The Distillery District is one of the most beloved areas in Toronto, and with good reason. First and foremost, the district is home to one of the most impressive examples of Victorian industrial architecture in North America. The Distillery District also provides visitors with an opportunity to explore a section of car-dominated Toronto on foot. For me, it’s a staple of Christmastime. Seeing the red brick buildings covered with snow and lights sweeps makes it feel like something out of a Christmas Carol. But what’s the history behind Toronto’s most popular historic neighbourhoods?
See also: Then vs Now: Yonge-Dundas Square
The Distillery District was once home to Gooderham & Worts, a whisky manufacturer that by the end of the nineteenth century, produced nearly half of the spirits in Canada. James Worts, an English mill owner set up a new mill on the mouth of the Don River in 1831. This was the golden age of canal building as cities from New Orleans, Chicago, Toronto, and New York linked their shipping networks together. The building at the mouth of the Don would prove wise as it allowed the company to ship their produce across the Great Lakes.
Worts’ brother-in-law, William Gooderham joined him the next year. In 1834 however, tragedy struck. James’ wife Elizabeth died in childbirth and James drowned himself in the mill’s well. William Gooderham now ran the mill himself and took advantage of a wheat surplus by expanding into brewing and distilling. Under William’s management, the mill focused on alcohol production, with his brands “Toddy” and “Old Rye” finding popularity across Canada and Britain.
As William expanded production, he began to move into other business ventures. Key to the success of his distillery was railroads and banking. William became an avid investor in both, with railroads replacing canals as North America’s preferred infrastructure choice. He eventually established a controlling interest in the Toronto and Nipissing Railway, an important transportation corridor for rural grain headed for urban mills. Gooderham also went on to become the President of the Bank of Toronto from 1864 to his death in 1881. William Gooderham had established himself as a major figure in Toronto’s business community.
In 1859 William Gooderham began a major expansion of his distillery, beginning in earnest his family’s career in construction. Only three years later, what we would now recognize as the Distillery District was already producing a quarter of all the spirits in Canada. Not just a tycoon, William Gooderham was a tycoon with a social conscience. He constructed the still standing Little Trinity Church.
Unlike members of the nearby St. James Cathedral, members of Little Trinity didn’t have to pay for their seats. Moreover, Gooderham oversaw the construction of cottages for his workers, along Trinity and Sackville Streets. If there are any CEOS reading this, I encourage you to take notice!
Now, this might just interest me, but you’ve seen that old mansion on the corner of Bloor and St. George Right? You know the one that looks like the place supervillains gather to plot world domination? That was one of the Gooderham Mansions. It was built by William’s son George in 1889 and it now houses the York Club. It’s A social club that forbids blue jeans, blue jean jackets, cargo pants, rugby shirts, athletic wear, golf and other sports attire, shorts, clothing with large logos, sweatsuits, yoga wear, flip flops and casual sandals. That’s not important to the Story of the Distillery District but it mattered to me that you, the reader know about it. It’s just another part of Gooderham’s legacy.
Now back to our story. Gooderham & Worts remained prosperous until the twentieth century when beer and wine eclipsed whisky as Canada’s favourite drink. To make matters worse, prohibition basically killed the distillery’s market and forced it into business with smugglers. Finally, the company got charged with tax evasion in 1928 and was fined nearly half a million dollars. No small amount in the twenties. The company slowly shut down production over the next few decades until it shut down in its entirety in 1987.
Even so, Torontonians knew they had something special by the Don. The district was designated a heritage site in 1988. Attempts to redevelop it languished in the nineties as Toronto’s real-estate market collapsed. As things rebounded Cityscape Development Corp. purchased the space and revitalized it into the attraction we know and love.
Propelling a few men to great fortune and power in the nineteenth century, declining in the twentieth century and reimagined now, the Distillery District is emblematic of Toronto’s history. As our building stock continues to age and is repurposed, I can’t help but wonder what the next Distillery District could be.
Featured Image: Michael Kristensen