Before I start to write about individual parts of the streetcar system, here’s a bit of historical background. Today, people see only the network downtown, small one compared with the size of Toronto, not to mention the GTA, but the system was much larger before the combined effects of automobiles, suburbanization, expressways and subways. This is not going to be an exhaustive history (much has been written on this including books cited at the end), but will give a taste of what was once in our city. I will bring in more details when I write about neighbourhoods and their streetcars.
Please be sure to read the string of comments that has accumulated at the end of this post. Many readers have added information that I had left out in the interest of space, or had simply not known of before.
Streetcars have been around in Toronto for a long time especially if you count the horse car days. The Toronto Street Railway was granted a 30-year franchise in 1861, and began its operations with a short line in the oldest part of the city running to the St. Lawrence Hall and Market, the City Hall before the “old” City Hall of the 1890s still standing at Queen & Bay. The Market Gallery (now showing an exhibit from the Spadina Expressway battle) was the original Council Chamber, although only the shell of the building remains.
Our oddball track gauge — 4 feet, 10 7/8 inches — derives from this era. One theory holds that this was to block the standard-gauge steam railroads from ever running trains on the main streets as had happened in many cities. However, if that was the only reason, such an oddball gauge isn’t the obvious choice. Indeed, horsecar track is incompatible with steam railway operation in many ways. My support lies with the claim that this is English Carriage Gauge — the standard spacing of wheels on wagon and carriage axles used in the old city. On otherwise mud-filled roads, the horsecar tracks, with their shallow flangeways, would provide an ideal support for vehicles matching the track gauge.
For those who want to know more about track gauges (ours is unique in the world), go to Wikipedia.
Operation of an electric railway using overhead power collection was demonstrated at the CNE in 1885, and the growth of electric street railways in North America led Toronto Council to urge electrification of the horse car system. The TSR was unmoved. By 1891, at the end of the franchise, the city wanted to take over the TSR, but a unilateral attempt to do so ran aground, and another private company, the Toronto Railway Company, was formed. They too had a 30-year franchise, and it stipulated that electric street railway operations must start within a year.
Church Street was the first route and electric operations began on August 16, 1892. After a few interim route configurations as system electrification continued, the Church car settled down to run from Union Station Loop via Front and Church to loop in Rosedale via Elm, Glen Road and South Drive.
Streetcar tracks remain on Church between Carlton and Wellington, and they are used for a variety of diversions (the Dundas car as I write this), short turns (more cars than anyone can count loop via Church, Richmond and Victoria), and scheduled rush hour service by the Kingston Road Tripper looping south from King.
Little of the Toronto Railway Company remains today, but the area around Front & Sherbourne was a hub of activity. The Young People’s Theatre building at Front & Frederick was built by the TSR in 1883, and it had a variety of functions under the TRC including a powerhouse. By 1914, the arrival of electricity from Niagara Falls eliminated the need for the TRC to generate its own power, and the building’s remaining functions ended with the opening of the new TTC main shops and stores at Hillcrest in 1924.
Yorkville Carhouse was located west of Yonge between Scollard and Yorkville, but there is no remnant of its street railway days. A much more recent loss was Lansdowne Carhouse (between Wade and Wallace north of Bloor) which was the only TRC building to survive into long-term use by the TTC.
Part of the King Street carbarns stood until fairly recently at King & St. Lawrence, now the site of the West Don Lands redevelopment.
The original Roncesvalles Carhouse (Queen & Roncesvalles) opened in 1895, but the present building was a TTC replacement with much greater capacity from the early 1920s. Russell Carhouse (Queen & Connaught) opened in 1913, but the building was replaced by the TTC due to faulty foundations. However, the substation at the foot of Greenwood remains.
Finally, Dundas Carhouse leaves only a few traces. Located on the triangular plot at Howard Park & Dundas, the yard was entered from Ritchie Avenue to the north. Until its most recent reconstruction, that intersection included an east-to-north curve, one last reminder of the carhouse (a runaround track) that was often used by railfan charters. The track is gone, but the overhead curve remains above the street.
If you pull up the Google satellite view of this area (or visit it yourself), you will see that Ritchie is wider for about half its length west of Dundas. This is due to the former presence of the ladder track for the carhouse. Indeed, the keen-eyed can spot locations around the city with short sections of a wide side-street that once held a wye terminal or short turn for a streetcar line.
Just as City Council had fought with the Toronto Street Railway about electrification (private companies hate to invest more money in a mature system), they ran into problems with the Toronto Railway Company who refused to extend their system beyond the 1891 city boundaries. This brought us the Toronto Civic Railway, the first of our municipal street railways.
As a network, the TCR was an odd duck with operations on the fringes of the city on Bloor Street west of Dundas, Danforth east from Broadview and the surviving St. Clair line, the Toronto Civic pushed the streetcar system out into the then-new suburbs. St. Clair Carhouse still stands, but has not been an active part of the TTC for decades and plans are afoot to convert the buildings into artists’ studios. I will write about the St. Clair line and others in that area in a separate post.
The Toronto Suburban Railway operated routes on Davenport Road, Dundas Street West, and Weston Road, but that’s an understatement.
Service to Woodbridge began in 1914 when the Weston line was extended north from Church Street (in the town of Weston) to Pine Street in Woodbridge. This operation was cut back to Weston after the TTC took over city operations, and service to Weston ended in 1948. St. Clair streetcars continued to operate on Weston Road to Avon Loop (at Rogers Road) until 1966.
The Davenport service originated on Bathurst north of the CPR tracks and followed Davenport Road up to the Junction. The track turned north on Ford Street (one block east of Old Weston Road), past the carhouse on the south side of St. Clair to Keele where it met the Weston Road line.
The Lambton car (as the Dundas West service was called) ran from Humberside out to Lambton Park, and a branch, the Crescent route, turned south to Evelyn Cres. & Fairview Ave.
By far the most ambitious of the Toronto Suburban’s routes was the line to Guelph. Originally, it ran west from Lambton, but later was extended east to St. Clair & Keele. A small part of the Guelph route is now the streetcar museum at Rockwood. The Guelph line ran from 1917 to 1931, a victim both of the depression and of the line’s inconvenient terminus far outside of downtown.
Last, but certainly not least, is the Toronto & York Radial Railway and its three divisions.
The present-day Kingston Road line traces its origin to the Toronto & Scarboro Electric Railway that ran east from Queen & Kingston Road beginning in 1893. By 1906, the line had reached West Hill, just beyond Lawrence with hourly service. Two short branches from this line ran north on Walter Street to Gerrard, and south on Blantyre to Victoria Park (now the site of the water filtration plant). The latter was a summer-only service that was rendered obsolete by the arrival of service east on Queen Street.
The Toronto & Mimico Electric Railway ran west from Sunnyside and was built in stages from 1892 to 1905 when it reached Port Credit. At one point, there was a plan to extend west to Oakville where the line would meet up with an eastern extension of the Hamilton Radial Electric Railway, but the line never got past the Credit River.
Commuters may sigh to learn that rail service ran to Lake Simcoe on the Metropolitan Division on a schedule that doesn’t look much different from the GO Transit bus service today. The line began on Yonge just north of the CPR (at North Toronto Station) and ran north through Richmond Hill up to Jackson’s Point. Metro Road follows the south shore of the lake, and it is built on the right-of-way of the old interurban line. This service was cut back to Richmond Hill in 1930, and the North Yonge bus took over in 1948 less than two months after I was born.
References and acknowledgements:
- Early TTC and pre-TTC history on Transit Toronto
- Street Railways of Toronto 1861 — 1921 and The Toronto Trolley Car Story 1921 — 1961, by Louis H. Pursley
- Rails From the Junction, by James V. Salmon
- Riding the Radials, Toronto’s Suburban Electric Streetcar Lines, by Robert M. Stamp
- TTC ’28, by John F. Bromley
- Fifty Years of Progressive Transit, by John F. Bromley and Jack May