Hidden Ontario: 30 secret spots to visit this summer

From Jumbo The Elephant to the haunting of Lucy Maud Montgomery and Hamilton's civic architecture, we offer a long list of must-see heritage landmarks to take in this summer


Jumbo the Elephant, 76 Talbot Street, St. Thomas

What September 15, 1885: after the last of three performances with P. T. Barnum’s circus, Jumbo the elephant was returning with his companion, young elephant Tom Thumb, to his boxcar parked in the railway city’s marshalling yard. Jumbo was the first to see the oncoming freight train. He trumpeted, whistles were blown. The two elephants ran down the track but the train could not brake in time. Tom Thumb was the first to be hit, tossed aside with a broken leg. He would recover but Jumbo would not. His hind legs were broken and he died 10 minutes later of internal bleeding, with his trunk wrapped around his keeper’s hand. Barnum romanticized the tragedy afterwards. Jumbo had died trying to save Tom Thumb. But that was not true, nor were stories that Barnum had engineered Jumbo’s death because he was already ill with tuberculosis. If Jumbo was sick, the more likely cause was the state of his teeth, racked with pain due to his diet in captivity: hay and oats rather than the coarse tree bark and leafy branches he would have eaten in Africa. There was also the state of Jumbo’s skeleton, more like that of a 60-year old than a 24-year old elephant. A consequence of the years he’d spent carrying loads of children when he was not chained up.  

Why Like the killing of his mother in the Sudan that orphaned him 21 years earlier, his sale to an animal collector and then to zoos in Germany, Paris and London and finally to Barnum, Jumbo’s life as an entertainer was a 19th-century African tragedy. RL

Old St. Thomas Church, 55 Walnut Street, St. Thomas

What Built 1822-1824, it was one of the oldest structures in St. Thomas, in use until the larger Trinity Anglican Church was built in 1877.

Why The Old St. Thomas cemetery contains the remains of Hugh Richardson, a stipendiary magistrate for the Saskatchewan district of the North-West Territories who sentenced Louis Riel to death in 1885. (Richardson is also famous for trying a North-West Mounted Policeman who abducted his underage daughter and married her in a Presbyterian church. Richardson’s wife and mother died shortly after the policeman was acquitted by a jury.) Comparably accursed among those interred in the Old St. Thomas cemetery are the 7 members of the Chisholm family who died within 7 years. RL

Canada Southern Railway (CASO) Station, 750 Talbot Street, St. Thomas (Edgar Berryman, Architect, 1871-73)

What Located at the midpoint of the Canada Southern Railway between Fort Erie and Windsor that was built in 1869, the long, narrow building had a passenger station and dining rooms on the ground floor, with offices and accommodation for kitchen staff on the upper floor. The car shop was for locomotive repair as well as the manufacture of railcars.  CASO was leased to the Michigan Central Railroad in 1904 and to the New York Central Railroad in 1929.  

Why Out of use since the last run of Amtrak’s Niagara Rainbow (formerly the Empire State Express) in 1979. Now a museum and headquarters of the North America Railway Hall of Fame. RL

Annie Macpherson House, 51 Avon Street, Stratford

What Built in 1875 and named for Annie Macpherson, founder of Home Children, which sent more than 100,000 orphaned British children to new (often abusive) homes in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada between 1869 and 1939. The Macpherson Home opened in 1883 and was run by her nephew William H. Merry.  

Why Some 8,100 children stayed here before being sent to Canadian farms. The plaque in front reads: “Often deprived of education and the comforts of family life, Home Children suffered loneliness and prejudices. Their experience reveals a poignant chapter in Canadian immigrati0n history.” RL

Presbyterian Manse, 1888,  402 Draper Street, Norval, (near Georgetown)

What Home between 1926 and 1935 of Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables, her husband, Reverend Ewan Macdonald, and their sons Chester and Stuart. It was here that Montgomery’s husband – and through him, Montgomery herself – suffered most from the depression that soured their lives and those of their sons. 

Why It was also here that Montgomery turned away temporarily from Anne by writing Pat Of The Silver Bush, with a more adult, more moody character than Anne – but like her, one obsessed with a nostalgic love for her home in Prince Edward Island. But Montgomery’s depression and her longing for Prince Edward Island did not prevent her from appreciating her Ontario home in exile. “The trees are all bare now—the rainstorm today has stripped them—of all save a few lonely yellow leaves falling in autumn dusks. So Norval has lost much of its beauty. But the pines remain and I am consoled for the going of the leaves by the fact that, now they are gone, I can see the pine grove on Russell’s hill again—lie in bed and look at it, a delicate, unreal, moonlit world—wake and see it talking to the sky against the fires of sunrise.” RL

HMCS Haida, 658 Catharine Street North, Hamilton

What Tribal-class destroyer, built for the Royal Canadian Navy, served in the Korean War and Second World War (during which Canada’s “most fightiest ship” sank more tonnage of enemy shipping than any other Canadian warship.) Decommissioned in 1964, Haida was transferred to the Serviceman’s Memorial Park (now Coronation Park) south of the Princes’ Gates of Exhibition Place and moved to Ontario Place in 1970. Now docked as a museum ship at Hamilton Harbour. 

Why Designated a National Historic Site in 2002. RL

Hamilton City Hall, 71 Main Street West, Hamilton

What Stan Roscoe, Canada’s First Civic Architect, was an eminent, imaginative and controversial designer of mid-century modernism. Besides City Hall, which was only completed after fierce arguments with the mayor, the Hamilton Health building, Westdale Library and three fire halls were among his designs. In private practice from 1961-1996, Roscoe designed numerous schools, business, industrial and apartment buildings. He was a pioneer of accessibility. 

Why Designated as historically significant in 2005, Hamilton City Hall was given a small but arresting role in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water in 2017. RL

Loyalist Barnum House, 10568 Country Road 2, Grafton

What Circa 1811 house originally built by United Empire Loyalists from Vermont – and later owned by the University of Toronto architecture professor Eric Arthur, whose efforts to save the house in the 1930s led to the creation of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

Why One of the earliest examples of neoclassical architecture in Canada, it was designated a National Historic Site in 1959. Also, home to one of the largest collections of artifacts from the Georgian and Victorian eras.

Galt Old Post Office and Idea Exchange, 12 Water Street South, Cambridge

What This circa 1885 former post office which anchors the banks of the Grand River features Romanesque, Second Empire and neo-Gothic architectural influences. It was designed by architect Thomas Fuller, whose work includes the Library of Parliament.

Why Notable: heritage staircase made of Douglas fir, pine and oak. The revitalization of the property, which includes a modern glass addition, incorporates a digital library, discovery centre and maker space for kids.  

First Baptist Church Chatham, 135 King Street East, Chatham

What Founded in 1841, the church’s original congregation was made up of former slaves escaping the Fugitive Slave Law passed in the Unites States in 1850.

Why American abolitionist John Brown held a number of clandestine meetings here in 1858 to recruit former slaves to his cause to set up a separate republic in the U.S. and wage a guerrilla war against the South and slavery. Brown would be captured and executed as a traitor in 1859 after leading an attack with 21 of his conscripts against the federal armoury at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. 

Thamesville Bridge (aka Victoria Road Bridge), RR 21 over the Thames River, Thamesville 

What A 1937 advertisement in the Canadian Engineer described this rare 320-foot cantilever/truss “superstructure” over the Thames River as a marvel of engineering “built with Canadian steel by Canadian workmen.” Indeed, it was constructed during high-water.

Why After a six-year effort to save it, the bridge was demolished in 2019 and replaced with a concrete structure, although some of the bridge’s original features remain.

Eatonville Roadhouse, 11658 Talbot Trail, Howard

What This former hotel featured one of Ontario’s first drive-thru restaurants. It also served as an internment camp in 1942 and 1943 for Japanese-Canadian men relocated from British Columbia to serve as farm labourers during the Second World War. 

Why Efforts to save the building, including with help from the National Association of Japanese Canadians, proved too costly. But heritage markers and Japanese cherry trees have been erected to commemorate the site.

Bowmanville Boys’ Training School (aka Camp 30), 2020 Lambs Road, Clarington

What Built in 1926 for “unadjusted boys who are not inherently delinquent,” it also served as a camp for German POWs from 1941 to 1945 during the Second World War. 

Why National Historic Site since 2013. Also, it’s where prisoners revolted in 1942 in what was known as the Battle of Bowmanville after they were shackled in response to the similar treatment of Canadian POWs in Germany.  The municipality purchased the site in 2016, saving the site from demolition.

Victoria College, 100 University Street East, Cobourg

What Formerly the home of the Upper Canada Academy for boys and girls started by the Methodist Church in 1836 before it was accorded university status by and Act of Parliament and Queen Victoria (who else?) in 1841. Example of Greek Revival design built by Edward Crane. Later served as an asylum and hospital.

Why Controversial Toronto connection. The university’s first principal was Reverend Egerton Ryerson, for whom Ryerson University is named and whose statue on the campus was the recent target of a Black Lives Matter-Toronto protest. Besides being one of the first proponents of free, public education in Ontario, Ryerson was also an early advocate of the Indian residential school system that separated thousands of Indigenous children from their families, the generational effects of which are still being felt today.

Nottawasaga Lighthouse, Nottawasaga Island, Collingwood

What The 85-foot tower was decommissioned in 2003 and wrapped in 2015 to slow down the deterioration of its exterior stone walls after numerous lightning strikes caused water to get in and the wall to collapse.

Why One of six “Imperial Tower” lighthouses built by contractor John Brown on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay between 1855 and 1858. The Nottawasaga Lighthouse Preservation Society (NLPS) has taken up the restoration of the lighthouse. 

Collingwood Grain Terminals, 45 Heritage Drive, Collingwood

What Built in 1929, the Collingwood Terminals Limited is an ode to Canada’s industrial farming history. In its heyday, it moved 30,000 bushels per hour brought by train and ship from out west. The grain elevators ran for 64 years before ceasing operations in 1993. It was bought by the town in 1997. 

Why Its future remains in limbo after a report on the site estimates it would cost $10 million to repair the roof and exterior alone. The report says a decision must be made over the next three years to have any hope of saving the facility.

Wiley Bridge, 0 Gorewood Drive (Clairville Conservation Area), Brampton

What This circa 1930 bridge across the Humber River is one of two “bowstring” bridges (aka rainbow arch bridges) left in Brampton and one of a handful remaining in Ontario.

Why Part of a flurry of construction of concrete bridges that took place in Ontario in response to the economic depression starting to take hold in the late 1920s.

Thistletown Regional Centre for Children and Adolescents, 51 Panorama Court, Etobicoke

What Built in 1928, the former branch of the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children was also known as the “palace of sunshine,” for children requiring helio (sun) therapy. The facility was closed and declared surplus by the province in 2013. 

Why Example of Georgian-style architecture designed by architects Sproatt and Rolph,  whose other designs include Hart House, Upper Canada College, the Royal York Hotel and College Park. Besides architectural interest, it’s one of the first satellite health care facilities specifically designed to address issues of long-term recovery in tuberculosis, polio and autism.    

Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate,  75 Dublin Street North, Guelph

What This French Gothic-revival style Roman Catholic church took 12 years to complete between 1876 and 1888, and was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990 and a minor basilica by Pope Francis in 2014.

Why Legend has it that John Galt, who founded Guelph in 1827, reserved one of the highest spots in town in anticipation of building “a church to revival St. Peter’s in Rome.” 

Barber Mills, 99 River Drive, Halton Hills

What The 13-acre complex established by Loyalist offspring George Kennedy in 1823 was acquired by James and Robert Barber in 1854 and turned into a mill. 

Why A 2.4-kilometre trek downstream leads to the stone ruins of the 24-foot-high hydroelectric dam that powered the mill, reportedly the first to transmit hydroelectricity long distance in North America. 

Century Manor, Juravinski Drive on the grounds of Mohawk College, Hamilton

What Formerly the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane, it started out as a facility for “inebriates,” before its conversion into a facility for the mentally ill. The space originally formed part of the 500-plus-acre property with a working farm, tailor shop, upholstery shop, power house and fire hall.

Why Also alleged to be the home of paranormal activities, according to stories of former staff.

Hollydean House, 333 Main St. Port Dalhousie

What Built in 1914 for St. Catharine’s banker Francis Blaikie, son of a prominent Toronto financier. Named after Hollydean, the house built by the Blaikie’s 300 years earlier in Bowden, Scotland; sits on 20 hectares that were used for agricultural purposes until 1945. Interior features Arts and Crafts-style staircase.

Why Site was first owned by Loyalists at the end of the American Revolutionary War.   

Oro Methodist Episcopal African Church, 1645 Line 3 N., Oro Medonte

What Built in 1849 and associated with early African-Canadian farming settlement built by Black militiamen who fought in the War of 1812. The British granted 25 plots of land in Oro County to Black settlers, eleven of them to former soldiers. The congregation remained active until 1900. Designated a National Historic Site in 2000.

Why Rare vestige of one of the oldest African-Canadian settlements established in Upper Canada.

Beaverdams Church, 0 Marlatts Road, Thorold

What Two-storey framed church built in New England meetinghouse style dates back to 1832. Original Methodist congregation diminished as jobs moved to Welland. Sold by the United Church to the City of Thorold in 2010 and sold to the Friends of Beaverdams Church four years later. 

Why Sealed from the public from 1879 until it was opened for renovations in 2015, workers discovered a wooden stove, church pews and small pump organ inside.

Middlesex County Court House, 399 Ridout Street North, London, Ontario

What This national historic site built in 1829 is an early example of Gothic Revival style that predates the earliest examples of this architectural style in England. The building was sold to a developer with plans for a “very large” mixed-use development for the site in 2019. 

Why Forms part of stretch on Ridout known as Banker’s Row.

Old Court House and Jailhouse, 3rd Avenue NW, Owen Sound, Ontario

What 1853 David Smith creation was declared surplus by the town in 2014 and put up for sale for less than $100K in 2017, if you can believe that. Apparently, the fact that it’s attached to a jail makes it a difficult sell. There were plans to turn the courthouse, which formed part of the town’s administrative centre, into a long-term care facility and later an art gallery. But those fell through.

Why A note in the listing of the Jail in the City Register says, “The hanging (of Cook Teets) took place in the southeast corner of the Jail where the gallows stood. Crowds of people gathered to watch the hanging but only a select few were allowed to witness the execution.”

Port Hope Little Station, 15 Elias Street, Port Hope, Ontario

What Mid-1850s station has a mostly unknown history but is believed to be the first whistle-stop built for the Grand Trunk Railway in Port Hope and later relegated into a baggage shed. It was moved from its spot on the harbour to Lent Lane in 2018.

Why Now serves as hub for Critical Mass contemporary arts group.

O’Neill’s Music Hall and Opera Block, 85 Walton Street, Port Hope, Ontario

What Mid-Victorian music hall and opera house was the focal point of theatrical and musical presentations until the original owners, the O’Neills went bankrupt and moved to Montreal. The Opera House block was sold to the Royal Bank of Canada and the music hall turned over to various retail uses after that, including a hat store, furrier, butcher shop and grocery store. RBC donated the property to the local chapter of Architectural Conservancy Ontario in 2019.

Why Historical posters still line the stage area.

Clock Tower, Main Street, Newmarket, Ontario

What Part of circa 1914 federal building and post office designed by David Ewart.

Why Forms part of the block that used to include Simpson House, where Anne Mary Simpson, the first female pharmacist in Canada, operated an apothecary (1845). But that was unlawfully demolished in 2019 during redevelopment plans and since ordered reconstructed.

Ontario Place, 955 Lake Shore Blvd West, Toronto

What The waterfront park built by Premier Bill Davis when Ontario was a place to stand and a place to grow has seen better years, financially speaking. But it’s arguably never seen better times. The park has been technically closed to the public since the previous Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne embarked on a visioning exercise in 2016 to return it to its status as Ontario’s crown jewel. But those plans have been overtaken by the Ford government’s own designs. Still, the pandemic has brought a renewed appreciation for the space, with crowds congregating in Trillium Park after dark or during the day for some sightseeing.

Why Essential summertime fun; also, may not be here much longer. Among the three proposals being considered by the Ford government is to turn the destination into a spa.

Richard Longley is a former president of Architectural Conservancy Ontario.

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