Wandering through Yorkville and Learning about Cholera

It’s easy to do a tour of Yorkville by simply walking from plaque to plaque in the old village. These days, the area is considered Toronto’s high-end shopping district and known for having the most expensive retail space in Canada (the Mink Mile). I will admit that it’s a pretty she-she place; it’s the only place that I’ve travelled where the dogs are groomed and dressed better than the humans walking them.

It wasn’t always like this, in the 1960s, Yorkville was a hippie haven with a reputation for attracting “troubled” youth, beatniks, artists, poets, musicians, and actors. The streets were lined with coffee shops that (according to The Montreal Gazette – Nov 2, 1967) attracted “good kids” who come to Yorkville “mixed up perhaps, many from fine homes, and these beatniks grab them and within days they are ruined.”


The galleries and coffee shops still exist but they’re interwoven into the newer, shiny, high-end, retail buildings. The “beatniks” have moved on… to fame and fortune (Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Margaret Atwood).

But I digress…

Some of the information below comes from a local friend who has one of those brains that observes and remembers everything. His theory is that you don’t hear a lot of history about Yorkville because people don’t want anyone to know that the township was originally Toronto’s first pauper graveyard.

Cholera Comes to Canada

On the interwebs you will see a whole thwack of numbers about Toronto’s population and the number of people who died during the pandemic cholera epidemic in the 1830s… and they vary widely. One site says 1000 people died, others 9000; some say the population of Toronto in 1832 was 4800, another 10,000, and another a million. I think the discrepancy comes in understanding Toronto and how it fits into Canada’s geography in 1830.

In 1830, Canada was a colony trying to figure out its identity. It had just come out of a series of conflicts between competing powers… mostly American, French and English. It was divided into numerous territories with the central ones being Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and Rupert’s Land. The boundaries of each do not match the current boundaries of Canadian provinces but in history, they are roughly mapped to Upper Canada — English/Ontario, Lower Canada — French/Quebec, Rupert’s Land — owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company… originally French but in 1830 was English and inhabited by the aboriginal peoples of Canada (now considered Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta).

The population in Upper Canada (where York/Toronto was located) was roughly a quarter of a million. York (Toronto) was a muddy little town on the shores of Lake Ontario defended by the garrison at Fort York. According to Stats Canada, in the decade between 1825 and 1832, the population of York more than doubled from 1600 to 5500, thanks to the arrival of immigrants from the UK and America (pre-Potato Famine). This means that the cholera epidemic couldn’t have killed 9000 people; rather, the truth is likely closer to 1000 or 20% of the population.

The source of cholera in Canada has been “tentatively” traced back to one ship: the Carricks, which arrived in Montreal on June 7, 1832, from Dublin carrying sick passengers. Like many ships coming to Canada, it was sent to Grosse-Île Quarantine Station in Quebec/Lower Canada for quarantine, disinfection, and was eventually cleared for debarkation.


As seen above, the Commissioner of Health (Dr. Motrin) and the Secretary of the Board (T.A. Young) denied all rumours, stories, news articles, and notices that Asiatic cholera had come to Canada. However, three days later on June 10th, it was announced that two people in Canada died of the disease: John Dallow (28-years) and James Saunders from Ireland.

The denial statement was retracted and from here the disease spread quickly to the rest of Canada.


Toronto’s Potter’s Field

The sheer number of people who died during the epidemic presented a problem for a small but growing city like York/Toronto who simply couldn’t handle the number of people dying daily. I imagine it was a lot like what many European cities faced during the bubonic plague. And, for those who were new to Canada and not yet established, they found themselves dying quickly, in poverty and relatively unknown in a foreign country. The only option for officials was to bury these poor souls in a mass grave in Toronto’s Potters Field, which was established in 1826 using farmland outside of the city.

This farmland is now known as Yorkville.

It was here that the deceased poor and destitute lay for a couple of decades as the city grew and evolved around it. But by 1855, just after the Village of Yorkville was incorporated, locals were looking to remove their near-capacity cemetery and relocate the bodies to Mount Pleasant Cemetery or the Necropolis. According to one plaque, over the next 30-years, 6,685 people were moved by their families.

This is where a bit of local lore comes in: some claim that the number of corpses actually moved was far less than the stated 6,685 because many of those in the cemetery were buried hastily and had no known family to claim the remains. So, officials eventually moved the unclaimed bodies… but some were likely forgotten or left behind.

As such, during construction, a body or two will be found… like one cholera victim who was uncovered during the construction of the Holt Renfrew building in 1929.

Because of this, I can’t help but wonder who or what gets discovered when buildings in Yorkville are torn down. Are these discoveries missed or hidden? Or is there still one human behaviour so ingrained in our DNA that we can’t ignore it: proper care of a dead body.


The other scary part in all of this is that scientists are uncertain about where cholera lives between epidemics and what triggers an outbreak. It’s considered a free-living organism meaning it can survive in the natural environment (usually water) without the need for a human host.

What they do know is certain blood types are more susceptible to the disease and that since the creation of waste/water systems, there’s not been an outbreak in North America.

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