For 200 years people have been living in and passing through what we now call Newmarket, and while initially it’s big appeal was the Holland River which allowed people to travel between Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario, today we can enjoy the same trip via the 404 Expressway connecting Barrie and the GTA.
It’s comforting to know that despite all of the transformation in Newmarket’s long history, this town of about 85,000 residents remains a strong community which offers a nice respite from the trendy city living more common to Toronto or Barrie.
As part of one of the main transportation routes for traders, trappers, and settlers in the area, Newmarket already had a fair bit of traffic – practically as far back as settlers came to this part of North America.
It was one of two branches on the Toronto Carrying-place Trail, the major portage route which began at Lake Simcoe, passed through Newmarket, then passed over the Oak Ridges Moraine into the Rouge River until it finally reached Lake Ontario.
Following this trip along the lesser-used eastern route through Newmarket in 1793, John Graves Simcoe deemed the Newmarket route the superior of the two options for travellers heading south to York and began building Yonge Street in 1975. Work began in Toronto Bay and the street extended all the way up to Holland Landing, immediately north of Newmarket.
While the Newmarket area was being used as a transit route and settled in the Holland Landing area, the foundation for modern Newmarket was laid by unexpected figures. Americans. American Quakers to be exact.
A group led by the Vermont Quaker Timothy Rogers were seeking a place to settle in the North to escape America’s revolutionary struggle.
By 1803, Rogers and a compatriot named Samuel Lundy had secured a large swath of 8,000 acres of land and made what would become Canada their permanent settlement.
It was around Fairy Lake that the seed of Newmarket was sown by one Joseph Hill, a settler who constructed a mill and dam the produced the lake which residents still enjoy to this day.
Other settlers unsurprisingly built homesteads around this agricultural resource. Because of this early historical detail, Newmarket’s downtown remains just north of Fairy Lake Pond in the form of Main St. instead of following Yonge Street several hundred meters to the west.
Over the course of several years, another prominent local landowner named Elisha Beman opened a successive series of businesses to serve the local community. Among them was a distillery, and although it’s not in operation today the area is still the commercial centre of Newmarket.
A wave of prosperity during the War of 1812 led into rapid growth during the 19th century, much of it stemming from inter-city commerce. In fact, following the establishment of Aurora and Holland Landing the settlement began holding regular markets, giving rise to the name we use to this day: Newmarket.
Although the Quakers founded Newmarket to escape the challenges of war, it would unfortunately reach the village regardless, albeit in a different form.
Newmarket was the venue for rebel activity during the rebellions of 1837-1838. Discontent grew among the local farmers who saw the government as robbing them of the fruits of their labours. In fact, rebel leader and former mayor of Toronto, Willian Lyon Mackenzie gave his first campaign speech at the corner of Main & Botsford.
While King & his revolutionaries met a tragic end, Newmarket continued to flourish. By mid-century it had grown to over 500 residents, six places of worship, and even a post office. It wasn’t lacking in industry either, establishing its candidacy for a railway stop.
The 1st railway in Upper Canada, Toronto, Simcoe & Lake Huron Union Railroad, stopped in Newmarket and shipped passengers, agricultural products, and manufactured goods to the rest of Canada. Newmarket was living up to its name as a centre for industry in young Canada.
This heavy rail line would adapt over the course of its working life, first switching to serve a major conduit between Toronto & Collingwood and finally becoming incorporated into the Canadian National Railway.
Today, commuters can even enjoy the convenience of GO Transit Service from Toronto along the Barrie Line.
10 years before Canada’s Confederation Newmarket was officially incorporated as a town. Already the transition from subsistence to a more cosmopolitan way of life was developing. Around this time Downtown Newmarket got its first department store, which incidentally lived on and developed into the Simpsons chain of stores, itself later swallowed up by The Bay.
It’s some solace to think that today’s Upper Canada Mall location at Yonge & Davis Dr. isn’t far from where Newmarket’s first commercial centre was located.
From the late 1860’s, the town saw steady growth from a population of 1500. Perhaps it was increased local transit options or the reputation it gained as a prosperous place to live, but less than 20 years later the population jumped by another 25% and the town had its own elementary and high schools.
Along with the arrival of the Toronto and York Radial Railway at the turn of the century came a wave of visitors looking to see something new outside of Toronto. It was the first time leisure travellers could reach the city so easily and in such numbers, and although the railway line just brushed past Newmarket, their presence brought significant economic benefits to the city.
Increased automobile traffic on Yonge Street had a similar effect and as cars grew more popular the railway was discontinued. The Yonge St. artery also began pulling real estate development in the town. A glance at the map of today’s Newmarket shows how the city’s primary commercial real estate space is concentrated around the intersection of Yonge St. and Davis Dr. W.
The early 20th century also brought other transportation transformations, the remnants of which can be seen to this day. A stretch of the East Holland River was straightened so it could be used to ship goods in place of the railroad, which was getting far too expensive to be viable.
Remnants of the canal system running through to Lake Simcoe can still be seen to the north of Newmarket. This waterway was devised to give boats access to the Trent-Severn Waterway, and although it was initially promising the project was cancelled by the incumbent government.
What was meant to be the canal’s turning basin in downtown Newmarket was filled in and now serves the community in a different way – as the parking lot to the Tannery Mall, itself located on the site of the Davis Hill’s Tannery from Newmarket’s inception.
This abandoned canal project in many ways symbolized the advent of modern Newmarket. Concrete, cars, and modern commerce replaced the old ways of life and drove Newmarket into the contemporary era.
As of the latest census Newmarket’s population rests at around 85,000 residents, a far cry from the tiny settlement which served as the cradle of commerce, trade, and even rebellion.
Yet one thing remains constant, and that’s the city’s importance as a stopover hub between Barrie and Toronto, though these days most of that travel happens via Highway 404 and Yonge St.
Although Newmarket is part of Great Toronto and solidified its status as a bedroom town in the 1980’s, its location in the Golden Horseshoe still attracts more rural and agricultural citizens. A return to agrarian life may not be in Newmarket’s future, but residents can still enjoy a quieter pace of life and respite from the pace of major metropolitan Toronto.
In addition to the town’s historical district, Newmarket offers numerous conservation areas and parks where people can get even closer to nature. Wesley Brooks Conservation Area and Rogers Reservoir are conveniently located near town, but lovers of the outdoors don’t have to go far to find even more green space, golf, or hiking to enjoy.
Newmarket has undergone tremendous modernization to become the city it is today, but in many ways not much has changed. It’s still a relatively quiet place to live, work, and raise a family without being too far away from it all.
Are you considering moving to Newmarket or perhaps relocating within the city?
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