May 17th, 2022
A Tale of Two Villages Along The Danforth

Q1. What were the two villages that now make up part of The Danforth and how did The Danforth get it's name? (P7)

By Beth Parker

Toronto is known as a collection of neighbourhoods. Years ago, many of these grew into little villages because they clustered around a major road or transportation, like a railway or main thoroughfare, or a mill, or industry. Sometimes they got their name from their geographic setting, such as "Balmy Beach", "Kew Beach". Other times, it was because of the family that first settled there, e.g. "Leslieville" or "Playter", or even the contractor or surveyor who was hired to build in the area – Danforth!

Danforth Avenue today – a short 9 kilometer stretch from the east side of the Don Valley to where it merges with Kingston Road – is the home of an interesting mix of cultures and communities, such as Greek, Irish, Middle-Eastern, Chinese, and East-Indian. Along the way, however, many reminders of its history are found in the names of its streets, churches, public areas, the kinds of establishments and the buildings that still front along the street.

Although there's been activity on Danforth Avenue for over 200 years, two areas that were once distinct communities are worth another visit today, even though they no longer exist by their original names. These are the little Village of Chester, in the western section from Broadview to Pape, and "Little York", further east at Danforth and Dawes Road.

The original name Danforth was used for Danforth Road (not Avenue). It was named after an American contractor, Asa Danforth, commissioned in 1799 to build a military road from the Town of York (Toronto) to just west of Kingston. Today, Danforth Road runs from Danforth Avenue between Pharmacy and Warden. It travels northeast and merges into McCowen, past highway 401.

The Don and Danforth Plank Road Company built the Don and Danforth Road in 1851 (later renamed Danforth Avenue) in order to connect Don Mill Road (later renamed Broadview Avenue) to the more populous areas of the city around Queen Street East and Kingston Road. Broadview, in fact, had started out as a wagon trail through the woods from Queen Street to the mills by the Don River (known today as Todmorden Mills Park at Pottery Road.)

Various small industries soon sprung up just north of Danforth Avenue where it crossed the Don Valley, because they could take advantage of the waterpower as well as brick making. The route, however, remained pretty much of a country road passing through fields, market gardens and brickyards, with a few houses, churches and an occasional hotel or roadhouse for travelers along the way.

Connecting Villages to the City

The rural nature of The Danforth partly remained unchanged for many years because the Don Valley separated the area from the City. But everyone knew that one day, the areas would be linked together. Various attempts at bridges were made, starting with the first bridge in 1791, built by the Playter family. Elizabeth, wife of John Grave Simcoe, called it "Playter's picturesque bridge" because one day a tree fell on it, and the intertwined branches made it look so pretty!

Finally, in 1912, construction started for a permanent bridge over the Don Valley. This brought the biggest change to the area in its history. Completed in 1918, the Prince Edward Viaduct linked all the "sleepy" little neighbourhoods along the Danforth Avenue with Bloor Street, close to the heart of the City. Buildings and shops sprung up along the Danforth throughout the 1920s–many are still there today.

Another consequence of the Viaduct was the increase in car traffic, as well as gas stations and car dealerships along the Danforth. At one point, every block had at least one car lot, and by the 1950s, Danforth east of Pape was considered the centre of the used car business in Toronto. Even Lea Playter's house was torn down for a used car lot, and part of the shopping centre that makes up the Carrot Common was once a showroom for a car dealership.

The opening of the Bloor subway line in 1966 had an additional economic and social impact. All of a sudden, it became fashionable to live along The Danforth. Many homes were renovated and restored, new apartments built, as young professionals moved into the area. As land value boomed, so did development. More trendy shops, including the Big Carrot Natural Food Market opened (1986), as well as offices and restaurants.

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