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Vintage photos of cycling in Toronto

Posted by Derek Flack / March 23, 2012

History Cycling TorontoToronto has a surprisingly rich cycling history. While biking culture has experienced a resurgence over the last five years or so (some might trace it back further), if you go back 100+ years the bike was even more of a fixture on city streets than it is today. Although rarely the primary subject of archival photos, careful attention to street scenes captured between the 1890s and 1920s reveal cyclists darting across the frame as ghostly streaks all over the place.

A dignified looking group, we'd call many of these riders "utility cyclists" nowadays. While recreation was a part of the picture — at one point there was even a velodrome at Scarborough Beach — a host of factors contributed to make the bicycle a highly desirable mode of transportation — perhaps even more so than today. "New smooth-riding bikes replaced what were affectionately known as bone shakers," Simon Wallace explains in a great piece on the rise of Toronto's cycling culture in the 1890s. "And given border tariffs importing bikes was prohibitively expensive, but they were cheap to make here. Factory after factory after factory opened in Southern Ontario, and with the bike market flooded, prices dropped to the point where virtually anyone could afford one."

Consider this staggering stat that Wallace has dug up for us: "An 1895 city commissioned count found that between 6:00 and 6:30 am 395 cyclists travelled westbound via King St. into the downtown. By comparison, only 29 riders take that same route, at the same time, today." One of the reasons for this, to be sure, is that cyclists use different routes, but it's remarkable to consider just how much two-wheeled traffic there really was back then.

Along with Wallace's article, those interested in the city's cycling past can turn to the brief history put together by the municipal government (PDF), which traces biked-based transportation in the city from its birth in the 1800s to the push for bike lanes in the 1990s. My little contribution to the subject will come in visual form, as I present this collection of cycling-themed photos from the Toronto Archives. Let it be a reminder that it's always possible to ride with style.


2012322-bike-storage-1898.jpgBike storage 1898

2011322-1899-Cyclist_passing_city_hall.jpgPassin Old City Hall when it was new, 1899

20101227-1900-Cycling_club_in_Toronto.jpgCycling club in Toronto, 1900

20101227-1903--JarvisStreet1903.jpgA leisurely ride Jarvis Street, 1903

2012322-bay-street-1907-f1244_it7142.jpgBay Street, 1907

2012322-cyclist-hill-st-clair-1907-f1244_it0022.jpgWalking it up the hill to St. Clair, 1907

2012322-james-family-1907.jpgPhotographer William James' family (and evidence that the fixie predates the hipster), 1907

20101220-1910-QueenYongeWilliamJames.jpgCyclists occupy the edge of the frame at a busy Queen & Yonge, 1910

2012322-QueenStreetViaduct-1911.jpgCrossing the Queen Street Viaduct, 1911

2012322-don-river-leaside-1912-f1244_it8156.jpgApparently the World Naked Bike Ride goes way back, 1912

2012322-university-1912.jpgUniversity Avenue, 1912

2012322-cycle-corps-1915.jpgCycle Corps, 1915

2012322-yonge-rosedale-1915.jpgYonge Street near Summerhill, 1915

2012322-cyclist-viaduct-1918.jpgDarting across the new Bloor Viaduct (a photograph that should be familiar to In the Skin of Lion readers)

20101220-1918-Bloor_Viaduct_1918.jpgMore Bloor Viaduct, 1918

2012322-broadview-queen-1918.jpgBroadview and Queen, 1918

2012322-cne-tricks-1920.jpgTrick riders at the CNE, 1920

2012322-north-bathurst-hill-1922-f1244_it7371.jpgNorth Bathurst hill looking daunting, 1922

2011322-Cne-bike-race-better-f1244_it2007.jpgCNE bike race, 1922


2012322-scarboro-beach-velodrome-1926-f1244_it8167.jpgScarborough Beach Velodrome (!), 1926

20100822-Front_of_Royal_York_Hotel.jpgWhere's Waldo at the new Royal York Hotel, 1929

2012322-big-wheel-1930.jpgMy what big wheels you have, 1930

2012322-spadina-1931.jpgSpadina, 1931

2012322-double-big-wheel-1934.jpgDouble big wheels! 1934

2012322-bike-marathon-cne-1950s-f1257_s1057_it5730.jpgBike Marathon, 1950s

2012322-davenport-1956.jpgRiding on Davenport, 1955

Photos from the Toronto Archives



Paul / March 23, 2012 at 04:09 pm
I'm hoping the naked dudes on the bikes are of age, 'cause it's kinda doin' it for me...
Amy / March 23, 2012 at 04:16 pm
Such great photos with giggle-inducing captions!
wockawocka / March 23, 2012 at 04:17 pm
shut up u idiot.
John replying to a comment from Paul / March 23, 2012 at 04:25 pm
Well, even if they weren't, they certainly are by now.
Paul replying to a comment from John / March 23, 2012 at 04:32 pm
lol. Good one, John.
EveryonesOpinion / March 23, 2012 at 04:44 pm
Wow - you mean there was a point that Jarvis actually looked respectable?
Nate / March 23, 2012 at 04:48 pm
Minor note: I believe the 1895 study was conducted for 6PM, not 6AM as Wallace states. It's unclear whether would change Wallace's comparison of the volumes, or whether that was a typo in Wallace's original article.
Paul replying to a comment from wockawocka / March 23, 2012 at 04:59 pm
But we're not the ones flaming online, are we?
Martin Reis (@BikeLaneDiary) / March 23, 2012 at 06:58 pm
Wonderful. Thanks Derek!
bob / March 23, 2012 at 09:10 pm
damn I love seeing photos like these!
PMK / March 23, 2012 at 10:22 pm
So which one is John Sewell?
Joemama / March 24, 2012 at 08:01 am
Are those streetcar tracks on the bloor viaduct!?!
Ok which fancy streetcar lover photoshopped those in?
People want subways folks, subways, subways, subways
ron / March 24, 2012 at 08:17 am
thanks for posting these great and truely vintage photos. those of us who know the city while riding recognize the historical importance of them immediately.
lxpatterson / March 24, 2012 at 09:31 am
Man that looks like Peggy Olson's mom on the boneshaker.
Dan Bro / March 24, 2012 at 11:28 am
Bloor Viaduct 'Photo' is that a bike lane in the middle of it?

mister replying to a comment from Paul / March 24, 2012 at 05:16 pm
thats gross
Ben / March 25, 2012 at 07:19 pm
Who knew the war on cars has been being waged for so long.
Ken / March 26, 2012 at 08:57 am
I think the photo captioned "Walking it up the hill to St. Clair, 1907" should be "Walking it up hill on St. Clair, 1910". "1907" is crossed out on the photo and I would think the hill is probably the valley between Spadina and Bathurst because it says St. Clair W.
terry / March 26, 2012 at 09:20 am
excellent archival info
the lemur replying to a comment from Ken / March 26, 2012 at 10:42 am
For what it's worth, the city archives entry says 1907, but I think you're right about it being on St Clair W itself. Unfortunately the caption is obscured - I would really like to know what it said before 'bridge'.
paul replying to a comment from mister / March 26, 2012 at 11:31 am
oh get over yourself.
Phil / March 26, 2012 at 11:01 pm
I see dead people.
Charles Marker / March 30, 2012 at 06:53 pm
Great work, Derek, as always. Thanks.
Heather / December 15, 2012 at 09:27 pm
My grandfather was a bicycle racer in Toronto back in the 1920's - he almost made it to the 1920 olympics but had a fall. I have a silver medal of my grandfather's from the 1922 CNE athletic games plus a picture of him from back then on his bicycle. I cannot find any information on him from back then or with what cycling club he belonged to. He also used to do the 6 days races back in that time frame too. I would appreciate any information that anyone can supply me. His name was John Everett Tuck he went by Ev Tuck all the time.
Deb Hunter / April 29, 2016 at 02:10 am
Wonderful vintage cycling photos. Quite a collection but not surprising given your cycling history!
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