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A History of Streetcars to Toronto's Waterfront

Text by James Bow

Toronto has always had an ambiguous relationship with its waterfront. Despite being located on the shores of Lake Ontario, and despite benefitting tremendously from trade facilitated by Lake Ontario, Toronto’s waterfront has, until recently, been difficult for most Torontonians to access. Toronto’s streetcar network has reflected this reality. When Torontonians looked to get to the water, they travelled east or west, along Queen Street to beaches east of Woodbine or west of Roncesvalles.

An exception was service south on Bay Street to the Toronto Ferry Docks. Today, this connection has been taken for granted. Buses and streetcars routinely travel south from Union Station to access the ferry terminal. Some Torontonians may be unaware that this connection was not always possible. This article focuses on streetcar service that ventured from downtown Toronto south of Front Street.

Streetcars South of Union

Outside of service to the Canadian National Exhibition, it was rare for Toronto’s streetcars to venture south of Front Street. In the early part of the 19th century, Front Street fronted onto Lake Ontario, thus giving it its name. In the decades that followed, industrial activity pushed piers and decking further out into the lake, and further development filled in the gaps. Warehouses and factories started to set up on the new land.

By the late 19th century, Toronto’s shoreline had moved far south from Front Street, and while the Toronto Railway Company was busy moving workers to jobs downtown, the idea of providing service south of Front Street ran into a serious obstacle: by this time, Canada’s railways had taken up much of the available land south of Front Street to serve the harbour.

The exceptions for streetcar service included a line running south from Bathurst and Front over a bridge and via private right-of-way around Fort York to the Canadian National Exhibition. In the east, the City of Toronto and the Toronto Railway Company built tracks along the East Don Roadway and Commissioners Street to operate the ASHBRIDGE streetcar. In both cases, however, these operations were at the ends of Toronto’s downtown, avoiding most of the rail yards that blocked access in between.

A Need to Head to the Islands

A history of Toronto’s Ferry service across the harbour to the Toronto Islands can take up a whole book (and has provided fodder for multiple publications). Toronto’s first ferry across the harbour was the Sir John of the Peninsular, operated by Michael O’Connor. Other private operations followed through the 19th century, especially after a storm cut a channel through a thin strip of land that is todays eastern entrance to Toronto’s harbour. These operations eventually consolidated into the single privately operated Toronto Ferry Company, which the City of Toronto bought out and consolidated with the Toronto Transportation Commission in 1926.

By then, the Toronto waterfront was a major industrial centre hosting thousands of jobs. The ferries also showed that there was a demand for passengers to cross the harbour and enjoy the parks and amusements of the Islands. The question was how to get transit to the docks and the industrial lands around them. The rail yards were still in the way.

After September 1921, as the Toronto Transportation Commission took over streetcar operations from the Toronto Railway Company, the City of Toronto used bridges to leap the rail yards and provide access between Queens Quay and Fleet Street. Tracks were laid as the Spadina Avenue bridge was built and service on the SPADINA streetcar was extended south when the bridge opened on May 23, 1927. Further east, in 1927, a temporary bridge was extended south from Front Street, between Bay and Yonge, and tracks were extended on this bridge and west on Queens Quay to Ferry loop, serving the Ferry Docks.

The bridge was initially served by the temporary FERRY route, taking in a wide loop of downtown Toronto via west on Front, north on Bay, east on Queen, south on Yonge, west on Front, then south through the temporary bridge to Ferry Loop. This route operated until August 1, 1927, when BAY cars absorbed the Ferry service.

South by Underpass

Throughout the 1920s, work was taking place to revamp the city’s relationship with its railroads. Construction was taking place on Union Station. The City of Toronto fought hard with the area railroads about a viaduct that could move the tracks away from street level and enable road connections with Toronto’s waterfront either over or under the tracks. In the end, long underpasses were built beneath the railway tracks bringing Yonge, Bay and York streets to Queens Quay.

The tracks laid west on Queens Quay to Ferry Loop included a pair of tracks laid in the centre of the road that turned north from Queen’s Quay to York Street, and extending north beyond Ferry Loop to nearly the entrance of the York Street underpass. In spite of the underpass being available, the tracks were never extended north on York Street to connect with the tracks at Front Street. Instead in May 1930, tracks laid south on Bay Street through the Bay underpass were activated, replacing the temporary bridge.

The City of Toronto did plan further connections between the downtown and the waterfront, particularly beneath York Street, but none materialized. By the time the tracks beneath the Bay Street underpass opened for service, the Great Depression was in full swing, and such expansion plans were shelved. The tracks on York Street north of Ferry Loop and south of the underpass would not see regular streetcar service for twenty years.

Streetcars to the Docks

In the late 1920s, the Toronto Islands became a popular destination for family excursions in the summer months. In addition to BAY streetcars, FERRY cars continued to operate during the summers of 1928 and 1929. BATHURST and DUNDAS cars were rerouted to Ferry Loop during the summers, starting in 1928, using the private right-of-way bridge over the railway tracks. In 1930, these cars transferred to the Bay Street underpass, as the temporary bridge was torn down. Before 1933, Bathurst cars operated from Vaughan Loop south of St. Clair via south on Bathurst, east on King, south on York, east on Front and then south (via the bridge in 1928 and 1928, and on Bay afterward) to access Ferry Loop. After 1933, all BATHURST cars travelled via Adelaide and Bay instead, skipping the businesses on Adelaide between Bay and Church. DUNDAS cars operated via Dundas and Bay, skipping Elizabeth Street and City Hall loop. In 1930, service to the Ferry Docks was proving so popular that SHERBOURNE streetcars were similarly extended, operating off their normal route via west on Front and south on Bay.

Summer service tended to run from the end of June until the Labour Day weekend. During weekdays, excursion cars would operate after 6:30 p.m. while, on Saturdays, cars would operate after 1:30 p.m. Sundays and holidays saw excursion service take place all day. At other times, even during Saturday mornings, regular work schedules applied (at the time, Saturday mornings were still workdays for most people). Summer service also applied during Victoria Day in May.

One other attraction drawing people to Toronto’s waterfront was Triple-A baseball in the form of the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Maple Leaf stadium was built in 1926 by the club’s owner, on the site of an earlier stadium that had been built in 1907. Often referred to as “the Fleet Street Flats”, Maple Leaf Stadium was located at the foot of Bathurst Street, on the south side of Fleet Street (today’s Lake Shore Boulevard). Stadium Road in the area is so named in memory of the stadium. Tens of thousands of people would attend these games, requiring additional service on the BATHURST and FORT streetcars and, occasionally, excursion runs on the SHERBOURNE streetcar, with service operating from Danforth and Coxwell via the Danforth, Bloor, Sherbourne, Front and Bathurst to Fleet loop.

Fleet Street Service

Attractions aside, the Toronto waterfront was an industrial centre, full of jobs requiring workers that needed to get there from somewhere. In late 1928, when the temporary bridge over the railway tracks was closed, temporarily blocking streetcar access to Queen’s Quay, buses filled the gaps. On December 15, 1928, shuttle service began on the BAY bus route running from the south end of the Bay Street bridge via south on Bay and west on Queen’s Quay to York Street. Passengers would have to walk from the northern end of the bus route to the corner of Bay and Front to transfer to city streetcars.

Four days later, service on the BAY shuttle bus was extended via north on York and west on Fleet Street to Spadina Avenue, providing an additional connection with SPADINA streetcars. Three months later, service was extended west on Fleet to Bathurst. When the Bay Street underpass finally opened on April 1, 1929, the buses remained, lopped back to an on-street loop of east on Fleet, south on Bay, west on Queen’s Quay and north on York, and continuing to serve Fleet Street from York to Bathurst (with additional rush hour service to the Tip Top Tailors building near today’s Stadium Road. The route was renamed FLEET.

The FLEET bus would only operate until June 30, 1932. On that date, the city of Toronto realigned the Bathurst Street bridge over the railway tracks, from a southwesterly alignment to the modern southern one. With streetcar tracks laid down on lower Bathurst to Fleet Street and then west on Fleet, FORT cars (along with SPADINA cars a few blocks over) were deemed to provide sufficient service to the western waterfront, and the FLEET bus service vanished.

A Sudden Need for Space

In 1949, work began on the YONGE SUBWAY. As construction tracked north, the TTC realized that it would have to demolish part of Eglinton Carhouse in order to make way for the subway terminus and associated bus terminal. This meant the TTC had to find space for dozens of Peter Witt cars and trailers in order to maintain service on the YONGE streetcar. All the other carhouses were full, so the TTC needed to find a new place quickly, where Witt trailer trains could be stored for a short period of time, until the Yonge subway opened.

The TTC entered into negotiations with the Toronto Harbour Commission and successfully secured a lease of lands south of the Harbour Commission building between Bay and York Streets. The site was ideal as it was empty, and the access tracks were already in place on Bay and York streets. Work began laying down tracks in the summer of 1951, was largely complete by August, and the yard opened for service on September 5 of that year, able to store ten Peter Witt cars with their associated trailers. The number of cars stored at Harbour Yard increased as the weeks went on.

Cars leaving service on the YONGE carline likely ended their runs at Station loop and headed east along Front Street, before turning south onto Bay, then west on Queens Quay. Passing the access switch to Ferry Loop, cars turned north onto York and then entered a new switch turning them east into Harbour Yard. There they were routed onto one of six storage tracks. Trains leaving the yard headed east and turned north onto Bay to head back to the city. YONGE cars were sometimes signed with a destination to “DOCKS”, but many deadheaded as “PRIVATE” cars to the yard.

Harbour Yard did nothing more than store and dispatch streetcars. It did not even have the ability to move and recouple trailers. Witts that were stored at Harbour Yard over the next two-and-a-half year generally kept their trailers permanently. If maintenance or repair work was needed, the trains were dispatched to Russell carhouse.

Graveyard Shift

On March 30, 1954, Harbour Yard entered the last phase of its existence as the Yonge subway opened, and Eglinton ended service as an active streetcar carhouse. Witt trailer trains dispatched from Eglinton finished their runs at Union Station and then slunk down to Harbour Yard for the last time. There, they were joined by the last runs of many BAY streetcars, as many Witts and all Witt trailers were slated for retirement.

Harbour Yard held these cars in dead storage for the next few weeks before the cars were shipped off to the scrap heap. Soon, the yard emptied out, and the TTC started pulling up tracks. By June 3, 1954, the land had been returned to its original condition, as per the leasing arrangements with the Toronto Harbour Commission. On this date, the lease ended, and the Harbour Commission resumed control.

Harbour Yard Ghosts

This would not be the end of streetcar service to the site of the old Harbour Yard, however. Though Toronto’s streetcar network compressed through the sixties, reducing the pressing need for space at the TTC’s various carhouses, streetcars continued to operate south on Bay Street and west along Queens Quay to serve Ferry Loop. The lands that Harbour Yard had used remained vacant.

The construction of the Gardiner Expressway forced the TTC to revamp the streetcar tracks on Bay south of Union Station, which brought streetcars back along land that had been used for Harbour Yard. On July 15, 1961, DUPONT cars were rerouted onto a revised Ferry Loop. Cars heading south on Bay turned west along private right-of-way along the south side of Lake Shore Boulevard (formerly Harbour Street) to a point west of the Ferry Docks before turning south to the loop facilities and then east along private right-of-way on the north side of Queen’s Quay before rejoining the old tracks and heading north on Bay Street. The new Ferry Loop would remain even after the demise of the DUPONT streetcars. Summer excursion DUNDAS cars would continue to use the loop until September 1965, at which point the tracks were taken up, and the area redeveloped.

Rising From the Grave

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, economic changes shook the viability of Toronto’s industrial waterfront, and the railway lands to the north of it. Some industries started to fade, while others located to newer facilities at newer ports, or to newer transportation centres as shipping as a transportation mode faded in importance. The owners of the land on which Toronto’s waterfront sat, especially the railways Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, knew that they had acres of land that were ripe for redevelopment. The City of Toronto knew this too, and helped come up with a number of plans to rebuild Toronto’s connection with the lake.

Many of these did not bear fruit. The proposed Metro Centre development, unveiled in the late 1960s, called for the demolition of Union Station and the construction of dozens of office and residential skyscrapers. To service the millions of square feet of new office and residential space, the YONGE and UNIVERSITY subways would be rerouted south of Front to a new Queen’s Quay stop at the foot of Bay Street, with two other stations built where the subway extension crossed Front Street. Metro Centre failed for a number of reasons — it was overly ambitious, and many Torontonians objected strenuously to the demolition of the landmark Union Station. The subway extension could have been challenging to build, given its proximity to the lake, and the high water table.

In the lead-up to the 1972 federal election, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced the creation of the Harbourfront project. His plan would expropriate the industrial lands along Toronto’s waterfront, south of Queen’s Quay from York Street to Bathurst, for conversion to a cultural and residential district in Toronto. The area would boast art galleries, performance venues and parks, and be a catalyst to the redevelopment that was to occur north of Queen’s Quay. To help bring this about, the Harbourfront Corporation was established as a federal crown corporation.

The Province of Ontario got in the act in the 1970s as it sought to develop a high-tech public transportation vehicle construction industry through its crown corporation the Urban Transit Development Corporation. Looking for a line to test its proposed maglev (and, later, linear induction) motor technology, they partnered with the West German firm Krauss-Maffei to create the GO-URBAN project, which would have built a maglev loop around the Canadian National Exhibition. The project got as far as building support columns in 1973 before Krauss-Maffei pulled out and killed the project. The province continued to plan to build a test line, however, and in the early 1980s suggested an ICTS shuttle running from Union Station to the CNE via Toronto’s newly christened Harbourfront neighbourhood. Their enthusiasm for such a shuttle faded as the SCARBOROUGH RT was built instead, and the City of Toronto proposed streetcars for a Harbourfront LRT connection.

Streetcars Return to the Waterfront

In the early 1980s, the City of Toronto, along with the federally-run Toronto Port Authority and the Harbourfront Corporation moved forward with proposals to redevelop the industrial lands north of Queen’s Quay. The goal was to create a neighbourhood where people would live, work and play year round rather than something that catered to tourists during the summer months. Working with private interests, Toronto rezoned the lands north of Queen’s Quay for mixed use development and, along with the Province of Ontario, built key attractions along the way, including Toronto’s SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre).

To support development, Toronto believed that transit to the area would have to be improved. Service on the 6 BAY bus had been extended east of Queen’s Quay and Yonge to serve the lands up to Jarvis in 1972. The 77 SPADINA bus had been extended to serve Queen’s Quay west in 1974. To increase capacity, and to highlight the commitment Toronto had in redeveloping the neighbourhood, the city pushed for the construction of the HARBOURFRONT LRT, a streetcar line operating on private right-of-way in the middle of Queens’ Quay from Spadina to just west of Bay, and then diving underground beneath Bay Street to access Union Station via a tunnel.

The proposal included a ‘high speed’ LRT running up the middle of Spadina Avenue from Queens Quay to Spadina subway station, but this ran into considerable opposition from local residents along the route. In the mid-1980s, when the proposal was brought before Metro Council, the HARBOURFRONT LRT passed, but the Spadina LRT was delayed. Over the next few years, planners would redesign the proposed Spadina line, taking into account residents’ concerns. The HARBOURFRONT LRT opened to the public on June 24, 1990, while the 510 SPADINA streetcar wouldn’t open until July 27, 1997.

The Harbourfront LRT was initially derided as a ‘toy train’, operating as a short shuttle and using reconditioned PCC cars. Also, as the Harbourfront area still had to fill up with residents, ridership was initially low. Although the City of Toronto planned to create a Waterfront LRT connecting Union Station to the Exhibition and the revitalizing area of Mimico around Lake Shore Boulevard an Park Lawn, the HARBOURFRONT LRT that opened in in 1989 had been designed too slow. The streetcars were delayed at every light, and the terminal at Union station was too small to accommodate more than a handful of cars at a time. The proposed Waterfront LRT would have to access Union via another route, possibly via Lakeshore Boulevard or Bremner Boulevard. However, the cost of this project, and the competition from other rapid transit projects, pushed the Waterfront LRT back so much, it faded from the city’s political consciousness.

The TTC did identify a gap in the Harbourfront streetcar service, however. In 1997, while it dealt with a surplus of streetcars, it recommended extending the tracks along Queen’s Quay west from Spadina and north on Bathurst to connect with the tracks already in place on Bathurst and Fleet Streets. Such a connection could bring 509 HARBOURFRONT streetcars from Union to the Canadian National Exhibition, adding riders, and providing additional service to the hundreds of new residents who were starting to occupy the condominiums rising north of Queen’s Quay between Bathurst and Spadina. It would only cost $13.25 million to close the 800 metre gap.

On July 21, 2000, service began on the new 509 HARBOURFRONT streetcar, connecting Union station to the Exhibition. Initially only limited service was provided, as there wasn’t enough riders to justify weekend or late evening service, but this changed in the years to come as the population of the neighbourhood increased. On November 23, 2008, as part of the TTC’s Ridership Growth Strategy, service on the route increased to full 7 days a week, 18 hours a day, and has remained there ever since.

The Future

Changes continue to streetcar service on the Waterfront. As part of a revitalization of Queen’s Quay, the Waterfront Toronto corporation and the TTC took up the aging tracks along Queens Quay west of Spadina in 2012. The plan was to move the tracks to the south side of Queens Quay, widening sidewalks and giving streetcars a run to Union station that wasn’t blocked by as many traffic lights. Construction took longer than expected, and residents had to deal with frustratingly slow replacement buses, but the streetcars were finally returned on Sunday, October 12, 2014.

Proposals have also been drafted to extend streetcar service to the eastern waterfront and the port lands. Proposals include streetcar service on private right-of-way using the Bay Street tunnel and east along Queens’ Quay to Parliament. This would be a temporary loop, and service would eventually extend east, to connect with tracks currently under construction along Cherry Street, providing service along Commissioners as far east as Leslie. These extensions were approved by Waterfront Toronto and are part of the City of Toronto’s official plan, but no funding is available to build. The $300 million cost has not been raised by the city, the province of Ontario or the federal government, which backs Waterfront Toronto. Much of that cost would have been taken up by the cost of expanding the streetcar terminal at Union Station, and by extending the tunnel beneath Queen’s Quay from Bay to just east of Yonge.

Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission have responded to the increasing population along Queen’s Quay East and the Port Lands by planning increased bus service, but both realize that this is insufficient. It is only a matter of time, and political will, before streetcars push east of Yonge along the waterfront.


Waterfront Streetcars Image Archive

References

  • Bromley, John F., and Jack May Fifty Years of Progressive Transit, Electric Railroaders’ Association, New York (New York), 1978.
  • Partridge, Larry The Witts: An Affectionate Look at Toronto’s Original Red Rockets, The Boston Mills Press, Erin (Ontario), 1982.
  • Pursley, Louis H., The Toronto Trolley Car Story: 1921-1961, Electric Railway Publications, Los Angeles (California), 1961.