Thursday, June 4, 2009

HisT.O.ry: Long Branch, Sea Breezes

Every once in a while, between the past and future, Acts of Minor Treason takes time to look backward at some of Toronto's history - preferably the parts of it that haven't been bulldozed already.

There's a tree-lined street in Long Branch1 named Muskoka Avenue. In some respects it's a far cry from the real Muskoka, that northern land of buzzing insects, tranquil lakes and cottages to which Hollywood stars retreat, but it's appropriate in its own way. Though it's only 13.8 kilometers from downtown Toronto as the crow flies2, at the end of the 19th century Long Branch was Toronto's own Muskoka-on-the-Lake. In the land now enclosed by Lake Shore Boulevard, Etobicoke Creek and the Lake Ontario shoreline, members of Toronto's wealthy elite maintained cottages where they could get away from it all.

Houses in Long Branch along the shore of Lake Ontario

If the average Torontonian is aware of Long Branch today, it's probably because of the 501 Queen streetcar, half of the westbound runs of which are signed for the Long Branch Loop - it's not exactly the kind of place where sensational things that interest CityNews tend to happen. It's an "old stock" community in southwest Etobicoke, with New Toronto to the east and Mississauga to the west. Long Branch was once a municipality in its own right, incorporated in 1930 as the Village of Long Branch, and was the last of present-day Toronto's constituent communities to be formed. It was one of the thirteen municipalities that came together in 1954 to form the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, and thirteen years later its independent existence came to an end, when it was amalgamated with Etobicoke. With a 2006 population of 9,610 Long Branch retains a small-town feel, and it represents a relatively affluent corner of the city with a plurality of households pulling in more than $100,000 a year.

This isn't much of a surprise, considering its background.

In the nineteenth century, Toronto was a densely-packed city - it had to be. Before the advent of the automobile, streetcar lines represented the only accessible and effective mode of transit for the average person, and the economics of streetcar lines then, as now, required a large population in a small area. Beyond the city limits, density fell off dramatically. As late as 1883, the Long Branch area was farmland, connected to Toronto only by the then-unpaved Lakeshore Highway.

Then, as now, not everyone was satisfied with the grinding hubbub that was almost inescapable in boisterous, industrial Hogtown, and given this dissatisfaction a man named Thomas Wilkie saw his opportunity. In the mid-1880s he laid down Sea Breeze Park, a cottage community anchored around two hundred and nineteen individual lots south of modern Lake Shore Boulevard, with the first cottage sold in 1886.

The Hotel Long Branch, built in 1887, was the centerpiece of Mr. Wilkie's waterfront paradise. In an effort to attract the rich to its doorstep it boasted, in addition to a prime view of the lake, amenities such as electricity and telephone connections to Toronto for the low, low price of $15 per week. Unfortunately, the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator only goes back to 1914, when $15 was the equivalent of $284.75 in 2009 dollars. Still, it's fair to say that it was most likely a pretty penny.

The same could be said for the Hotel Long Branch itself, which managed to avoid the death-by-bulldozer fate of the majority of Toronto's historical landmarks by burning to the ground in 1954.

4 Long Branch Avenue, pictured above, dates from 1896, when Long Branch was still a vacation spot for the wealthy

While transit service to Long Branch began as early as 1895, with the Toronto and Mimico Electric Railway and Light Company running service west from Queen and Roncesvalles, the kind of people who would buy cottages among its trees were hardly the kind who'd rub shoulders with the hoi polloi on a common streetcar.3 Prior to the T&M's rails, the majority of traffic was carried to Long Branch via the Grand Trunk Railway, which maintained a station there, as well as a small fleet of lake steamers which connected Long Branch with a wharf at the foot of Yonge Street.

The extension of streetcar service to Long Branch allowed it to transform from a wealthy vacation spot to a true community. In December 1928, the TTC began running streetcars from Long Branch Loop direct to downtown Toronto, a route maintained to the present by 501 Queen and 508 Lake Shore cars.

Long Branch Loop, the western terminus of the Toronto streetcar system, has seen eighty-one years of uninterrupted service

Changing patterns of settlement in the mid-20th century led to a shift in Long Branch. What had once been a seaside resort community had become a dynamic village, with its population increasing from 5,172 in 1941 to nearly 9,000 ten years later, though it did not experience the same explosive growth as suburbs such as Leaside or North York.4 Nevertheless, many of the original cottages were replaced by modest, inexpensive postwar construction.

War had its own impact on Long Branch aside from patterns of construction, the impact of the men and women who never came home. During the First World War, new pilots were trained there. The Long Branch Cenotaph stands today at the intersection of Long Branch Avenue and Park Boulevard, erected in 1933 by Branch 101 of the Canadian Legion in memory of those who fought and died in the First World War and, later, the Second World War and the Korean War.

The Long Branch Cenotaph - "In Memoriam"

One of Long Branch's greatest challenges blew in from the south on the night of October 15, 1954, when the Dominion Weather Office forecast "rain tonight" for Toronto. What arrived was Hurricane Hazel5, one of the most devastating natural disasters to hit Canada in the twentieth century. Though Long Branch was not hit as hard as other communities in and around Toronto, raging floodwaters in Etobicoke Creek flooded three streets, killed at least seven people, and damaged or destroyed almost two hundred properties. Many of these, particularly along Island Road and Forty-Third Street in western Long Branch, were demolished in the interest of public health and were replaced by open parkland.

Today, Island Road connects Lake Shore Boulevard with a parking lot in Marie Curtis Park, named for the last reeve of the Village of Long Branch, on the Mississauga side of Etobicoke Creek. Forty-Third Street, at least the part of it south of Lake Shore Boulevard, no longer exists.

Today, Long Branch is a quiet, peaceful community, one of many throughout the city. Like the rest of the city, it's a far cry from the fortress of British blood it would have been in the 1880s, and Polish, Chinese, and Russian are the home languages of a good chunk of Long Branch's modern population.

Today, you can't see Toronto from Long Branch, and it's still the sort of place you can go to get away from it all.

LOCATION: Southwestern Etobicoke, between Twenty-Third Street to the east, Etobicoke Creek to the west, and the railway lands to the north.

HOW TO GET THERE: Every second 501 Queen streetcar rolling westbound is signed 501 LONG BRANCH, bound for the Long Branch Loop. During weekday rush hours it's supplemented by 508 Lake Shore cars running west from King and Church Streets. Alternatively, the 110 Islington South and 123 Shorncliffe buses connect Long Branch Loop with Islington station and Kipling station, respectively.

1 The Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names tells me that it was named in honor of "the famous Long Island resort," the existence of which I can find no evidence. This may instead be a reference to Long Branch, New Jersey, which was a beach resort as far back as the eighteenth century.

2 If you want to be pedantic, this is the straight-line distance between the foot of Yonge Street and the intersection of Lake Shore Boulevard West and Long Branch Avenue.

3 In much the same way as you wouldn't likely find Conrad Black on the subway - that is, if he wasn't in prison.

4 North York likes to pretend it's not a suburb anymore, but I FOR ONE CAN SEE THROUGH ITS CUNNING DISGUISE

5 Which, strangely enough, did not involve the future mayor of Mississauga demolishing a single thing with her bare hands.


Brown, Ron. Toronto's Lost Villages. Toronto: Polar Bear Press, 1997.

Lemon, James. Toronto Since 1918: An Illustrated History. Toronto: National Museums of Canada, 1985.

Harder, Kelsie B. ed. Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names: United States and Canada. New York City: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976.

Mackay, Claire and Johnny Wales. The Toronto Story. Toronto: Annick Press Ltd., 1990.

Needham, Richard J. Boom Town Metro. Toronto: Toronto Daily Star, 1964.

Previous HisT.O.ry
presently I notice some degree of disagreement between what I found in my sources and what is on Wikipedia. also, "A Plurality of Households" might make a good name for a rock band

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