before st clair, there was the yonge street "disaster"

Background: besides writing Past Pieces of Toronto for OpenFile, I tackled several other assignments for the site. One was this piece, originally published on March 22, 2012.

Subway construction along Yonge Street, 1949. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 574, File 2, Item 4992. Click on image for larger version.
Throughout the debate on whether LRTs or subways should be built in Scarborough, the construction of the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way has been a persistent bogeyman. Vilified by ardent subway supporters such as Mayor Rob Ford as one of the biggest disasters in Toronto transit history, the work carried out on St. Clair has been criticized for its delays and impacts (real and imagined) on local business and traffic. Those who imagine fewer hardships building a subway than a surface line may want to examine the miseries that surrounded the construction of the original Yonge line, which was far more disruptive to the local landscape than what occurred on St. Clair.

For businesses along Yonge Street, smiles that greeted Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Ray Lawson when he climbed aboard a pile driver to officially begin subway construction on September 8, 1949 quickly disappeared. The chosen construction method through downtown was cut-and-cover, which resulted in deep trenches along Yonge Street covered by timber planks. The Star joked that “you won’t find many girls in bathing suits walking” along the temporary boardwalk. The unsightly scene at street level was accompanied by twice-daily blasts of dynamite, due to a vein of solid rock up to eight feet thick running between Front and Queen Streets. Besides shaking up people, the blasts upset birds nesting in downtown buildings, resulting in sky-darkening swarms.

Blasted or excavated, tonnes of dirt and debris had to go somewhere. Temporary dumpsites blocked retail entrances and window displays, fuelling merchant anger. Residents along dump truck routes complained about the dust drifting into their neighbourhoods. Conservationists were alarmed by plans to unload most of the dirt in the Don Valley north of Danforth Avenue, fearing the impact of dumping up to 500,000 cubic yards of sterile clay on existing vegetation. In the end, the fill built up parts of Toronto’s waterfront, notably around Ashbridge’s Bay.

Water was a giant nuisance, thanks to careless accidents that created flooding. In a damage report submitted to the TTC, the Open Hearth Grill at 403 Yonge Street claimed that on October 5, 1950 a pile was driven through the house drain, which resulted in a flooded basement and damaged electric motor. “In addition to that,” the report went on, “pile driving apparently damaged the air conditioning and light systems as well as producing settlement of part of the bar counter.”

The City of Toronto Archives holds file after file of damage reports sent to the TTC. Among the other complaints we noted while flipping through the stack of claims: chipped doorways, broken eavestroughs, cracked Vitrolite panels (the same material used for the Yonge line’s original station tiling, and still found at Eglinton station), light standards hit by construction vehicles that fell into restaurant windows, metal fused to windows and storefronts sprayed with oil and tar. Most of the reports were submitted by public and private utilities which experienced damage to underground cables and water lines.

The TTC itself was not immune to damage. Luckily, nobody was injured when construction equipment accidentally smashed four windows in a streetcar at Front Street West and Yonge Street. Most problems riders faced were logistical: what route will my streetcar take this week? Newspapers were filled with ads announcing the latest reroutings to avoid construction. Occasional olive branches were extended, such as the restoration of streetcar service along Yonge north of Wellington Street during the 1951 Christmas shopping season.

When construction began, the route north of Carlton Street was intended to run in an open trench east of Yonge. Some land expropriations went smoothly, while others, such as a group of warehouses along Hayden Street, dragged through the courts when the landowners felt their compensation was insufficient. Worries about declining land values and the volume of demolitions required caused officials to continue building via the cut-and-cover method up to Church Street, which eventually left a string of parkettes and parking lots south of Bloor Street as its legacy.

Beyond Church Street, construction continued to annoy the public. In what might be called an early “St. Clair Disaster,” pile driver vibrations in October 1950 resulted in damage reports of crumbling plaster in nearby apartments and light fixtures falling from the ceiling of Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. The subway route forced the relocation of Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens from its original home across from the Yonge Street entrance of Mount Pleasant Cemetery to its current site near Lawrence Avenue. Residents near Davisville station complained about the placement of the switching yard in their neighbourhood.

While we imagine grumbling lingered on when the subway officially opened on March 30, 1954, most citizens and officials felt any hardships endured were worth the replacement of an overcrowded streetcar line with improved transit service along Yonge Street. People seemed to accept the old adage “no pain, no gain” when the line was built, a lesson that seems to be lost among some involved in the current debate who think any transit line, regardless of its mode, can be created without inconvenience and unfortunate business casualties.

Additional material from The TTC Story: The First Seventy-Five Years by Mike Filey (Toronto: Dundurn, 1996), and the following newspapers: the August 6, 1950 and June 25, 1953 editions of the Globe and Mail, the June 6, 1950 and November 27, 1951 editions of the Toronto Star, and the March 30, 1954 edition of the Telegram.


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