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5 firsts that changed Toronto forever

Posted by Chris Bateman / February 27, 2014

toronto first cocktailIt's hard to imagine a time when it was impossible to legally order a cocktail, get a cup of Tim Hortons coffee, or go home to an apartment in Toronto but, of course, the city didn't always have those things, and there had to be a first for everything.

Broadly speaking, Toronto began to develop the things we now recognize as ubiquitous - shopping malls, apartment buildings, chain restaurants - in the 20th century, sometimes decades behind other major North American cities. Alcoholic drinks that weren't beer or wine took a particularly long time to reappear after prohibition due to tight license restrictions.

Here are the stories of 5 major Toronto firsts.


toronto tim hortonsIf there's one thing Toronto, or any Ontario community for that matter, has in spades, its Tim Hortons outlets. The first Toronto store of the ubiquitous chain opened at 853 The Queensway in Etobicoke (a previous incarnation of the company, a chain of drive-in steak restaurants, ran a short-lived "Tim Horton Do-Nut" in a Lawrence Ave. shopping plaza in the 1960s) and looked much like the store pictured above.

Former Toronto Maple Leaf strongman Horton founded the company we recognize today out of a former Esso station at Ottawa St. and Dunsmure Rd. in Hamilton with the help of business partner Ron Joyce in the late 60s. The Queensway store arrived on the 1st June, 1970, and it's still there - albeit substantially renovated.


toronto arcade buildingBuilt in 1883, Yonge Street's Toronto Arcade was by just a few years the first building in Toronto to enclose multiple stores within a single, multi-level building.

A two-storey atrium, skirted by ornate woodwork and lit by a massive 130-foot glass skylight, provided storefront space for 52 retailers, including the Arcade Saloon and Restaurant, Arcade Cigar Store, Alexander Chinn's Barber, James Pape's florist, and Miss Westmacott's School of Design and Drawing for Ladies.

The third and fourth floors were leased as apartment and office space. The British American Business College, which taught book-keeping, manufacturing, correspondence, penmanship, shorthand, mental arithmetic, and, oddly, "steamboating," occupied the first level above the shopping concourse for many years and advertised on its exterior.

The Toronto Arcade fell into dereliction in the 1950s following a series of fires and many inglorious years as a discount mall, and was knocked down. The Arcade Building with its neon rainbow exterior opposite Temperance Street was built on the site in the 1960s.


toronto first apartmentToronto was extremely slow to issue the permit for its first purpose-built apartment complex. Cities like New York, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo had already seen demand for mutiple-occupancy buildings when, in 1899, the Improved Realty Co. of Toronto Ltd. started work on the St. George Mansions at Harbord, Hoskins, and St. George streets.

The six-storey, C-shaped pressed brick and Bedford stone building contained 34 apartments and was home to 99 people in 1904, many of them wealthy middle-aged married couples. It was soon joined by similar buildings on University Avenue, Huron Street, and Spadina Road.

It was demolished in the years after the second world war, during which it was repurposed as the Toronto home of the Canadian Women's Army Corps and nicknamed "cockroach palace." It was replaced by the University of Toronto's Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories building in 1965.


toronto silver railToronto took a long time to emerge from the paranoid prohibition years between 1916 and 1927. With the formation of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and a slight loosening of the rules, taverns were eventually allowed to serve beer and wine - no liquor, and certainly no cocktails - before 1930.

In 1947, the LCBO relaxed a little more and issued the province's first cocktail licenses and the spectacular neon and chrome Silver Rail at Yonge and Shuter streets was first (by a hair) to obtain one of the coveted permits. Its liquor menu featured a dazzling range of whiskies, brandies, champagnes, rums, liqueurs, egg nogs, gins, sours, "long tails, and flips."

Jazz legend Charlie Parker drank at the Silver Rail before a now legendary performance with Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie across the street at Massey Hall. Pianist Oscar Peterson was played an impromptu concert on the bar's baby grand one night. Metro Toronto chairman Fred Gardiner (he of the expressway) also liked to visit after work.

The Silver Rail met its demise in 1998 when the landlords decided to replace it with a Bay outlet.


toronto first coffeeThe Toronto Coffee House could rightfully lay claim to two firsts: it was the earliest business to use the word "Toronto" in its name and it was the first public meeting place to style itself after European coffee houses. Opened in 1801 on the east side of Jarvis Street, just north of Front Street, the two-storey building really didn't operate much like a modern coffee shop.

Owner-operator William Cooper, who was at times a teacher, wharf operator, and the town's coroner despite having no formal training in the field, described his business "as nearly on the footing of an English inn as local circumstances" allowed. It served wine, brandy, gin, lime juice, and London porter beer as well as food: "oysters, red herring, and anchovies." There was also a dry goods business and inn under the same roof.

Cooper chose the name in an attempt to position the business as a European-style meeting place, a shrine to conversation and a hub for the local community. He sold the business in 1806 to focus on his Humber River mill.

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

Images: City of Toronto Archives, Tim Hortons, Toronto Public Library



Noway Jose / February 27, 2014 at 01:14 am
"Toronto began to develop the things we now recognize as ubiquitous........ bars that serve liquor - in the 20th century".

What? You have to be joking! Victorian Toronto was a bawdy town awash with bars long before Prohibition struck Canada. We still have the Black Bull (1833) and the Wheat Sheaf (1849) as evidence of that. People have a revisionist idea of Toronto's social history today that fits the little box they have created.
Mayor McGrabass / February 27, 2014 at 08:39 am

I miss the Silver Rail. So elegant. Especially for a new Ryerson student who was wide-eyed and fresh off the bus.

They gutted it, made it into a store where they sold Buffalo Jeans for a time. Giant waste.
CaligulaJones replying to a comment from Noway Jose / February 27, 2014 at 09:23 am
Indeed. In fact, in this very same article, it showed a saloon in 1883...
W. K. Lis / February 27, 2014 at 10:00 am
Still waiting to be able to have a beer or wine during a picnic in a city park... legally speaking, of course.
local replying to a comment from Mayor McGrabass / February 27, 2014 at 11:44 am
Not a season goes by that I don't mourn the Silver Rail. Rumour was Mel Lastman had a hand in pushing through its demise. Suburban mayors ruin everything.
Ruth / February 27, 2014 at 11:59 am
The Silver Rail closing was a crime. A true time capsule, a beautiful old bar that spoke of a different era that should have been preserved. A great place to go before or after a show at Massey Hall. So sad.
Al Koholic replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / February 27, 2014 at 12:20 pm
For those once-every-5-to-10-years occasions when the average citizen goes on an outdoor picnic not many care about any laws opposing drinking in a park. They just do it. Check Bellwoods Park out in the summer. The issue of drinking in public is a non sequitur outside of Canada, where it seems to be a burning issue. In most civilized cities of the world even if it is legal the vast majority of people don't drink on the street as it is seen as being low-life. That changes in street parties or at parades when it becomes socially acceptable.
G / February 27, 2014 at 12:20 pm
That first Horton's in Hamilton opened in May of 1964.
Jim Norton replying to a comment from G / February 27, 2014 at 12:40 pm
Yes, the 50th anniversary Roll-up cups and promotion should have made that easy to figure out. I guess the author doesn't go to Tim's. There were only three Tim's in all of the downtown area (south of Bloor between Spadina and Sherbourne) up until about 10 years ago when they started appearing on every other corner.
d / February 27, 2014 at 01:18 pm
Great post, Chris, thanks for that!
Northpark / February 27, 2014 at 01:27 pm
Gooderham and Worts (1837) became one of, if not the largest distillery in the world during the 19th Century. If Toronto were as teetotal as people now believe that would never have happened. I think people still confuse purpose built apartment buildings and multiple-unit tenement buildings with shared toilets. Tenements were everywhere starting in the 1830s but the first true apartment building in New York City was The "Stuyvesant" built in 1870. Unsurprisingly it took awhile for the trend to reach Canada.
I enjoy your articles, Chris! :)
Mark Moore / February 27, 2014 at 09:57 pm

Does anyone know where exactly the 'Tim Horton Do-Nut' store was ? Lawrence Ave. E and ______ ?
Cracker Factory / February 28, 2014 at 03:56 pm
First crack-smoking mayor exposed
Liz / March 1, 2014 at 08:29 am
The first condo building in Toronto should be on this list. I believe it is 190 St George. Also would be interesting to see photos of these buildings through the years. The Yonge St Arcade for instance. I have a vague recollection that at the end of it's years it was a kind of hippy flea market but may be I am thinking of another building.
Ruby Hamilton / March 6, 2014 at 09:07 pm
Was working in Eaton's Mail Order building from 1943. Excited that the Silver Rail was opening! Think I had to lie about my age to get in. Often had lunch at Diana Sweets on Yonge St. with one of the Eaton's elevator operators, a beautiful girl in her uniform and white gloves! Later moved to the 3rd floor of Eaton's College St store. Beautiful carpet dept! Remember VE Day, they let us leave early and we walked all the downtown streets celebrating! Kissing all the soldiers, sailors and airmen on the way!
Peter Korb / August 3, 2014 at 11:05 pm
Mark, I believe the original failed "Tim Horton Do-Nut" store (which was "Our Do-Nut" before Timmy bought into the business) was on the north side of Lawrence just west of Warden in the Colony Plaza. Mostly middle eastern businesses there now, Wadi Foods among them.
Peter Korb replying to a comment from Peter Korb / August 3, 2014 at 11:08 pm
Oops. "Your Do-Nut" (later Royal Do-Nut)
pearlD. replying to a comment from Ruby Hamilton / August 4, 2014 at 11:23 am
The first time I ever had a Lobster was at the Silver Rail, I'm not sure that there was any other place that had them at that time and as the person (Ruby H.) above stated...the old 'Diana Sweets' was also so memorable as is/was 'Bassels'(famous for its wonderful Rice Pudding).. The Eaton's College Street branch was a beauty as was the original 'Arcadian Court'.....
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