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Remember This, Newmarket: When a little village became a bustling town

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights the transformative years of 1850 to 1990 in the town's evolution

If I look back at the evolution of Newmarket, it appears that it was neatly planned by destiny. As I have previously mentioned in my articles, it is easy to see sharply defined transitions taking place at 50-year intervals – 1800, 1850, 1900 and 1950. However, given the rapid acceleration of economic, social, and political events after the 1950s, it can be argued that the timeframe has been reduced to 10-year increment periods. 

Each phase was obviously not without its setbacks but thanks to the foresight and determination of extraordinary individuals, the progression carried forward and a viable community has been established.  

I have looked extensively at the periods from 1800 to 1850 and 1900 to 1950 in my previous articles in this series, and now I would like to focus on the period from 1850 to 1900. If you are a regular reader, some of the events and individuals highlighted here may seem familiar but hopefully I will be placing them in a new light.

A watershed moment for this area occurred in 1837 with the Rebellion. Even though the rebel cause was crushed, it did prompt a report focusing on the causes and recommendations for improvements to be submitted by Lord Dufferin to Queen Victoria in 1839.  

It would be easy to label this report the Canadian Magna Charta as it outlined a plan for a decentralized system of government with a local municipal council that would report directly to local taxpayers. It was not until nearly a decade later that the Robert Baldwin Act (known as the father of Responsible Government in Canada) was passed on May 30, 1949, coming into effect on Jan. 1, 1850. This Act would create townships, villages, and towns under a separate municipal corporation, all under a county council.     

Locally the counties of York, Peel, and Ontario became corporate bodies, and the Township of Whitchurch became an organized municipality with a reeve, deputy reeve and councillors. The reeve and deputy reeve would sit on the county council to represent each municipality. This system wasn’t entrenched locally until 1971 when the regional government was introduced in what was then called York County.

The first provincial census was taken in 1851, to be repeated at 10-year intervals. The first railway in Upper Canada was extended from Aurora to Newmarket in 1853. 

These events would lead to considerable speculation as to just how the area would develop. The earliest plan for the community was made in 1853 by W.A. Clarke showing the proposed development of subdivisions that would cover an area about four times the then existing size of the town. 

Several local newspapers were established with the Newmarket Era being the only one to survive. The two primary forces who advocated for the incorporation of Newmarket to village status (leaving its place as part of the Township of Whitchurch) were Erastus Jackson, the first editor of the Era, and Donald Sutherland, a successful entrepreneur.  

There were several obstacles to overcome but with a local census having been conducted and the boundaries agreed upon, our act of incorporation was assented to on May 27, 1857, and took effect on Jan. 1, 1858.

With this new expansion of the community, the commercial activity migrated northward from Water Street with new stores being built on both sides of Main Street.  Records show that the distance between the building faces was 45 to 50 feet, which still presents a problem to this very day as the standard acceptable road allowance is considered to be 66 feet or more.

As new building lots were in demand, Timothy Millard began to parcel a part of his massive farm into lots stretching from D’Arcy to Botsford streets and west to Church Street. This was really the first depiction of the village with an actual street plan.  

The first Anglican Church had been built in 1834 on the northeast corner of D’Arcy and Church streets and the ‘Old Kirk’ (Presbyterian) was on the north side of Timothy from about 1837. The beginnings of a cohesive community were starting to take shape and new industries were springing up seemingly overnight.

In 1840, Mordecai Millard, Timothy’s son, built a grist mill on the north side of Mill Street (now Queen Street) near where the concrete arch is located today.  The earthworks and dam created a mill pond that inundated the ‘flats’ between Water and Mill streets for more than  25 years. 

Remnants of this flood plain, now in a drained state, can still be seen along the Tom Taylor Trail, an area that used to provide a natural barrier between the east and west sections of the town, creating distinct districts. 

The current Queen Street is built on the earthen embankments where the dam stood and represents one of the first roads linking Main Street to the west with Prospect Street on the east side of the river.

I mentioned in previous articles that the earthworks and road at Water Street led to Garbitt Hill (Gorham Street) and to Pearson Street. This soon developed into a mini suburb with houses and a few stores being scattered along Prospect.  

A Baptist Church was built on the southwest corner of Prospect and Water streets and an Episcopal Methodist Church with an adjoining burial ground had been built in 1824. Timothy Street was not opened from Main to Prospect streets until 1885.

Largely due to the potato famine in Ireland, many Irish immigrants started to arrive in the area around 1847 to 1848. A small group of Catholics had built a little church named Saint Mary’s with an adjacent burial ground on Ontario Street, just west of Main Street in 1840. This was very handy for the mostly Irish Catholics who had located north of Huron Street (Davis Drive).     

This area north of Ontario Street was owned by George Lount (the brother of Samuel Lount), who was a prominent local surveyor who had received these lands as payment for his work in laying out the lots on  Millard’s property. Lount laid out the lots and streets north of what is now Queen Street and Davis Drive, located between the river and Niagara Street.  

The area north of Davis Drive was called ‘Paddytown.’ The streets took their names from the Great Lakes (see my article on Newmarket’s street names).  Interestingly, Main Street north of Ontario Street was given a road allowance of 66 feet, which is generally considered the minimum. Today you can see how the road narrows as you move south on Main Street to a rather unusual width of 45 feet at its foot.

I am told that the earliest known survey of Newmarket is dated around October 1853 and was completed by a William Gibbard.  I am certain there must have been earlier plans to regulate the size of lots and the description of lots, but they would seem to have been lost. The survey of 1853 was initiated by W.A. Clarke who owned a grist mill and store at the foot of Main. 

With the construction of the railway through Newmarket in 1853, there seems to have developed a real incentive toward land speculation and a drive to capitalize on future development.

The arrival of the train to Newmarket resulted in a direct communication with Toronto, prompting the eventual ceasing of the stagecoach lines. The local agricultural produce could now be exported swiftly to the city markets and essential goods could be readily available to the area farmers and merchants. This new railway line skirted the low-lying area along the existing watercourse between Water and Huron streets.

From these early plans we notice that speculators were proposing the laying out of various blocks of streets and building lots that would eventually amount to an increase of 400 per cent in the size of the hamlet. This process would be recreated in the 1950s when a similar expansion would take place. 

These new plans drawn up in the 1850s were to be realized with the exception of those lands located north of Timothy between Prospect and Main streets as they were designated ‘the flats’ and were judged to be totally unusable. 

As for Clarke who had promoted that initial growth plan with his survey, he unfortunately over-extended himself financially, and eventually had to sell up and move to the Thornbury district where he re-established his grist mills and founded the village of Clarkesburg. 

The Statutes of Canada, an Act of Parliament that had incorporated the Village of Newmarket in May of 1857 prompted the establishment of the definition of the town boundaries to include the west half of lots 93, 94, and 95 and the east half of lots 32, 33, and 34 with an additional tier of lots 20 rods wide north of Huron Street extending from west of Niagara Street to Concession 2 (Bayview Avenue). 

These boundaries for the municipality would remain intact for nearly 94 years until 1952 when a westward annexation took place (see my article on annexation and the coming of subdivisions.)

Another plan of the Village of Newmarket was produced in 1862 by S.W. Hallen with these new ‘subdivisions’ added to the plan.

The development of Newmarket accelerated in the last half of the 19th century following the arrival of the railway. Two events that shaped the town during this period were the Main Street fire of 1862, which transformed the look of Main, and the arrival of the William Cane Wooden Works in 1874.

We can’t underestimate the effects of Canada’s Confederation in 1867. Our currency changed from sterling to the decimal system with the introduction of Canadian coinage. Another huge change was the movement of most business transactions from that of a barter system to more of a cash-based economy.  

Standard time was introduced in November 1893, necessitating the local bell ringer to now ring the bell 17 minutes earlier to conform with the new system. The Era reported at the time that it really didn’t matter much as the people had their routine and nothing had really changed.  

The arrival of brick as a material in the construction of local buildings proved a major improvement.  There was an influx of new churches built with the Christian Church (1874), St. John’s Church (1875), St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (1875) and the Methodist Church (1879) all appearing in the town’s core.  The formal proclamation of the incorporation of the Town of Newmarket took place on Aug. 8, 1880, taking effect on Jan. 1, 1881, with the election of our first mayor and council.

Under Mayor William Cane, the last decade of the 1800s brought rapid change to the town, initiated by the major improvements in technical knowledge. This somewhat isolated community of ours was now able to communicate effectively with the outside world with the advent of the telegraph and the telephone (by 1900 there were 44 telephones in use in Newmarket).

Newmarket was one of the first municipalities to introduce a clean water supply and electrical lighting.  The waterworks system was initially intended to provide for only the fire protection of the community but soon expanded to provide the entire town with a domestic water supply. 

Electric lighting in private homes commenced in October 1896 when an additional boiler, engine and dynamo were added to the pumping station to produce a cheaper electrical supply.

The road west from Yonge Street to Schomburg (now Highway 9) opened in 1889. Huron Street was paved in 1938 from Main to Yonge but west from Yonge remained a dirt road until 1966 when it was paved.

We must not forget the Metropolitan Electrical Railway that added a terminus locally in 1899 and soon extended from just north of St. Clair Avenue in Toronto north to Lake Simcoe.

A sign of our growth was the increase in our population from 540 in 1850 to around 2,125 in 1900.  

I hope that you have enjoyed this brief look back at Newmarket’s history from 1850 to 1900. During this period we moved from just another isolated community in 1850 to a bustling community centre by 1900.

I urge you to check out many of my previous articles in this series on Newmarket Today ( for more information on the events and people I have mentioned in this story if you are at all curious.   

Sources: Growth and Development – Newmarket 1850 to 1900; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Stories of Newmarket – An Old Ontario Town by Robert Terence Carter; The Toronto Star and the Newmarket Era; The Library of Parliament 


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.