Toronto's Yonge Street has long been synonymous with Canada's largest city, and the so-called "longest street in the world" has been a symbol of the city's youthful exuberance since Toronto's earliest days. The downtown stretch today is a mishmash of past, present, and future visions of the city. From the quickly disappearing Victorian storefronts, to the latest condo construction, downtown Yonge Street has been the site of a seemingly never-ending series of Canadian firsts. Over the years, the street has claimed ownership of Canada's first department store, first urban shopping mall, and first subway, to name but a few. What may be less obvious today, given the proliferation of streetcar lines that exist in the city (albeit far fewer than there once were), is that Yonge Street was also the site of Canada's first streetcar line. The opening of the Toronto Street Railway on September 11, 1861, marked an important first step in the nation's transit history, quite literally laying the tracks for the future of public transportation in the city for the next 150 years. This edition of Once Upon a Tram will take a look back at the fascinating history of the Yonge Streetcar Line, and its enduring legacy that can be appreciated more than a century and a half after its debut. 

"Yonge Street, looking North from King, Toronto, Canada," postcard c. 1910, public domain archival image

Prior to the creation of the Toronto Street Railway in 1861, those looking to travel up and down Yonge Street from downtown all the way to Yorkville Town Hall at the city's northern boundary had to rely on either a horse and buggy or their own two legs to carry them. While stagecoaches for hire had proved a popular method of transportation, such as the Williams Omni Bus Line that began operation in 1849, Toronto did not begin to seriously consider a more permanent public transportation solution until the early 1860s, when the Toronto Street Railway made its debut. The first tracks were laid on Yonge in 1861, followed by a second line on Queen Street, and eventually King, Front, and several others soon after. 

Toronto Street Railway horse-car on Yonge Street, 1889, image via the City of Toronto Archives

As the city grew, the desire and demand for more lines and more cars grew with it. The Toronto Street Railway's 30-year run witnessed the expansion of service first to Queen Street, and then to several other major arteries across the city until most of the Old City of Toronto was served by horse-cars. Passengers were able to travel in relative comfort from Roncesvalles to Sherbourne and from just north of Bloor to the shores of Lake Ontario, and everywhere in between. 

Toronto Street Railway horse-car moving south on Yonge near Queen, 1890, image via Library and Archives Canada

Following the end of the Toronto Street Railway's 30-year run, the franchise's exclusive deal with the City was terminated. Control passed briefly to the City of Toronto before being passed once more to a private enterprise, the Toronto Railway Company, for another 30-year contract. First on Church Street, as would soonafter be the case on Yonge, and eventually all routes across the city in the immediate years following the takeover, the Toronto Railway Company presided over the system-wide switch to full electric operation as the era of the horse-car came steadily came to an end over a three-year period which spanned from 1891 to 1894.

Fashionable ladies boarding a streetcar outside of Eaton's on Yonge Street, 1909, image via the City of Toronto Archives

Faster, more reliable, and able to carry significantly more passengers over greater distances, the electrification of Toronto's by then extensive and rapidly expanding streetcar network allowed the city to grow at an unprecedented rate. The annexation of multiple small towns and hamlets at the city's outer boundaries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including flung locales such as York Mills to the north, Long Branch to the west, and Woodbine to the east, accelerated the outward spread of the city's first "streetcar suburbs," entire neighbourhoods that prospered as a direct result of the arrival of the streetcar. 

TTC streetcar moving south on Yonge near Davisville, c. 1950, image via the Curt Frey Collection

In 1921, following the termination of the Toronto Railway Company's 30-year contract with the City, today's Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) was created to bring public transportation under direct municipal control.  From this point forward the service operated solely for the public good, and its future expansions and transformations were completed with full public oversight. As before, the expansion efforts of the TTC followed along lines laid out by city planners. 

Some things never change... Rush Hour on Yonge Street, 1929, image via the Toronto Star Archives

Already well over capacity by the 1920s, the downtown segment of the Yonge Streetcar Line was a victim of its own success. Thronging crowds of daily commuters flooding onto double-hitched streetcars heading in and out of the city centre regularly created chaotic scenes like the one above captured just outside of the Robert Simpson Store at Yonge and Queen in 1929. Adding to the problem was the fact that the system continued to expand outwards at a pace that far outstripped the network's ability to effectively handle the added capacity. Then as now, commuters were forced to wait for two or more cars to pass them before they could comfortably board and be on their way. 

Eglinton Carhouse at Yonge and Eglinton, c. 1950, image via the Curt Frey Collection

Nevertheless, the TTC continued to expand north along Yonge throughout the first half of the 20th century as the city's northern boundary was pushed further and further out. The city was growing exponentially in all directions, and its growth only accelerated as the century wore on. One of the first major hubs for the rapidly expanding Yonge Streetcar Line, and one of its last due to the arrival of the subway in 1954, was the massive Eglinton Carhouse at Yonge and Eglinton built by the TTC in 1922, which remains a major transit hub to this day. Expanded upon and transformed over the years to accommodate motor coaches and trolley buses, and eventually completely rebuilt as the original northern terminus of the Yonge Subway Line, the Eglinton Carhouse was but one of many purpose-built "streetcar barns" built across the city at this time.

Glen Echo Loop during the last days of streetcar service on Yonge, c. 1950, image via the Curt Frey Collection

Further north still, and similarly opened in 1922 following the TTC takeover the year before, the northern terminus on the Yonge Streetcar Line was known as the Glen Echo Loop. It included a modern passenger terminal where commuters could await either a downtown-bound streetcar or interurban radial railway car to destinations as far away as Lake Simcoe. Located north of Lawrence Ave near the former town of York Mills and Hoggs Hollow, the Glen Echo Loop was far ahead of its time; the Yonge Subway Line would not to reach York Mills until 1973.

Torontonians celebrate the start of construction for the Yonge Subway Line, 1949, image via the Toronto Star Archives

On September 8, 1949, construction began on the Yonge Subway Line. The occasion was marked by a gathering of dignitaries and a large crowd that came to witness history in the making, as work crews severed the Yonge Streetcar Line which after nearly a century of continual service. From this point forward, streetcar service along Yonge street would be temporarily diverted to Church and other streets until the grand opening of Canada's First Subway on March 30, 1954, marking the end of an era and beginning of a new age.

Union Station, March 18, 1954, just prior to opening, image via the City of Toronto Archives

SkyriseCities will return soon with a new edition of Once Upon a Tram, which will take an in-depth look at the transit legacy of a city near you. In the meantime, feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below. Got an idea for this series? Let us know!