The river drive

Lakeside Drive takes its name from Lake Victoria, along whose south side it runs. Lake Victoria is part of the Avon River above the dam, extending to the LakeSide North Bridge.  If it were not for the R. Thomas Orr Dam, and 80 years of work by successive park boards, Lake Victoria and the Avon River would shrink to a trickle in a muddy ditch.

As most Stratford people are well aware, it is easy to pull the plug on the lake and river, which play such an important part in Stratford's magnificent park system. The draining of the river each year for cleaning and maintenance work usually heralds the end of the Festival season and the entry of our swan population into their winter quarters behind the arena.

Lakeside Drive is one of the few streets in Stratford which has a name that most Stratford people do not use. You are much more likely to hear people call it The River Drive, the official name on the official plan is Lakeside Drive. By either name, it is a beautiful place to stroll.

Many Stratford people will also joke among themselves about whether Victoria is really a lake? Or whether the Avon is really a river? But when it comes to talking to visitors there is no question about the status of either the iver or the lake. They are much taken for granted as an integral part of the Stratford scene by canoeists in the summer and skaters in winter, and by all the lookers-on. The in-between seasons, when the beautiful Avon is drained to become an ugly, littered bed of muck, are not suitable for public viewing. They are, like the unwashed dishes or the unmade bed, a part of Stratford’s housekeeping to be attended to after the guests have left.


The Avon River was the reason Stratford came into being, as a fresh water supply for weary settlers. In our founding year, 1832, the river was a stump-filled stream known as the  Little Thames because it fed the larger river of the same name. The Canada Company immediately set about building a wooden dam in the vicinity of the present Orr dam to create a millpond for water power to drive a gristmill and a sawmill. For the first 50 years of Stratford's existence, the river served mainly utilitarian purposes. The Avon provided the main water supply and before long, what is now the west end of Lakeside Drive, became crowded with unsightly factories, warehouses and shacks.

By the 1880s, water power was falling into disuse and the dam burst to lay bare the dirty river bottom. By this time there was a committee of citizens working to rebuild the dam and clean up the river. In 1886, The Beacon said, "Victoria Lake is now an accomplished fact." The "dreary waste" had been replaced by a "sheet of water which will be a thing of beauty and a joy forever." 

What might be described as the first River Drive was opened about this time when a driveway was laid out along the north shore, with permanent stepping stones to allow people to alight from their carriages and enjoy the new Lake Victoria. There were similar plans for a drive on the south shore, but the Orr Planing Mill was still in operation where the bandshell now stands.

Even from the earliest days of Stratford, swimming and boating had always been a part of the Avon's activities. The first known organized club was the Stratford Boat Club which originated in 1845. The Avon Boat Club was formed in 1864 and the next year held a regatta on Queen Victoria's birthday, Victoria Day, May 24. But the most famous boatman on the Avon was Adam Beck, later Sir AdamBeck of Ontario Hydro fame. It was Victoria Day 1877 when Adam Beck decided to bring his steam paddlewheeler Water Lilly to Lake Victoria. Beck was a last-minute entry in The Great Steamboat Race and he won easily over Stratford's two paddle-wheelers Firefly  and  Dreadnaught .

Beck also won a return race on Dominion Day and years later he recalled his victory with delight as he made a speech at the official opening of the York Street hydro-electric power distribution station in 1919. It would have delighted Sir Adam Beck to know that the Festival Bridge, over which Lakeside Drive crosses the river, is now floodlit with power; from a source which he helped to establish in Ontario.

If you haven't been around Lakeside Drive , you owe it to yourself to go. It's spectacular by the evening moonlight with the Festival Theatre glowing nearby. You can walk, run, jog, bike or or just sit on a bench and watch the swans float by. Or you can go and enjoy the Art in the Park (see below).  By Stanford Dingman


Steamboats came to the Avon River in about 1877, during a Victoria Day regatta. Initially, there were to be two entries: a 17-foot paddlewheeler, Firefly, owned by William Jeffrey, and a 12-footer, Dreadnaught, owned by D. Nichol. But it was an unexpected third entry, by a young man from Baden named Adam Beck. He and his boat, Water Lily, won the Victoria Day race, as well as a rematch in the following July. The young Mr. Beck later became Sir Adam Beck. Picture and text: Thanks to Nancy Musselman

Slides by Fred Gonder

Yvonne Singer

Art in the Park

Art in the Park celebrated its 55th year in 2023.  It was the brainchild of Mrs. Yvonne Singer. She was educated at McGill University and taught art in Ottawa before moving to Stratford to join her husband, who was director of the workshop program at the Stratford Festival Theatre. 

She had seen open-air art shows in England. Before coming to Stratford she had won the support of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa to start an open-air art exhibition there, on the terraces of the centre. 

Singer thought Stratford was a perfect place for that type of project because of its beautiful parks, loads of artists and an elite captive audience, people from all over the world.

Art in the Park,  photo from Hank Bos

She joined forces with the women’s committee of the Stratford Art Association, got support from Bob Ihrig, director of the Rothman Gallery (see Romeo Street), and was given  permission by the parks board to run the show on a trial monthly basis. Stratford Art in the Park was born, and the interest from artists was tremendous.

The first show opened in 1968 in Queens Park, near the Festival Theatre, with about 25 exhibitors. After a series of intense negotiations with the city, the venue was moved to the south side of Lakeside Drive, between the bottom end of North and Front streets. 

Art in the Park has given countless artists, of many different disciplines, the opportunity to showcase their work in a serene setting on the shore of Lake Victoria, each year from May through October. See Art in the Park Site: for Artists. 

Thanks to Hank Bos, past president of AITP, for the information and photo.

Bridge to Island: Digital Painting by Barbara Storey

Wooden Bridge, Wooden Wonder, original painting by Richard S. Thistle

Tom Patterson Island

In the 1920s, what is now the Tom Patterson Island, took root, literally, when land fill was dumped on a shallow spot in the Avon River. In the 1930s, when Tom Patterson was growing up, that mound was known, simply, as "the island."

The "rustic bridge" to the island was made possible by Henry William (Harry) Strudley, president of the Imperial Rattan Co., a furniture plant at 411 Albert St. 

An enterprising citizen, the Detroit-born Strudley (1870-1961) had great admiration for the park system and offered to erect the bridge from the mainland to the island if the parks board would build the abutments. When completed, the bridge was both artistic and useful.

But it fell victim to Halloween-night vandals in the early 1960s and was deemed unsafe. Up stepped Harry Strudley's son, Donald Bell Strudley (1901-1985), who by then was chairman of the board at Imperial Furniture Mfg. Co. Ltd., at 93 Trinity St. He came up with an award-winning design for a replacement bridge, and then had it built. Thanks to Nancy Mussleman  for the writeup and Rustic Bridge picture. Digital Painting: thanks to Barbara Storey: Fine Art Photography 

Wooden Bridge, Wooden Wonder

Historicay background by Richard S. Thistle

In May 1944, Stratford was visited by the Wooden Wonder, a Mk VI DeHavilland Mosquito. The purpose was to draw attention to the Sixth Victory Loan drive to raise funds for the thirsty Second World War effort .

The Mosquito was chosen for this duty because its wing spars had been manufactured by Kroehler Manufacturing and Imperial Rattan Ltd. It was produced in many variants, including fighter and reconnaissance versions. Besides being the fastest piston-engine aircraft for much of the war, the "Mossie" statistically proved to be the safest, bringing home more of the two-man crews than any other aircraft.

Wooden Bridge, Wooden Wonder depicts the MK VI bomber on a beautiful May morning, flying treetop level up the Avon River over Stratford's landmark wooden bridge to Tom Patterson Island. Through his research, the artist confirmed the version of this distinctive bridge which had been replaced more than once due to flood damage.

The figure of a young man of service age on the bridge close to the aircraft challenges us to ponder what his response to the visit would be. In sharp contrast to this bird of war is the tranquility of the pair of mated Stratford swans. The strong connection between the aircraft and the bridge is the shared technology of their wooden construction. Text and Rustic Bridge: Nancy Musselman. Thanks to Rich Thistle for this picture. Rich Thistle Studio

The new Tom Patterson Theatre

In 2012, the idea to update the Tom Patterson theatre was included in the Stratford Festival’s strategic plan.

At its meeting Feb. 1, 2018, Stratford City Council formally approved negotiations for the sale of the city-owned property at 48 Water St. to the Stratford Shakespearean Festival Holding Foundation. The Stratford Lakeside Active Adults Association moved to the Burnside Agriplex at the fairgrounds, and the Stratford Lawn Bowling Club moved to the 91-year-old municipal golf course at 251 Norfolk St.  The old Tom Patterson theatre was torn down. Funds for design and construction of the new theatre were raised with substantial donations from the federal and provincial governments, companies and private donors.

The theatre was designed by Siamak Hariri, of Toronto-based Hariri Pontarini. Winner of more than 50 architectural awards, including the Governor General’s Medal in Architecture, Mr. Hariri is the architect behind the Baha’i Temple of South America and, closer to home, the Richard Ivey building at Western University in London, as well as the Schulich School of Business at York University. The new Tom Patterson Theatre was completed in 2020 but did not open until 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

111 Lakeside Dr.     Fred Gonder Photography

Photo Fred Gonder

Photo Paul Wilker

Ophelia Lazaridis Gardens

The Ophelia Lazaridis Gardens are in front of the Tom Patterson Theatre. The were named in honour of Ophelia Lazaridis  who gifted $10 million to the Stratford Festival's $100-million campaign to rebuild the Tom Patterson Theatre. Lazaridis was a member of the Festival's board of governors from 2007 to 2014 and served as chair of its education and archives committee. When the Festival was struggling with decreased attendance as a result of the economic recession, her patronage ensured that it would not have to reduce performances to meet its budgetary constraints. She is a member of the Order of Canada Source: CBC News

The swan parade

The iconic Stratford swans, a breed known as mute swans, first appeared in the park system in 1918. They came to the city as gift from the Grand Trunk Railway's master mechanic, J. C. Garden, who was running GTR shops in Stratford. Over the years, more swans were added the flock, including a pair in  1973 that came from Queen Elizabeth II. The Stratford swans winter in the parks board quarters on Morenz Drive, adjacent to the William Allman Arena. Every April, with great fanfare, and led by Scottish pipers, they are marched back to their summer home, the Avon River. The annual event draws thousands of down to the river every April with great fanfare, led by a Scottish pipe band. The event draws thousands of people and generates media coverage. Source: Diane Sewell's book, R. Thomas Orr Book, a Lifetime Devoted to Stratford

Robert Miller, honorary keeper of the swans

Robert Miller, was honorary keeper of the swans and, as such, he watched out for them for more than half a century. In addition to overseeing the annual swan parade, he assisted throughout the year by rounding up wandering birds, working with officials to adjust water levels in the river, and answering the call when swans were troubled by swallowed fish hooks or hungry mink. He also took groups on "swan walks" along the river and shared some of his vast knowledge and stories.

From the plaque on the north shore of the Avon River, facing Tom Patterson Island:

In recognition of his many years of service to the City of Stratford as the Honorary Keeper of the Swans. This quiet area where Swans nest is hereby named Robert J. Miller Point

Dedicated to the man who shared his knowledge and love of swans with the citizens of Stratford and visitors from around the world. 

For an interesting story about the swans, go to Featured Article  "Stratford's 'Cygnet-ture' Stars"   by Ellen Thomas, Stratford-Perth Archives

Lakeside Pictures by Fred Gondor