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Toronto’s near-forgotten first aerodrome – Trethewey/De Lesseps Field honoured with a historical plaque

July 2017

On 15 July 2017, a historical plaque was dedicated at the site of a near-forgotten aerodrome:  Trethewey Field, the first aerodrome in Toronto.

Organized by Heritage Toronto, RCAF 400 Squadron Historical Society and the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society, the plaque dedication was the end of years of effort to formally recognize this historic grassy airfield where the first aeroplane flight in Toronto started and finished its journey, piloted by celebrated French aviator Count Jacques de Lesseps, for whom the airfield would later be re-named.

Prior to the erection of the historical plaque, there had been nothing to indicate the aviation past of this small part of Toronto.

Speeches were made by numerous dignitaries, including Russ Bannock, DSO, DFC, a WWII Mosquito pilot and former president of de Havilland Aircraft of Canada, who had their humble beginnings manufacturing aeoplanes at Thethewey, Lieutenant Colonel Jillian Bishop, Commanding Officer of 400 Tactical Helicopter and Training Squadron, the successor of RCAF No. 10 (Army Cooperation) Squadron, who were stationed at Trethewey in the 1930s, and Sheldon Benner, President Canadian Aviation Historical Society – Toronto Chapter.

Ward 12 Councillor Frank Di Giorgio also spoke on behalf of the City of Toronto.

With a large crowd of aviation and historical enthusiasts watching, the plaque was unveiled by LCol Bishop and 400 Squadron Honorary Colonel Pat Curtis, grandson of No. 10 Squadron’s second Commanding Officer, Air Marshal Wilfred “Wilf” Curtis, OC, CB, CBE, DSC & Bar, ED, CD.  Additionally, his father and father Lieutenant Colonel Wilf Curtis, Jr. had  served as Commander Officer of 400 Squadron from 1955 to 1957.

Among the crowd was 97 year old Jim O’Brian, a WWII RCAF veteran and son of son of Air Commodore Geoffrey S. O’Brian, CBE, AFC, the first Commanding Officer of No. 10 Squadron.

The Master of Ceremonies was Brigadier-General (Ret’d) Paul Hayes, OMM, CD, former Commanding Officer of 411 “City of York” Squadron, who were also stationed at RCAF Station Downsview with the post-war 400 Squadron.

After the ceremony, a reception was held in the Atrium at Toronto Police 12 division station.

A big round of applause is due to those who saw this plaque dedication come to fruition and to those who supported the efforts by donating financially and attending the dedication ceremony.

A note for military aviation enthusiasts:  the above mentioned Air Marshal Wilf Curtis was well known in aviation circles and upon his retirement from the RCAF in 1953, became Vice-Chairman of Hawker Siddeley Canada, parent company to A.V. Roe Canada, and played a role in securing funding for the production of the CF-100 Canuck and the CF-105 Arrow.

 

Toronto’s first aerodrome

The Toronto area once had several airfields that no longer exist, but played an important role in early aviation in Canada and the Toronto area.

Trethewey/De Lesseps Field was once such field, located in York Township, west of Toronto, as it was the first airfield in Toronto.

This small airfield was located in the area bounded by Jane Street on the west, the CN/CP Railway tracks on the south, Lawrence Avenue on the north and Black Creek on the east, on a 600 acre model farm owned W. G. Trethewey, a mining magnate.

A private road called Holmstead Drive, which later became Trethewey Drive, ran down the middle of the original farm and the Trethewey home was built near Black Creek. close to where Trethewey Park is now located.

Opened in 1910, Trethewey Airfield became internationally known in July of that year when it was used to host the first flying exhibition of flying in Toronto, sponsored by the Ontario Motor League.  A grass runway was constructed in one of the fields, the centre of which is present day street The Wishbone, and a grandstand was built to accommodate the spectators.

The feature flyer on 13 July 1910 was French aviator Count Jacques de Lesseps, who flew his Bleriot aeroplane, “La Scarabee”, over Humber Bay, the CNE grounds, Toronto Islands and back to the Trethewey Field, a distance of 20 miles, in 28 minutes.  De Lesseps flew at a height between 1500 and 2000 feet, at a speed of 70mph.

The aerodrome would later be re-named de Lesseps Field in his honour.

The July 1910 Airshow/Exhibition also featured three pilots from the Wright Company, who flew the Wright biplane for the spectators.

In later years, landing lights would be added for night landings and a mail service was established between Toronto, Montreal and Detroit.

In 1928, the UK-based de Havilland Aircraft Company bought part of the aerodrome property for their Canadian subsidiary from Fred Trethewey, son of W. G. Trethewey, for use as an assembly plant and training field for their Tiger Moth aircraft.  As a result, Fred Trethewey became one of the founding directors of de Havilland Canada.

The first few aircraft produced there were assembled in the Trethewey’s old vegetable storage warehouse.  Although it wasn’t an ideal building, it did have double doors large enough for the finished aircraft to be wheeled out of the building and was situated close to the CN/CP Railway tracks, making shipping and receiving very convenient.

Also in 1928, Skyways Limited bought another portion of the property primarily for pilot training.

In 1929, de Havilland Canada built a 50 foot by 50 foot wood hangar with a sloping roof, near the central east-side of the property.  However, it soon became clear that the Trethewey plant was too small for de Havilland’s growing business.

A new property was purchased in the Downsview area of North York and de Havilland moved their operations to this site, now known as the Downsview Airport.  A new airfield and production plants were build, although de Havilland did take the recently built wood hangar with them.  This hangar still stands today on Carl Hall Road, directly across from the historic de Havilland Plant 1.

Skyways also had a brief stay at Trethewey, staying until around 1931 when the company re-located to the Malton Airport.

In 1934, No. 10 (Army Cooperation) Squadron of the RCAF took up residence at de Lesseps Field, two years after their formation.

The squadron, renamed a year later No. 10 (City of Toronto) Army Co-Operation Squadron and again110 (City of Toronto) Squadron in 1937, few their assortment of biplanes, from de Lesseps Field until they relocated to RCAF Station Rockcliffe in September 1939 and placed on active service.

Two years later, the squadron would be re-named 400 (City of Toronto) Squadron.  The squadron remains a part of the RCAF Reserve today, currently stationed at CFB Borden.

De Lesseps Field remained an active aerodrome during WWII, with barracks added and surrounded by barbed wire.

The aerodrome closed around the end of WWII and the land was turned into a residential survey for returning veterans, many of them following a housing design that would also be used for the post-war Private Married Quarters seen on military bases across Canada.

One of the hangars on Trethewey Drive near Tedder Street was still standing in 1957 but today, nothing remains of the site of Toronto’s first aerodrome.

Two parks named for the Trethewey family are in the area; one located on the original property, just south of Trethewey Drive and the other is located just east of the property along Black Creek Drive.

 

 

Sources: The Early Airfields of Toronto – Robert D. Galway, Fred Hotson – “The de Havilland Story in Canada, 1987, Mike Filey – “Toronto Sketches – The Way We Were”, 1992, The Globe, Toronto Daily Star and Evening Telegram, July 13 and 14, 19, Goad’s Maps – 1910 -1916 – Toronto Archives, “Happy street a joy for T.O. kids,” George Gamester, Toronto Star, http://www.400squadron.ca, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/400_Tactical_Helicopter_Squadron, http://torontohistory.net/trethewey-airfield.html, http://flightsofhistory.perfectdayfactory.com/trethewey-airfield-plaque-unveiled-15-july-2017/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Lesseps_Field, http://www.torontosun.com/2013/07/13/air-pioneer-thrills-to–103-years-ago, http://disc.yourwebapps.com/discussion.cgi?disc=105008;article=22628, http://torontoist.com/2016/10/historicist-skys-limit.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: http://militarybruce.com/torontos-near-forgotten-first-aerodrome-tretheweyde-lesseps-field-honoured-with-a-historical-plaque/

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  1. Trethewey Airfield Plaque Unveiled 15 July 2017 | Flights of History

    […] Forsyth, Bruce – His post gives a full account of the day’s ceremony plus lots of background: http://militarybruce.com/torontos-near-forgotten-first-aerodrome-tretheweyde-lesseps-field-honoured-… […]

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