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A visual history of the Toronto Railway Lands

Posted by Derek Flack / November 3, 2011

History Railway Lands TorontoThis look back at the Railway Lands in Toronto over the years is something of a companion to the post I recently compiled on the preponderance of parking lots throughout the downtown core between the 1960s and 1980s. Although not always interconnected, some of the parking lots to be found in that previous post were built on former railway lands. But for me, the major relationship between these two glimpses of Toronto's past is the degree to which they depict a city that had yet to really "fill in."

To sketch in rather broad strokes, the history of the Railway Lands dates back to 1858 when Toronto's first Union Station was erected by the Grand Trunk Railway. It would be replaced in 1873 by Union Station II, which was later rebuilt and re-opened in 1896 only to be demolished in the late 1920s after the completion of current Union Station, which sits further east along Front Street than its predecessors.

By the 1930s when the City reclaimed some of the land around the waterfront, the Railway Lands had swelled to an enormous size, which would reach its peak in and around the 1940s or so. Basically all the land south of Front Street to Queen's Quay was owned by rail companies. It would remain this way for another 40 or so years.

The first significant plans to revitalize the Railway Lands came in the 1960s, when Metro Centre was proposed, of which the CN Tower was the only facet to come to fruition (though in a much different form than initially proposed). After the CN Tower was completed there were plans to continue to develop the area, but they were ultimately put on hold until the birth of the SkyDome more than a decade later.

Post-Dome, development again slowed as the City tried to figure out the best use for the remaining lands. Another sports stadium would eventually follow in the form of the Air Canada Centre (built on the site of the old Canada Post Delivery Building), which kickstarted work on what would come to be CityPlace. The Archives are littered with urban design photographs of plans, models and presentations devoted to the Railway Lands in the 1980s and 1990s, but the end result of the process is still a matter of some debate, as many planners have criticized the isolated nature of the condo community that has risen to the west of what's now known as the Roger's Centre.

Regardless of what one thinks of CityPlace, however, it's certainly superior to the huge swath of empty land that sat in the area only 15 years ago.


2011128-DPC-old_union1890.jpgOld Union Station, Ca. 1890

2011113-view-from-new-union-1926-f1580_it0045.jpgView from New Union Station, 1926

2011113-old-union-and-tracks-1926-s0372_ss0079_it0049.jpgTracks and rail cars around Old Union Station, 1926

2011113-tracks-east-union-1930-s0372_ss0079_it0596.jpgTracks east of Union Station, 1930

2011113-tracks-south-union-1930-s0372_ss0079_it0592.jpgTracks south of Union Station, alternate view 1930

20101121-sepiaaerial.jpgRailway lands aerial, Ca. 1940s

20100815-toronto1967.jpgToronto in 1967, railways and parking lots

2011113-railway-lands-metrocentre-1968.jpgPlans for Metro Centre, 1968 (that's an alternative design for the CN Tower there)

20100225-CN-train.jpgRailway lands, Ca. 1960s

20100815-rails.jpgRailway lands looking really wide, 1960s

20100225-CN-tower-base.jpgConstruction starts on the CN Tower, 1973

2011627-cn-construction.jpgCN Tower construction, 1973

2011627-cn-bw-construct.jpgThe Tower rises, 1974

2011113-railway-lands-west-1970s-s1465_fl0059_id0130.jpgLooking west across the railway lands, Ca. late 1970s

2011113-railway-lands-1980s-s1465_fl0349_it0003.jpgRailway lands, Ca. 1980s

2011113-railway-lands-bathurst-bridge-1980s-s1465_fl0349_it0040.jpgRailway Lands from Bathurst Bridge, 1980s

2011113-railway-lands-bathurst-bridge-closer-1980s-s1465_fl0349_it0047.jpgFrom Bathurst Bridge, closer perspective

2011113-railway-lands-east-cn-tower-1980s-s1465_fl0041_id0010.jpgRailway Lands looking down (and east) from the CN Tower, 1980s

2011113-railway-lands-CN-tower-vert-1980s-s1465_fl0041_id0009.jpgRailway Lands, looking down (and west) from the CN Tower, 1980s

2011113-railway-lands-dome-construction-s1465_fl0060_id0007.jpgConstruction on the SkyDome, late 1980s

2011113-railway-roundhouse-1990s-s1465_fl0078_id0001.jpgJohn Street Roundhouse, early 1990s

2011113-railway-lands-1990s-s1465_fl0037_id0132.jpgRailway Lands, 1990s

2011113-railway-lands-model-1990s-s1465_fl0061_id0010.jpgModel for development of the Railway Lands (it don't look like this now!)


2011113-railway-lands-razed-1990s-s1465_fl0059_id0150.jpgRazed for development, 1990s



2011113-railway-lands-razed-aerial-1990s-s1465_fl0059_id0207.jpgRailway Lands prepared for development, 1990s

2011113-spadina-city-place.jpgCity Place 2009

2011113-bathurst-bridge-today.jpgView from Bathurst Bridge, 2010

Photos from the City of Toronto Archives (marked), the Wikimedia Commons and the by the author (the last two).



JS / November 3, 2011 at 04:59 pm
Wow. For a second there I thought these were current photos of Thunder Bay's water front! Zing!
David / November 3, 2011 at 05:07 pm
Interesting stuff. I also had no idea that there were alternate designs of the CN Tower. I'd like to know more about that!
tracey / November 3, 2011 at 05:37 pm
I do not mind that the skyline is getting filled in, but I wish we had made some design criteria -- rows and rows of glass towers are monotonous and ugly IMHO. Toronto is starting to look pretty generic. Vancouver made this mistake. Too bad we are too. The Ugly Sisters (Queen's Quay and Rees) are starting to look quite attractive in the midst of all these repulsive turquoise blocks.
annakareninaonmeth / November 3, 2011 at 06:53 pm
how can u even compare ugly sisters to cityP ... just strictly based on street level ugly is a disaster.. what the hell is that place, with that pondscum area..?? city is clean and is far more welcoming to a pedestrian
Craig / November 3, 2011 at 07:22 pm
The picture looking west from the CN tower in the 1990's is most likely form the early 1990's as you can just see the CBC in the lower right hand corner is no quite complete.

Additionally, there were rail lines to the north of Front Street between Spadina and Simcoe.
( City of Toronto Archive Aerial Photos
rick mcginnis / November 3, 2011 at 07:29 pm
It's ugly, to be sure, but these vast, dirty rail yards - and their (slightly) smaller cousins to the east and west in Leaside and the Junction, were what made Toronto, moreso than the ports, which were never the major industrial factor that some city plans hoped they'd be. Like I've said, when you find yourself driving over level crossings on Strachan or crossing the Wallace footbridge or trying to navigate dead end streets in Parkdale or north of Leslieville, it's because of the rail corridors that made Toronto an industrial hub (once upon a time.) You could probably do a whole series on the city's close relationship with the railways over a century and a half, Derek - there's certainly enough material in the archives.
namehijacked / November 5, 2011 at 11:44 am
Great pics! These old archival posts are the best thing about blogTO.
I wonder if it dawns on the usual suspects that it's not the Gardiner that poses an impediment to 'lake access.' The visual evidence, both from the sky and ground level is pretty plain in these photographs. The Gardiner is but a ribbon against the yawing mass of train tracks.
Funny how that fact is conveniently ignored when the Gardiner is widely hated (well, by some people anyway.)
Kain / November 6, 2011 at 11:49 pm
This is the only picture I could find online of the original tower design from the Metro Centre, wow! But yeah Vancouver does look like a generic metropolis, only the Harbour Centre stands out.

But as for the comment regarding the Gardiner... yes it is a major impediment to the lakefront, there are bridges over/under the rail tracks, but I find the greatest barrier to be the badly-phased traffic lights crossing Lakeshore Blvd.
add some! / May 15, 2012 at 11:06 pm
whut? no cityplace golf club pix?
Steven / March 29, 2013 at 05:11 pm
New railings, never shut'em down! KEEP IT GOING
X-Girl / May 27, 2015 at 12:03 am
Is that the ACC? What was that building called back then?
Tom / May 27, 2015 at 08:24 am
yeah looks horrible now and wait till the area becomes a slum!
stopitman replying to a comment from X-Girl / May 27, 2015 at 06:51 pm
X-Girl - Pre-ACC it was the Canada Post Toronto Postal Delivery Building. That's why the bas relief on the outside shows different places around the world where mail is delivered as well as how they get it there (planes, boats, etc.). In the hallway between Union and the ticked part of the ACC they have the bronze coat of arms and old signage up on the wall (side closest to Bay St).

RE: the article
*waits for people to complain that the industrial wasteland was better than the condos that spend hundreds of millions of dollars remediating toxic soils*
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