Highway 401 graveyard gets no eternal peace

richview cemetery toronto highway 401 427 graveyard highway 401 cemeteryDriving past the intersection of two of the busiest highways in North America, the last thing you’d expect to see is a row of tombstones. A discarded bumper, shredded rubber and cast-off Slurpee cups, maybe, but actual grave markers? Now that’s weird.

Graves hugged by busiest highway in North America

richview cemetery toronto highway 401 427 graveyard highway 401 cemetery

At the confluence of Highway 401 where it meets Highway 407 in Toronto (technically the suburb community of Etobicoke) is a tiny patch of grass that sticks out as drivers speed past at 100 km/h. Though it looks a little like the remnants of a movie set, or a pre-Halloween joke, this small green space is precisely what it appears. With tens of thousands of vehicles from transport trucks to noisy diesel cars, the location is the antithesis of eternal rest.

“It’s very noisy because of the airplanes overhead and the traffic on all three sides. If you’re there and trying to speak to someone you have to stand close together,” says Randall Reid, who has relatives buried on the site.

So how does a graveyard end up hemmed in by Canada’s busiest roadways?richview cemetery toronto highway 401 427 graveyard highway 401 cemetery

Back in the 1840’s,  when the cemetery’s first residents were interred, there was a lot less asphalt surrounding this greenspace. It was mostly farmland, and it was still far enough from the centre of Toronto that it might have been considered remote when accessed via horse and buggy.

Hugs from Highway 401 & Highway 427 – Cemetery trapped by growing roads

In fact, the land that eventually became the cemetery was provided by a local farmer named William Knaggs who specified that a small chapel should eventually be built here to serve the tiny agri-community of Richview. While the chapel was erected in 1888, graves were being dug long before that.

As the population of the city of Toronto and it’s suburbs grew and four legged transport was swapped out for wheels, the highways grew fatter and fatter on an endless supply of commuters and visitors. Pretty soon the tiny cemetery was closed in. According to a historical plaque which remains on site today, the chapel was demolished in the mid 20th century as the transportation network continued to grow.richview cemetery toronto highway 401 427 graveyard highway 401 cemetery

Why not move Richview cemetery?

Why not move the graveyard to a more appropriate and serene location? There was discussion back in the 1950’s and 60’s about potentially relocating the cemetery when the region’s roadways began closing in. But it’s not so easy to dig up and move the residents. It’s also not a popular idea.

The graveyard houses some of Etobicoke’s founding families (Middlebrook, Canning, Knaggs, Dawson, Coulter, Pierson, Gracey are just a few of the names on the grave markers) and in fact two other area graveyards sent their decedent residents here in the 1970s. Bluntly, the decedents’ descendants don’t want them moved.

Randall Reid knows more about the property than most.

“The descendants said they didn’t want the cemetery moved so the highway had to go around it,” says Reid. “I’m against moving graves. My mother’s ancestors are buried there.”richview cemetery toronto highway 401 427 graveyard highway 401 cemetery

Reid has become a defacto historian and keeper of information about Richview Cemetery. Inquiries to the Etobicoke Historical Society were referred to him, as he’s credited with overseeing the restoration of the site back in the late 1990’s after receiving a provincial grant.

Highway 401 cemetery – Richview graves restored

‘We raised around $30,000, which was matched by the province, to restore the monuments,” remembers Reid. “One of the stipulations was the monuments had to remain on the graves. There was a lot of repairs especially to the marble monuments. A lot of them were toppling over, so repairs were made to the foundations.”

Despite the fact ‘eternal rest’ is a misnomer here, any talk of moving the cemetery quieted again after the site was declared an historic place under the Ontario Heritage Act in the early 2000’s. The cars, trucks, and aircraft now create a cacophony of white noise that one can only hope lulls the residents during their eternal slumber.

Like this story? Read about the ancient cemetery that’s become a tourist attraction in Peru.