Banner photo is of Richmond St., looking west from Yonge, on February 7th, 1927. From the City of Toronto Archives.
If you’ve recently found yourself travelling along Richmond St W, between Bay and Yonge, chances are you’ve already forgotten it. Because, frankly, there’s not a whole lot there. Oh sure, you have the great, expansive back-end of the Bay on the north side, rising up like an impenetrable cliff face. But there’s not a whole lot on the south side – just two bland office buildings, anchoring each end of the block, and a parking garage. Well, if you’ve read any of my rambling posts before, you’re probably expecting me to tell you it wasn’t always like this. And you’d be right – it wasn’t always like this.
The stretch of Richmond west of Yonge was originally nothing of the sort – in that it was actually a street all its own, called Hospital St. When the street was first laid out at the turn of the 18th century, a plot was put aside for a hospital and so, in anticipation of its erection, it was named in its honour. The trouble was, the hospital never quite materialized (at least not there) and so by the 1840s it became the westward continuation of Richmond. Funny enough, a hospital did eventually appear on the street but was not timely enough to save it from being added to the Duke of Richmond’s namesake to the east:
The street, though named for a phantom hospital and then a Duke, was actually part of a large swath of land bought by Jesse Ketchum at the onset of the War of 1812. It was a pretty decent parcel too, running north from King to Queen (then Lot St) and east from Bay to Victoria.
Unlike the many cohorts of John Graves Simcoe, who were handed large parcels of land simply for showing up, Jesse Ketchum got his by the sweat of his brow… well, that and some investment opportunities gifted by war … but yeah, definitely the sweat of his brow too.
Born in Spencertown, NY in 1782, Ketchum had had a hard childhood. After the death of his mother, his father found himself completely overwhelmed and at a loss for how to care for his 11 children. And so it was decided that they’d be split up among a number of foster families. The youngest, a baby girl named Abigail, was given to an aunt and uncle – who, it should be noted, were the parents of Stephen A. Douglass. (Which I suppose makes all the Ketchums cousins to the Douglass family.) Unfortunately for little Jesse, however, he was given to a poor neighbouring family. I gather the husband was an alright sort but the wife was cruel and abusive. She was especially keen on quashing all young Jesse’s efforts to read, write or even attend school. So it’s not surprising that at 17 Jesse ran away from home – such as it was – to find his older brother Seneca who’d moved to York, several years earlier. Happily, he found him.
As for Seneca, he’d come to Canada with two elderly uncles – borne along by the flood of Loyalists who were vacating New England. After a brief spell in Kingston, the Ketchums moved on to York where Seneca rented and farmed 210 acres on the west side of Yonge, near today’s Bedford Park. It was on this farm that our runaway Jesse Ketchum found his brother and his first Canadian home, in 1799.
Hard work in farming, and then as a tanner, soon brought Jesse a fair bit of wealth and success – enough so that he was eventually able to buy the swath of land that included today’s Richmond St W. The land was purchased from an American named John Van Zant who was persuaded to head back to the States with the coming war. Jesse, who had apparently pledged his allegiance to the British, was safe to stay in York and buy up Van Zant’s land for a nominal price.
While Jesse threw his lot in with the British during the war, he soon found himself at extreme odds with those who took York in hand in the aftermath. Namely the Family Compact and, specifically, Bishop Strachan. When Strachnan aggressively seized the Common School funds for his own Church of England school, he made an enemy of Jesse Ketchum who was now a York school trustee. You’ll remember that Ketchum himself had been kept from attending school and so he, naturally, resented the idea that any child be refused an education for lack of the “correct” religious affiliation. His blood stirred, he fought successfully to put an end to the Compact’s efforts. Shortly after, Ketchum joined the Reform party and became an ally of the magnificently scrappy William Lyon Mackenzie.
It’s hard to imagine anyone matching Mackenzie’s zeal, but Ketchum sure sounds like he had some fight in him – and he certainly wasn’t silenced easily, as we learn from Henry Scadding in Toronto of Old:
“We here once saw a public orator run away with, in the midst of his harangue. This was Mr. Jesse Ketchum, who was making use of a farmer’s waggon as his rostrum or platform, when the vehicle was suddenly laid hold of, and wheeled rapidly down King Street, the speaker maintaining his equilibrium in the meanwhile with difficulty.”
Almost as an afterthought, Scadding added: “Mr. Ketchum was one of the most benevolent and beneficent of men.”
This benevolence was not imagined. In the 1830s and 40s, Ketchum granted land to a number of institutions, underscoring his belief in religious freedom and education. As Scadding put it:
“To the facility with which he supplied building sites for moral and religious uses it is due that at this day the quadrilateral between Queen Street and Adelaide Street, Yonge Street and Bay Street, is a sort of miniature Mount Athos, a district curiously crowded with places of worship. He gave in Yorkville also sites for a school-house and Temperance Hall, and, besides, two acres for a Children’s Park.”
Among the places of worship which found a home on Ketchum’s land was the Richmond St Methodist Church:
Further west on Richmond between Bay and York was the African Chapel, a Baptist church begun by former slaves from the U.S.:
A second church founded by former slaves, the Coloured Wesleyan Methodist Church, was built on the North side of Richmond in 1838:
With William Lyon Mackenzie’s Declaration of the Reformers, a rift was opened between Ketchum and the party. Jesse still believed keenly in the Reformers’ cause but was not willing to take up arms to further it. His son William, on the other hand, was willing and ready. Having added his name to the Vigilance Committee, he became a target when the Tory government began rounding up Mackenzie’s supporters. William was arrested but avoided being jailed only because the jail (sorry, gaol) was already at capacity. Instead he had to settle for being kept under surveillance.
When the watch on him eased up, William used the opportunity to shuffle off to Buffalo. Realizing he might be there for a while – at least till the heat died down – he looked around for job opportunities. It was then he realized the town was ripe for a tannery business – his father’s main line. With what must’ve been a helluva sales pitch, he talked his father into opening up a new business with the understanding that he, William, would run it. Jesse being Jesse, it was soon done. But then, with that great flippant air some kids have (ok, so he was in his 30s) he decided, naw, he’d rather join his brother-in-law in banking back in Toronto. And so Jesse Ketchum found himself with an unmanned business across the border.
Well, there was nothing for it, I guess, but to take it on himself. And so, in 1845 he picked up and moved to Buffalo, leaving his Canadian land to his children. Once stateside, I understand that he duplicated his good deeds and, by his death in 1867, had left Buffalo peppered with churches and schools he’d helped fund.
Throughout the 1870s and 80s, Richmond St W became more populated, with numerous small homes and businesses cropping up alongside the churches which had once exemplified the neighbourhood. But real change came in 1888-89 with the demolition of the Richmond St. Methodist Church and the raising of large brick buildings dedicated to publishing. I don’t know how the congregation felt about the loss of their church, but I imagine they couldn’t find fault with the periodicals being churned out of the new office buildings.
29 Richmond St W was home to such publications as The Christian Guardian, Methodist Magazine and the tantalizing-sounding Sunday School Banner. There were also middle-of-the-road magazines like Home and School, Pleasant Hours and something called The Sunbeam. Neighbouring 33 Richmond St W was a little more focused, playing to particular readers with titles like Canadian Shoe and Leather Journal, Canadian Baker and Confectioner, and The Trained Nurse.
My personal favourite, though, began publishing out of 33 Richmond in 1890: The Delineator.
The Delineator was an American home and fashion magazine re-vamped for the Canadian public, with department store-titan Timothy Eaton as President. Besides being a business dynamo, Eaton was also a Methodist – so I imagine it was a perfect fit for all concerned.
Rather than being a catalogue for ordering ready-made items, the Delineator was more for the do-it-yourself-ers (I’m aware there’s an acronym out there for this, but I insist on torturing readers with a ‘long-read.’ … see?) Here are some of the popular Butterick patterns, from February of 1893, which they thought you might like to make:
Lest we forget the men, there were also hot fashions for the fellas in your family:
Another large structured which rose from the dust on Richmond, in the late 1880s, was the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
With this and other large towers cropping up along the south side of Richmond St W, the texture of the street was now completely changed. In just a few short years it had gone from this, in 1884:
To this, in 1890:
Here we see the mapped buildings fleshed out in 1927.
My, how Richmond W has grown up! It’s now looking very much like the kind of street you’d expect to find in a bustling downtown core.
… which makes it all the more incredible that today it looks like this:
What you see here – or rather, what you don’t see – is the result of a deal struck between the Bay-Adelaide Centre and the city. In exchange for the ability to build higher than originally mandated, the Centre agreed to give the city half an acre of its lot. And, rather than give back a bald patch of land, it would dress it up with a $5 million park.
So for once, this yawning space mid-block is not awaiting development. The future of the site has already arrived – in the form of the Cloud Gardens Conservatory.
Much better than being just another mark on the skyline, the Cloud Gardens site packs a lot of punch – though, truth be told, it’s easy to miss from the sidewalk. Free to one and all, the conservatory features a greenhouse of exotic plants and palms, as well as a lush park with winding paths and a monument to construction workers.
And so, at last, what is here will remain. … and if doesn’t, you can bet I’ll be back with something to say about it. Assuming I’m still around myself.