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In-Depth History of Richmond Hill

Early Settlement

Richmond Hill's history, in the initial stages, was closely linked with the development of Yonge Street, planned as a military road by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, to be used as an inland route from York to Fort Penetanguishene. Surveying began in the early spring of 1794, but the road was not fully opened through Richmond Hill until early in 1796.

Although Yonge Street was conceived as a military road, the possibilities for settlement along its length were obvious. Lots of approximately 200 acres were laid out - 100 chains deep to the next concession line, and 20 chains wide - with five lots making a concession. These lots were primarily settled by British immigrants, United Empire Loyalists and those who had served under the Crown during the American Revolution.

In 1794, William Berczy brought a group of settlers from the Genesee area of New York. His group was granted 64,000 acres in Markham Township, including that portion of Markham Township which now comprises the southeast corner of Richmond Hill. Although Berczy himself ran into financial troubles and eventually withdrew to Montreal, most of his settlers remained to build their homes and create farms on their assigned lots.

The other major influence on early settlement of Richmond Hill was the arrival of the French emigres under the Compte de Puisaye. This group of French Royalists was assigned lots on both sides of Yonge from Elgin Mills Road to Oak Ridges. Eighteen log houses were constructed, a church was started, and Isaac Pilkington established a tavern in the area. However, the rigours of taming a wilderness were too much for many of the French nobility, and they returned to France with the restoration of the French monarchy.

The Village Begins To Take Form

The village of Richmond Hill began about 1801 when Abner Miles, an innkeeper and merchant from York, settled on the lots each side of Yonge Street at Major Mackenzie Drive. He established an inn, store, and ashery, thus creating a nucleus for future development. On his death in 1806 his son James inherited his lands, eventually donating land for the Presbyterian Church and a school.

Between 1810 and 1830, the village began to take form. James Shaw recognized the need for small frontages along Yonge Street for commercial development, and severed parcels of one-quarter, one-half and one acre on the east side of Yonge, north from Major Mackenzie. By 1830, the core of the village contained two inns, two blacksmiths, a general store, a chairmaker, a shoemaker, and possibly a bakery, as well as a church, cemetery and school - all the basic requirements of a village.

Surrounding Area

Development in other areas of Richmond Hill was confined primarily to major intersections along Yonge Street. There was a sawmill on the Vaughan (or west) side of Lot 36 at Highway 7, and on the Markham side John Langstaff was beginning to establish the settlement which later took his name. Matthew Lymburner opened a tavern at Lot 4 (Carrville Road) in the 1820's. Fleck and Flanagan both had taverns at Elgin Mills before 1820, and John Gordon had a tavern license at Oak Ridges from at least 1824.

Although farmsteads were being expanded in the rural areas east of Yonge Street, none of the future hamlets had begun to develop in the 1820's.

The Village of Richmond Hill

By 1830, the name 'Richmond Hill' had become well established. The village was known briefly as Miles Hill and then Mount Pleasant. According to popular history, 'Richmond Hill' may have come from a visit of the Duke of Richmond to the area, in 1819. However, the family of Benjamin Barnard believed that the name was adopted when their father taught his school classes to sing "The Lass of Richmond Hill", a favourite song from his childhood in Richmond, Surrey.

The 1830's saw the development of the Yonge Street frontage on the west side of the village, either side of Centre Street. The first post office, another inn and two more general stores opened. By 1850, a village had taken shape from Major Mackenzie Drive to Wright and Dunlop streets. The side streets of Arnold, Centre East and West, Richmond, Wright and Dunlop (William Street at that time) all existed, as did Elizabeth and Church Streets.

Neighbouring Hamlets

Elgin Mills had developed as a separate village, taking its name in honour of the newly-appointed Governor-General, Lord Elgin. Although much smaller than Richmond Hill, Elgin Mills had a general store, tavern, shoemaker and blacksmith, and sent its children to Jefferson School.

Langstaff had also developed as an urban nucleus. William and James Cook opened their Yorkshire House Tavern in 1834, and by mid century there was a cluster of seven houses and carpenter's shop on Lot 36, Vaughan. John Langstaff had created a pail, shingle and eavestrough factory on his Markham side. In addition, he had a store and blacksmith shop.

At Headford, John C. Burr had built a grist mill in the 1830's and tradesmen began to settle around the land leading to the mill from Leslie Street.

Years of Prosperity

The next three decades were years of growth throughout Richmond Hill. In the village each church had its own meeting place; the Agricultural Society held an annual Spring Fair; the children attended a new brick school; and Richmond Hill had its own weekly newspaper. The hotels, shops and trades were flourishing. In 1873, Richmond Hill was incorporated as a village.

Elgin Mills became a thriving industrial crossroads, with tannery, grist mill, large cooperage and blacksmith shop, as well as general store, hotel and a number of trades. Headford, too, had its collection of trades centred around the mill. The hamlet of Dollar appeared at Leslie Street and Highway 7, with general store, carpenters, blacksmiths, and by 1869, its own post office.

Oak Ridges was granted its own post office in 1851, presided over by Peter Routledge, who had established his blacksmith shop three years earlier. The Murdochs were producing boots and shoes, and the hotel and a general store continued serving the people of King and Whitchurch along the Yonge Street corridor.

Changing Times

Economic stagnation affected Richmond Hill in the 1870's, particularly hurting the hotel trade. New industry by-passed the village when the railway was built several miles to the west. Richmond Hill's economy did not rebound until the coming of the radial line in the 1890's and of the railway in the first decade of the 20th century.

William J. Lawrence established his greenhouses in Richmond Hill about 1912, then encouraged other florists to move to Richmond Hill, putting the village on the map as the rose-growing capital of Canada. The Duke of Richmond's motto 'En la rose, je fleuris' was adopted by the village council, along with an interpretation of his family crest.

The rural hamlets remained small but active centres for the local farmers. Temperanceville, Jefferson and Langstaff had been given post offices in the 1870's and 1880's and Elgin Mills finally had its own post office in 1900. With the coming of the James Bay Railway (later Canadian Northern), a new hamlet quickly evolved at New Gormley shortly after the turn of the century.

It was the automobile that brought major changes to Richmond Hill, introducing the concept of commuting to Toronto to work. The first residential subdivision was registered in 1910, and as its lots were developed, the community of Richvale evolved. William Lawrence opened up Roseview Gardens in 1912 within the corporation boundaries. Lake Wilcox became a favourite summer retreat, with small cottage lots proliferating.

From Village To Town

Building slowed during the Depression and war years, but the post war suburban phenomenon had a major impact on Richmond Hill. By 1957, the village had expanded its borders to include major subdivisions to the east, and had acquired town status. In the following years more areas of the surrounding townships were annexed to permit residential and industrial growth. In 1971, regional government was implemented by the province, and Richmond Hill increased from 1,944 acres to 24,129 acres. The population doubled, then with increased sewer and water capacity, doubled again to 91,000.

However, the old village core and early hamlets have retained their visual identity, and preserve Richmond Hill's unique character within an urban context.

Prepared for Richmond Hill LACAC by Janet E. Fayle, 1993

For more information on the history of Richmond Hill, see Early Days in Richmond Hill by Robert M. Stamp, or Later Days in Richmond Hill by Marney Beck Robinson and Joan M. Clark, available for reference and purchase at the Richmond Hill Public Library, the Richmond Hill Heritage Centre and the Town's Municipal Offices.

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