By: Emma Abramowicz
As December brings chilly winds and weather to our city, Torontonians look forward to the holidays for the chance to enjoy cozy days curled up indoors with blankets, woollen socks, hot drinks, and friends and family. But throughout Toronto’s history, and indeed still today, the more adventurous types see those days as an opportunity to bundle up, get outside and make the most of Toronto as a winter wonderland. One of the best places to enjoy snowy hills and frozen ponds has always been High Park, the heart of the city’s west end, at a sprawling 161 hectares of green space bordered by Bloor Street West to the north, Parkside Drive to the east, Ellis Park Road and Grenadier Pond to the west, and The Queensway to the south.
Some of the first to discover the winter magic of what became High Park were John and Jemima Howard. After having immigrated to Toronto in 1832, they acquired 160 acres of land stretching from the lake up to what is now Bloor Street West. An accomplished architect, John Howard set about designing a country estate, to be situated on a bluff between two ravines, with clear views of the lake in the distance. The Regency-style cottage was built for them in 1836 and called Colborne Lodge, and it would remain in the Howard family until John died at the age of 87 in 1890. While they spent the warmer months farming and hunting on their stretch of land, in the winters John often painted the scenes he observed from his home. From his paintings, we know that as early as 1836, Torontonians were enjoying winter sports such as curling on what is now Grenadier Pond. A later painting from 1870 depicts a winter view to the south of Colborne Lodge, with families strolling, people possibly skating in the distance, and others taking a snowy horse-drawn carriage ride.
In 1873, the Howards negotiated the transfer of their land to the City of Toronto, in return for a yearly annuity and permission to remain at Colborne Lodge until their deaths. Perhaps appreciating the public recreational use of their estate in previous years, the Howards arranged their deal on the condition that the land would remain “for the free use, benefit and enjoyment of the citizens of Toronto and [that] it be called High Park.”
Indeed, in the time since the Howards bequeathed their estate to the City, it’s clear that Torontonians have been eager to make the most of High Park in the winter. In the 1910s and ’20s, the cold and certainly more snow than we see today didn’t seem to faze Toronto’s citizens, who spent their leisure time in High Park by the hundreds, often crowding the toboggan runs and skating ponds. City of Toronto archival photographs document groups of women hiking or snowshoeing their way across the park, boys in skates hitching an icy ride behind a car, ski races and children piled five to a sled. The steep hill at the southwest end of the park overlooking Grenadier Pond served yearly as a popular toboggan run for kids and adults alike. Decked out in turtlenecks, button-down sweaters, winter coats, boots, mittens and various styles of hats, Torontonians were ready to conquer the cold and make the best of their city, whatever the weather.
Today’s High Park still offers many of the activities our predecessors enjoyed for those energetic enough to bundle up and take on the elements. Throughout the early winter months at the present-day museum at Colborne Lodge, the City of Toronto outfits the cottage in Victorian Christmas decorations. The museum hosts visitors for hot mulled cider and baking lessons with 1830s Upper Canadian gingerbread recipes. There are trails throughout the park that are perfect for cross-country skiing once the snow falls. Come winter, the City also turns the western tennis courts into skating rinks, which may be a safer place to skate today than the natural ice rink on Grenadier Pond. And of course, the hills in the park’s south end remain a draw for toboggan enthusiasts today, though the sleds they trek there are decidedly more colourful and creatively-shaped than their wooden forerunners.
So if the weather allows, unpack your snowshoes, skates or cross-country skis, wrap yourself up in sweaters, scarves, mitts and a hat, and get out to High Park over the holidays this year. We live in an awesome city, and there’s no need to hibernate through the rest of 2013 and the first few months of 2014. At Heritage Toronto, we’ll be embracing the energy of Torontonians a century ago, spending our weekend afternoons outdoors before heading inside for warm drinks and treats. Of course, we’re always glad to have you join us as we continue to tell Toronto’s stories; you can click here to enjoy the perks of becoming a Heritage Toronto member or you can click here to direct a donation to an area of heritage that you care about.
And as you prepare for the holidays, whether at High Park or elsewhere in the city, get outside and discover winter magic in Toronto.