Friday, March 28, 2014

The Long-Lost Chestnut Trees of University Avenue

It's hard to believe, but this is a photo of University Avenue. Today, this stretch of road is "Hospital Row," lined with concrete and glass. But this is what it looked like in 1896. That's Queen Park off in the distance. The Legislative Building had only recently been opened, but the land — previously part of the University of Toronto — had been leased by the Province all the way back in the 1850s.

They turned it into a public park. It was opened by the Prince of Wales, the guy would who later become King Edward VII (the same King Eddie our hotel is named after, and who now sits astride his horse as a statue in the park). About 30 years before that, 500 horse chestnut trees were planted along University Avenue and a grassy promenade was built down the centre of the street. It became one of Toronto's grandest avenues. Even Charles Dickens was impressed when he came to town.

So by the time this photo was taken, the chestnut trees of University Avenue had already been there for something like 70 years. But soon, the street would change. Toronto General Hospital moved to this strip in 1913. And over the next six decades, it was joined by many more, including Princess Margaret, Mount Sinai and Sick Kids. The trees have been replaced with concrete, pavement and glass. Only a thin sliver of green survives along the island that still cuts the avenue in two.

As Shawn Micallef points out in Stroll, University's grand avenue-ish-ness echoes the royal promenades on the other side of the Atlantic, like the Long Walk outside Windsor Castle. That's one of the places I'm planning on leaving dreams as part of the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour. One of the most interesting figures from our city's past — Colonel FitzGibbon — spent the final forgotten years of his life at Windsor Castle, having fought the Americans in the War of 1812 (he's the guy Laura Secord warned) and William Lyon Mackenzie in the Rebellion of 1837 (he took the threat seriously when no one else would, organizing the city's defenses despite the Lieutenant Governor's orders to do nothing). FitzGibbon is still there, in fact, buried on the castle grounds at St. George's Chapel along with many of the most famous kings and queens from England's past.

I've got a new dream for him all ready to go. You can help me leave copies of it at Windsor Castle, St. George's Chapel and along the Long Walk by contributing to my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign — and you can get your own copy too.


That statue of King Edward VII used to stand in another park on the other side of the world. I told the story of how it came to Toronto from India here. You can learn more about FitzGibbon and the Rebellion of 1837 in my post here. Mary Pickford grew up in a house on the east side of University Avenue just a few years before this photo was taken. I told her story here. I also posted another old photo of the tree-lined street from 1907 here.

blogTO has a bunch more old University Avenue photos in a post by Derek Flack here. That's where I first found a copy of this photo. Canadian Tree Tours has a bit more info about the horse chestnut trees here. And you can find the relevant excerpt from Shawn Micallef's Stroll on Google Books here. There's a short history of University Avenue and Queen's Park here.


  1. Is it not possible to be excited about Toronto's past without tying it to colonial, pro-monarchist lackies? Otherwise, good article.

  2. Toronto General didn't settle into its current location back in 1913. What's now known as the MaRS Building, on the SE corner of University and College, is the hospital's original home.

  3. If this article contain the more information about the long lost chestnut trees. I LIKE YOUR ARTICLE. Thank you for your article.