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History of Toronto and County of York in Ontario
Part IV: Chapter II. York at the Close of the Last Century


ON the withdrawal from Upper Canada of Governor Simcoe the administration of its affairs devolved upon President Russell, who was the senior member of the. Executive Council, and had also acted as Inspector-General. The charge of the Province only fell temporarily, however, to this functionary, unt'1 the arrival from England of a new administrator. This did not take place until 1799, when the Crown appointed Lieutenant-Governor Peter Hunter.

One of the last official acts of Governor Simcoe was to prorogue Parliament at Newark (Niagara), on the 3rd of June, On the 11th of the following September, President Russell issued a proclamation setting forth his provisional appointment as administrator. With this change of regime, what, it may be asked, was the attitude of the acting Governor in regard to the removal of the capital ? Fortunately there is a letter of his extant to some one in authority at the new capital, which shows not only what he designs to do, but reveals the inadequacy of the provision whi-h York was as\et able to make for the meeting of Parliament. "As the Legislature," writes the President, "is to meet at York on the 1st of June it becomes absolutely necessary that provision shall be made without loss of time for its reception. You will therefore be pleased to apprize the inhabitants of the town that twenty-five gentlemen will want board and lodgings during the session; which may possibly induce then to fit up their houses a d lav in provisions to accommodate them." To those familiar only with the Toronto of to-day, and having before their eyes the mammoth hotels and multitudinous boarding-houses of the modern capital, the necessity that compelled the administrator of the Province to see m advance to the housing and feeding of the members of the Legislature will hardly seem a serious me. Put serious the necessity then was, as the President no doubt would have discovered had he omitted the precautionary measure. What body of men, need we ask. could be got to sit through the "Speech from the Throne," who had only the planks of the Council Chamber the previous night for their couch, or would consent to vote the supplies on empty stomachs. There were uses in those days for a Lieutenant-Governor!

The matter of the removal of the capital to York having been thus definitely settled, we find Parliament summoned in due course for the dispatch of business. The date of meeting, as we have seen, was the 1st of June, 1797. The Houses of Parliament which had been planned by Governor Simcoe, and which he no doubt took pleasure in seeing gradually rise on the site he hail chosen for them, he was fated not to inaugurate. The honours of the occasion fell to President Russell. The buildings were situated close by the bay, not far from the Don River, at a point almost due south from what is still known as Parliament Street, at the intersection of Front, or what was then termed Palace Street. The site was long marked, in modern times, by a massive grey stone building used as a jail. This New World Westminster had very indifferent surroundings, and was itself of a primitive type, though contemporary documents describe it as consisting of "two elegant halls, with convenient offices for the accommodation of the Legislature and the Courts of Justice." They were built of brick, and might have seen length of years, and been preserved to later generations as a sacred relic, but unfortunately, in 1813, they fell a prey to the torch of the invader.

We return to the first meeting of Parliament, and to Administrator Russell's summons to Council and Commons to perform their legislative functions for the first time in York. Here is the edict which calls them to their duties: "The King . . convokes, and by these presents enjoins you and each of you, that on the First day of June, in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety-seven, you do meet us in Our Provincial Parliament, in Our Town of York, for the actual dispatch of *Public Business, and to take into consideration the state and welfare of Our Province of Upper Canada, and therein to do as may seem necessary." In such kingly phrase does his Excellency summon his Councillors and faithful Commons to meet him, in furtherance of their legislative duties, in what, by a euphuism only, could be considered "the Royal Town of York.7 The population of the place, exclusive of about two hundred soldiers, did not at the time exceed some ten or twelve families. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that these were ill-prepared to house and feed the Legislature. Despite the high-flown call of the President, the country's law-makers seem to have kept their heads, and sensibly to have got through their work. With the primitive surroundings of the place the ceremonial of opening and closing the House according to British use and wont must have been apt to raise a smile. But the gravity of the times gave it a dignity, and the simple needs of the Province lent it a grace, m sharp contrast to the levity and absence of decorum which wait nowadays on much of the legislation of even the Imperial Parliament. The stately dignity of our early law-makers, and the grave decorum with which they conducted their legislative duties, would put to shame the honourable members who in these modern days, in the far-off British metropolis, make a bear-garden of the history of Hall of Westminster. There is a delightful passage in Dr. Scadding's "Toronto of Old" in reference to the historic scenes which our Canadian Westminster was witness of, and which imparts such a rich colouring to the picture which the genial historian has drawn for us of our humble St. Stephen's, that we cannot refrain from here quoting it. It is a reminiscence of a later time: "Objectionable as the first site of the Legislative buildings at York may appear to ourselves," says the Doctor, "and alienated as it now is to lower uses, we cannot but gaze upon it with a certain degree of emotion, when we remember that here it was the first skirmishes took place in the great war of principles which afterwards with such determination and effect was fought out in Canada. Here it was that first loomed up before the minds of our early law-makers the ecclesiastical question, the educational question, the constitutional question ; here it was that first was heard the open discussion, childlike, indeed, and vague, but pregnant with very weighty consequences, of topics, social, and national, which, at the time, even in the parent State itself, were mastered but by few.

"Here it was, during a period of twenty-seven years (1797-1824), at each opening and closing of the annual session, amidst the firing of cannon and the commotion of a crowd, the cavalcade drew up that is wont, from the banks of the Thames to the remotest colony of England, to mark the solemn progress of the Sovereign or the Sovereign's representative, to and from the other Estates m Parliament assembled. Here, amid such fitting surroundings of state as the circumstances of the times and the place admitted, came and went personages of eminence, whose names are now familiar in Canadian story. Never, indeed, the founder and organizer of Upper Canada, Governor Simcoe himself, in this formal and ceremonious manner, although often must he have visited the spot otherwise, in his personal examinations of every portion of his young capital and its environs. But here, immediately after him, however, came and went repeatedly, in due succession, President Russell, Governor Hunter, Governor Gore, General Brock, General Sheaffe, Sir Gordon Drumrnond, Sir Peregrine Maitland.

"And, while contemplating the scene of our earliest political conflicts, the scene of our earliest known State pageants in these parts, with their modest means and appliances, our minds intuit." recur to a period farther removed still, when under even yet more primitive conditions the Parliament of Upper Canada assembled at Newark, 1st across the lake. We picture to ourselves the group of seven Crown-appointed Councillors and five representatives of the Commons, assembled there, with the first Speaker, McDonell, of Glengarry ; all plain, unassuming, prosaic men, listening, at their first session, to the opening speech of their frank and honoured Governor. We see them adjourning to the open as from their straitened chamber at Navy Hall, and conducting the business of the young Province under the shade of the spreading tree, introducing the English code and trial by jury, decreeing roads, and prohibiting the spread of slavery ; while a boulder of the drift, lifting itself up through the natural turf, serves as a desk for the recording clerk. Below them, in the magnificent estuary of the River Niagara, the waters of all the Upper Lakes are swirling by, not yet recovered from the agonies of the long gorge above and the leap at Table Rock. Even here, at the opening and close of this primaeval legislature, some of the decent ceremonial was observed with which, as we have just said, the sadly inferior site at the embouchure of the Don became afterwards familiar."

The scene of these historic ceremonies in York fast rose to importance. The town grew and spread itself; streets were opened out which, though they have now long become unfashionable, were in their day the home of wealth and the dress-parade of fashion. Even their regal names—Palace, Princes, Duke, Duchess, Frederick, Caroline, George, and all the string of them—that sought to honour the person and family of the reigning king, have not saved them from desertion or stayed the hand of decay. But they and the town were then new, and anticipation gilded the future and every hope seemed bright. In addition to the Houses of Parliament there had been erected close by a building which long served the purposes of a Government House, though it afterwards bore the monastic, title of Russell Abbey. It was erected for President Russell, by whom and his maiden sister it was long occupied, and subsequently t became the residence of the Roman Catholic Bishop, McDonell. Here and there the recesses of the neighbouring forest were invaded by courageous settlers, who wished to found a home for themselves and theii families in the woods. From these homesteads were erelong to come forth the men who were to guide the destinies of the country and become notable figures in the town. Meanwhile the century crept to its close, and the Town of York began to show that it had an existence other than on paper. To what length it had grown and what were ds prospects we may learn from a contemporary volume now before us—the "Topographical Description and Gazetteer of Upper Canada," prepared by Surveyor-General David W. Smyth. We will close the present chapter by quoting from it. Says the Gazetteer: "York is in about 43 degrees and 35 minutes of north latitude,2 and is the present seat of Government of Upper Canada. It is most beautifully situated within an excellent harbour of the same name, made of a long peninsula, which confines a basin of water sufficiently large to contain a considerable fleet; on the extremity of the peninsula, which is called Gibraltar Point, are commodious stores and block-houses, which command the entrance to the harbour; on the mainland, opposite to the Point, is the garrison, situated in a fork made by the harbour and a small rivulet, which, being improved by sluices, affords an easy access for boats to go up to the stores; the barracks, being budt on a knoll, are well situated for health, and command a delightful prospect of the lake to the west, and of the harbour to the east. The Government House is about two miles above the garrison, near the head of the harbour, and the town is increasing rapidly; the River Don empties itself into the harbour a little above the town, running through a marsh, which when drained will afford most beautiful and fruitful meadows. This has already been commenced in a small degree, which will, no doubt, encourage further attempts. The long beach, or peninsula, which affords a most delightful ride, is considered so healthy by the Indians that they resort to it whenever indisposed; and so soon as the bridge over the Don is finished, it will, of course, be most generally resorted to, not only for pleasure, but as the most convenient road to the heights of Scarborough. The ground which has been prepared for the Government House is situated between the town and the River Don, on a most beautiful spot, the vicinity of which is well suited for gardens and a park. The oaks are in general large; the soil is excellent, and well watered with creeks, one of which, by means of a short dam, may be thrown into all the streets of the town. Vessels of all sizes may be conveniently built here, and a kind of terrace or second bank in front of the town affords an excellent situation for a rope walk. The remains of the old French fort, Toronto, stand a little to the westward of the present garrison, and the River Humber discharges itself into the Lake Ontario about two miles and a half west of that; on this river and the Don are excellent mills, and all the waters abound in fish. In winter the harbour is frozen, and affords excellent ice for the amusement of northern countries, driving in traineaus. The climate of York is temperate, and well sheltered from the northerly winds by the high lands in the rear. The Yonge Street leads from hence to Lake Simcoe, and the Dundas Street crosses the rear of the town."'


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