (Gerrard Street), Swanwick Avenue, and the north side of Stephenson Avenue (named after the first Reeve). The last of these houses was demolished in 1965 when Kimberley School was rebuilt. To provide rooms for the train crews, a large YMCA was built in front of the station at Main Street and Danforth Avenue. This building provided the community with much needed space for church, social and charity meetings in its assembly hall.

The town incorporated in 1888 with a population of 750, and the council met upstairs in the Firehall. East Toronto's seal featured a locomotive showing the municipality's dependence on the railway. One strip of East Toronto, between Balsam & Beech Roads ran down to Lake Ontario at Balmy Beach to secure water rights; however, the Grand Trunk Railroad provided water for the town from local springs.

East Toronto's commercial heart was the corner of Main and Gerrard Streets. McMillim & Costain had a hardware store there for the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Other stores of that period were Widdowson's Shoes, William's grocery store and O'Donnell's dry goods just up the street. William Candler, who had started out as a carriage builder, eventually owned a Ford dealership and sold gas. Fred Taylor played early silent movies at the Ideal Theatre, and afterwards people enjoyed ice cream treats in his Palm Gardens parlour.

Several events took place in 1903: East Toronto became a town with three wards. A second event saw a section of Balmy Beach made into a popular park. Finally, the YMCA building was moved to the northeast corner of Main and Gerrard. It eventually closed in 1920 and today, the Ted Reeve Arena occupies the site, and the playing fields are known as the Grand Trunk Fields.

In 1907, people living near Lake Ontario became alarmed by railway expansion rumours. Newspapers published attempts by the railroads to run track just offshore east to Port Union. Later, more rumors claimed that both Canadian Pacific & Canadian Northern Railroad were surveying the beach and 200 yards north of Queen Street as possible track sites. The public was aroused, worried about their property values and quality of life. Petitions were signed and a delegation travelled to Ottawa. All the railways remained where they had been.

Although there were many advantages to annexation to Toronto – paved streets, more reliable water, electric light, and good sewage systems, East Toronto's feelings were mixed. The southern Beach ward was keen, while the north feared higher taxes. East Toronto finally joined Toronto on December 15, 1908, but the advantages came slowly. The area remained surrounded by fields and market gardens until as late as the 1920s, as the city crept nearer along the street railways lines on Gerrard Street, Danforth Avenue and Kingston Road.

The Grand Trunk Railway became part of the Canadian National Railways in 1923. By the 1940s, the Danforth Yard was no longer used as a freight yard, and the locomotive roundhouse was demolished. In 1940, there were six tracks north and 17 south of the mainline. By the 1980s, the northern tracks had been removed and there were 11 southern storage tracks. The York Station was demolished in October 1974, and a GO transit station now occupies the site.

Although the village had easy access to Toronto by trains or street railways, people tended to live, work and play close to their neighbourhood. The closeness of The Beach with its clean air and change of atmosphere made it 'the place' to go to for summer enjoyment for many East Torontonians.

Leaside 1900 – 1950s

Leaside was a Toronto community created by the railroads as a real estate speculation venture before the First World War. In 1870, the Ontario & Quebec Railway purchased part of the Lea farm for their line from Toronto to Peterborough. Four years later, when the railway was in financial difficulty, it leased the property to Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). As the land was unoccupied and inexpensive, CPR decided to establish a yard (south of present day Commercial Road and east of Laird Drive). Gradually over the next several decades more tracks, a roundhouse and shops were added and a passenger station was built just east of where Millwood crossed the tracks. Up to this time all the construction was for the operational needs of the railway. The last railway to be built in the city was the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) linking Toronto to Parry Sound in 1906. It ran down the west side of the Don River and had yards at Cherry Street and Rosedale, south of the Brickworks in the Don Valley. The Rosedale yard was moved to Leaside in 1919. A two-mile spur connected the yard to its northern line, east of Leslie Street, which joined the Canadian Pacific's line to Leaside.

Railways had become heavily involved in land speculation, particularly across western Canada. In 1910 as Toronto was booming, two Toronto financiers, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, owners of CNoR, purchased most of the land south of Eglinton and east of Bayview avenues, and north and west of the Canadian Pacific main line and decided to create a town. A landscape architect, Frederick Todd, was commissioned to design a garden city with curved streets and cul-de-sacs; similar to another city he had designed for them, Port Mann, BC. Some Leaside streets were named for influential friends and notables: Hanna, the third company Vice-President, McRae, a prairie-land tycoon, and Laird, Vice-President of the Bank of Commerce, a major financial backer.

The planned subdivision was ready by 1912; however, war rumours, financial uncertainty and the collapse of the western Canada real estate bubble caused Toronto real estate prices to fall. Leaside, because of its remoteness, was not a desirable residential area during the 1913 depression and the First World War that followed. By 1915, both Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk railways were in difficulties, and the Canadian government recommended reorganization into the Canadian National Railway.

Advertising at that time extolled Leaside as Toronto's new business and railway centre. The Leaside Munitions Co., a division of Canada Wire and Cable, established itself at Laird Avenue and Commercial Road and built some accommodation for workers. Other workers commuted from the CPR North Toronto Station at Yonge (built in 1916) on special trains. As men went overseas, women filled their jobs. A Royal Flying Corps aerodrome north of the munitions plant was established in the summer of 1917 to train pilots. This airport continued as a commercial airport until superseded by the Island and Malton (Pearson) airports. The last hanger was torn down in 1971. After the war, one of the plants was taken over by Durant Motors, later Dominion Motors, which made cars until 1933, the last independent Canadian car business. Another industry that established itself in Leaside in 1920 was the Thorncliffe Race Track, located east of the Leaside Station. In its heyday there were stables for 600 horses; an apartment complex now covers the area.

Since the 1920s, Leaside has gradually become one of the most desirable residential neighbourhoods to live in. The streets are quiet and tree-lined, yet the city, schools and shops are close by. Many residents are the children and grandchildren of the people who lived there some eighty years ago.


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