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A Lakefront Estate
Residential Development
by D.B. McCowan, 1989


The recent "boom and bust" cycles of the real estate development industry in the Metro Toronto area have made us wonder, in an alternating pattern, "Has land ever been more expensive?" and "When will I get my money out of this place?" The history of the Scarborough lakefront clearly indicates that these cycles have been with us for generations -- and, indeed, are not likely to go away.

One particular area, midway along the Scarborough Bluffs, has a history of human occupation longer than any other site in Metro Toronto. The McCowan Road to Bellamy Road lakefront area was inhabited by early Archaic peoples about 10,000 years ago. It is perhaps fitting that one of the first post-war "modern" residential developments in Scarborough was the McCowan Road farm of Harold and Ashley McCowan. Their property, part of lot 22, concessions B and C, was one of the last farms in Scarborough to be "developed" by farmers. Since the early 1950's, of course, the professional real estate "developer" has been, by far, the major player in Scarborough land use change.

However, the "farmer developer" was, it appears, much more active toward the end of the nineteenth century. The following notes are an introduction to the development of the south part of lot 20 at the Scarborough Bluffs. A more thorough study of the repeated attempts to develop this farm should stand as a lesson to all those who are anxious to "speculate in land".

Early History

The first "modern era" "developer" of the south part of lot 20 beside Lake Ontario was James McCowan. In 1833, along with his wife, four sons and four daughters, he began the process of clearing 35 acres of forest on the flats naming his home "Springbank". His youngest son, William Porteous McCowan (1820-1902), farmed here (as a tenant) until 1848. (William's log residence (in northeast Scarborough) after 1848 is now a museum in Thomson Park.) The barns shown at (A) on the sketch were possibly built by W.P. McCowan. In addition to the 35 acres on the flats, William probably eventually worked an eleven acre field between the Lake Iroquois shoreline bluff and Gates Gully and a 23 acre field between Gates Gully and the north limit of the property (the pre-1837 line of the Kingston Road). The balance of the 125 acre farm was unworkable - Gates Gully, "Our Bluff" (Lake Iroquois shoreline) and the Scarborough Bluffs. James McCowan's eldest son, Robert (1813-1886), purchased the farm from the heirs of John Torrance in 1876. Robert left the property to his youngest son, William, in 1886.

Early Road Development

William P. McCowan's access to "the Flats" (where two houses are shown on Miles’ 1878 map) speaks volumes to his determination to succeed as a farmer. His laneway left the Kingston Road at the west end of his 23 acre field, crossed Gates Gully, skirted by the east side of the 11 acre field and angled down the hill to his home on the flats - fully half a mile. The surviving road allowance for Fairmont Drive as shown on the sketch and on the 1920 Plan would appear to define the southerly alignment of William's lane. Fairmont Drive was used by Mr. A.E. Rea by about 1910 to reach his country house overlooking the Lake Iroquois shoreline hill. This roadway would therefore appear to precede the 1920 plan of Plan 1100. We might then conclude that Rea was using an existing roadway to access his home.

The McCowan-Rea road was apparently the subject of some debate in Scarborough Council in 1871. Beebe Carnaghan was exempted from performing statute road work in favour of allowing him "to do his road work on his own farm [South half, Lot 20, Con. C] to get to the Kingston Road" (Markham Economist, June 29 1871). Also, in the May 17 1869 Council Minutes:

that Messrs. Beebe Carnaghan, Abraham Callendar and Robert Callendar be and are hereby relieved from the duty of performing statute labor for the year 1869, in consequence of having no access to their property by a public road.

A short portion of this, one of Scarborough's earliest roads, is viewed during the McCowan Society Historic Walking Tours.

The alignment of the McCowan-Rea roadway on the north bank of Gates Gully would appear to not follow the north end of Ravine Drive as the latter was, for some reason, intended to be coincident with the creek-bottom. The entire length of the McCowan-Rea road is barely discernible in an aerial photograph taken by the Federal Government in 1939.

A comical footnote here might suggest that William P. McCowan shared his private lane with a band of smugglers. David Boyle records in his "History of Scarboro, 1796-1896"

This trade flourished for many years, and large quantities of tea, leather goods, and general merchandise were landed night after night at the mouth of Gate's Gully, as recently as 1838. When opportunity served, the contraband goods were delivered in Toronto, Whitby and other places.

Plan 1100

"Plan 1100" was apparently conceived about 1891 when William McCowan (1862-1921) made arrangements for a survey of the south part of lot 20, concession C and lot 20, concession B (about 125 acres). Similarly, in 1891, John P. Mason created part of Plan 1104 out of his holdings on the north part of lot 20, concession C, while Alexander Muir established plan 1098 on the east part of lot 21 adjacent to McCowan (Abstract Index of Deeds). William’s brother, Robert McCowan, also had plan 1097 on lot 22.

Original land instruments and "applications" have not yet been consulted. We must therefore leave a detailed account of the efforts of these early "farmer-developers" for a future work. At this juncture, we can state only that any proposed developments did not materialize.

A thorough treatment of this proposed lakefront land development in Scarborough may possibly help historians better understand the southern Ontario economy of the 1890's. Peter B. Waite (Canada, 1874-1896: Arduous Destiny, pg. 75) acknowledges that "the absence of really comprehensive studies (for the period 1873-1896) makes generalization treacherous." He underscores the historic uncertainty respecting the period: "To proceed from here and label the cyclical depressions of 1874-9, 1884-7, 1893-5, as largely illusory would of course be a profound mistake. But the incidence of depressions (and booms) fell unevenly". (Waite, Canada, p .77)

Land speculation excitement (and disillusionment) has historically followed the trends of the economy. If we can show in a detailed analysis that the 1891 subdivision plans were an effect of a general optimism and that "failure" of the plans was caused by the downturn of 1893-5, then we might perhaps be offering something useful to the general historian. Today's landuse planner and economic policy maker may also learn something from such a history lesson.

By the turn of the century, the Canadian economy was again expanding. A short downturn in 1907 was followed by continued growth at an unprecedented rate -- until the onset of depression in 1913. Again, we may see a parallel with land use change on Scarborough's lakefront. This time, however, it was Toronto gentry such as Sir Donald Mann, Robert J. Fleming, J. Russel and Miller Lasch who were purchasing "hobby farms" near Kingston Road. Their precise intentions for these country properties may only be known after a thorough examination of relevant documentation. Were they speculating on subdivision development? Or did they just want to have a "country place"?

One gentlemen for certain, Mr. A.E. Rea, who apparently had a ladies wear factory on Spadina, reactivated Plan 1100 in cooperation with J.W. McNab and Cecil White -- all three signed the 1920 plan of subdivision. (See also the 1910 map by the Ontario Directory and Map Company) A coal merchant, Mr. Northwood, owned the property at the time of the house fire.

Cecil White was a major player in proposed landuse change in the lakefront area during this period. Unfortunately for Mr. White, he was still trying to sell lots from plan 1100 in the early 1940's -- Rolly Allsop, Doris McCarthy and Robert Pollock were among the first to buy.

The ambitious plans of William McCowan in 1891 did not materialize for half a century. All of the hopeful developers probably suffered in the process of waiting out the cyclical depressions. McCowan spent his last years driving a radial car, the Northwood-Rea country home was destroyed by fire and White's patience and pocket must have surely been tested by the Great Depression. In about 1925 White paid for the construction of water main to his property on the west side of McCowan Road (the Neilson farm). During the depression he was often seen at the Township office with last-minute $25 payments to avoid a tax sale. The water main waited two decades for the construction of houses. Mr. White apparently lived in the Rea coach house for a period.


PS:   Beginning in 1949, Ashley and Harold McCowan successfully developed their farm at McCowan Road and Kingston Road.

Concluding Remarks...

The Scarboro Heights Record V11 #11