The Yonge Street project was soon underway. Between February 26 and March 19, 1794, Deputy Provincial Surveyor Augustus Jones ran the line of the new road from Holland Landing south to York. In May, his colleague Alexander Aitkin began surveying 111 settlers' lots on both sides of the thoroughfare, working north from Eglinton Avenue to Holland Landing.
By the end of May, Yonge Street had been "opened" - that is, a path twenty feet (six metres) wide had been cleared through the woods - as far as Lot 17 north of what is now Sheppard Avenue. By August, the street had reached Lot 29 south of Thornhill. Farther north, the right-of-way remained little more than a path through the woods.
Governor Simcoe stretched the truth somewhat in his September report on progress. "The Road to Hollands River was meant to have been opened this year," he noted. "It is already sufficiently so, for the families who intended to reside there go to their respective allotments." 7 Settlers could get to their homes, but only on foot along a rutted path.
Through those initial months of the Yonge Street project, Simcoe and his surveyors relied on soldiers from the Queen's (York) Rangers to perform the hard, physical tasks of land clearing and road building. But in August, as war with the United States threatened again, Simcoe had to withdraw the regiment from the project and order them to the Niagara frontier. The lieutenant-governor now turned to one William Berczy to supply an alternate labour force and to complete construction.
Important in Richmond Hill history as a builder of Yonge Street and a colonizer of adjacent Markham Township,William Berczy easily qualifies as "one of the most colourful characters in the history of Upper Canada." 8 He was christened Johann Albrecht Ulrich Moll on December 10, 1744, in Wallerstein, Germany, the son of a prominent diplomat. In the 1770s and 1780s, he flitted through Europe, making his living as a merchant and a painter, and using such names as William Albert Ulrich von Moll and Albert-Guillaume Berczy before settling on William Berczy.
In 1791, the British-based Genesee Association hired Berczy to recruit European settlers for a large tract of land in western New York. But Berczy and his German-speaking colonists met with resistance from local agents when they reached the Genessee country the following year. Ever resourceful, Berczy turned his attention to resettling his people in Upper Canada. In April 1794, his newly formed German Company petitioned the government of Upper Canada for one million acres of land (about four hundred thousand hectares) on the north shore of Lake Erie to be allotted to the unhappy colonists in the Genesee country and to others brought from Europe.
Berczy began with the best of intentions. "Provided it shall not come to a great expense," he wrote, "I wish to do it in such a manner that the Government and the public shall be fully satisfied." 10 And his start was auspicious. On October 17, with thirty-three of his German-speaking settlers and five hired hands, Berczy began work on the stretch of Yonge Street from the hill south of Thornhill north to Langstaff Road. The party worked for three days. Another day's work saw the completion of today's Langstaff Road eastward to the first concession of Markham Township.11
At the end of November, Berczy reported the road suitable for wagon traffic to Lot 35 at Langstaff Road and partly cut to Lot 53 near Bond's Lake. "The piece of Yonge Street from [Lot] 29 to River Holland which I have engaged to open on my own expenses shall soon be performed as good as Circumstances will possibly admit," he informed acting Surveyor General David Smith.12
A road "suitable for wagon traffic" may have meant little more than a narrow path along the surveyed right-of-way, marked only by the stumps of trees that had been cut down to clear the trail. Nevertheless, it was a beginning, and Simcoe was pleased. In November 1794 he noted that a trader living on Georgian Bay "had cattle driven to him from York in six days." Equally important, "half the road on Yonge Street is allotted to settlers." By Christmas, Simcoe counted seventy families in the vicinity of York, "principally on the Communication between that Town and Holland River." 13
Unfortunately, Berczy proved unable to finish his Yonge Street contract within the specified year. Equipment was in short supply and expenses mounted. His settlers begrudged time spent away from their own Markham Township farm lands to the east, working on a road that promised little direct benefit for transporting their products to market. Little was accomplished through 1795, as Berczy could scarcely muster a work crew from among his dwindling band of settlers, an unfortunate group plagued by cold, starvation, and illness. The situation became so desperate through the bitter winter of 1795-96 that about one-third of the Markham settlement moved to Niagara.
Berczy contributed to the collapse of his Yonge Street project himself by flirting with a rival Rouge River-Holland River canal scheme. Meanwhile his American associates proved reluctant to increase their investment in Markham Township without some prospect of an early return. Predictably, relations between Berczy and Governor Simcoe turned sour, and in May 1796, Simcoe issued a proclamation declaring forfeit the lands of all township proprietors who had failed to meet their settlement obligations. The remaining years of Berczy's life proved as remarkable as his early career. Over the next seventeen years, he moved back and forth from York to Montreal, and from London to New York, in a series of unsuccessful quests to reclaim his Upper Canadian lands and discharge his debts. At the same time, his creative life blossomed. Berczy wrote widely on historical and literary subjects; he designed Christ Church, Montreal; and his portraits gained him recognition as one of the finest painters in early nineteenth-century British North America. In poor health through much of this period, Berczy died in New York in February 1813 and was buried in an unmarked grave, a sad end to a colourful life. 14
Berczy's role in Richmond Hill's history was brief but significant. His leadership as a colonization agent brought settlers who opened up the farmlands east of Yonge Street in the 1790s; two centuries later these lands remain home to many of their descendants. And Berczy's short but energetic spurt of work on Yonge Street itself kept the great road-building project alive while Simcoe's attention was focused elsewhere.
9. Report of the Committee of the Executive Council, Upper Canada, July 15, 1796, in Cruikshank, Simcoe Correspondence,vol. 4,p. 282; Berczy to David Smith, November 30, 1794, William Berczy Papers, Archives of Ontario.
13. Simcoe to Duke of Portland, November 10, 1794, in Cruikshank, Simcoe Correspondence,vol. 3,p. 179; Simcoe to Committee of the Privy Council for Trade and Plantations, December 20, 1794, in Cruikshank, Simcoe Correspondence,vol. 3,p. 226.
Copyright © Richmond Hill Public Library Board, 1991