Throwback Thursday: Malton airport and the lost town of Elmbank

Every Thursday, Spacing will bring you a snapshot of Toronto’s past, looking into what took place that week in the city’s history. Throwback Thursday will address how the city has evolved, with an emphasis on issues that remain relevant for development in Toronto today.

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72 years ago today, 13 farms were bought on land immediately south of the village of Malton by the Toronto Harbour Commission (now the Toronto Port Authority) for the establishment what would later become Pearson International Airport.

First settled in 1823, the northeast Toronto township of Malton was a quiet distribution hub for local farmers with about 150 residents prior to the 1,400 acre land purchase in 1937.  Over the years, Malton would shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy and become renowned as a leader in aviation around the world.

While the first terminal was nothing more than a converted farm house, Malton Airport became a training facility for the British Air Force during the Second World War.  In 1954, Malton became the home of the National Steel Car Company, later bought by the government and renamed the Victory Aircraft Company (VAC), whose workforce of 10,000 would later produce the Avro Arrow.

Although the establishment of an airport provided wartime prosperity for the town of Malton, its rise as a world leader in aeronautical design and manufacturing that climaxed in the 1950s with the Avro Arrow starkly contrasted the disappearance of a little known town called Elmbank.

In the fall of 2000, attention was brought to this lost town when Archaeological Services Inc. became involved in relocating the cemetery of Elmbank from its site entirely within the active airfield.  Turns out the Catholic Irish cemetery was home to at least 622 individuals buried some time between 1833 and 1932, making it the largest historic cemetery in Ontario ever to be relocated.  Excavations have also unearthed the foundations of a church and rectory.

The land was first cleared and farmed in the 1820s and was home to a post office in operation from 1873 to 1915.  A small log church was first built in 1833 to be the home of the Elmbank Catholic mission.  The building was replaced in 1885 with a new red brick church, whose foundations were discovered during the 2000 excavation.  The church was said to have had a 400 parishoners who regularly attended Mass, coming from all over the area, including Toronto, Port Credit and Bolton.

Scan taken from 1877 Peel Atlas

Elmbank also included a blacksmith shop, a store and carriage factory and a cheese factory, located west along Britannia Road.  Yet as the Malton Airport expanded, Elmbank shrunk and eventually disappeared almost entirely.  When the Elmbank Catholic Church was finally destroyed after standing vacant alongside an active runway, many of its materials were reused in local churches, including its stained glass, pews and bricks.

Although almost all traces of this little Hamlet are gone, a few clues still remain.  Just to the east of the airport is a street named Elmbank Road.  Similarly, Britannia Road East, which ends suddenly along the western edge of the airport, used to lead right into the town.

To the east, just south of the Islington Avenue and Albion Road intersection lies the “Elm Bank” houses, two stone cottages built in 1808 and 1834 along the banks of the Humber river that were once owned by John Grubb, a Scottish immigrant who played a large role in the founding of Etobicoke.  Grubb’s houses remain in use today by his descendants at 19 and 23 Jason Road.

1808 'Elm Bank' Home

Photos from the Toronto Archives (fonds 1231), Wikipedia Commons, the Mississauga Heritage Foundation, the 1877 Peel Atlas and the Mississauga Historic Images Gallery


  1. A correction: Malton was never a township. It was a community originally in Toronto Gore Township, and later annexed by Toronto Township (which became Mississauga in 1968).

  2. The references to Malton’s wartime & immediate postwar roles are a little muddled. Victory Aircraft was established there during the war to build Lancaster bombers (I have a relative who worked there). After the war it became A.V. Roe Canada, which developed the first North American jet airliner to fly (the Avro CC-102 Jetliner), and the CF-100 jet fighter .. and spun off the Orenda jet engine plant .. before the Arrow debacle brought the whole thing down.

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