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Points of Interest > Todmorden Mills

Todmorden Mills was the site of Toronto’s first industrial community.  In 1794, in an attempt to address desperate lumber shortages in the growing Town of York, Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe granted some land along the Don River to Isaiah and Aaron Skinner, with the condition that they build a sawmill on the property at their own expense.  By 1795, the Skinner brothers had constructed the first saw mill on the Don; they added a grist mill in 1797, and by 1821, Thomas Helliwell added a brewery, a distillery, and a second grist mill to the property.  The site came to be known as the “Don Mills.”  In 1827, Isaiah’s son Colin partnered with John Eastwood to build the York Paper Mill at Todmorden, the second paper mill constructed in Upper Canada. The property was sold to the Taylor brothers—Thomas, George and John—in 1855.  George’s son William went on to establish the Don Valley Pressed Brick Company in 1890.

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Todmorden Mills c.1915, East York Foundation Collection, Todmorden Mills Museum, City of Toronto

 
During the Second World War a prisoner-of-war camp was set up on the flats across the river from Todmorden Mills to house captured German soldiers. The prisoners, most of whom were members of the German merchant marine, apparently worked mining clay at the nearby Toronto Brick Works and in the Greenwood clay pits. Shortly after the war ended, vandals damaged the prisoner of war huts, smashing windows and frames. A fire destroyed the last four POW huts in March 1946. If you walk past the historic buildings and across the bridge to the parking lot, you will be standing on the site of the former POW camp. 

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Pottery Road, 1944. The prisoner of war camp is visible in the background at the end of the road. East York Foundation Collection, Todmorden Mills Museum, City of Toronto.

 

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Hand drawn map of the Todmorden Mills buildings and POW camp, as recalled by a local resident in 1992. East York Foundation Collection, Todmorden Mills Museum, City of Toronto

By the early 1950s, the bulk of the houses and outbuildings at Todmorden had been torn down, and the area was slated for further development. Preservation of the remaining four buildings came from an unlikely source: in October 1954, Hurricane Hazel struck Toronto, and the Don and Humber river valleys served as vital drainage channels, mitigating much of the potential damage.  Regional authorities came to see the value of Toronto’s distinctive network of ravines, and further development within the Don Valley corridor was halted.  Todmorden Mills was one of a number of sites preserved as part of the flood plain under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (MTRCA). The remaining buildings were inhabited until 1964, when the properties were expropriated by the municipality of East York to be preserved as a heritage site. The river was redirected away from this site during the construction of the Don Valley Parkway in the early 1960s.

Todmorden Mills Museum opened in 1967, a gift to the community in celebration of Canada’s Centennial. The site houses five buildings: the Paper Mill Gallery and Theatre; the Brewery Gallery; the William Helliwell house, restored to 1867; the Parshall Terry house, restored to 1837; and the relocated Don train station.  A wildflower preserve and nature trail bounds the site to the south.  Administration of the site was transferred to the City of Toronto when the municipalities amalgamated in 1998.

Text: Jennifer Bonnell

Sources

City of Toronto Culture Division, “The Toronto Story,” a brochure promoting the eleven city of Toronto museum sites.  (n.d.).

Darke, Eleanor.  ‘A Mill Should be Built Thereon:’ An Early History of Todmorden Mills.  Toronto: East York Historical Society, 1995.

Guthrie, Ann. Don Valley Legacy: A Pioneer History.  Erin, Ontario: Boston Mills Press, 1986.

Sauriol, Charles.  Remembering the Don.  Toronto: Consolidated Amethyst Communications, 1981.

--.  Tales of the Don.  Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History, 1984.

The Task Force to Bring Back the Don.  Bringing Back the Don.  Toronto: City of Toronto Planning and Development Department, 1991.

Todmorden Mills Heritage Museum & Arts Centre, site history brochure (n.d.). 

--., website, www.toronto.ca/todmorden

Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve website, www.hopscotch.ca/tmwp.

Twentieth Century Todmorden: A Community in the Don Valley, Virtual Exhibition, Virtual Museums Canada
http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/CommunityMemories/ACMI/000a/Exhibits/English/index.html

 

Jennifer Bonnell & Marcel Fortin, 2009. A member project of NiCHE in partnership
with the University of Toronto Libraries - Map & Data Library Contact Us