Text by James Bow
Today, Church Street in downtown Toronto is almost without transit service. The 19 CHURCH bus hasn’t been in operation since February 16, 1996. However, streetcar tracks running from Carlton Street south to Wellington hint at a history of streetcar service. The tracks represent the longest stretch of non-revenue streetcar tracks on the network, but few walking on the street would realize that the tracks were once part of one of the oldest streetcar routes on the system.
The Rise and Fall of Church Street
When the Town of York was founded in 1793, its original location was a square of around a dozen blocks stretching southeast from King Street and George Street. The Don River limited growth of this town to the east, so new buildings started to be built north and west of this town, towards the concession lines of Lot Street (now Queen Street) and Yonge Street.
Hard as it is to believe, Yonge Street was not the original main north-south street of Toronto. And while it quickly became so, for decades after the founding of the City of Toronto in 1834, other streets still challenged it for prominence.
One of those streets was Church, paralleling Yonge from Front Street to Bloor (at the time, the northern boundary), Church Street was so named because it was the site of the first church in the old Town of York (sitting on the site where St. James Cathedral now stands - a brief history of St. James Cathedral can be found off-site here). Other Churches followed, including the Metropolitan Cathedral and St. Michaels.
From Seventh to First
When stagecoaches started providing public transit service in 1849, the first streets served were King and Yonge Streets. When the Toronto Street Railway was founded on September 11, 1861, the first routes operated were along Yonge, Queen and King streets. Church was actually the seventh streetcar route to be founded in Toronto, after Yonge, Queen, King, Sherbourne, Winchester and Spadina. In 1881, horse cars began operating from Union Station via east on Front and north on Church to Bloor.
When the horse cars reached Bloor, Church Street was largely served in one go. North of Bloor lay Rosedale, and the challenging terrain of the Rosedale Ravine. Yonge Street was able to extend north, and Church wasn’t, and this ended all hope of Church challenging Yonge for dominance over the long term. Even so, the Church route was popular, and it was here that public transit in Toronto took a big new step. On August 16, 1892, the Toronto Railway Company brought into operation the city’s first electric streetcar.
The Globe newspaper had this to say on the occasion:
“It was nearly 3.30 p.m. before the first electric car left the front of the City Hall on its way to the terminus of the CHURCH route, at the upper end of North Sherbourne Street. Among the party on board were several aldermen and ex-aldermen and some prominent citizens in addition to several city officials. The progress of the car was watched by crowds at several intersecting points, and twelve minutes after the start had been made, it reached the bridge at Sherbourne Street.
“The trip was made without a stop, the car slowing up occasionally at the crossings, and no incident of note occurred during the journey. After arriving at the terminus the party adjourned to a large marquee where they were welcomed by the officers of the company.
“On the arrival of the second detachment of invited guests, all were asked to partake of the hospitality of the Company, which had provided solid and liquid refreshments. A long toast list was still fashionable at such events, and the custom enabled a large number of men to express their opinions on various topics more or less related to the matter of hand. Mr. Grace, secretary of the Company, noted men of the greatest integrity had been entrusted with the franchise for which the city had been recompensed by remuneration unequalled in any other city on the continent and he begged to state that it was only by the united efforts both of the city and the Company that the earnings would be increased and the wants of the public satisfied.
“The proceedings terminated after five o’clock a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon having been spent by all.”
With the electric operation on CHURCH a success, the rest of the network was converted away from horses over the next two years. The CHURCH streetcar continued to ply the route from Sherbourne, just north of Bloor, to Union Station for the remainder of the franchise of the Toronto Railway Company.
The TTC Takes Over
When the Toronto Transportation Commission took over streetcar operations from the Toronto Railway Company on September 1, 1921, it inherited a Church Street streetcar operating from Rosedale loop on Sherbourne Street, north of Bloor, via south on Sherbourne, west on Bloor, south on Church and west on Front to Union station, looping through Union Station loop and returning via the reverse route. The service operated seven days a week at all hour hours except late night. It operated out of Yorkville Carhouse until December 15, 1922, when the aging facility was closed, and CHURCH cars were moved to Danforth Carhouse.
As Toronto developed north on Yonge Street, streetcar service increased to the point that congestion became an issue. Thus Church Street became the route that many rush hour “tripper” cars used to travel downtown from Toronto’s suburbs. Tripper services that used Church included the BLOOR TRIPPER (coming from the west on Carlton before proceeding south on Church and west on Wellington, the COLLEGE (EAST) TRIPPER (coming in from the east on Dundas before looping via south on Victoria, east on Richmond and north on Church), the CARLTON TRIPPER (coming in like the COLLEGE (EAST) TRIPPER, but looping both ways via Church, Adelaide and Victoria), YONGE TRIPPER service (entering service via west on Carlton, south on Church and west on Richmond to Yonge), and the DANFORTH TRIPPER (coming in from the east via Bloor Street, operating south on Church and looping via west on Queen, south on York and east on Richmond).
On November 27, 1922, Church received its own rush hour “Tripper” branch, with streetcars operating out of Luttrell loop at the east end of the Bloor-Danforth streetcar via west on Danforth Avenue, west on Bloor Street and south on Church to loop via Front, Yonge and Wellington back to Church. On July 1, 1923, the service was cut back to Coxwell and Danforth and it became the only service named “CHURCH” to operate on Church Street. On the same day, DUPONT cars were revised, again to reduce congestion on Yonge, to operate from a wye at Christie and Dupont via east on Dupont, south on Avenue Road, east on Bloor and south on Church to loop via Front, Yonge and Wellington. The Church name was quickly restored a week later, as cars on DUPONT were spending more time on Church than they were on Dupont. At the same time, the CHURCH TRIPPER service vanished, combined with the DANFORTH TRIPPER.
Cars on the CHURCH continued to be operated out of Danforth Division until December 16, 1923, when operations shifted to St. Clair Division. At this point, service was operated by double-ended former Toronto Civic Railway cars (though they weren’t really needed, with a loop at one end of the route and a wye at the other) until March 16, 1925, when single-ended former TRC one-man treadle-operated door cars were brought in. The wye at Christie was converted to a loop one month later, on April 24, so operation of the route was even easier.
Through Depression and War
CHURCH service continued to operate on Dupont Street until April 13, 1931, when Asquith loop opened on Church Street north of Bloor. Monday to Saturday service was revised to operate from this loop via south on Church, looping at the south end via Front, Yonge and Wellington. The DUPONT streetcar returned as a name for a daytime route, although CHURCH cars continued to operate to Christie loop during Sundays. On July 5, 1931, CHURCH Sunday service was revised to operate from Christie Loop via Dupont, Davenport, Bay and Bloor to Church and Front, looping via the regular loop. The service was switched from St. Clair to Eglinton Division on June 16, 1932, although some Sunday cars continued to operate out of St. Clair carhouse.
The CHURCH route remained stable through the remainder of the 1930s and into the beginning of the Second World War. Then, on March 1, 1942, the TTC revised services system-wide in response to worsening gasoline and rubber shortages. All service was changed to operate out of Danforth carhouse and, the following Monday (March 2nd), the CHURCH TRIPPER returned, operating from Danforth and Coxwell via Danforth, Bloor and Church, looping in the morning rush hour via west on King, south on York and east on Wellington, and in the afternoon via west on Wellington, north on York and east on King. Some afternoon cars operated past Coxwell Avenue all the way to Luttrell loop before returning to Danforth carhouse.
In addition to these changes, Witt cars replaced the wooden former Toronto Railway Company cars that had plied the route since 1925. Indeed, it was these Witts that had led to the restoration of the CHURCH TRIPPER service. Previously, the route had operated as the SHERBOURNE TRIPPER, and the old tracks on Sherbourne (which hadn’t been replaced since the TTC took over streetcar operations in 1921) were spaced too close to each other, so the wider Witt cars could not pass each other in service. The CHURCH TRIPPER service was further revised on August 1, 1942, and formally incorporated into the regular CHURCH schedule. After this, one more change happened during the Second World War: Sunday service to Christie loop finally ended on June 6, 1943, with DUPONT taking over the route along Bay, Davenport and Dupont, and Sunday CHURCH cars finally operating to Asquith Loop.
The Subway Spells Changes
CHURCH and CHURCH TRIPPER service continued to operate in this format after the Second World War ended, until 1947 when early work began on the YONGE SUBWAY. Sewer relocation forced the removal of the westbound track on Front Street between Yonge and Scott, so CHURCH cars could no longer loop via Yonge. Instead, cars looped via Front, Scott and Wellington. Other changes occurred the next year, including the replacement of the Witts with PCC cars for regular operation on June 8, 1948, and the ending of Saturday rush hour service for the CHURCH TRIPPER on July 3.
With the YONGE SUBWAY under construction, one would have expected major changes were in the offing for CHURCH service. Certainly CHURCH saw some interesting operations as YONGE cars used the tracks on CHURCH to divert around work areas. Temporary tracks built onto Alexandra and Maitland streets allowed YONGE Witt trailer trains to access Church tracks north of Carlton and south of Bloor. When the subway opened on March 30, 1954, the CHURCH TRIPPER ended service. The revised DANFORTH TRIPPER connected with a island platform on Bloor Street just east of Yonge, providing downtown-bound passengers with a direct transfer to the subway at Bloor station, allowing the subway to serve the CHURCH TRIPPER’s purpose. However, while many routes (such as BAY) vanished from the network, CHURCH survived, continuing to operate from Asquith loop to Front and Scott seven days a week, eighteen hours a day.
The Sudden Fall of the Church Streetcar
The CHURCH car might have continued operation indefinitely, were it not for an unfortunate combination of factors that occurred just two months later. The increased electrical demand caused by the Yonge subway was creating brown-outs through the downtown core. To reduce pressure on the electrical grid, the TTC decided it would be best to replace the CHURCH streetcar service with buses. A similar excuse had been made to end SPADINA streetcar service back in 1948. Whatever protests were made to the TTC at the time were ignored and, on May 15, 1954, the PCCs in service on CHURCH trundled the length of the route for the last time. Service on the new CHURCH bus started the following day.
The tracks on Church street were retained from Front all the way to Bloor for use in diversions or short turns. They also came in handy when routes like the DUNDAS streetcar, or the KINGSTON ROAD TRIPPER looped via Church Street as part of regular rush hour service, or when the KING-EXHIBITION was cut back from Woodbine. Scott Street loop was left in place until the early 1960s. Similarly, Asquith loop remained open and with tracks leading into it (in spite of the fact that streetcars on Bloor Street could not access this loop, due to a lack of east-to-north or west-to-north switches) until February 26, 1966 when the BLOOR-DANFORTH SUBWAY opened. Asquith loop was closed outright at that time and the tracks south from there to Carlton Street were then paved over. In the summer of 2013, some of those tracks around Wellesley Avenue re-appeared on the surface ahead of likely road work.
The 19 CHURCH slowly faded out following its introduction in 1954, in spite of extensions along Front Street that took the route past Union Station to the CN Tower. Sunday evening service was discontinued in 1958. All evening and remaining weekend service vanished in 1979. By 1996, the service was operating during rush hours only and, when the provincial government cut all subsidies to public transportation in Ontario, there simply wasn’t anything left of the CHURCH bus to cut, so it vanished from Toronto’s streets, leaving only the remnant streetcar tracks behind.
Could the Church Streetcar Have Survived?
Could the CHURCH streetcar have survived to this day had not problems with the electrical grid forced the bussing of the operation in May 1954? History suggests that, had the streetcars remained, riderhsip might not have fallen to such a degree. However in the 1950s and the 1960s, the TTC was of a mindset that said that streetcars were on their way out. Further significant cuts to the streetcar network occurred as the BLOOR-DANFORTH SUBWAY opened, including the loss of the PARLIAMENT and COXWELL streetcars. PARLIAMENT could have been extended to meet the BLOOR-DANFORTH SUBWAY at Castle Frank station; no such potential connection existed for the CHURCH streetcar. As a result, even if the route had survived past May 1954, it would have been unlikely to operate beyond February 1966.
It seems a shame, however, that the CHURCH streetcar could not have survived to anchor the rising Gay Village and its gentrifying surroundings. The tracks currently in place on the street speak to a street that used to support public transportation before and could, perhaps under the proper circumstances, support it again.
Church Streetcar Image Archive
- Bromley, John F., and Jack May. Fifty Years of Progressive Transit: A History of the Toronto Transit Commission. [New York]: Electric Railroaders’ Association, 1973. Print.
- Filey, Mike. Not a One-horse Town: 125 Years of Toronto and Its Streetcars. Toronto, Ont., Canada: M. Filey, 1986. Print.
- Hood, J. William. Street Railways: Toronto: 1861-1930. Toronto: Maps Project, 1999. Print.
- Pursley, Louis H. The Toronto Trolley Car Story, 1921-1961. Los Angeles: I.L. Swett, 1961. Print.
- Wise, Leonard A., and Allan Gould. Toronto Street Names: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins. Richmond Hill, Ont.: Firefly, 2011. Print.