Sir Adam Wilson (1814-1891) – an Ontario Chief Justice, knighted upon retirement in 1887 – might be the most consequential early landowner/resident of the Beaches. In the 1850s Wilson acquired a large tract of rural land east of Toronto that extended from the lake up to Kingston Road between present-day Maclean and Silver Birch Avenues. At some point, probably in the 1870s, he had a summer home he called Balmy Beach cottage built on the lakefront of that property, and in doing so spawned a small cottage community that, although short-lived, would be long remembered (See Sight #3). As well, through a subdivision of his entire tract in 1876, he laid out the streets and lakefront park of what would become the Balmy Beach residential district (See Sight #9). Wilson has long been considered, quite justifiably, the founder of Balmy Beach. And here, where today’s popular ‘purple playground’ stands, is where it all began.
Adam Wilson was born and raised in Edinburgh. At age fifteen he emigrated to Upper Canada with some of his family and settled in Trafalgar Township, Halton County. He had evidently received a quality academic education in Scotland because after a few years working at his uncle’s rural milling operation young Wilson secured an articling position in the Toronto law office of the soon to be leading political reformer Robert Baldwin. He excelled at this work, was called to the Bar in 1838, and shortly thereafter entered a partnership with Baldwin that launched his legal career.
Wilson later moved into politics, first as a city councillor, then as Mayor (1859-60), and then as an elected member of the Assembly of the United Province of Canada, where he was named Solicitor-General in the short-lived Reform government of Sandfield Macdonald and Louis Sicotte. After that government’s defeat in 1863 he was appointed a judge, and he would remain in the Ontario judiciary for the rest of his career, rising to Chief Justice of Queen’s Bench.
How and why Wilson came to own this fifty-acre tract is something of a mystery. Land at that time was where one put one’s wealth, of course, but there are no signs of Wilson buying or selling any other land, either before or after this acquisition; nor is there any indication how he acquired the capital to invest in such an extensive property – perhaps he or his wife had come into some family assets (a brother-in-law seems to have owned adjacent property). The tract was reported to have been “deeded,” not sold, to him, making one wonder if it was compensation for some sort of service. But that raises other questions since the man reported to have done the deeding, Alexander Dunn, was serving with British forces in the Crimean War in the early 1850s.
In any case, Wilson owned the land and built a cottage – of this there is no uncertainty – on what is now grassy land just inside the park beyond a steel traffic barrier. We have no descriptions, drawings, or photographs of the cottage, but from other records we know its precise location, and that it was two storeys, about forty feet square, roughly cruciform in shape, with a partial brick exterior, and some sort of brick or stone basement – not common in early houses in the area. A sewer line built in 1910 and still in use, identifiable by manholes cast with that date, diverts around its site, further confirming its location.
The land is grass now, but it would have been forested in Wilson’s time, probably with dense brushwood interspersed with a few substantial trees. A small stream flowed along what is now Willow Avenue, veering east about where the southernmost houses now stand and then south down the sloping terrain to the lake at the foot of Silver Birch, where the absence of a bank still suggests the stream’s embouchement.
We do not know how much time Wilson spent here. His home was in the city, on Spadina Crescent, at least an hour away by horse and carriage (he had a small barn on the property). He rented the cottage out for the entire summer in 1880, and perhaps other years too. One biographical note suggests he came regularly only after he retired in 1887 (he died 1891). It is hard to see Balmy Beach as central to Wilson’s life.
Nor was the cottage itself ever especially important. Ownership passed through his wife Emma (she died 1906) to nieces and their husbands – the Wilsons had no children – who rented it out and let it fall into disrepair until it was expropriated and demolished by the City in 1931 to make the park that occupies the site today. There is no sign of its demolition being opposed or its loss lamented. But the cottage – not to mention its name – was unmistakably a founding element of the Beaches neighbourhood and its site probably deserves at least some acknowledgement.
The gradual slope of the land endures, but little else. Human activity is so easily erased. Most of the trees here date from the park’s creation in 1931, although some of the oaks must be older because they stand tall and well-established in a 1930 photograph of the site. One tree in the south-east corner of the park, a large split-trunk oak with a broad buttress, surely over 150 years old, would have been a good-sized sapling in the 1880s. Might Justice Wilson have spied this very tree protruding above the brush as he sat on his porch one cool spring morning, savouring the chorus of birdsong and the soft burbling of the stream on its way to the lake?
SOURCES: (in addition to those cited under the images):
“Wilson, Sir Adam,” DCB, Vol. 12; “Hon Sir Adam Wilson,” Commemorative Biographical Record of the County of York, 140-42; “Sir Adam Wilson, Knt.,” Canada Law Journal, XXIII, 21 (1 Dec. 1887), 401-03; “Sir Adam Wilson Dead,” The Globe, 30 Dec. 1891, p.8; “Beaches Become a Populous Suburb,” The Toronto Daily Star, 21 April 1906, p.12; “Dunn, John Henry,” DCB, Vol. 8; “Conditions and Soundings – Woodbine Avenue East to City Limits,” 17 July 1929, CTA, Series 724, Item 205; Registered Plan of Subdivision #1038, 6 June 1890 (small barn); “Beech Ave,” photograph, TPL, Digital Archive, PICTURES-R-5456 (dense brush); The Globe, 29 April 1880, Classified p.1 (summer rental); CTA, Toronto Assessment Rolls, 1914 (posthumous ownership of cottage), and photograph, Series 372, Item 1184 (oak trees); Goad’s Atlas accessed at website of ‘oldtorontomaps’; contemporary photographs by author.