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A look back at when Toronto was a city run on coal

Posted by Derek Flack / November 14, 2011

Coal in TorontoA little while ago I wrote a piece titled "A look back at when Toronto was kind of filthy," which tried to demonstrate just how much soot had accumulated on Toronto's older — and, at the time, often endangered — buildings. This little look at coal in Toronto might be read as preface to that post.

Coal is the main reason why those buildings had become so filthy over the years. Toronto, being a city with dreadfully cold winters, relied on coal to heat just about everything. Although it's tough to find panoramic photos like the one above that depict the city engulfed in smog, the Archives are littered with images of coal supply companies, which were a fixture on Toronto streets until the late 1950s when the TransCanada pipeline ushered in the natural gas era.

Prior to this period, coal was used by Toronto's manufacturing sector and to heat stoves and furnaces in most homes throughout the city. Even streetcars had coal ovens way back when. Paintings of Toronto in the early part of the 20th century often have a certain hazy, unfocused quality that speaks to the the soot hovering in the air.

The industry eroded quickly after the pipeline's arrival, but one could still see evidence of its former presence at Mount Pleasant and Merton at the Dominion Coal and Wood silos. Although the company would drastically scale back on coal sales in favour of home renovation supplies, I fondly recall that as I child I once purchased a small amount of coal to put in my sister's Christmas stocking. I thought I was a genius. I mean that was real coal!

The buildings have since been cleaned up and the Dominion silos were eventually torn down just a few years after I made my triumphant purchase, but it remains fascinating to imagine a time when Toronto was covered in an industrial fog.

20111114-chimney-sweep-1900-f1244_it1799.jpgChimney Sweep, 1900

20111114-collecting-coal-1909-f1244_it8149.jpgCollecting coal, 1909

20111114-coal-samples-1910-f1244_it1369.jpgCoal samples, 1910

20111114-skyline-smog-1912-f1244_it1122a.jpgSkyline and smog, 1912

20111114-Congers-coal-dock-1914-f1231_it0922.jpgConger's Coal Dock, 1914

20111114-elias-rogers-coal-1916-f1231_it1779.jpgElias Roger's Coal Company, 1916

20111114-coal-chutes-1927-f1548_s0393_it21085.jpgCoal chutes, 1927

2011113-tracks-south-union-1930-s0372_ss0079_it0592.jpgThe scene of industry near Union Station, 1930

20111114-coal-oil-refineries-port-lands-1930-f1244_it1440.jpgOil and coal refineries in the Port Lands, 1930

20111114-conger-lehigh-coal-gerrard-1930-s0372_ss0029_it0013.jpgConger's Lehigh Coal Company, 1930

20111114-milne-coal-company-1931-s0372_ss0064_it0013.jpgMilne Coal Company, 1931

20111114-streetcar-coal-1931-s0071_it8251.jpgCoal oven in streetcar, 1931

20111114-Dominion-coal-1980s-f0124_fl0003_id0025.jpgDominon Coal silos, 1980s

Photos from the Toronto Archives



michael / November 14, 2011 at 07:20 pm
interesting use of advertisement on the silos.
TD / November 14, 2011 at 08:56 pm
Love the pictures!
saltspring / November 14, 2011 at 09:07 pm
Derek, you do a terrific job on these historical photo essays. I note that "conger" means a predatory eel...

What ever happened to Agatha's posts? You two were a great team!
Adam Gray / November 14, 2011 at 10:41 pm
I don't even want to think about what is coming out of the pipe in pic #5.

JasonKucherawy / November 15, 2011 at 12:10 am
I once got coal in my stocking. My parents thought it was hilarious.

I never forgave Santa, that fat bastard.
JasonKucherawy / November 15, 2011 at 12:14 am
Toronto used to be lit by gas lamps that burned a refined coal gas - a flammable gas extracted from coal. When the factories stopped pumping out coal smoke at the end of the work day, the lamps that lit our streets took over. The sun would have been visible through a brownish haze most days if you lived in the east end. Most industrial areas of cities are in the east since the prevailing winds blow from the west. Who wants to live down-wind of factories and coal smoke?
Hmm / November 15, 2011 at 12:15 am
Hmm... That coal stove looks very familiar. It was a while ago, but I definitely remember there was a nearly identical coal stove installed in the old shed out back of my Grandparents house. Wouldn't be surprised if it was an old one that had been lying around at the TTC. My great grandfather worked for the them way, way way back (early 50's til early 80's) in one the maintenance shops.
Ed Guthrie / November 15, 2011 at 09:33 am
A piece of coal in the Christmas stocking was considered to bring good luck. As kids we got one every year.My grandfather told us it was an old Scottish custom.Also to have a man bring in a piece of coal on New Year's Eve would guarantee enough fuel for the rest of the winter.Good old folklore.
Nick / November 15, 2011 at 11:46 am
The stone age did not end because of a rock shortage. Coal seems like a small step up from burning wood and I'm grateful that we don't heat with it any more, even though there is a huge abundance of it still. Similarly, it is heartening that we're almost done generating electricity with coal in Ontario (still a few more stations to go, e.g. Nanticoke), which has led to much better air in Toronto. Next transition: no more oil?!
mike / November 15, 2011 at 05:02 pm
When people long for the past, I think they sometimes forget just how bad the quality of air must have been.
Stefan / December 5, 2011 at 05:24 pm
Great photos, but I'm surprised you didn't include the Richard L. Hearn thermal generating station!
Angus / December 23, 2011 at 09:59 pm
My Aunt Molly told the story of being jammed into an overcrowded Peter Witt streetcar with a coal heater as shown in the photo. She was beside the hot stove with no means of escape and the man beside her was chewing raw garlic. She said she almost lost consciousness. Wondering about kids' safety with a hot stove door as shown? Don't worry - children back then all knew what a hot stove was.

My parents built a home in far off Willowdale in 1948, and the street they lived on was "unimproved", as in not paved. Because of this an oil truck could not deliver in the winter, so a coal furnace was installed. The coal was delivered two blocks away, and my father wheelbarrowed it to our house. Later he moved a coal stoker from my Grandmother's house on Cornish Road in Toronto to the Elmwood Ave. house and we had "automatic" heat. And it was a long distance 'phone call from the City to our four digit Willowdale number.
Duke Vipperman / April 20, 2012 at 10:07 am
A ghost ad on the East side of 2170 Danforth seems to say at the top

and continues with an ad for Woodbine Movers.

But I can find no record of a Danforth Coal. The building has been thefre since at least 1911 - likely a few years before that. Any guesses?
Robert Anderson / March 12, 2013 at 06:27 pm
There was lot of coal yards that followed the railway tracks for easy delivery to the coal companies. My father worked for Reliable Ice and Coal amd Lake Simcoe Ice and Coal they had ice houses and coal yards thru out the city. A very hard way to make a living carrying 100lbs bags of coal and 25lbs and 50lbs of ice. The ice was carried right into the houses and deposited in the ice box.
Lucius Vanbeveren / March 21, 2013 at 02:30 am
I have not found many blogs that offer such consistently readable and interesting content as is on offer on yours, you are due the short time it has taken to share my admiration at your work. Thank you. Lucius Vanbeveren
vansmith / October 29, 2013 at 06:14 am
Thanks for sharing your experience with us…

Air Quality Home Cooling Ideas
Cy Marsden / November 2, 2013 at 05:38 pm
In 1947 (21 yrs. of age) I arrived in Toronto from the UK due to the Premier Mr. Drew and what was called--the 'Drew Scheme'------my first job was as Electrician with the Elias Rogers Coal Company, on Cherry Street in Toronto. My first winter in Canada on the Lake in subzero temperatures was a 'chilling experience.'

As for the 'coal dust'----I had permanent 'eye shadow!!'
Brian / July 17, 2015 at 08:49 am
I grew up on Mt Pleasant Rd (just south of Moore Ave) in the early '50s. and remote being in awe of the "tall coal storage" structures. Now living in Texas I eagerly look forward to seeing more pictures of 'my Toronto'. Thank You!
D.M. Stapleton / July 17, 2015 at 12:11 pm
Lotsa memories here !! Who remembers sifting the ashes from burnt coal at home ?? The ashes were shoveled into a screened pan placed onto a metal bin on rockers. When rocked back and forth the ashes fell to the bottom leaving only the large chunks, the partially burned ones were retrieved plus any unburned coal to be reused. The city had special trucks to pick up ashes - where they went, who knows. Hauling the stuff to the street for pickup was a heavy task. Also I remember well the the coal heater on the great Witt cars. The ticket conducter acting as stoker. I believe these were on the trailer only. When the thing got fired up it chugged out great warmth. With all the damp heavy overcoats the air from a crowd of passengers became quite redolent.
Who remembers the coal delivery man ? He came with his truck to deliver the usual "ton" in bags. He wore a heavy black leather apron. Placing the first bag at the threshold of the window leading to the coal bin over which he emptied the rest of the load - trudging back and forth, a bag at a time until the delivery was completed.
I wish cocktail eating Toronto could revisit these times to see and appreciate working men and I do mean real working men for once in their lives.
damon / July 17, 2015 at 01:40 pm
Coal story bro.
Other Cities: Montreal