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REMEMBER THIS: Arrival of Toronto subway sped Newmarket's growth

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod highlights how the bedroom communities of Newmarket and area flourished with the building of the city's subway system in the 1950s

The building of the Toronto subway system played a significant role in the economic and social development of Newmarket and area.  

While the Toronto subway is part of a larger public transportation network that includes streetcars, buses and light rapid transit, I shall confine my examination to the subway. In a second article, I shall look at the subway system today and into the future.

The subway officially opened March 30, 1954 as Canada’s first subway. The subway system of my youth has grown from a single, 12-station line running 7.4 kilometres north beneath Yonge Street into a four-line system encompassing 75 stations over 76.5 km. The subway system is scheduled to continue to grow, serving more of Toronto, and into York Region as far as Richmond Hill.  

As a child, my Newmarket was very much a bedroom community, as they used to call it, with a line of cars headed south out of Newmarket every morning. In my earlier articles about the CNE and other Toronto entertainment venues, I speak lovingly of my trips to ‘the big city’ from my little county home and along with the Gray Coach shuttles, the subway was my favourite method of getting there.  

People sometimes ask, “Where were you when you first heard of President Kennedy’s death?” I know just where I was, entering the subway at Eglinton (its northern terminal at the time), all excited about my pending ride on that modern marvel of technology, the subway.

Let us begin with a look at a few factors that made the building of the subway a necessity.

Early in the first decade of the 20th century, Toronto’s population would explode, nearly doubling from 209,892 in 1901 to 381,833 in 1911. Toronto’s transportation network called the Toronto Railway Company (TRC), which held a 30-year franchise dating back to 1891, was straining to handle this rapid growth and to operate the streetcar system.

As the city’s boundaries expanded, the TRC refused to extend its service beyond the areas outlined in its original agreement or add additional vehicles to its fleet. This prompted the creation of municipally owned streetcar lines to serve the recently annexed neighbourhoods.

As the TRC’s contract approached its final decade, city officials began discussing new methods of working around the company; their aim, to figure out how to meet the needs of the increasing population.

Talks surrounding an underground streetcar line began in April 1909 when a proposal for a line that would run north-south under Yonge Street from Front Street to Eglinton Avenue was discussed at a proposed cost of $1 million per mile. Discussions would stall due to the question of who would own and operate any lines. It was decided that the line would need to be publicly owned.

Over the years, the building of a “tube” system along Yonge became a frequent political plank in several mayoral campaigns starting in 1909. A January 1910 municipal plebiscite asking for permission to build a municipally owned streetcar and subway system passed by 8,571 votes.

In fall 1911, Toronto called for tenders to construct a 4.8 km subway running north from Bay and Front streets to St. Clair Avenue, prompting another public debate. The city argued that a subway system would assist suburban workers heading into the city (that would include us) and could link the Metropolitan Railway system with these tubes.

The idea was opposed by four of Toronto’s five daily newspapers, who argued that the plans had been hastily made, population densities were inadequate to support it, real estate interests would only benefit, and that the city’s works department was too overburdened to handle such a project. Voters rejected the funding of the subway on Jan. 1, 1912 by 2,805 vote majority.

There were more pressing concerns with the increasing deterioration of the TRC’s streetcar service. Experts observed that, “subways should be looked at as a last resort, should there be no other remedy. The consensus was that Toronto did not need subways nearly so much as it needed more surface tracks and more and better and faster service cars. Sound familiar?

When the publicly owned Toronto Transportation Commission (now called the Toronto Transit Commission, or TTC) took over all streetcar services in 1921, its priority was fixing the disintegrating system the TRC had left behind.

While proposals for subways and underground streetcar lines arose as make-work plans during the Great Depression, the idea was not seriously contemplated until after the Second World War. Realizing the current infrastructure was ill-prepared for a postwar Toronto, the Rapid Transit Department was formed by the TTC in January 1944.

The consensus called for a subway running from Union Station north along Yonge to Eglinton, and an underground streetcar line along Queen Street from Trinity Bellwood’s Park to Logan Avenue.

On Jan. 1, 1946, voters were asked: “Are you in favour of the Toronto Transportation Commission proceeding with the proposed rapid transit system provided the Dominion government assumes one-fifth of the cost and provided that the cost to the ratepayers is limited to such amounts as the City Council may agree are necessary for the replacement and improvement of city services?” The public would agree in a landslide vote.

No federal funding commitment materialized, and the Queen line was shelved, the focus turning to the Yonge subway, which carried a projected cost of $28.9 million for construction, plus an additional $3.5 million for trains. Postwar material shortages delayed work on the project.

Construction officially began on the Yonge line Sept. 8, 1949 with the Toronto Star proclaiming, “Toronto Goes ‘Big League’ As Subway Project Starts.” Most of the 7.4 km, 12-station line was built using the “cut and cover” technique, which involved building a deep trench which, as construction proceeded, could be covered up by planks. It was felt that this method was less expensive than tunnelling below Yonge Street.

The five-year project would draw serious interest from the entire GTA region, and considerable forbearance and public spirit was required from those affected, as we well know today.

The building of the subway required 10,000 tonnes of structural steel, 14,000 tonnes of reinforcing steel, 4,200 tonnes of rail steel, 420 tonnes of cast iron pipe, 1.4 million bags of cement, 170,000 tonnes of sand and 240,000 tonnes of gravel. The final cost was estimated at $67 million, far exceeding the original estimate of $28.9 million.

Proposals from North American manufacturers for the new line’s fleet, were beyond the TTC’s budget and so a bid was accepted in November 1951 from the England-based Gloucester Railway Wagon and Carriage Company. The public received its first preview of the trains via a display mounted at the 1953 Canadian National Exhibition. These first trains, painted red, remained in service until 1990.

The papers stated that about 5,000 people were at the Davisville station when Canada’s first subway opened on March 30, 1954 with an estimated 206,000 passengers trying out the new line that day.

With the Yonge line open, debate soon shifted to an east-west line. It was observed there was higher streetcar traffic volume along Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue than on Queen. The building of the Danforth line was opposed by several parties due to cost and potential delays to other regional public works projects. These stalling tactics resulted in construction being delayed until November 1959.

Tied into the construction of the Bloor-Danforth line was an extension of the Yonge line along University Avenue. This addition was designed to ease capacity pressures from workers heading into downtown from the east-west route. The six stations of the University line, stretching from St. Andrew (King Street) to St. George, opened Feb. 28, 1963.

When the initial phase of the Bloor-Danforth line (between Keele Street and Woodbine Avenue) opened to the public on Feb. 26, 1966, the TTC interlined subway service. Every second train along the new line was routed onto the Yonge-University line, providing a direct connection into downtown. This system was plagued by delays and passenger confusion at transfer points. Among the casualties of the end of interlining in September 1966 was the old Bay Lower Station, which was then re-purposed.

Further expansion of the system has continued over the following decades and promises to continue well into the future. 

So, what was the impact of the building of the subway? When the Yonge subway opened in 1954, it was hoped that it would transport tens of thousands of workers, many from our area, to and from their homes, with speed and in comfort, freeing them forever from the inconvenience and delays inherent in surface transportation.  

The main period of regular subway construction ended in 1980. However, the future of the system is under intense scrutiny currently.

I would argue that the growth of Newmarket and indeed all of York Region owes much of its rapid growth to the building of the subway. As the system continues to move north, west and to the east, I can see this trend continuing into the future.

They say that great ideas never really die, they just lay dormant until circumstances warrant their return. Just like the story of the Metropolitan Railway of the late 1800s, which linked Newmarket and area to Toronto, our history has been forever tied to an efficient transportation link to Toronto. Where would we be if Yonge Street had not been constructed back when my ancestors first arrived here? We would have remained isolated, a mere hinterland.

Sources: TTC Subway/RT Route Histories - Transit Toronto - Content; Official TTC website; CBC Digital Archives: Going Underground: Toronto's Subway and Montreal's Metro; The Subway Comes to the Archives, online exhibit on Archives of Ontario; Transit Toronto website; The Toronto Subway - An Article by Jamie Bradburn – Canadian Encyclopedia; Archives of Ontario, images from their archives; and Toronto Star and Newmarket Era archives

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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