Mount Pleasant Cemetery
The origins of Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery can be described as being older than the city itself. In 1825, nine years before the town of York became the city of Toronto, a small group of responsible community leaders - Thomas Carfrae, Jr., Peter Paterson, John Ewart, Thomas Morrison, and Thomas Helliwell - convened a public meeting to discuss the problem that was beginning to create severe hardships for many of the town’s citizens. In those far-off days, the only authorized cemeteries in York, other than a few isolated family plots, were those that had been consecrated for adherents to either the Roman Catholic Church or Church of England. Deceased citizens who were non-adherents to either of these religions, in addition to any indigents or visitors to the young community who had the misfortune to die while in the town limits, were out of luck. Thus it was that in 1826 a six-acre portion of the Elmsley farm, carefully selected because it was situated well north of the town limits at the northwest corner of Yonge Street and Second Concession (a street better know today as Bloor Street), was purchased for the magnificent sum of $300.
Burials in the new Potter’s Field, as the cemetery was called, started almost immediately and by early 1855, more than 6,000 souls had been interred in the six-acre cemetery. However, coinciding with the expansion of the community’s suburban cemetery was the development of the adjacent village of Yorkville. The cemetery was stifling Yorkville’s growth, and before long the villagers were petitioning the provincial authorities to have Potter's Field closed and the remains removed to some other location.
The authorities acceded to the villagers’ request, while at the same time enacting legislation which permitted the owners of Potter’s Field to become a not-for-profit entity called the Toronto General Burying Grounds Trust (a name subsequently changed to Toronto Trust Cemeteries, then to Commemorative Services of Ontario and, in 1998, to the present Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries) with the authority to acquire land for cemetery purposes. Members of the new Trust acted quickly to acquire a fifteen-acre cemetery on the west bank of the Don River at the end of Winchester Street that had been started a few years earlier by a private syndicate.
Unable to come up with the full $16,000 purchase price, three of the Trustees offered to lend the Trust $15,000 while the Trust itself contributed the remaining $1,000, all the non-profit organization had on hand. The Necropolis, as the new cemetery was called, became part of the Toronto General Burying Grounds Trust on July 11, 1855. To comply with the government’s order that the old Potter’s Field be closed and the remains therein re-interred elsewhere, the Trust offered the relatives of those buried in the old cemetery new plots in the Necropolis. Many families took advantage of the offer and soon most of the remains in Potter’s Field were re-interred in the Trust’s new cemetery on the banks of the Don.
As the population of the city continued to grow (42,000 inhabitants in 1855, 47,000 just a decade later), so too did the number of “dear departed.” As a result, it wasn’t long before the capacity of the Necropolis was, too, being taxed. Anticipating future needs, the Trust began actively seeking out additional land on which to develop a new cemetery in 1872.
One year later, a 200-acre farm on the east side of Yonge Street, in the Third Concession from the Bay, township of York, was purchased for $20,000. At a meeting of the Trustees called to confirm the acquisition of this new property, described at the meeting in more familiar terms as being several hundred yards north of the little community of Deer Park, it was agreed that the third of the Trust's non-sectarian cemeteries would be called Mount Pleasant.
The responsibility for laying out the new cemetery was assigned to Henry Engelhardt, a German-born landscape architect whom the trustees hired, based on his successful experiences developing public grounds, gardens and cemeteries in various American and Canadian cities.
Engelhardt’s concept for the Trust’s new cemetery would follow the newly emerging “landscape style” that was gaining prominence south of the border. He drew on Boston’s innovative Mount Auburn Cemetery for many of his ideas.
Work started at the Yonge Street end of the property. Over the next few months, Engelhardt supervised the transformation of ordinary farm fields into a park-like setting complete with trees, shrubs, pathways, and even a small lake. The first interments in the new cemetery were the few unclaimed remains from the Potter’s Field that had not been removed to the Necropolis.
As Engelhardt’s work progressed, the emerging Mount Pleasant Cemetery became such a departure from the ordinary type of burial ground that it soon became a featured item in the city’s daily newspapers. The cemetery was perceived to be an attraction of such uniqueness that city souvenir guide books made a point of recommending a visit into the countryside north of the city to witness its wonders. One publication was very specific commenting that “No visit to Toronto will be complete without a visit to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. The cars of the Metropolitan Street Railway run right to the main entrance.”
On the afternoon of November 4, 1876, a little more than two years after the Trustees purchased the 200-acre Yonge Street Farm, the public was invited to attend the official opening of Toronto’s new Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery: An Illustrated Guide
Second Edition Revised and Expanded