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What the Toronto airport used to look like

Posted by Chris Bateman / November 10, 2012

toronto pearson airportIn the 1920s, Frank Chapman's 150-acre farm stood in a sprawl of astonishingly flat rural land south of Malton, a small community on the Grand Trunk Railway northwest of Toronto. His modest, three-storey farmhouse with its wrap-around porch stood between low hedges on Lot 6 of Concession 6. Chapman also owned Lot 8, close to his neighbour Horace C. Death's 99-acre plot.

Back in 1935, the federal government was actively seeking a location for an international airport in Toronto. Airfields near Dufferin at Lawrence and Wilson were shortlisted as possible sites but the most appealing prospect was, apparently, a 1410.8-acre site miles outside the city limits.

Two years later, Frank Chapman, Horace Death, and 11 other local farmers agreed to sell their land for construction of Malton Airport, a "million dollar, world class" facility.

Aerial photographs taken shortly after the first runways were roughed out through the former fields show just how remote Malton Airport used to be. Endless, arrow-straight roads disappear to the hazy horizon with just the odd scattering of buildings and occasional copse of trees to enliven the view. A perfect, obstruction-free environment for an airport.toronto pearson airportFrank Chapman's old farm house was converted into Malton Airport's first passenger terminal, a building that doubled as a basic observation point for the strip's windsock. A small area just off the main runway was graveled for car parking. The passengers on board the American Airlines DC-3 from Buffalo, New York that bumped down on 1:10 PM on August 29, 1938, the first official landing, would have only had a short walk to their waiting connections.

Chapman's farm house was replaced by a purpose built wooden terminal building later in 1938. The structure, practically identical to the historic terminal building at Billy Bishop airport, included weather forecast equipment and radio facilities. By then, the airport consisted of two tarmac runways and one grassy landing strip.toronto pearson airportPictures of the airport taken around this time show gleaming silver planes parked on the tarmac amid peaceful surroundings. The aircraft below is a Trans-Canada Air Lines Lockheed Electra 14H2s (14Hs). TCA was among the first operators to have a base at Malton, along with American Airlines.

The Canadian carrier ran scheduled flights to Florida, the Caribbean, and Central America in addition to its domestic services. TCA became Air Canada, universally adopting its French name, in 1965 when it became a separate entity from its parent Canadian National Railway under Jean Chrétien.

Other airlines operating services to Pearson included Great Lakes Airlines - nicknamed "Great Shakes" for its aircraft's tendency to shudder violently on take-off - and Austin Airways, a precursor to Air Ontario.toronto pearson airportIn 1960, the Malton Airport was sold to the Department of Transport, now Transport Canada, and renamed Toronto International Airport. By this time, a third, more substantial terminal had replaced the basic wooden building at TIA. The utilitarian brick building included a rooftop viewing area that gave visitors and departing passengers a chance to see take-offs and landings close up. It was a different world back then.

With the new name came a fourth terminal building. Designed by John B. Parkin, the architect behind The Sheraton Centre, Aeroquay One (also Terminal 1, shown in the lead image) was built in typical 60s brutalist style and prominently featured a multi-storey car park. Its sister building, Aeroquay Two, was originally a cargo facility but overcrowding at the first terminal and the cancellation of a second GTA airport forced its conversion to a passenger hub.

Unfortunately, it lacked windows and parking and had to undergo major alterations.toronto pearson airport1970 brought Toronto International Airport's worst disaster. A miscommunication between Captain Peter Hamilton and First Officer Donald Rowland onboard Air Canada Flight 621, a McDonnell Douglas DC-8-63, on final approach led to the plane's wing spoilers being deployed too early, causing a sudden downward drop. The aircraft, carrying 109 people, hit the runway with enough force to tear off an engine and part of the right wing.

The pilot managed to get the plane back into the air for a go-around but the damaged section was already trailing burning fuel. With the original runway closed on account of debris, the pilots attempted to position themselves for landing from a different direction.

Two and a half minutes after the initial impact, the plane's damaged wing exploded and disintegrated, sending the DC-8-63 into a high-speed nose dive. The aircraft slammed into a field near Castlemore Road and McVean Drive in Brampton killing everyone on board and scattering debris over a wide area.toronto international airportToronto International Airport was officially renamed Lester B. Pearson International Airport in 1982 for the former Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Aeroquay One was demolished to make way for the current Terminal 1 building in 2004 as part of a giant $4.4 billion expansion program by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. Two new runways were also added along with the new Terminal 3 and LINK Train, a monorail connecting the two hubs.

Today, Pearson handles 400,000 flights and 32 million passengers a year and is the only airport in Canada with scheduled services to all the inhabited continents on the planet. That's a long way to come from Frank Chapman's farm house.

MORE IMAGES:toronto malton airportFrank Chapman's farm house, Malton Airport's first terminaltoronto malton airportMalton Airport postcard showing the third terminal buildingair canada boarding passAn Air Canada boarding pass for a flight from San Francisco to Toronto

Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Wikimedia Commons, and the author.



Rick / November 10, 2012 at 09:45 am
I love these historic flashback stories! Thank you BlogTO
K. / November 10, 2012 at 09:54 am
Lots of immigrants have fond memories of entering Canada for the first time at Pearson. Personally, I remember my relatives picking us up in the old terminal 1 in 1987. I remember the layout of that terminal vividly. It's a significant place for a lot of people.
rick mcginnis / November 10, 2012 at 10:53 am
Horace Death. Why do other people get all the cool names?
LS / November 10, 2012 at 11:59 am
Interesting history lesson. Thanks.
Jaaynt Shah / November 10, 2012 at 01:11 pm
This is quite nostalgic. Flashback like this gives Pearson airport some connectivity with the past. Otherwise, it is like a steel structure, people come and people go. Now when we go through the airport, one could visualise what were the development trajectory. Hopefully, these photographs and comments are displayed in the airport lounge so that travellers can appreciate the history.

One should also compliment the planners who some 75 years ago visualise the growth of the city. The airport was so remote at the time,and the city has grown so big that it is now part of it. hats off to them ! Well done !
Chino / November 10, 2012 at 03:32 pm
awesome. but i don't understand the mishap story. the plane descended, touched the runway, but went back up, then crashed?
heh replying to a comment from Chino / November 10, 2012 at 05:44 pm
Yes. That's what the article says.

If you need to rubberneck some, google AC621 or check out these pics:
Gabe / November 10, 2012 at 09:18 pm
CP AIR! CANADIAN! THEY were where its at before air canada!
Old Cummer replying to a comment from Gabe / November 11, 2012 at 02:11 am
Eff you pal, I got the best beej of my life on a Wardair flight.
John / November 11, 2012 at 11:18 pm
Very good
Dominion / November 12, 2012 at 12:00 am
Great Article and Photos
by the way, "Air Canada" is a bilingual name and not just a "French name"

-Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1963
established by Prime Minister Lester B. PEARSON
Sandra / November 13, 2012 at 10:03 am
Flight number AC758 is still used today for flights between San Fran & Toronto.
Ron / November 27, 2012 at 01:12 am
Worked in the old terminal building 1959-1964. There was no airconditioning. Mostly metal structure, like working in an oven during the summer heat waves. Moving to the new Terminal One was quite a positive change.The Toronto flying club also used Malton prior to 1963. Quite exciting on occasion as the learners (students) mixed into the rotation of landing commercial aircraft. Fortunately no one got killed.
Terry / November 27, 2012 at 09:01 am
That's because the pilot was an IDIOT Chino!!! :/
wayne dungey / November 27, 2012 at 02:26 pm
I been the airport since 1979 and nice and look good now, I go Toronto and Dryden, Ont since 1979 to 1982, now I go on Holiday to Toronto very year,
TamerF / May 22, 2013 at 11:24 am
Neat and nostalgic article, regrettable about the crash, and I don't seem to recall hearing about it, and it was only a few months after my arrival to the then TIA. The top picture is reminiscent of my first sight of Toronto International Airport on May 22nd, 1970, Thanks to father for bringing the whole family to start a new life here in Canada, a lot has happened since then.
Many individuals will be benefiting from your writing because they're great. Many thanks!
Barry / September 17, 2013 at 10:05 pm

I really enjoyed the history of Malton Airport. When I was a boy in the early 50's my father would take me to the airport to watch the planes take off. We would wait for a "North Star" four engine plane (DC -4) to take off. It was a great thrill. My first ever flight was when I flew a North Star to New York as my family was moving to Florida. I am flying back there with my wife to celebrate my 70th Birthday. This site brought back great memories.
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blindannie / October 5, 2013 at 12:12 am
I have a ? about the old malton airport redcaps pls if you know pls answer it has nothing to do with the aircraft but who was the originator of the redcaps pls and a very much ty
Gary / November 29, 2013 at 06:58 pm
Great article. My Dad and I would go to the airport in the 1950s to watch the planes, sometimes from the observation deck on the terminal roof. We saw the first Air Canada (TCA back then) DC-8 land on one visit.
Any info available on the crash landing of a Constellation sometime in the 50s? The plane landed short of the runway right next to a road and I remember seeing the wreckage but can't remember the airline. I was about 10 at the time.
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Klaus / April 26, 2014 at 08:57 pm
I remember the old Malton airport (before the round terminal). The Beatles came to town and the round terminal was not open yet. If I remember correctly, authorities smuggled them into the new terminal to avoid the crowds at the existing terminal.
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Transportfan / June 1, 2014 at 02:47 am
I wonder why Malton was chosen as the site for TO's international airport when Downsview was so much closer? In any event, it was a better choice in the long run as it was much better site for expansion when the jets came along.
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Phil Hirons / June 6, 2014 at 01:40 pm
Flew to England for uni from original Malton Airport building. As I was leaving the CBC Youth Choir under Elmer Iseler, they all stood on the roof or viewing area and sang, as I boarded my Trans Canada Airlines DC 8, "Will Ye No Come Back Again?" You can't do that sort of thing now. p.s. Stwardess wondered why I had tears!!!
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Rob / March 26, 2016 at 08:23 pm
What a great site and a walk down memory lane for me as a kid. This was the entertainment centre in the early 1950's, and I guess in some cases it still is today. I am a collector of Ontario fire station histories. If anyone has a picture of the old Malton Airport fire station or any information on it, please contact me at
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