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The story behind Toronto street names

Posted by Chris Bateman / February 8, 2012

Toronto Street Name MeaningsThe meaning of Toronto street names often comes to mind when my subway train pulls into the station, and I make up stories about the scenery above my head à la Bill Bryson in his book Notes from a Small Island. At Pape there's a community of solemn Catholic nuns; at Donlands I imagine vast grass plains inhabited by the wild Don tribe. Greenwood, my stop, is buried below an beautiful but treacherous forest of towering pines.

Back on the street, I continue to wonder after their provenance. Many are named for people, a symptom of rampant cronyism in the early days of settlement, but there are some interesting stories nonetheless. Here's a handful of the best.

Spadina

Spad-ee-na, Spad-eye-na, however you want to say it, the broad, majestic avenue is one of Toronto's cultural hot-spots and a vital thoroughfare. Derived from the Ojibwa word "ishpadinaa" meaning "high or sudden hill", Spadina was the name chosen by Dr. William Baldwin (of Baldwin Street) for his property at the top of the escarpment behind today's Davenport Road. Designed by Baldwin, Spadina Avenue was the name of the street between Bloor and Queen. The section below Queen was known as Brock Street until 1884. Pheobe Street is named for Baldwin's wife.

Adelaide

Adelaide Street might sound like a polite tip of the hat to our Australian pals, but in reality Toronto had the name first. Named in 1797 for the young Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, later the wife of King William IV, Adelaide Street has been extended several times east and west consuming lesser streets in its path. The capital of South Australia was also named for Princess Adelaide in 1836.Toronto Street Names Spadina Phil BabcockAvenue Road

Rumour has it that Avenue Road was named by Scottish construction workers who, arriving at the site, proclaimed "let's 'ave a new road here". I would say it's far more likely the street was named for its tree-lined character. The presence of other Avenue Roads in London, Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland further suggest the urban legend might be false.

Parliament

Although there's nothing remarkable about the name, the weird thing about Parliament Street is that it doesn't run anywhere near the parliament buildings. 218 years ago, it did. The Parliament Buildings of Upper Canada were located at the foot of Parliament Street on the south side of Front Street, which was then known as Palace Street. Berkeley Street originally held the title "Parliament" until it was shifted a block east.

Dundas Street Flickr by Maxxime  Dundas

Considering Dundas' importance as a thoroughfare, it's surprising to discover the street is a relatively recent addition to Toronto's grid. Named for its destination, the historically important town of Dundas near Hamilton, the street's winding route hints at its past as a multitude of unconnected roads through the centre of Toronto. Although the route and name was established much earlier west of Ossington, several streets had to be renamed to form the section of today's Dundas Street that passes through the core of the city including Arthur Street, St. Patrick Street, Agnes Street and Wilton Street, among others.

Queen

One of Toronto's principal thoroughfares, regal Queen Street used to have a slightly less majestic name. Renamed for Queen Victoria in 1837, the route was originally known as Lot Street for the 100-acre "park lots" laid out by Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada John Graves Simcoe (of Simcoe Street). Designed to entice people to settle in the new town of York, the narrow, deep lots provided ample space for a villa with a waterfront view. A total of 32 rectangular properties from the Don River west to roughly Lansdowne were marked out for purchase. Toronto Family History has more on Toronto's park lots.Street Names Roncesvalles SniderscionRoncesvalles

There's something about the name Roncesvalles that just doesn't roll off the tongue. Meaning "valley of thorns" in Spanish, the street was named by Colonel Walter O'Hara, an early Irish settler to the area, for the 1813 battle of Roncesvalles Gorge, a bloody conflict in the Napoleonic Wars between French and Anglo-Portugese forces in which he fought.

Sherbourne

In a piece for the National Post in 2003, Liz Clayton told the story of how Caroline Street lost its name thanks to "the vilest wretch this world was ever cursed with." Named for Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of George IV, the name was discreetly canned in favour of Sherbourne, a misspelling of the town of Sherborne in England, when the lady lost the affection of the public.Street Names Danforth Taste EvicencEDanforth

No-one seems sure how the street became simply The Danforth. What is known, however, is that the avenue and road get their name from Asa Danforth Jr., the contractor who built the original Kingston Road east to Prince Edward County. An American who arrived in Upper Canada in the late 1700s, Danforth Jr. had already had a career in land speculation in the state of New York and around the town of York when he turned to road building. Despite financial trouble, the Yankee finished the 106-mile road but was never able to collect all the money promised to him.

Yonge

Once appearing in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest street in the world, Yonge Street is today one of Toronto's principal streets. Home to Canada's first subway, "Main Street Ontario" follows an ancient trail north from Lake Ontario. Developed by John Graves Simcoe and named for his pal Sir George Yonge, an English MP and British Secretary at War, the route was first built north from Eglinton to Lake Simcoe before it was extended south to Lake Ontario.Street Names Broadview Downtown Riverdale Broadview

One of my personal favorites, Broadview Avenue is perfect for the game I mentioned in the introduction. Not surprisingly, Broadview gets its name for the expansive view it affords over the Don Valley. Dylan Reid at Spacing has a great piece on other literal street names in Toronto. The best vista the street has to offer comes from Riverdale Park.

Jarvis

Before it was named for Samuel Jarvis, the north-south road was called New Street. Created by the sale of Jarvis' Hazel Burn estate north of Queen Street, the road was the first to be paved in Canada. Kids in the area no doubt were pleased when the first Hazel Burn was cleared - children were apparently locked in the smokehouse if they were caught stealing fruit from the estate's orchards.

For more check out Allan Gould's Toronto Street Names.

Street Sign photo by E. Victor C., Spadina photo by Phil Babcock, Dundas Square photo by Maxxime, Roncesvalles photo by sniderscion, Broadview photo by Jason Allies, Danforth photo by EvidencE in the BlogTO Flickr pool.

Discussion

34 Comments

paul / February 8, 2012 at 03:25 pm
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Nice post - I live on Broadview Ave., and the original survey shows it used to be named Don Mills Road.

I always look up from my phone or newspaper when my streetcar 'rounds the bend and we all catch a glimpse of that perfect Toronto view.
Bob But Not Doug / February 8, 2012 at 03:48 pm
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I'd love to know why Strange and Busy Streets in Leslieville (which are neither strange nor busy) were named what they are.
Aric / February 8, 2012 at 03:52 pm
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I think you got the origin for Avenue wrong.

University Avenue was (and is) a grand avenue to the University of Toronto and Queen's Park.

Avenue Road, is quite literally the road to University Avenue, or the Avenue Road.
the lemur replying to a comment from Aric / February 8, 2012 at 04:32 pm
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I don't think that's right. 'Avenue' in the sense of a tree-lined road is pretty well attested and occurs elsewhere.

If it goes to Queen's Park Cres first, why isn't it the road that goes there, i.e., 'Crescent Road'? Not to mention the fact that University Ave was variously 'University Street' and 'College Avenue' earlier, not to mention 'Queen St'.
the lemur replying to a comment from Aric / February 8, 2012 at 04:33 pm
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Re Caroline of Brunswick: some time around WW1, Toronto also lost streets named for Bismarck, Schiller, Liszt and Humboldt as well.
JS / February 8, 2012 at 04:36 pm
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I thought Bloor St W was going to be in this article because it's pictured six different times above. But it's not...did I miss it? Did you miss it?
Don Mills / February 8, 2012 at 06:28 pm
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Why did they rename the section of Don Mills Road from Queen Street to O'Connor/Don Mills to Broadview Avenue?
steve / February 8, 2012 at 06:58 pm
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Bloor Street, formerly the Second Concession Road separating the City of Toronto from the Village of Yorkville, was named in 1854 to honour Joseph Bloor, a local landowner and philanthropist. At the time of his death in 1862 Bloor lived where an office building at 121 Bloor St. East stands today.
anna / February 8, 2012 at 07:50 pm
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Simcoe had two other streets named after him. John St is his first name, and Graves Street (later renamed to Duncan because the name sounded too depressing). So there were three streets in a row, with his full name; John Graves Simccoe.
K. / February 8, 2012 at 09:22 pm
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Dundas is indeed named after it's destination (the town of Dundas, now a part of Hamilton). Dundas the town is named after Henry Dundas, another pal of John Graves Simcoe.
the lemur / February 8, 2012 at 11:11 pm
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O'Hara managed to get seven streets in the same neighbourhood named after people and places in his life: Roncesvalles, Sorauren (another battleground in Spain), Fermanagh (the county of his birth in Ireland), Marion (his wife), Constance (his daughter), West Lodge (his home) and ... O'Hara (himself).
Deborah / February 8, 2012 at 11:37 pm
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Keep hoping to find a "Deborah" Street...consoling myself by believing that it existed briefly, but was changed to Queen St. :)
pho / February 9, 2012 at 01:03 am
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Kipling is presumably named after Rudyard Kipling and ironically enough the northern reaches of Kipling in the city are heavily populated by visible minorities.
Brian / February 9, 2012 at 07:41 am
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The rumour of the name Avenue Road - "let's 'ave a new road here" was a comment from a prankster having a little fun, which ended up in The Star.

An avenue was originally a driveway or road leading to a house. Avenue Road originally ran from Bloor Street to Upper Canada College. It was known as "The Avenue", until the name was modified to conform with street naming standards in Toronto, so the the street type "Road" was added.

Brian replying to a comment from Bob But Not Doug / February 9, 2012 at 07:50 am
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According to the book "Scadding's Toronto of Old", Strange Street is named after Maxwell Strange, an auctioneer, who first appears in the directory of 1837.
Dov Eles replying to a comment from the lemur / February 9, 2012 at 08:08 am
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As far as I remember from reading the book on Toronto Street Names, O'Hara didn't "manage" to have 7 streets named after him, his exploits and his family. As mentioned in the article the (not-so-modest) Colonel, instead, named them himself when he sub-divided his concession and began to sell off lots. Toronto, merely continued to use these names after the then village/suburb of Parkdale, was absorbed into the city limits shortly thereafter.
Driving through most modern suburbs demonstrates this practice of developers still exists to varying degrees of success and harmony. Ones that I can remember from the GTA include neighborhoods named for trees, Italian Provinces, British cities etc.
In Swansea where I grew up there is a mix of streets names: some for for pioneers - Rennie Ter, Ellis Ave, Coe Hill, Waller St; some for geographic - Grenadier Heights, Riverside Dr, South Kingsway; some for fits of British or Canadian nationalism, Runnymede Rd, Windermere St, Brule Gardens.
the lemur replying to a comment from Brian / February 9, 2012 at 09:50 am
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Is there any evidence for its previous name being 'The Avenue'? I've never seen any maps call it that.
Brian replying to a comment from the lemur / February 9, 2012 at 10:47 am
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I recall seeing it on an older map. I'll try and find the source when I get a chance.
KM / February 9, 2012 at 09:18 pm
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Is the photo in the article a view from Riverdale Park? I often see great photos from parks on this website and have no idea where they are...what are some other parks with great views of the city?

Had no idea that Dundas was named after Dundas, Ontario. Strangely surprising.
R / February 9, 2012 at 10:26 pm
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"Spadina

Spad-ee-na, Spad-eye-na, however you want to say it, the broad, majestic avenue is one of Toronto's cultural hot-spots and a vital thoroughfare. Derived from the Ojibwa word "ishpadinaa" meaning "high or sudden hill", Spadina was the name chosen by Dr. William Baldwin (of Baldwin Street) for his property at the top of the escarpment behind today's Davenport Road. "
Another example of colonial appropriation. The name was indeed an Anishinabbe name so how can a Euro-Canadian be credited with 'naming'?
the lemur replying to a comment from R / February 10, 2012 at 09:17 am
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Because he chose it, and because it's not the same as the original form?
R Scott / February 10, 2012 at 09:35 pm
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No.
Tash / February 11, 2012 at 03:23 am
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Interesting read, love your imaginings of the area based on the names.
Also love the photo from Riverdale Park - wow!
Eee D. Yot / February 13, 2012 at 11:47 am
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In regards to avenue road's origin... You're an idiot
Carol Maloney / March 13, 2012 at 04:46 pm
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Nice post - you have finally answered some of my questions.
Lavinia / April 22, 2012 at 01:42 pm
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I have found there is a street called Lavinia Avenue. My friends made fun of me that Mayor Ford named a street after me, because I was always walking and strolling and exploring, during the year 2011 when I lived in Toronto:)) Do you know anything about the history of this one?
the lemur replying to a comment from Lavinia / April 22, 2012 at 10:21 pm
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It's been there a long time, I can tell you that:

1910
http://data2.archives.ca/e/e428/e010696128-v8.jpg

1890/1903
http://data2.archives.ca/e/e428/e010698277-v8.jpg

Seems to have been part of a set of streets with people's first names, so there may have been a family associated with it.
Gary replying to a comment from Bob But Not Doug / May 28, 2012 at 07:31 am
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RE Strange St.,Toronto. My guess would be "George M. Strange (born November 9, 1881, died 1961) was a Canadian rower who competed in the 1904 Summer Olympics.

He was born in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba to George William Strange and Elizabeth Johnson. Died in Toronto in 1961, buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery with wife Lillian Georgina Hall Tate.

At the 1904 Summer Games, held in St. Louis, he was a member of Canadian rowing team, which won the silver medal in the Men's Coxed Eights."

From wikipedia...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Strange
the lemur replying to a comment from Gary / May 28, 2012 at 09:09 am
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Except that it was already called Strange St in 1890:

http://data2.archives.ca/nmc/n0016922_a2.pdf
Eric / January 29, 2013 at 08:42 am
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You neglected to share the best part of Asa Danforth Jrs. story. He had actually planned to overthrow the provincial government in 1801 and had to escape to New York. However, while he was a traitor to the British he was imprisoned by the Americans for his debts. So the British named a road after a traitor and the Americans imprisoned a collaborator. Funny world the 19th century.
Barb replying to a comment from paul / October 13, 2013 at 11:54 am
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Yes, Broadview (and part of O'Conner) was originally named Don Mills Road (and Donlands was named Leslie Street) at the same time. You can see this on the very interesting Toronto Archives web-site:Fire Insurance Plans http://www.toronto.ca/archives/goads_fire_insurance_plans.htm
A bit tough to navigate initially but worth the bother. THe 1924 plan has the old Don Mills street names.
Doug Earl replying to a comment from Don Mills / November 3, 2013 at 12:38 pm
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I don't believe that section of Broadview from Queen to the Danforth was ever called Don Mills Road. Don Mills Road originally was an extension of Winchester St (near Parliament and Carlton). The Winchester St bridge took the road over the Don River at Riverdale Park. Don Mills Road continued to Danforth and Broadview, then north along what are now Broadview and O'Connor to the foot of the present-day Don Mills Road. You can still follow the route of old Don Mills Road west of the Don. The entrance is through Riverdale Farm. http://rudy.ca/rediscovering-royal-drive.html
Doug Earl replying to a comment from KM / November 3, 2013 at 01:11 pm
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At least two highways originating in Toronto were named for their major destinations. The other that comes to mind is Kingston Road (Highway 2). Dundas is Highway 5. Interestingly, Dundas and Kingston Road now meet, though originally, Dundas only travelled west from Ossington Ave.
Glenn Gowriluk / June 9, 2014 at 08:07 am
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In Bloor West Village, I understand that Willard Ave used to be called Herbert St/Ave. Anyone know the origin of these names and perhaps why it was changed? Thnx

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