Book excerpt: Toronto City of Commerce 1800-1960

For the first few decades after its founding, there was little hint that Toronto would ever be anything but a sleepy little backwater


With the construction of the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron line,Toronto’s railway age had officially begun and the city’s relationship with the waterfront would change forever.Where once the lake had been easily accessible, Torontonians now had to contend with rail crossings like this one at Sunnyside, as seen in 1911.

In 1801, the Rev. John Stuart wrote a letter outlining his impression of, and concerns with, the young town of York (Toronto). He wrote:

“I need not observe to your Lordship, thatYork never was intended by nature for a metropolis; and that nothing but the caprice and obstinacy of Genl Simcoe raised it to that Dignity. The Harbour is not commodious, as the wind that carries a vessel out of it, is a headwind when it enters the Lake. The town is a Hot Bed, where everything is forced, unnaturally, by English money. I know of no trade now existing, or to be expected at any future Period, to support or enrich it.”

And Stuart was not alone. Many other early residents and visitors were similarly underwhelmed by the muddy little town and felt that their fortunes, or at least a comfortable existence, lay elsewhere.

At the time of Stuart’s letter, York was still being carved from the wilderness. The first waves of British colonists and United Empire Loyalists, hoping to lay crops, had to contend with clearing their heavily forested lots — a daunting task for those unaccustomed to such heavy labour. Once crops were finally laid and harvested, further difficulties followed when it became apparent that there were no easy means of transporting them for sale.

Yonge Street, which had been constructed to supplant the Toronto Carrying Place, an ancient, Indigenous trade route connecting Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe and the northern Great Lakes, proved a poor passage initially. And it would be a good many years before it became dependable as a route of travel.

Remarkably, the early colonists held on and even managed to sell others on the idea of settling in York. By the 1850s, as the population grew and the march of time and progress improved the city and its connections to the outside world, the trade that Rev. Stuart could not imagine was quickly becoming a reality.

By the late nineteenth century, businesses of every description were cropping up along Wellington, Adelaide, Richmond and Queen Streets. The once impassable southern portions of Yonge Street were now known
for smart shops, where once King Street alone had been the place to be. A financial district was taking root around Bay and King Streets as a number of new banks emerged on the scene, eager to offer their services

to the citizenry. Factories and warehouses sprouted along the Don River and lakeshore to support furniture manufacturers, planning mills, lithographers, confectioners and even wholesaler grocers. As the city pushed westward, a garment district was established between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue. Soon factories were being raised, seemingly, in every area of the city and, in their midst, whole new neighbourhoods emerged.

Look through photos of Toronto during this period and you can almost feel the bustle and hum of a city with great purpose. The streetscapes are busy with wagons and horse-drawn streetcars, ornate streetlamps, planked sidewalks and glimpses of long-departed citizens. Look beyond these curiosities and you will also discover the remarkable liveliness of the buildings themselves. Large, bold signs and advertisements cling to every surface imaginable and in any number of forms. Each is a testament to the industry of the age.

Scattered throughout the city, some of these early signs remain. Known as ghost signs, they are a fading fragment of something that is no longer. But, like an open-air time capsule, each one has a story to tell. Their mere presence can tell us how a street has developed, their slogans tell us how language has changed. They are the echoes of a specific time and place in history and of the many individuals who came before us and helped shape Toronto into a city of commerce.

Part 1 Manufacturing

For the first few decades after its founding, there was little hint that Toronto would ever be anything but a sleepy little backwater. While there was a smattering of shops, inns and taverns, industry of any kind was stunted by a small population, little money and lack of easy connections to the outside world. And so, for a good many years, production of any sort was of the “workshop” variety, with little being churned out beyond what was required by the inhabitants. This meant that anything that couldn’t be homegrown or homemade had to be brought in from elsewhere, and often at great expense.

But change would come with the introduction of steamships, canals and, ultimately, the railway. By the mid-19th century, many enterprising individuals were building factories and producing goods in the city. As the century wore on, the city grew and the rail lines stretched farther. And wherever rails were laid, factories sprang up to take advantage of the easy connections.

Many of these early factories remain, though the businesses that built them have long since been shuttered or have moved their production abroad. Happily — though many have found new purpose as converted loft space or homes for new industries like craft breweries, publishing houses and art galleries — many still bear the mark of the names and products that brought them into being.

An illustration of ironmonger James Good’s Toronto Locomotive, the first locomotive to be built in Upper Canada. It was completed in 1853 and used on the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron rail line.

James Good’s Foundry

Born in Ireland, James Good immigrated to Canada in 1832 and settled in York, where he found work as an ironworker. Following his 1839 marriage to Eleanor Bull, he was lucky enough to receive sufficient financial backing from his new father-in-law to purchase the Union Furnace Company on Yonge Street and open his own foundry.

Initially, Good’s Foundry produced hardware such as ploughs, stoves, potash kettles and threshing machines. With the construction of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway in 1851, Good was given the opportunity to build something really heavy duty and of great import to the city — a locomotive. So he set to work on the very first locomotive built in Upper Canada. The finished machine, completed on April 16, 1853 was, fittingly, named the Toronto.

But there was just one problem: Good’s Foundry was a fair distance from the railway on Front Street and, worse yet, there were no rails on which to move the locomotive. The only option was to lay temporary tracks to roll it along — first west on Queen to York Street and then south to the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway at Front Street. On April 20, workers began the tedious process of laying 100 feet of track before the massive machine and then taking them up as the Toronto passed — like a large, ponderous game of leapfrog. The trip from Yonge and Queen to York and Front Streets took nearly a week. Miserable as the process no doubt was, it certainly gave Torontonians some novel entertainment. Each day people gathered to watch the enormous, strange machine make its way.

Remarking on the locomotive itself, Sandford Fleming’s Canadian Journal noted, “The ‘Toronto’ is certainly no beauty, nor is she distinguished for any peculiarity in the construction, but she affords a very striking illustration of our progress in the mechanical arts, and of the growing wants of the country.”

James Good’s Foundry went on to produce 23 locomotives, including the Simcoe, Samson and Hercules. Reflecting this shift in focus, the foundry was renamed the Toronto Locomotive Works.

With the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway, the railway age in Toronto had officially begun — though it would change the face of the city forever. The tracks that connected the city to the outside world also cut Torontonians off from their beloved lakeshore and littered the surrounding areas with railbeds, stations and servicing sheds. Many Torontonians were pained by this — others shrugged and felt it was the price of progress.

Excerpted from Toronto City of Commerce, 1800-1960, Stories of a city’s factories, businesses and storefronts, by Katherine Taylor. Reprinted with permission of James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers, Toronto.  

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