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King George Hotel remains 'grand old lady' of Main Street

With the historic King George Hotel readying for yet another renaissance, History Hound Richard MacLeod takes you back to its storied beginnings in 1845 in this week's Remember This? column
Given the excitement about the renovations being undertaken by Mike and Donna D’Angela, owners of the historic King George Hotel on the southwest corner of Main and Timothy streets, I’m sharing a little of the history of this incredible Main Street treasure.

Said to be the oldest operating hotel in York Region, the iconic King George property has had many reincarnations over the years, going back to our town’s beginnings. First known as a public house, it was established by Andrew J. Borland and William Roe on the west side of Main Street at Timothy Street.

The two partners had purchased a lot from David Cummings and, in 1825, they secured an adjacent portion. The hotel built there was kept by George Playter, who also operated the line of stagecoaches that travelled between York (Toronto) and Holland Landing.

It is believed, though unconfirmed, that where the former Bank of Montreal stood on the east side of Main at Timothy, James Forsyth operated an inn in a long, low log building until 1845.

It is recorded that in the late 1830s, the Borland-Roe hotel had been destroyed by fire and, in April 1945, Forsyth purchased the property across the road and erected a red brick, Georgian-style building, then called the Railroad Hotel, and later known as the Forsyth House.

James Forsyth was a relative of my Grandma and she often told the story of the Forsyth Hotel and how it was the centre of everything in Newmarket.  

In succession it was called Pipher House, the Proctor House and, finally, The King George Hotel. After the death of Forsyth, his wife and daughters capably carried on the operations of the hotel and maintained its excellent reputation.

An article from the time speaks of the hostess appearing at the open doorway, her motherly face beaming with hospitality at the prospect of good business. Brisk maids bustled about. The light of many candles blended with the ruddy glow from the cavernous hearth, reflecting off gleaming copper pots and pans and soft pewter tableware. The air was full of the fragrance of roast beef and tender mutton, the savoury-stuffed fowl and game — bear, deer, partridge, and pigeon, which was, at the time, abundant in the woods — and fish from the river.

The old stagecoaches such as the renowned Tally-Ho of Dickens, clattered and rumbled up to the various inns on Main Street.

Most important of them was the owned by William Weller, purchased by him in 1832 to run in connection with the steamers that plied Lake Simcoe. Weller’s coach, drawn by four pure-bred horses, transported Her Majesty’s Royal Mail, and its arrival was heralded by a toot of horn, rattle of harness and last crack of the whip that sent the high-stepping horses sweeping around the Cawthra corner and up the street to halt with a magnificent flourish before the wide open door of the Hewitt tavern on the northwest corner of Botsford Street and Main.

The luggage was deposited on top of the oldtime coaches and at the inns, where stops were made to change horses. They were met by a line of men and boys eager to assist the passengers and attend to the horses.

From the springless vehicle, stiff and weary after jolting over the miles of rough road from York, the hungry passengers descended, women in swirling cloaks and bonnets, men with sideburns, wearing Prince Albert coats and topped by enormous beaver hats. 

If the trip was made in cold weather, the men were well wrapped in heavy wool shawls, described as plaids.

Sir William Mulock reminisced at the Old Boys Reunion in Newmarket in 1939 about the changes that had taken place during his lifetime, saying: “I am thinking of the stage era long before automobiles or trains. The moment of the arrival of the stage was a great event in those days. Every mile along Yonge Street there was a tavern, and I am told that some of the passengers were in a merry mood when they reached Newmarket.”

When the Metropolitan electric railway came to Newmarket in 1893, the terminus was just in front of the King George Hotel, but it was not long until the tracks were continued north to Jackson’s Point and Sutton.

The first electric car to run up Main was drawn up the hill by a team of horses. All along the route from northern Toronto, you would have seen ads for the famous English Tea Room, located at the King George Hotel in Newmarket. It is that very tearoom that the D’Angelas are hoping to recreate, this time as a period pub and brewing house.  

In 1894, the town was honoured by a visit from Lieut. Gov. Sir George A. Kirkpatrick and members of the Legislature. On arrival at the station, they were met by the Citizens Band and escorted to the Pipher House (King George Hotel), where the members of town council were introduced.

The band serenaded the party, which then returned to their carriages. Led by Isaac Silver in his landau carriage, they visited the separate school, the model and high schools, the Industrial Home, then the Fairgrounds and agricultural fair, finishing the day with a dinner at the Court House.

In 1910, the hotel was purchased by the local temperance group, which had successfully moved Newmarket into Prohibition in 1885. This was done to reassure the locals that Prohibition would not spell the demise of hotels and inns in Newmarket.  It seemed to work, as we remained dry until 1957.

The scourge of Main Street has always been fire. Being on the west side of the street, with predominantly brick buildings and natural fire barriers — the streets heading west from Main — certainly helped this grand old lady survive.

That is not to say there has not been fires at the hotel. In April 1965, a young boy named Paul Uprichard is credited with saving 14 residents of the hotel. The fire destroyed the rear of the hotel, west on Timothy Street.

The King George Hotel had served as the agency for Gray Coach Lines from August of 1937.  The fire of May 1965 prompted the agency to move from the hotel to Newmarket Travel Service, but Gray Coach did continue to stop at the hotel for some time after that, as I recall.  I used to catch the Toronto Exhibition express bus from behind the King George for years.

The King George Hotel has had a whole string of proud proprietors over the years. Each one took loving care of the grand old lady, striving to do the impossible – offer a warm bed and hearty meals to everyone while trying to eke out a living.

Since Newmarket was dry until 1957, I am sure that owners such as William Ball in the 1930s longed for a reprieve from Prohibition so that could stop operating at a loss.

Today we are blessed to have Mike and Donna D’Angela at the helm of the King George, with their  dreams and a deep love in their hearts for this historic fixture on Main and Timothy.

Get out to the grand opening in the summer of 2019 and tell them how much we appreciate their efforts to restore its grandeur and bring back the atmosphere of the 18th-century tearoom.

Who knows, you may meet a ghost of a travelling salesman.

 Sources: The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; The Newmarket Era; Gray Coach Page on Facebook; Early Ontario Transportation by Steven Atchison; Newmarket Centennial 1857 – 1957 by Jack Luck; The Story of the Metropolitan Railway – Presentation by the History Hound; Stories of Newmarket by Robert Terence Carter

******* brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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