A whirlwind tour of Toronto history
Welcome! In summer 2015 I was asked to lead a Heritage Toronto tour entitled “Creating Toronto: The Story of the City in Seven Stops.” I’ve built this page as a supplement to that tour, with images and photographs to help you picture the past. To download a less attractive, but offline .pdf version, click here.
For more information about Heritage Toronto tours, and to sign up for one, follow this link. HT is a not-for-profit organization and all money taken in during their tours is put right back into their programming.
This tour’s ambition is to take you through some of the main themes and sites in Toronto history, all in under two hours (and 2 km of walking). We start in Old Toronto, and finish at the heart of the modern downtown. Along the way, we’ll move from the late 1700s to the twentieth century and beyond, while touching on themes ranging from immigration to entertainment. Over the years, this tour was developed by several Toronto historians: Gary Miedema, Ross Fair, Jay Young, and now me.
For each of our seven stops, you’ll find images and links below. Each will have a link to the image source: of particular mention are Nathan Ng’s fabulous Historical Maps of Toronto project, and Chuckman’s incredible collection of Toronto postcards, both of which certainly deserve a visit!
Stop 1: Old Toronto
This is where it all started. These blocks were the commercial and civic heart of York (after 1834, Toronto) during the formative years between the 1790s and the 1850s.
This is a transcription of a 1797 sketch plan for enlarging the settlement of York. Note the clear grid pattern that mostly ignores the topography: we are still living with it today. See here for more details about this map,
This watercolour is based on an 1818 military sketch of York. The 1797 grid has only been partially filled in. See more info here.
This beautiful 1912 watercolour recreates the market building destroyed in the fire of 1849. From the Toronto Public Library.
Toronto’s first city hall, c. 1840s-1890s, the remnants of which are preserved in the South Market building. Toronto Archives, Fonds 1251, 0098.
The interior of the market c. 1911. This stall belonged to William Davies, bacon kingpin and a possible source of the city’s nickname “Hogtown.” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, 338b.
The market, still going strong today. Wikipedia Commons.
Site 2: Industry
Industry was one of the keys to Toronto’s success, and the city’s industrial past is still visible, if you know where to look.
The Gooderham Worts distillery in 1896, when it was one of the largest in the world. For more images click here.
By the 1890s, Toronto was a city of industry that had expanded well beyond the original grid. More info on this 1893 lithograph here.
Today, the Distillery District has been reinvented as a pedestrianized entertainment and dining destination. Wikipedia Commons.
Site 3: Transportation
Toronto was built on a crossroads for those travelling by road, rail, and sail (or paddle).
For centuries before European settlement, the Toronto area was a key link for travel by water into the heart of the Great Lakes. For more info see this article.
C. W. Jefferys vision of John Graves Simcoe overseeing the clearing of Yonge Street, 1942.
A railway city: Toronto at the heart of rail network extending in all directions, 1891. See info here.
The changing waterfront. City of Toronto Archives, courtesy of BlogTo.
Arrival city: newcomers from Italy outside Union Station, 1951. Clara Thomas Archives
Site 4: The Financial Heart of Canada
In the twentieth century, the corner of King and Bay became the heart of Canada’s financial industry, and banks became major players in reshaping the downtown landscape.
City of churches: The Toronto skyline in 1901
The first phase of growth: The skyline in the 1930s. Chuckman’s Toronto
Modernist towers, 1980. Chuckman’s Toronto
The Toronto skyline today. Lars Zwemmer
Before skyscrapers: The Evening Telegram building on the SW corner of Bay & King, 1884. Wikipedia Commons
Canada for Canadians: Skyscrapers as a symbol of the nation, 1930.
Before glass and steel: Bay Street looking north from King, 1950s. Chuckman’s Toronto.
Site 5: Temperance Street
Until quite recently, Toronto was a city where people’s daily lives were profoundly shaped by religion. The Temperance Movement is a great example.
Ontario Veterinary College, 1877. Courtesy of OVC
Women played a dominant role in the Temperance movement. Poster, c. late 1800s. Thomas Fisher Library Temperance Collection
Signing the Temperance pledge: An 1859 poster clearly depicts the dangers of alcohol for the individual and family. McCord Museum
Site 6: Yonge Street: Where the Action is
Much more than a path through the woods: for a century, downtown Yonge Street has been where the action is in Toronto.
Yonge & Queen, c. 1920: Bustling with life. Chuckman’s Toronto.
Santa Claus climbs into Eaton’s toyland during the Santa Claus Parade, 1921. Archives of Ontario
Victory in Europe Day on Yonge near Queen, 1945.
The Heart of Toronto: Yonge Street, 1970s. Chuckman’s Toronto.
Sin Strip: The Sleazy side of Yonge Street, 1970s. Citatus.
Site 7: City Halls & The Civic Heart of the City
Just next door, this stop provides a panorama of two city halls that together encompass Toronto’s dynamic twentieth century.
Respectable men: Toronto City Council in 1915. Toronto Public Library.
Toronto City Council in the 2000s.
Old City Hall decorated for the war effort, 1941
The Ward: The multi-ethnic slum later cleared to build the new Civic Square, 1913. City of Toronto Archives
Finnish Architect Viljo Revell (1910-1964) at the New City Hall construction site in 1964. Didrichsen Art Museum.
New Year’s Eve, 2011, at Nathan Phillips Square. Toronto Star
Check out this great list by Derek Flack at BlogTo.
Don’t miss the classics:
J.M.S. Careless, Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History (Lorimer, 1984).
James Lemon, Toronto since 1918: An Illustrated History (Lorimer, 1985).
For a different perspective, see:
Allan Levine, Toronto: Biography of a City (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014).