TTC history is inseparable from the history of Toronto. Get the historic details on the TTC, how it was built and how it has grown since 1861.

1. A cavalcade of progress, 1921-1954

The following is reproduced from "Canada's First Subway, A Cavalcade of Progress, 1921-1954", originally published in 1954 by the Toronto Transit Commission.


Oil painting by Edwin McCormick.

- Oil painting by Edwin McCormick.
"Men with widely differing racial and national backgrounds combined in the army of workers who laboured to build "Canada's First Subway". This portrait of a typical subway worker represents true democracy in action and is symbolic of the Canada of tomorrow."

Canada's First Subway

The Story Of A Great Achievement

In the life of a city as in the life of an individual there are definite milestones. One of the most significant in the history of Toronto was symbolized by a colourful ceremony on September 8th, 1949, when actual construction was started on "Canada's First Subway".

On that day, in the presence of a truly representative gathering of Torontonians and Visitors, the Honourable Ray Lawson, O.B.E., LL.D., Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, gave the official send-off to one of the biggest civic projects ever undertaken in Canada.

Today Canada's First Subway is a dream realized, filling the need long felt for a practical solution of a traffic flow problem that has been a man-sized headache to citizens and city fathers alike for many years.

In Toronto one of the basic reasons for this problem lay in the fact that the streets were originally laid out by English surveyors to the British chain measurement of 66 feet, which may have been adequate for the leisurely carriage trade of the early nineteen hundreds, but which could not cope with the tremendous motor traffic of 1954.

"Placing temporary decking over tunnel excavation on Yonge Street."

"The Hon. Ray Lawson, O.B.E., LL.D., presses the switch starting construction on Canada's First Subway."

"First steps - tunnel excavation under temporary roof decking on downtown section of subway."

"Nearing completion - a view showing details of roof construction and concrete sidewall."

The eventual need for this subway was recognized as far back as 1912. In that year an independent survey was made of existing traffic conditions, and a report was submitted on future traffic improvements and developments. In this report consulting engineers visualized the time when surface transportation would reach its limit of carrying capacity and efficient operation and when a subway would be desirable and economically sound. It is doubtful however if the authors of this report on a city of approximately 400,000 people at that date could have foretold the tremendous growth which was to take place in the next forty years, or foreseen the huge increase in population, or the urgency of the traffic congestion problem which came to its peak during the war years of 1939-45 and in the post war period.

Today this boom development is still proceeding in industry and in housing, resulting in an ever increasing volume of free wheeled traffic on streets not designed for such congestion, and in an individual slow-down which results in more and more congestion causing economic loss to the whole community.

It became obvious that some step must be taken to separate public transportation facilities from other forms of traffic, particularly on Yonge Street which carried the greatest volume of traffic in the city, and "Canada's First Subway" presented the only practical solution to the problem and set the pattern for future transportation developments in Toronto and in other large Canadian cities.

"Illustrating the need for Canada's First Subway - A view showing traffic conditions on Toronto's Main Artery Yonge Street at Queen Street."

It will stand as a monument to the brains and hands and vision of the men who built it to free the clogged traffic arteries and to move a peak load of 40,000 people per hour to and from the bustling downtown areas.

It was a big job, every foot of the way - a job that before it was finished challenged every resource of modern engineering - a job that called for hard slugging against the clock and the calendar, and all the weatherman had to offer, in the four years it took from the driving of the first piles to completion.

There was, however, a certain glamour to it all - a glamour fully appreciated by the bronzed young construction workers with their tin helmets, doing a man's work against a background of mammoth cranes and pile-drivers and huge steel girders. Nor were the public immune to this appeal. A new race of "sidewalk superintendents" sprang up, which included transient visitors, office and factory workers, daily shoppers, men and women and children who made up the interested gallery at every excavation. This audience was catered to by the publication of a special Sidewalk Superintendents' Manual which ran into several editions and which explained every phase of the job from first to last. There was even a Subway Song which enjoyed quite a vogue at parties and concerts, as well as any amount of salty comment and discussion pro and con, which after all is the best possible evidence of the shared feeling of satisfaction and pride in a notable civic achievement. Even Hollywood got into the act as, during the years of construction, visiting celebrities of stage and screen viewed the scene of operations and really "got down to earth" when they were photographed against this naturally dramatic background.

But in a very real sense this is Toronto's subway, approved and endorsed by the citizens of Toronto when in January 1946 they voted 10 to 1 in favour of its construction.

The preliminary studies and planning of the Yonge Street subway started in 1943 when the Commission engaged consultants and set up a separate engineering staff.

During the next five years these engineers were busy studying other rapid transit systems, gathering data along the proposed route, and preparing plans and specifications for construction of the subway. And slowly, as this mammoth "face-lifting" job progressed, the appearance of familiar streets and landmarks subtly altered and Metropolitan Toronto took its future shape.

"Initial stages of construction on Canada's First Subway. Excavation and supporting utilities, Yonge Street south of Adelaide Street."

The magnitude of the task, however, could hardly be grasped by the man in the street who only saw sections of the work in progress and was sometimes tempted to make grumbling references to the "blitz", and "lost" street cars diverted from their regular routes. To the designers, engineers and contractors each one of these sections brought its own separate problems of tearing up busy streets, underpinning and tunnelling under existing buildings, and demolishing houses which had to be sacrificed, along sections of the right-of-way. That all this was done with the minimum of interruption and inconvenience is possibly the biggest tribute to the builders and to the value of the preliminary planning.

"Canada's First Subway" was constructed by the cut and cover method under the downtown streets, and by open cut in the uptown area. A question often asked during construction was why this plan was followed rather than that adopted in the building of the London subway and in certain other cities where shafts were sunk and tunnels driven underground without so much tearing up of streets and dislocation of surface traffic.

Superficially this question would seem deserved and valid. To the casual observer the necessity for digging a ditch, putting a temporary covering on it to carry surface traffic, then removing this covering and finally replacing the pavement did seem wasteful and unnecessary. The truth is it was neither. Had Toronto's subway been built by tunnel methods it would have been much deeper down and the cost would have been considerably greater. This extra depth, however, would have involved additional delay and inconvenience to passengers transferring to and from cross town lines which will continue as surface operation for many years. The station sites at the main downtown intersections would still have had to be excavated from the surface with resultant disturbance to traffic.

"Laying rails in the open cut section. A view north from Ellis Portal."

To the task of construction an army of construction workers gave of their best and made steady progress. The work was divided into sections and awarded to several contracting firms with adequate experience. Among the army of construction workers employed were many hard rock miners from Northern Ontario who brought their own specialised skills to the task of building this subway and who were particularly at home underpinning buildings along the line of route. Their familiarity with working in confined spaces and their method of bringing up the debris in buckets led to some humorous misunderstanding by people who thought the subway was being constructed by a shovel and bucket brigade.

To the imaginative onlooker the entire project symbolized the Canada of today and tomorrow, for here, working side by side, were men from all parts of the world, typifying many races, cultures. shades of colouring, languages and beliefs, all united in a common task - all toiling to a common end. And though on many an occasion simple orders had to he translated by sign language, they all shared that fellowship of effort and of aim which is the common symbol of democracy in action.

Incidentally, rumours to the contrary, no buried treasure was found in the digging, no grisly remains, no historical relics, although the geologists from the National Research Council who went underground found much of interest in their study of the soil and strata formations.

To the job - in addition to film stars and other celebrities from every field of endeavour, came statesmen, engineers and transportation experts from all over the world. The Governor General of Canada, Lord Alexander, was enthralled by the project and found much to commend in its vision, planning, financing and execution.

Visiting experts included engineers from little Thailand, and others from the British Isles, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and from the other side of the map - Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Brazil and, of course, "good neighbours" from the United States.

"Excavation for Davisville Yard north of Chaplin Crescent, showing north end of train platform, underpinning walls for two apartment buildings and bridge construction at Imperial Street."

These visitors, perhaps more than most, could appreciate the fact that in this subway modern science and engineering found gratifying expression in such details as the special soundproofing of tunnel walls and stations, the foolproof and completely automatic electrical signalling system, the manner in which stations have been designed for easy access and discharge, and the way the trains themselves, built to rigid specifications in England, have been designed to provide smooth, fast and safe operation under every condition of service. Safety – Cleanliness  Convenience: these have been the guiding factors throughout the building of this subway, and full advantage has been taken from the experience of comparable systems.

Extending from the Union Station in downtown Toronto to Eglinton Avenue a distance of 4.6 miles, “Canada's First Subway” serves a metropolitan area that now houses over a million people. Running north, under and parallel to Yonge Street, it is the first stage in a rapid transit system that will eventually be extended by east and west subways from the main line.

Today, the traveller of 1954, boarding the subway car at one of the twelve attractively designed modern stations along the route - safely and smoothly carried without let or hindrance to and from his work - can justly concede that this four-year job of construction has been well worth while.

"Unloading the first subway car from Britain. Port of Montreal."

Relaxing in his comfortable seat he could in imagination take a trip up that same Yonge Street, back in those "good old days" when motor cars, radios, television, the jet plane, the atomic bomb and the income tax were not even nightmares; when Toronto consisted of the downtown area loosely linked to the outlying villages of Yorkville, with its toll gate, Davisville and Eglinton; through the period of the sixpenny fare horse bus, and the horse car with its straw for chilly feet, to the first electric car of the Toronto Street Railway, and the larger, more modern cars of the Toronto Transportation Commission, and so to the present day and the swift-moving subway train.

As he leaves the station he can transfer to one of the many buses, trolley coaches or streamline street cars which complete the metropolitan service of the Toronto Transit Commission - a service built up over many years in a sincere effort to serve the public with increasing efficiency at the lowest possible cost.

And our traveller might well consider that "Canada's First Subway" not only puts Toronto in line with other world capitals, but it will also have a direct influence on his own personal prosperity by encouraging the establishment of new industries and homes in Canada's Queen City.

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