The effort Richmond Hill’s early councils put into streets and sidewalks set the stage for the growth and development seen in the city today, writes Jim Vollmershausen
By Jim Vollmershausen
Published by the Richmond Hill Liberal, Tuesday, May 16, 2023
The new Richmond Hill council met for the first time on Jan. 20, 1873 after a municipal election earlier that month. It’s easy to imagine that expectations were high — they had waited a long time to reach official village status, and there was work to be done. One of the reasons people were anxious to manage their own affairs, after all, was the complaint they were being ignored by the two townships (Vaughan Township west of Yonge Street and Markham Township east of Yonge Street) that had shared responsibility for their community. The condition of Yonge Street, their main thoroughfare, had to be top of mind, and how their village would grow without good streets and sidewalks.
Of necessity, much of the new council’s early efforts were devoted to civic appointments and the passage of bylaws governing a variety of activities in the village, ranging from determining conditions for tavern and business licences to bylaws setting terms for snow, ice and dirt removal and dog taxes. In addition, a considerable portion of their time was taken up by the need to deal with education. A new high school was urgently needed and much of the first council’s time and funds went to meet that requirement. As a result, other areas just didn’t get much attention, including streets and sidewalks. Records show, for example, that in all of 1873, only $201.69 was devoted to street improvements.
From that meagre start, improvements to Richmond Hill’s street network gradually took a bit more precedence in council deliberations and expenditures. Over the next 10 years, council minutes demonstrate that upgrading their streets and sidewalks was becoming more and more important. Funds were provided, for example, to build or repair the village’s board or plank sidewalks. This meant two-metre-wide sidewalks on Yonge Street and one metre wide on side streets. Funding was also provided to build new roads in the village, which led, for example, to the construction of Trench Street as an alternate north-south connection between Richmond and Mill streets on the western side of Yonge Street. One interesting project was a decision to purchase second-hand gas-fired street lamps from the Village of Yorkville for the illumination of Yonge Street. The used lamps cost $4 each.
Even with these improvements, municipal funds for streets and sidewalks did not loom large in the overall scheme of things. Richmond Hill, after all, was still a small village — in 1877, four years after its incorporation, its population consisted of only 659 people, only 151 of which were ratepayers. The village raised $1,667 in municipal taxes that year and just over $1,000 for education. Roads and bridges only accounted for $287.
Though funds were obviously limited, council did continue to approve projects designed to make it easier to get around a village that was just starting to grow. During the new village’s first 15 or 20 years, when they had much more say in the decisions that affected them, main streets were widened and their condition was improved, new streets were constructed to accommodate growth and provide space for new housing and commercial developments, nighttime lighting was provided, primarily on Yonge Street, and sidewalks were laid or improved along the busiest streets.
Then, as now, streets and sidewalks had to share their place in a municipality’s list of priorities with many other issues. In the 1870s and 1880s, that included the development of parklands, the funding of a fire brigade, and financial assistance for “indigent persons” and the “aged and Infirm.” Over the last 150 years, though, the efforts that early councils put into streets and sidewalks set the stage for the kind of development and growth we are experiencing today.
Jim Vollmershausen is president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society. The society can be found online at www.rhhs.ca.