The Oldest Known Photos of Toronto

Originally published as a gallery post on Torontoist on February 25, 2013.

For the earliest known photographs of Toronto, we have a sales pitch to thank.

Following the union of Upper and Lower Canada as the United Province of Canada in 1841, Canada’s new parliament drifted from city to city. Kingston, Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto all hosted the wandering colonial government. On April 14, 1856, the legislature voted 64 to 54 in favour of ending its recent practice of alternating parliamentary sessions between Toronto and Quebec City. The job of determining a permanent capital was handed to Queen Victoria, who examined presentations from those two cities, along with presentations on behalf of Kingston, Montreal, and Ottawa.

While Toronto’s pitch failed to sway the queen (she named Ottawa the capital in 1857), it preserved a record of what the growing city looked like. The photographic and civil engineering firm of Armstrong, Beere and Hime was hired to provide a set of 25 photos for Victoria’s consideration, which were forgotten until an archivist found them by chance in 1979 while researching images of the British Columbia gold rush at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library in London, England. The photos were exhibited at the Market Gallery in 1984, and a set of copies were presented to the City archives as a gift for the city’s 150th birthday.

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King Street East, south-side, looking west, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 1.

At the left of this row of buildings is the Golden Lion, which rivalled Eaton’s and Simpson’s as one of Toronto’s major department stores during the late 19th century. Officially known as Robert Walker and Sons, the store earned its lasting name when a golden lion statue was placed above its entrance soon after moving to the location shown here in 1847.

Renovated in 1867 and expanded in 1892, the store appeared to have a healthy future. But when no one in the Walker was left to carry on the business, it closed in 1898. Some observers, such as the Hamilton Herald, were dubious about the site’s future when the store was demolished in 1901: “In Toronto they are pulling down the old Golden Lion to make room for a new White Elephant in the form of a palace.”

The replacement? The still-operating King Edward Hotel.

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King Street East, south-side between Yonge and Church streets, looking east, 1856.
City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 2.

Among the businesses seen in this view is the British Colonist, one of Toronto’s first enduring newspapers. Launched in 1838, it was originally backed by supporters of the Church of Scotland. Considered “a staunch but not rabid Conservative paper” by the book Early Toronto Newspapers 1793-1867, it graduated from semi-weekly to daily publishing in 1851. The paper was sold to rival Conservative paper the Leader in 1860.

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Bank of British North America, north-east corner of Wellington and Yonge streets, 1856.
City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 3.

Opened in 1846, the limestone Bank of British North America was designed by John Howard, whose personal property later became High Park. Howard also designed the adjoining warehouses, which were initially occupied by a grocer. The building was rebuilt into its present form in the mid-1870s. The site later housed branches of the Bank of Montreal and CIBC, then a variety of tenants before the Irish Embassy pub settled in.

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The Exchange, Wellington Street, north side east of Yonge Street, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 4.

Modelled on a similar exchange across the Atlantic in London, the Toronto Exchange was established in 1854 for speculation traders specializing in produce. One-time Toronto postmaster Charles Berczy donated land he owned at the present-day northwest corner of Wellington Street and Leader Lane to the organization. Opened in 1855, it was renovated in 1877 and renamed the Imperial Bank Chambers when that financial institution moved in. Damaged by fire during the 1930s, it was demolished during World War II.

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Second United Presbyterian Church under construction, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 7.

Established in 1851, the Second United Presbyterian congregation renamed itself Cooke’s Presbyterian Church in 1856 in honour of Irish minister Henry Cooke. After holding services at several downtown locations, including St. Lawrence Hall, the congregation moved into its permanent home at Queen and Mutual streets in 1858. A Romanesque-style replacement was built in 1891 and became one of the city’s most popular churches—during the 1920s, you had to get there early to grab one of its 2,250 seats. When the church closed in 1982, its congregation had dwindled to 150. Despite a last-minute heritage designation, the church was demolished in 1984. Though there were hints of future office/residential development, the site became a parking lot.

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Normal School building, Gould Street, north side east of Yonge Street, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 8.

Founded in 1850 by Egerton Ryerson, the Normal School served as training institution for teachers who would populate the province’s emerging public school system. Its home in St. James Square was opened in 1852 and expanded a few years later to include the Model School, where boys’ grammar classes were held. Among its amenities was a museum of natural history and fine arts which evolved into the Royal Ontario Museum.

The Normal School was moved out in 1941 to make room for an RCAF training centre. After World War II, the site was used to prepare veterans to return to civilian life via a school which evolved into Ryerson University. Demolished to make way for the present Ryerson quadrangle in 1962, only a portion of the central façade remains today.

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Osgoode Hall, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 9.

Built between 1829 and 1846, Osgoode Hall served as the headquarters of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Shortly after this picture was taken, the central section was reconstructed by the architectural firm of Cumberland and Storm.

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Parliament Buildings, Front Street West, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 10.

The third set of parliament buildings erected in Toronto, three separate blocks were built on the north side of Front Street between John and Simcoe streets between 1829 and 1832. Architect John Howard was brought in to finish off the interiors. The complex was used intermittently during the United Province of Canada era (1841 to 1867), when legislators also sat in Kingston, Montreal, and Quebec City. When this picture was taken, work had begun to fill in the spaces between the blocks for offices in case Toronto became the permanent capital. Post-Confederation, the buildings served as the home of Ontario’s government until the present Ontario Legislative Building in Queen’s Park opened in 1893. The Grand Trunk Railway purchased the site and demolished the buildings a decade later. The site currently houses the Canadian Broadcast Centre.

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Trinity College, Queen Street West, north side, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 11.

When the University of Toronto declared itself a secular institution in 1850, Bishop John Strachan felt an institute of higher learning with ties to the Church of England was still required. He established Trinity College and hired architect Kivas Tully to design a Gothic-styled school, the first section of which opened in 1852.

Trinity joined U of T in 1904 and moved to the main campus in 1925. The buildings it left behind in what became Trinity-Bellwoods Park were briefly used as an athletic centre, then demolished in the mid-1950s. The only remaining portions are part of the gate at the park’s entrance and the former St. Hilda’s College building on Shaw Street, now John Gibson House.

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Rossin House Hotel, southeast corner of King and York streets, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 12.

Introduction to an article on the opening of the Rossin House, the Globe, May 5, 1857:

The want of proper hotel accommodation has long been a standing reproach to Toronto, and the boasted enterprise and energy of our citizens has often been called into question by visitors from other places. No longer, however, will this be needed, for by the completion of the Rossin House, ample accommodation can be afforded for as large a number of guests as are likely to visit the city at any one time, and, as far as the house is concerned, satisfaction will be given to the most fastidious.

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Toronto from the top of Rossin House Hotel, looking northwest, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 14.

This image formed part of one of three panoramas of the city shot from the top of the Rossin House, which were meant to impress Queen Victoria with how much the city had grown.

As for the Rossin House, though a fire in November 1862 gutted its interior, fire safety measures included by architect William Kauffman left the walls intact and resulted in only one fatality. Rebuilt by 1867, it remained one of Toronto’s most fashionable hotels until the King Edward opened in 1903. Later known as the Prince George Hotel, the building was demolished in 1969.

Sources: Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993), Early Toronto Newspapers 1793–1867, Edith G. Firth, editor (Toronto: Baxter Publishing, 1961), Choosing Canada’s Capital by David B. Knight (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1991), the May 5, 1857 edition of the Globe, the March 22, 1984 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the April 12, 1901 and May 22, 1982 editions of the Toronto Star.

149 College Street

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on October 16, 2012.

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149 College during its time as Central Tech, after 1900. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 247.

“Amid sounds of revelry and acclaim, amid the seductive calm of soft music, and the inspiring charm of many voices, amid cloud-like strata of fragrant fumes and infectious laughter from countless merry smokers, a temple of muscle and grace was appropriately dedicated to the youths who adorn the terminal years of the 19th century. The glamour of flashing lights and rich furnishings, harmoniously designed, burst dazzlingly upon the army of elated members and prospective members who pressed eagerly through the massive stone portals to assist in the house-warming.” So observed the Toronto Daily Mail during the opening-night festivities at the Toronto Athletic Club on January 22, 1894.

Though demonstrations of athletic prowess and the Richardsonian Romanesque building designed by architect E.J. Lennox (later responsible for Old City Hall and Casa Loma) were praised by the press, the evening wasn’t perfect. A performance by the Toronto Lacrosse Club Minstrels was so inappropriate that the Toronto Star believed “it was to the credit of the athletic club that they were roundly hissed.”

Despite the initial burst of excitement over facilities like gymnasiums, billiard rooms, and one of the city’s first indoor swimming pools, the Toronto Athletic Club quickly ran into financial problems. It didn’t help that club founder (and former Toronto mayor) John Beverley Robinson, who had turned over property he had lived on since 1850 to provide it with a home, died two years after its grand opening. The city’s other social clubs provided little support. When the mortgage was foreclosed on in October 1899, 149 College St. witnessed the first of many tenant changes.

In July 1900, city council purchased the building to provide a new home for the Toronto Technical School. The deal had been tied up for a month due to accusations by alderman Daniel Lamb of “undue influence” placed on his fellow councillors by those who still had a financial stake in the property. Though an inquiry found no proof of wrongdoing, Lamb refused to apologize for his actions. Among the renovations that the school—which evolved into Central Tech—made was to fill the basement pool with concrete and use it for art classes.

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149 College as Stewart Building, October 20, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, S 1-3861A.

Following the school’s move to its current site at Harbord and Borden in 1915, 149 College St. served as a military headquarters. Another HQ moved in with the onset of the Great Depression: the Toronto Police. The force considered the site, which was renamed the Stewart Building soon after they moved there in 1931, a temporary home while waiting for a new civic building to be built along Queen Street west of Osgoode Hall. A planned seven-year stay stretched out to nearly three decades.

When the newly amalgamated Metropolitan Toronto Police moved their offices to another temporary site in 1960, they retained the building as the home of 52 Division. This was also seen as an interim solution—excess office space and limited parking spots for vehicles made police officials eager to find a new home for the precinct. While the force’s preferred site at the northeast corner of Dundas and Beverley would have wiped out several heritage-designated homes, a committee led by alderman William Kilbourn suggested in late 1973 that the building could be renovated to meet the police’s needs. Though Kilbourn hoped that a presentation by architect Jack Diamond would persuade the police to stay, Metro Council rejected the idea in favour of 52 Division’s current home at Dundas and Simcoe.

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Toronto Star, September 29, 1979.

149 College St. was sold to the Ontario College of Art. Instead of cutting a ribbon during the opening ceremony in September 1979, Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Pauline McGibbon made the final brush stroke on a watercolour of the building. The police returned to the site several times to investigate complaints about offensive art and an incident involving students carrying guns that turned out to be replicas for a class project. After the college departed during the late 1990s, the building was used as a French-language school (Collège des Grands Lacs) before the Rotman School of Management’s executive-education centre moved in. The business school commissioned 149 College’s umpteenth set of renovations which, according to architect Tania Bortolotto’s website, was intended “to rejuvenate the derelict interiors into a refined atmosphere expressing the client’s branding aims.” In a way, that goal brought the building back to the refinement the Toronto Athletic Club offered over a century earlier.

Sources: the January 23, 1894 edition of the Toronto Daily Mail, the January 23, 1894, June 19, 1900, and September 29, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star, and the July 31, 1931 edition of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Daily Mail, January 23, 1894.

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Evening News, January 23, 1894.

In a January 10, 1900 editorial on physical fitness facilities in the city, the Globe hoped the Toronto Athletic Club would make a comeback. “The Toronto Athletic Club on College Street was in every respect a praiseworthy institution. Not only did it fill all the requirements as a resort for young men, but it was admirably arranged and splendidly equipped,” the paper observed, also noting that was “constructed on too ambitious a scale to be a permanent success.”

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Toronto Star, September 17, 1901.

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The Globe, July 30, 1931.

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The Telegram, July 31, 1931.

Souvenir Views of Toronto, Canada

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on October 2, 2010. Because the original links to the postcards vanished from Torontoist following a site redesign, and because I don’t appear to have any related Word documents, I have no idea if any text other than subject identification appeared under these images, nor what order they were originally presented in. Comments written under the postcards were written in 2020.

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Usually when preparing Historicist, we dig through local archives and libraries to find the pieces of Toronto’s past that are brought to you every weekend. Sometimes the material finds us, as is the case with today’s gallery of postcards submitted by reader Todd J. Wiebe.

The postcards were among a large collection of items donated by the estate of fine art scholar Richard Wunder to the Van Wylen Library at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where Wiebe works as a librarian and assistant professor. “It is a very large collection,” says Wiebe, “and this past summer was the first we really got around to going through it.” As the materials were being processed and appraised, a worker in the library found the postcards and passed them on to Wiebe “because I’m from Southern Ontario.”

The set contains twenty-two postcards attached to each other accordion-style. They were produced by the Canadian branch of Scottish postcard maker Valentine & Sons. Based on the age of the landmarks depicted, we’re guessing that this package was produced in the mid-to-late 1920s due to the presence of Union Station (opened in 1927, though it had stood largely completed since 1920) and, given the presence of the city’s tallest buildings in the set, the lack of postcards for the Royal York Hotel (opened in 1929) and Commerce Court (opened in 1931).

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Streetcars carried commuters over the viaduct until the Bloor-Danforth subway line opened in 1966.

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That Casa Loma is referred to as Henry Pellatt’s residence makes me wonder if some or all of this series was produced in the early 1920s, as Pellatt was forced to leave the premises in 1923.

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Judging from this view, it appears Lippincott Street was open to traffic in front of Central Tech.

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All five of these churches remain active as of 2020, though the landscapes around them have changed radically.

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Opened in 1899, City Hall was the heart of Toronto’s municipal dramas until city council moved across Bay Street in 1965.

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Completed in 1913, the Canadian Pacific building is currently used for office space.

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North Toronto station closed in 1930. It became the Summerhill LCBO.

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Built in 1914, the building at the southwest corner of King and Yonge was the headquarters of the Dominion Bank until it merged with the Bank of Toronto in 1955. In 2020, it houses the One King West Hotel & Residence.

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Toronto General moved to College and University in 1913. As of 2020, portions of the building fronting College Street houses MaRS.

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Chorley Park, 1915-1961.

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Originally opened in 1903, the King Eddy gained its tower in 1922.

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Several of the buildings in this postcard series seen together.

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The Cayuga was one of several steamers owned by the Niagara Navigation Company. It was retired in 1957 and scrapped four years later.

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Located in St. James Square, the Toronto Normal School trained several generations. Its site served as an incubator for OCAD, the ROM, and Ryerson University. Most of the building was demolished by 1963.

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Not pictured: the iron gates. Or cows.

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Two premiers presided over the proceedings at Queen’s Park during the 1920s – E.C. Drury’s UFO (United Farmers of Ontario) government gave way to Howard Ferguson’s Conservatives in 1923.

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This appears to be an artistic interpretation of the Red Ensign, used as Canada’s flag through 1965.

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Opened in 1915, the Royal Bank Building still stands at 2 King Street East.

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Was the front of Union Station ever this serene during the day?

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“University College” would be a more appropriate description for this postcard. Major additions to the U of T campus during the 1920s included Trinity College and Varsity Arena.

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University Avenue was still a genteel, tree-lined street south of Queen’s Park when this postcard was produced. Laid out in 1829, it was originally conceived as a genteel park boulevard which would lead up to the intended site for the King’s College campus. It was closed to commercial traffic, and no streets were allowed to cross its path. The road was opened up for full use in 1859, and expanded south of Queen Street.

One Fine Toronto Weekend in 1908 (According to the Toronto World)

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on September 20, 2008. This is one of the first examples of Historicist columns I’d write in a hurry if the topic I was working on fell apart or required more research before deadline.

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Queen Street West and James Street, looking northeast. William James Sr., 1908. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the easiest way to grab a snapshot of Toronto’s past is to find the nearest microfilm reader (or online archive) and browse any of the newspapers that have chronicled the daily adventures of the city. For a taste of what was going on a century ago this weekend, we dive into the pages of one of Toronto’s long-defunct morning papers.

The Toronto World was launched in August 1880 by reporters William Findlay Maclean and Albert Horton to support a Liberal candidate in a by-election. Maclean (1854–1929, pictured on the right) bought out Horton a year later and ran the paper as a populist daily, specializing in exposing civic corruption. Among the causes the paper successfully backed were Sunday streetcar service and municipal ownership of the hydro utility. The World served as a training ground for influential editors like Joseph Atkinson (Toronto Star) and Hector Charlesworth (Saturday Night). Maclean served as a local MP from 1892 to 1926, sitting as a Conservative or “independent Conservative” depending on how well his maverick nature meshed with party brass—usually it didn’t. Perennially on the brink of bankruptcy, Maclean sold the paper to the Mail and Empire in 1921.

The most scandalous front page story involved allegations in a rival paper (likely the Star or the Telegram) that city aldermen had abused their free pass privileges at the Canadian National Exhibition and performers at the CNE Grandstand were blackmailed into purchasing clothing from fair officials. An investigation was launched by the city into a number of complaints instigated by disgruntled former employees of the fair, who claimed that one official allowed 30 to 40 friends in for free on a single day.

The World’s reporter lashed out at the paper’s rivals, noting, “This sort of thing only gives outside newspapers to knock Toronto, and there is no sense and reason in it. Why do the evening newspapers try to stir up trouble so as to make it impossible for men to act on the exhibition board?” Alderman (and future mayor) Samuel McBride felt that gate staff had exercised proper strictness, noting that he had seen a director turned away for not wearing his badge.

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R. Simpson Building under construction, Richmond Street West, looking northeast, 1908. City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1244, item 7037.

In an editorial titled “Perceive the Larger Toronto,” The World praised the Robert Simpson department store for expanding its building at Yonge and Queen. The structure was seen as one of many recently built or in the planning stages that bode well for the city’s future, despite a recent economic depression:

Take your stand on the corner of James and Queen [S]treets. Look southeast and you will see the magnificent new building of the Robert Simpson Co. Limited, a structure not yet fully completed, but beautiful in design and ornamentation, immense in size, and boldly suggesting not only a Greater Toronto, but also the Greater Canada to be. Now turn and look northwest, where stands the city hall, which, architecturally viewed, is one of the most beautiful and imposing municipal buildings on the continent, and of which the citizens of Toronto should be justly proud.

When you thus observe these magnificent structures from the vantage point mentioned…there must dawn on you the thought that they stand and call “Plan with the wider vision; build boldly after the progressive spirit which gave us being; and build with the expansive, unerring faith that a great city, as ours shall be, must have noble, imposing structures, commensurate with its greatness.”

We have used these reflections only because we learned from their coursings thru our mind that a duty lies on Toronto’s citizens positively to realize that to build as if the city was to have no future, no greater extent, and no larger place in the development of Canada, is to be untrue to both the municipality and to the Dominion.

Physical expansion of the city was also in the news, as a hearing was announced for September 29 to listen to the town of East Toronto’s push to be annexed by Toronto. The town’s main reservation was that the proposed terms did not include the formation of a separate ward for the area, as West Toronto had received during its negotiations earlier in the year.

Other notes from the paper:

  • The city’s board of control produced a report with “rather important recommendations” on hiring and salaries of civic employees. New qualifications for positions above junior clerk were laid out, which included an exam if applicants did not hold a junior matriculation certificate or were unable to prove that they were taking classes at the Toronto Normal School. Among the new recommended maximum annual salaries were $780 for a jail guard, $900 for a fireman, and $2,200 for a chief accountant.
  • A meeting was held in North Toronto’s town hall to discuss the town’s overcrowded schools. The proposals put forward eventually led to the establishment of North Toronto Collegiate Institute and Bedford Park Public School.
  • Federal Conservative leader Robert Borden announced his itinerary for a tour around the province, including a stop in Toronto on September 23.
  • Officials of the Ontario Rugby Football Union gathered to celebrate its silver anniversary and organize its upcoming season. One of the first organized football leagues, the ORFU sent senior-level teams to the Grey Cup through the early 1950s.
  • A touch of marital discord in the classified section: “My wife, Elizabeth Stephen, having left my bed and board, I will not be responsible for any debts incurred by her. John Stephen, Deer Park P.O.”
  • From the dissatisfied customer department: “Patrick McIntyre, 32 years, married, 96 Shuter Street, strolled into Arthur Bellman’s quick lunch at 34 East Queen Street. He had ordered beef, but when it was served he was displeased and refused to pay. At the Agnes Street police station his clothes contained $6.13, but he still refused to pay and was held for theft of a meal.”

Photo of William Findlay Maclean, owner of Toronto World , c. 1909, from City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1244, Item 1296. All quotes from the September 19, 1908 edition of The Toronto World.