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The crash that built the Queen East subway

Posted by Chris Bateman / December 15, 2012

toronto queen crossingIn the late-fall gloaming of Nov. 17, 1904, streetcar No. 642 was heading east on Queen Street towards the village of Riverside and the Beaches beyond. The Toronto Railway Company car was one of the city's first electric trolleys, a wooden cabin on metal wheels with an absurd galleon-style steering wheel, driven by Willis Armstrong.

As the motorman approached the at-grade GTR rail crossing between De Grassi and McGee Streets he noticed the white barriers were down in advance of a Montreal-bound freight train that was presently thundering past the Distillery. Steel bars called "Scotch blocks" set into the tracks 20 feet from the crossing were raised to slow stray streetcars.

In the back, women clutched children while men in smart suits browsed the evening edition of the Toronto Daily Star.

toronto queen eastBefore the eastbound tracks out of Toronto were raised and fitted out with bridges, the express line for Kingston and Montreal sliced through the Port Lands, Riverside, and northwest out of town at street level. Trains ran roughly every thirteen minutes in 1904 - 110 a day - so a team of signalmen we employed on the line to ensure the way was kept clear at each crossing point.

Using a system of bells, the team would signal the next crossing when a train was approaching. When streetcar No. 642 approached, the gates had been down for roughly two minutes and a small crowd of pedestrians had gathered on either side of the street.

Established protocol among drivers required motorman Armstrong to gently apply the brakes around Saulter Street and coast to a halt. The braking system on the TRC cars was controlled by a lever in the cab connected to the underside of the vehicle by a metal chain.

This system had faced criticism before. A newspaper article cited an incident on Bathurst Street that allowed a streetcar to run a stop sign and roll around a corner out of control; at Carlton and College, a TRC vehicle was heavily damaged when it rear-ended another car.toronto GTR trainInstead of the Queen East streetcar slowing, it maintained its speed toward the crossing gates. With a collision imminent, the driver leapt clear of the cab, abandoning the streetcar to its fate, and landed with a thud on the street.

No. 642 slammed into the Scotch blocks, tearing them from the ground, and crashed through the lowered barriers. Within moments, the GTR freighter tore the streetcar in half, scattering bodies, wood, and steel in every direction.

The sickening screech from the train's emergency brakes filled the air as the locomotive shuddered to a halt 110 metres down the line, pieces of debris wedged in its cowcatcher. The cab lay upended, relatively unscathed, at the side of track close to Queen Street.toronto queen street crashIn the immediate aftermath motorman Armstrong was not found among the survivors and he was presumed dead. Two passengers were killed instantly and another seriously injured died in hospital a short time later. A child, Baby Robertson, lost a leg and many others suffered similar wounds.

Armstrong turned up a short time later, still bleeding from his fall, and was taken to hospital suffering from shock. Police arrived a short time later to make an arrest but were advised to keep the man under medical watch as he was "too unstrung" to leave. The crew of the Montreal-bound freighter were also subpoenaed as witnesses.

Back at the accident site, a crowd of nearly 1,000 people swamped the area, some stealing pieces of streetcar as souvenirs. The dead, William J. McKay, Russell J. Stevens, and Minnie Mahaffy, were removed. 12 of the more seriously wounded, including the Baby Robertson, were taken to the General Hospital at Gerrard and Parliament. Doctors from nearby homes patched and dressed the wounds of those relatively unscathed.

An inspection of the debris eventually proved Armstrong's claims that the brakes had failed accurate. A broken link in the brake chain prevented the caliper pads moving as intended and the driver could have had no control over the ensuing events.toronto queen street crashTRC was criticized in the days afterward for using "poor cheap brakes". The Star wrote the company "failed to have any regard to the value of human life in equipping [streetcars] with old-fashioned hand brake which has been in use for many years. Surely it is a scandalous thing that in the face of such convincing proof of the utter uselessness of the hand brake that Toronto Railway should be allowed to use it."

In 1921, 17 years later, the TRC was merged into a new transit provider, the TTC. A coroner's report ordered that the crossing be immediately removed and a dedicated bridge built to prevent further accidents.

In true Toronto transit style, it would take 23 years for the bridge to open.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Photos: City of Toronto Archives and the Toronto Star.



Sean Marshall / December 15, 2012 at 02:29 am
Great piece, but one minor point. The Toronto Civic Railways (TCR) did not cross here at Queen at DeGrassi. The TCR were a series of disconnected streetcar routes built by and for the City of Toronto in the 1910s on Gerrard East, St. Clair, Bloor West, Danforth and Lansdowne. The Toronto Railway Company (TRC) operated the street railway franchise in 1904 and ran streetcars at this point.
Andrew Wells / December 15, 2012 at 07:20 am
Terrific piece on some of the history of the TCR / TTC. Great work on digging up some great footage from the archives as well. Thankfully we don't have trains crossing paths with our streetcars anymore!
W. K. Lis / December 15, 2012 at 08:27 am
While not in the same league as level crossings, the St. Clair underpass, just east of Keele and west of Old Weston, maybe rebuilt and widened starting in 2015 and ending by 2018. It takes years to correct problems, even today.
A / December 15, 2012 at 12:19 pm
I do not understand how the title of the article makes sense. There is no Queen East subway.
Dylan replying to a comment from A / December 15, 2012 at 12:43 pm
A "subway" can also refer to an underpass.
W. K. Lis replying to a comment from A / December 15, 2012 at 02:33 pm
If one looks up at the stonework at the Queen Street WEST between Dufferin and Gladstone, one will see Queen Subway written in stone.
A / December 15, 2012 at 07:26 pm
I am an ignorant idiot. Sorry guys.
Sean / December 15, 2012 at 10:43 pm
Great piece with cool pictures but they measured distances in imperial in those days, not metric.
Mark Moore / December 16, 2012 at 01:26 am

Hey 'A', don't be so hard on yourself. You learned something today.
A / December 16, 2012 at 01:36 pm
Hello. I am the "A" that made the first comment regarding the usage of "subway". My questioning of that usage is correct. A "subway" can be an underpass if said underpass was dug out underneath a road (such as the one on Queen West at Dufferin). The rail bridge at Queen and Degrassi was built up artificially from the road level, not dug out from underneath, making it an underpass, not a subway. The "sub" in subway refers to "subterranean", which the Queen East underpass is not.

I would also like to point out that I did not make that "ignorant idiot" comment afterwards. All I can say to the person that wrote that is, piggybacking on a conversation that someone else's momentum started, falsely representing yourself as someone else and adding nothing positive, only negativity? I guess yes, you are an ignorant idiot.
A / December 17, 2012 at 12:39 pm
I had a sleepless night and I do take back what I said. It's awful to call someone an ignorant idiot and bullies shouldnt be in public forums. I think the media has made a huge mistake these last few years allowing common folk to make comments. Its nothing but negativity and awfulness towards our fellow man. Its Christmas. Pass the spirit on and be good and kind and loving to your neighbour, neighbour ;)
the lemur replying to a comment from A / December 17, 2012 at 02:13 pm
It could be argued that the sub- part merely denotes 'under' but not necessarily subterranean. In any case, if used synonymously with 'underpass', it can be any crossing at different levels as long as one way is below the other.
WYC / December 17, 2012 at 09:29 pm
Nice stuff from the archives! I learned something today!
David Imrie / February 17, 2013 at 01:02 pm
A few minor corrections: first the GTR mainline runs northeast out of the area, as it does today as CN's Kingston Sub, which includes VIA Rail and the Lakeshore/Stouffville GO Transit routes. In 1904, the distilleries were to the west of the Don River. East of it was the Sunlight Park Baseball Stadium and Sunlight Soap Factory, later Unilever Canada. The nearby Riverdale Station was built by the narrow-gauge Toronto and Nipissing Railway in the 1850s and later absorbed by Grand Trunk. It was used as a commuter station for numerous factories in the area during World War II, but later became a private residence before its demolition in the 1960s.
Derek Boles / February 18, 2013 at 12:03 pm
Riverdale station was not built by the Toronto & Nipissing. Why would they build a station alongside track that they didn't own but were leasing from the Grand Trunk? The station was opened in 1896 by the Grand Trunk Railway as Queen Street East. It was renamed Riverdale in 1907. There are two excellent books about the T&N and several timetables that have survived, none of which mention a Riverdale station. Aside from the Toronto terminal at the foot of Berkeley Street, the T&N only built stations from Scarboro Junction (their spelling) north where they owned their own track.
Derek Boles / February 18, 2013 at 12:16 pm
What evidence do you have that Riverdale was used as a commuter station during WW2? The Riverdale Historical Society and Heritage Toronto would certainly be interested in seeing it. Our information is that the station was closed by CN in 1932. No CN timetables show trains stopping there after that year. The building was variously used as a gospel hall, a carpet factory, a taxi dispatch office, a grape vendor and a heating firm and survived until 1974.
Derek Boles / February 18, 2013 at 12:34 pm
The word subway is legally recognized in Canada as describing a railway underpass. The word was used long before Toronto opened its underground railway in 1954 and Montreal opened their's in 1966. Everywhere else in Canada that doesn't have an underground railway the word is still used to describe an underpass below railway tracks.
robert pineault / February 4, 2015 at 10:50 pm
just like they built the underpass at st clair and midland. in 1975 a ttc bus got hit by a train here .10 people died. they were all safe off the bus and stood near it. the train hit it and the bus did a 180 on impact. the bus was a gm 8044 . I saw it after the accident. it was on a trailer with a tarp on the front heading wb at mount pleasant and eglinton going back to ttc yard at Bathurst st
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