Toronto Beneath Our Feet: A (Brief) Visual History of Old Toronto

Life after The Great Fire

The Toronto we know today is a world of modern conveniences and dynamic culture, but before the Great Fire of 1904, Old Toronto was like a Victorian civilization. We dug into some archives and put together a (brief) visual history of the Toronto beneath our feet.
 

1834: INCORPORATION OF THE CITY OF TORONTO

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( Celebrating the incorporation of the City of Toronto, Upper Canada, in 1834. With a population of 10,000, it became the province’s first incorporated city.)

Working with a blueprint provided by the unincorporated Town of “Muddy” York, Toronto incorporated as a city on March 6,1834, allowing for the creation of city council.

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(City of Toronto in 1834.)

 

1837: UPPER CANADA REBELLION

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(The Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in Toronto, Canada.)

Many associate Toronto’s connection to states of armed conflict with the Battle of York during the War of 1812, but in December 1837, Toronto became a battleground once more as former mayor William Lyon Mackenzie (1834) led an insurrection against Canada’s British oligarchy. Mackenzie’s rebels were ultimately defeated in battle at Montgomery’s Tavern.

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(Pen and ink drawing by Charles Wm. Jefferys (1869-1952) showing the fatal shooting of Col. Robert Moodie outside John Montgomery’s tavern in Toronto on December 4, 1837.)

 

1856: TORONTO LOSES THE CAPITAL

According to a Toronto Star article from earlier this year, the City of Toronto Archives believes a series of panoramic photographs created from atop the Rossin House Hotel at King Street West and York Street by Armstrong, Beere and Hime – a company that referred to itself as “Land Agents, Engineers and Photographists” –might have been submitted to the British Colonial Office in 1856 to pitch Toronto as the future capital of Canada. Despite some of our attitudes, we never did get it, but at least we might be able to blame “photographists” for it.

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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking west along King Street West. On the southwest corner of the intersection of Simcoe and King Streets stands the Second Government House of Ontario, also known as Elmsley House (Roy Thomson Hall stands on the site today).)

 
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( Toronto from the top of Rossin House Hotel : looking north-west. At the right edge of the photograph, a building with a peaked roof line is visible – located on the northeast corner of Adelaide and Simcoe Streets, the building was known as the Bishop’s Block. Built in 1829, the Block was reputed to be the first brick homes in the Town of York. Known as the Pretzel Bell Tavern from around 1972 to 1984, the block was dismantled in 2008 to be restored and incorporated into the Shangri-La hotel project.)

 
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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking north-west.)

 
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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking north.)

 
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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking north-east.)

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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking north-east. )

 
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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : Looking east, along King Street East.)

 
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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking south-east.)

 
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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking south-east.)

 
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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking south.)

 
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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking south.)

 
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( Toronto from the top of the Rossin House Hotel : looking south-west. Simcoe Street (north-south) and Front Street (east-west) are visible in the distance. The buildings located on the northwest corner of Simcoe and Front streets, facing Lake Ontario, were Ontario’sThird Parliament Buildings.)

 
Now an area densely populated with skyscrapers, today it would be impossible to achieve similar perspectives from the same location.
 

1858: UNION STATION 1.0

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( A view of Toronto’s first Union Station in 1859. Built in 1858 at the foot of York Street and overlooking the harbour, the station was demolished in 1871 when it could no longer handle the growing volume of traffic. A second Union Station was constructed immediately to the west.)

West of York Street at Station Street and south of Front Street, Toronto’s original Union Station was an open-concept, wooden structure that overlooked the harbour. When it couldn’t keep up with the growing volume of traffic, that structure was replaced by another on the same site in 1873, to eventually be replaced by the Union Station we know now, constructed between 1914 and 1920.

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( Toronto’s second Union Station.)

 
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( Toronto harbour, showing Union Station (1873-1927) and masted ships )

 
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( The interior of the “new Union Station”)

 

1879: THE EX IS BORN

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(Exhibition Grounds ca. 1900)

After decades as a touring provincial fair typically touching down in Hamilton, Kingston, London, and mostly Toronto, the city started building permanent buildings for it to inhabit, and in 1879 it was decided that the Canadian National Exhibition (then the Toronto Industrial Exhibition) would be held in Toronto every year (Keith Walden traces these early years of the CNE in his book Becoming Modern in Toronto: The Industrial Exhibition and the Shaping of a Late Victorian Culture).

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(CNE midway, 1904)

 

1904: THE GREAT FIRE OF TORONTO


April 19, 1904 brought Old Toronto a hard day that became a nightmare. Light snow and violent wind permeated the air, and soon, so did a great fire. According to Spacing, the blaze’s first flames were spotted by a constable walking their beat at a necktie factory on Wellington Street just west of Bay. The city core was then cluttered with textile factories, book-sellers, paper supply companies, and chemical manufacturers, and those, together with the strong winds, helped the inferno spread south to the Esplanade and east toward Yonge, destroying 20 acres of downtown. With assistance from Hamilton, London, Peterborough, Niagara Falls, and Buffalo services, all of the firefighters in the city couldn’t prevent the blaze from ruining 125 businesses and causing 10 million dollars worth of damage (the equivalent of more than 200 million dollars today). But shockingly, no one died.

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(looking north from the foot of Bay Street – April 1904)

 
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(Wellington Street east, looking west April 1904)

 
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(April 22, 1904)

 
It was a devastating event that marked the end of Old Toronto, but, as this postcard from the H.E. Bond & Co. postmarked just 10 days later indicated, some did endure, and so did Toronto.

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