On September 15, 2012 Heritage Toronto unveiled a plaque to commemorate Riverdale Park East.
By Kaitlin Wainwright and Alex Meyers
Since its inception in 1880, Riverdale Park has been a popular site for sport and leisure in all seasons, visited by kings and queens on multiple occasions. The park also held militia training, parades, and a mock trench network during World War I. Riverdale Park also abuts an important institutional site – next to the Don Jail and Riverdale Hospital.
In 1856, the City of Toronto acquired 119 acres of land east of the Don River for the building of the Don Jail. The land was purchased from the estate of John Scadding – the original land grant recipient and John Simcoe’s secretary and estate manager. The land had been previously farmed by Scadding, his wife, Melicent, and their family.
Situated as it was away from the city proper, the site was ideal for the new jail and House of Refuge, which operated under the Magdalen Asylum. The House of Refuge was intended to provide shelter and aid for “dissolute and vagrant members of the community,” but evolved into an isolation hospital for the treatment of smallpox during an outbreak in
1870s. The isolation hospital later became Riverdale Hospital, which today operates as the Bridgepoint Health facility. As part of the prisoner rehabilitation program at the Don Jail, prisoners were required to work the land and did so here – on the Don Jail Farm – a practice which continued into the early 20th century.In June 1880, Riverdale Park was opened by Mayor James Beaty to much fanfare. Its original boundaries were that of Riverdale Park West. The Mayor proclaimed that no money was so well spent as that which was spent on parklands and that parks were “the lungs of the city.” Mayor Beaty was not the only politician of the time who felt this: Following the annexation of Riverdale in 1884, city council ordered the expansion of Riverdale Park eastward across the Don River to the edge of the Don Jail.
A natural amphitheatre, the park quickly grew to be a popular site for public gatherings, especially concerts. An edition of The Evening Star from 15 June 1898 includes a listing of concerts by military bands during the summer months, four of which took place at Riverdale Park. The same newspaper remarked the following winter that the park would be flooded to create a skating area.
Winter sports at Riverdale Park extended beyond skating to include skiing and tobogganing down the park’s steep and sometimes treacherous slope. The 27 December 1935 Toronto Star recounts a tragic accident, in which a 12 year-old girl was fatally injured in a sleigh collision on an unsupervised hill.
Summer months at the park were filled with athletics. Soccer, baseball, cricket and quoiting (similar to ringtoss) were all popular at one time or another. Tennis and badminton were played on grass courts on the flats.
During World War One, Riverdale Park was a place where troops and Canadian civilians rallied ahead of war overseas. Mock battles, military training and parades took place on the flats of the park with spectators looking on from its distinctive hill. During the war, a mock-up of a trench network from Flanders was created across the park. On one night in August 1915, more than 100,000 people gathered in the park to watch fireworks and hear marching bands drum up enthusiasm for the fight. The park was similarly used during World War Two. The Toronto Star reported in August 1941 that 200,000 people were expected at a Sunday afternoon Drumhead Service in the park to pledge support to the Victory Loan.
Crowds also gathered to hear members of the British Royal Family address the city. In 1927, Edward, Prince of Wales and his brother, Prince George attended a military Drum Head Service at the park prior to the opening of the Princes’ Gates at Exhibition Place.
Riverdale Park was again on the itinerary of the 1939 Royal Tour made by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth – the first visit of a reigning monarch to Canada. In 1951, Princess Elizabeth made the journey to Canada with her husband, Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh and were received by over 25,000 students singing “God Save the King”. This visit was recounted in the NFB documentary film, Royal Journey, in which their parade through Riverdale Park is highlighted.
The construction of the Don Valley Parkway between 1958 and 1967 led to the bisection of the park into its current east and west sections. While the park had been previously split by the Belt Line Railway in the 1890s, the Don Valley Parkway greatly limited access between the two parks and the Don River and reduced its size from 162 acres to 104 acres. Shortly thereafter, the City parks department announced an ambitious plan to improve the recreational and sports facilities at the park.
For over 100 years, Riverdale Park East has been home to Torontonians seeking out sport, leisure, or a great view of the city’s skyline. Its unique natural features are emphasized throughout its past and its story is at the core of the Riverdale community and its history.