Banner photo is of Queen St E looking west, just east of Leslie, in 2015. Photo by K Taylor.
There are few intersections in the city today where you can still feel a neighbourhood’s past. I don’t mean that in a communing-with-the-spirits sense – though by all means, please do so if you can. No, rather I mean the way the lay of the land can strike you as a place unchanged. As Toronto fills in every available inch and glass towers rise from a standing jump we lose the spacing and rhythm that tell us how a street began. But one intersection hanging onto its tale is that of Leslie and Queen St. E. Stand in front of the Duke, or trundle past on a streetcar, and I bet you’ll feel you’re on the outskirts of town. And that’s because it once was.
Up until 1884, the stretch of Queen that runs east of the Don River was called Kingston Rd. and was a village unto itself. Known as Leslieville, much of the land belonged (not coincidentally) to a man name George Leslie.
Born in Scotland in 1804, Leslie moved to Ontario in 1824 and within a decade set up shop selling seeds and grain in Toronto. In 1842, he and a couple of Rochester, NY gents named Elwanger and Barry decided to go into business together. The three leased 20 acres way out on the Kingston Road and started a nursery.
This venture proved fruitful enough (pun intended) that by 1847 Leslie was able to give up his Yonge St seed shop and buy out his partners for $5000. A tidy sum for the day, I imagine. But in March of 1849, fire (that great foe of all early cities) hit the nursery and destroyed Leslie’s greenhouses, 4000 valuable plants and a number of exotic flowers. The damage was estimated at $2500. I have to say here that you can hardly read about old-time Toronto without bumping into a fire – but a greenhouse fire seems fairly novel, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s just me.
In any case, George Leslie and his nursery bounced right back. By 1869, his nursery encompassed 150 acres and was touted as the largest and finest in the Dominion. So perhaps it wasn’t very surprising that in 1875 George Leslie & Sons won the contract to create the gardens of Mount Pleasant cemetery. This, I assure you, was a very big deal. Prior to its opening, the only burials allowed in the city of Toronto were for those belonging to either the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England. If you did not count yourself among their members, there was no room at the inn, er, city for you. So, naturally, the idea of a large cemetery, open to all, was widely welcomed. And expectations of its beauty and greatness couldn’t have been placed higher than by the trustees themselves, who described it thus:
With far less romance, but still a touching sweetness, Leslie reminisced about his own life’s work in 1889 in The Canadian Horticulturist. He wrote “Although I have grown old in the business my interests are as fresh as ever, and looking about this country almost from ocean to ocean it gratifies my old heart to know that my labors have to some extent helped to beautify and enrich many homes.”
While Leslie concerned himself with sprucing up the city (sorry, the puns sometimes write themselves), there were folks with other interests moving into the area. In 1863, George Smith, a teamster, and William Cook, a brick maker, opened a hotel on the south side of Queen, near Leslie St. They named it Uncle Tom’s Cabin Hotel.
The name was, of course, a nod to the best-selling novel of the 19th century – to put it a little too simply. But it most certainly also made reference to the large African American community which had sprung up in the area; a community which included escaped slaves who had arrived via the Underground Railroad and who now settled near where the Grand Trunk Railway crossed Kingston Rd.
I should point out that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel, also influenced the development of another part of Toronto. Two young brothers whose family lived on a farm on the Third Concession Rd. were taken to see a theatre production of the story in the late 1850s. The boys – Edwin and Albert Grainger – were so taken with the story that they each adopted the name of a character. Edwin chose Norton and Albert took St. Clare, but spelled it “St. Clair” as it was wrongly noted in the play’s program. For some reason known only to little boys living out on old country roads, they made up signs bearing these names and affixed them to posts. “Norton” failed to adhere, either to the post or public fancy, while “St. Clair” is to this day the name of one of Toronto’s major streets.
Anyhow, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Hotel was the place to be in Leslieville. During the long, hard winter months when everything slowed (or rather froze) to a halt, it was a hub where the small village and stagecoach travelers could stop to pass the time. Card games and dominoes were the chief amusements, made more colourful I’m sure by beer and whiskey at two-pence a glass. The ever genial newspaperman J. Ross Robertson wrote that “even at that price there was little if any drunkenness.” …which to be honest, I find a little hard to believe. Toronto was a seriously hard-drinking town – something that was becoming a major issue in this era – and the papers of the day are peppered with accounts of what they charmingly referred to as “rascality” brought on by drunkeness. But perhaps Smith and Cook ran a tight, sober ship.
One Leslieville landmark which did not enjoy this clean reputation is the one which, remarkably, still stands today.
Today’s Duke was built by a man named James Morin in 1869-70 and named Morin House. Like a number of others who were moving into Leslieville at the time, he was a brick maker. Unlike most, however, he sold his wares out of his general store … which somewhat broadened the term ‘general’ I imagine.
Unfortunately for Morin, by 1872 his business had gone bust and he ducked out of town, or at least Leslieville. Word was that he’d moved to the west end and opened another tavern or inn, but sadly I can’t find a trace of it. The new owners held onto the name Morin House until about 1911 when they saw fit to call it the Duke of York.
Whatever drunkenness and ‘rascality” didn’t happen at Uncle Tom’s Cabin appears to have roosted at the Duke and it became known as a pretty rough place. If you can believe it, this reputation persisted for almost a century, culminating on a terrible night in 2008 when a bar fight ended with gunshots and a young, innocent woman shot dead. At the time, the face of the building had been painted with a mural of John Wayne – signifying the owners’ allegiance to a different Duke, I guess. Against a massive pastel-hued desert background, John Wayne faced Queen St with his rifle half-raised. I’ve been told that after the shooting Wayne’s people asked for the mural to be removed, but I like to think that anyone would’ve had the sense to get rid of it. However it came to pass, I’ve seen that building repainted more often in the intervening years than any other I can recall.
You know, I actually have my own memory of the bad, old Duke. A couple of years before the tragic event of 2008, a friend and I ventured way out to the east end. We were on the hunt for vintage cocktail dresses of the quality that only seem to exist in shops at the opposite end of the city. (Oh do go on, you say). Anyhow, after spending a pleasant afternoon in this pursuit we thought we’d venture into the large, mysterious establishment for something to eat. Passing John Wayne, who guarded the entrance, we walked into a cool, clammy darkness. Now, it’s just possible my memory is playing tricks on me but … I could swear that as we stood there, trying to adjust our eyes, there was the loud scratch of a needle on a record and the music died. All seemed suddenly silent and we found ourselves looking across a room peopled by large, rough men with beards, the like of which no ZZ Top has seen before or since. We stood and stared. They stood and stared. With a synchronicity of motion my friend and I have never again duplicated, we walked backwards out of that bar.
I feel like I’d be doing a disservice to the Duke, as it exists today, if I didn’t tell you that they seem intent on changing the feel of the place. Where before it occupied a spiritual plane somewhere between the biker bar in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the Country and Western bar from the Blues Brothers, it now has gone to great lengths to appear inviting to all. More of a music venue now than anything, they host lots of live bands and have built an incredible, large patio with enough lush plants to impress even George Leslie. … One of these days I may actually work up the nerve to go back in.