125 Years (And More) of Electric Streetcar Operation (Updated)

From 1861 to 1891, the Toronto Street Railway Company (TSR) operated a network of horse car routes serving the then small City of Toronto. By the end of the TSR franchise, the City was eager to see the new railway electrification technology replace the horses, and granted a 30-year franchise effective September 1, 1891, to the Toronto Railway Company (TRC) with the express requirement that electric operation begin within a year.

August 15, 1892 saw the official first run of an electric streetcar on the TRC’s Church Street route (Union Station to Rosedale), and revenue service began the day after. In keeping with the terms of its franchise, the TRC beavered through electrification of the horse car routes, and the last of these (McCaul Street) ceased operating in August 1894. Electric service began on this route in December 1894 completing the conversion of the system.

There was money to be made from street railways and related businesses including power generation. Niagara power would not reach Toronto until 1907, and until then the railway companies had to generate their own. It was no coincidence that ownership of the street railways and electric light companies were related.

The TRC’s operations were based out of many buildings near Front and Sherbourne, and several of these had been taken over from the predecessor TSR. The requirements of an electric railway were quite different from those of a horse car operation, and over time buildings were repurposed or rebuilt. Only one building remains on the southeast corner of Front and Frederick, and it is now the Young People’s Theatre. This began life as a TSR stable in the 1880s, but was converted to a power house with steam generation by the TRC. Even after hydro-electric power arrived from Niagara, this building remained as a standby facility thanks to the unpredictable supply. It was decommissioned by the TTC in 1924.

Front & Frederick Streets Power House 1925


Interior of Front & Frederick Substation 1927


Although August 15 is the TRC’s 125th annniversary of electrification, this was not the first such operation in Toronto.

Updated August 16, 2017: Based on information from John F. Bromley (see the comments), the first year of operation for this line was 1883, not 1884. During that first year, the line ran with power from a third rail, but from 1884 onward from overhead. The text below has been modified to reflect this timeline.

From 1883-1891, an electric railway operated from Strachan Avenue to Dufferin Street in the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, then known as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition. The line was a demonstration by J.J. Wright of the Toronto Electric Light Co. and Charles Van Depoele, described in the archives as “a Belgian-American street railway promoter”.

For the first year, the line ran with third rail power, but from 1884 from overhead wire and a pole pickup that showed more promise for street operation.

The line was seasonal and ran only during the CNE linking the grounds with the horse car service on King Street. The fare was a princely five cents, separate from the TSR.



The next electric railway operation in Toronto was out in what were then the suburbs of Deer Park, Davisville and Eglinton. The Metropolitan Railway Company (later the Metropolitan Division of the Toronto and York Radial Railway Company) operated a horse car line from the then northern City limit at the CPR tracks (where North Toronto station now stands) to Eglinton starting in January 1885. This was extended to Glen Grove in 1886 where the Metropolitan’s owners built a “Park and Pleasure Ground”, an early example of street railways creating demand by building destinations.

The demonstration at the Industrial Exhibition and electrification of other networks (Windsor, Ontario in 1886; an interurban line between St. Catharines and Thorold in 1887) prompted the Metropolitan to pursue electrification in Toronto. The first electric car ran on September 1, 1890, with power coming from a steam plant at Davisville.

Early operations were less than ideal because the horse car track was not up to the weight of the heavier electric cars, and electrical bonding of the rails was poor. These problems were ironed out in the first year’s operation, and pressure for expansion northward quickly followed. By 1892 the line ran to “York Mills South” at what later became Glen Echo Loop, the northern extent of the TTC’s “city” network after it took over operation north of the CPR tracks. The line would eventually reach Sutton at Lake Simcoe.

The fare boundary at the CPR between the TSR, later the TRC, and the T&YRR was an annoyance quite reminiscent of complaints we now hear at Steeles Avenue.

Metropolitan Station at Birch Avenue circa 1910


Yonge & St. Clements looking north, 1910

The TRC sped through its electrification program in three years and continued to expand the system, but there were troubles ahead. Investments with decades to pay back and a growing population to support the railway were one thing, but as the franchise ran on, the TRC refused to expand beyond the City Limits as they were in 1891. This led Toronto to build the Toronto Civic Railway with lines in newly annexed areas such as the Danforth, St. Clair and Bloor West. By 1921, the City had no appetite for another private railway company, and it formed the Toronto Transportation Commission to consolidate all of the operations within the City.

That centenary is four years and many articles away.


  • Street Railways of Toronto 1861-1921, Louis H. Pursley, Interurbans Special 25, June 1958.
  • The Toronto Trolley Car Story 1921-1961, Louis H. Pursley, Interurbans Special 29, June 1961.
  • Riding the Radials, Toronto’s Suburban Electric Streetcar Lines, Robert M. Stamp, The Boston Mills Press, 1989.
  • City of Toronto Photo Archives

10 thoughts on “125 Years (And More) of Electric Streetcar Operation (Updated)

  1. “Although photos from the City Archives show operation with what we now call a “trolley pole” in 1894, according to Pursley [Street Railways of Toronto 1861-1921] the first year ran with third rail power supply, and a pole thereafter.”

    Unless my eyes deceive me, the caption of the photo you reference clearly shows 1884.

    Steve: Yes, and the reference to third rail operation in the first year is in another book too (the one on the radials). It is not exactly unknown for captions on photos in the archives to be wrong because they were not necessarily added at the time the photos were taken. Dates and locations can be off. Every so often, one of the eagle eyed historians among us spots this sort of thing and alerts the archive to errors. In this case, I don’t have a primary source (an actual text from the era), and that’s why I simply observed the difference in the histories.

    Great article, as always, Steve. A comprehensive and learned take.


  2. “Although photos from the City Archives show operation with what we now call a “trolley pole” in 1894″

    Unless my eyes are in worse shape than I thought, both photo captions herein clearly show a date of 1884, so the 1894 reference quoted would seem to be a very modern day typo! In any event, both TTC photos were copied from submissions, the lower numbered in October 1924 and the higher numbered in 1934, based on their numbering into the TTC records system.

    I checked my research notes, which are extensive, and can say that Pursley had it wrong. The line first opened in 1883 and that is the (only) year of 3rd rail operation. The pole and overhead replaced the 3rd rail from 1884.

    Historians Raymond F Corley, John M Mills and John R Stevens have published extensive works on the subject of the Toronto Industrial Exhibition Railway. Going through the notes just now show about 30 very well-filled pages detailing all anyone could ever possibly want to know on the TIE. I thought of scanning all the work and including it here but then thought better of it!

    Steve: Thanks for the catch. Fixed. I suspected that the wrong date on the captions arose from their being written years after the event.

    I will update the article based on your revised comment which clarifies why the “trolley pole” photos say 1884, and other histories say that the first year was by third rail.


  3. Looks like there will be a future for streetcars in Toronto.

    There is a Request for Information – Supply of Low Floor Light Rail Vehicles (Streetcars), at this link.

    To supply up to 100 (not 60) low-floor light rail vehicles (AKA streetcars). Assuming in addition to the current 204 Bombardier order.

    Steve: I suspect the TTC is hedging their bets regarding the 60-car Bombardier add-on.


  4. One fact that a good many people aren’t aware of that I feel is worth mentioning here is that the city could’ve owned the streetcar system a good five years sooner but Mayor Tommy Church blocked the deal because he felt that the terms were too generous to the Mackenzie interests.


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