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5 things to know about Toronto on its 180th birthday

Posted by Chris Bateman / March 6, 2014

toronto birthday180 years ago today a group of local politicians decided it was time to make the Town of York a city. Back then, the community was huddled around the lake with Queen Street - then Lot Street - its northernmost point. There was little development west of Peter Street or east of the Don River. The St. Lawrence Market was located at the heart of the community

With city status came a new name, Toronto. The name had a "musical sound" and was "in every respect much better" than the original, said William Bent Berczy, a member of the Legislative Committee.

Here are 5 things to know about Toronto on its 180th birthday.


toronto mapBefore Toronto was Toronto it was York and, briefly, Dublin. The name comes from the anglicized Mohawk word tkaronto or taronto, meaning an area where trees grow in shallow water. The name previously applied to a canoe trail along the Humber River and even Lake Simcoe before the European settlement of Fort York.

Back then, the Toronto area was home to two Seneca-Mohawk villages: Teiaiagon at the mouth of the Humber River and Ganatsekwyagon at the mouth of the Rouge (English spellings vary widely.) The Town of York was re-named Toronto, then a recognized alternative name for the York area, on 6 March 1834.


toronto rossin houseIn 1857, 23 years after Toronto was incorporated as a city, Humphrey Hime and William Armstrong, staff from Toronto photography company Armstrong, Beere and Hime, climbed on to the roof of the 5-storey Rossin House Hotel, then one of the tallest buildings in the city, at the southeast corner of King and York streets.

Turning through almost 360 degrees, the pair photographed a city of small brick homes and unpaved streets still dwarfed by tall trees and church spires. The rail tracks along the waterfront were still at street level and gas lamps were dotted along the main streets. Osgoode Hall still had its central dome.

The photos were commissioned as part of an unsuccessful bid to claim status as the capital city of Canada. With the application rejection, the pictures were placed in storage and forgotten until 1979 when they re-discovered at the Colonial Office Library in London, England.

A second set was later found in Ottawa and a new set of photographs produced from the original negatives was presented to Toronto as a 150th birthday gift by the British government in 1984.


toronto davies hogsThe story goes that Toronto was nicknamed Hogtown for the stockyards of the William Davies Company, one of Canada's earliest and largest meat packers, located at the mouth of the Don River, near the Distillery. But that may not be the case. The name was a pejorative term used by smaller cities to criticize Toronto's propensity to gobble up resources and attention.

"In the smaller cities of the Province when a man wants to say nasty things about Toronto he calls it Hogtown," the Globe wrote in 1898.

That said, Davies' company certainly had a lot of pigs. The squealing, mud-filled yard dominated the area now occupied by the south end of Corktown Common in the late 19th century. In 1900, the company's crowded yard was slaughtering and processing half a million hogs a year. It was merged with several rivals in the 1920s to form Canada Packers, a precursor to Maple Leaf Foods.


toronto davies hogsFor the origin of the iconic peameal bacon sandwich we have to return to the William Davies Company stockyards. One of the company's most popular products for export was trimmed pork loin coated in ground yellow peameal as a preservative for long ocean trips. Turns out it tasted pretty good too, and the Davies' company sold the meat through its own chain of grocery stores, one of which was in the St. Lawrence Market.

Davies met a somewhat ironic fate: During a car journey in the American South he was butted by a goat while urinating by the side of the road. He died several months later, having never recovered.


toronto ttc gloucesterBefore the Toronto Transit Commission was formed in 1921, the city was home to multiple private and public transit operators. The two major players, the downtown Toronto Railway Company and city-owned Toronto Civic Railways that typically served newly-annexed neighbourhoods, were merged with a promise to bring the city under a single fare system.

The first streetcars owned by the TTC were simple wooden Preston Car Company vehicles. A long-standing myth says the unusually wide Toronto track gauge - the distance between the rails - was an attempt to keep train companies from using the tracks. In fact, the wide spacing was a way of allowing horse-drawn, non-Toronto Street Railway wagons to use the rails, provided they didn't get in the way.

The oddity was repeated for convenience as new streetcar models arrived and even on to the subway in 1952, meaning that if there was an overhead power supply today's streetcars could drive down the Yonge line. Years ago, converted Presidents' Conference Committee streetcars were used as works vehicles on the subway.

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

Images: Toronto Public Library, City of Toronto Archives. Top photo by Jen Tse in the blogTO Flickr pool.



Jo / March 6, 2014 at 05:06 pm

Not sure about the anglicised Mohawk explanation (above), since Mohawk isn't a language, but rather an Iroquois-speaking tribe of the Haudeneausonee.

Mohawks are also not native to this part of Canada, so I think that the Huron-based explanation (which pre-dates the Beaver Wars and Iroquois expansion) might be more plausible, since it also factors in the role of Fort Rouillé as well.

It's summarised here:

Todd Toronto / March 6, 2014 at 05:27 pm
Is there an English word for an area where trees grow in shallow water?

Also, really interesting piece.
BM / March 6, 2014 at 05:48 pm
Is the model in the scar project banner weird al yankovic
NativeTorontonianAl / March 6, 2014 at 06:35 pm
180 years old but Toronto is not maturing and aging very well. Thanks to the corrupt and incompetent people at City Hall for nearly three decades, the chickens have come home to roost and it's too late. In order to mature and age well into the future, you must design and build the place well early on to plan for the aging.
beth replying to a comment from Todd Toronto / March 6, 2014 at 08:12 pm
Great / March 6, 2014 at 08:45 pm
Great stuff on a great City.
Abe replying to a comment from Todd Toronto / March 6, 2014 at 08:56 pm
Yes. Toronto.
TCP / March 6, 2014 at 09:18 pm
Toronto looks unbelievable back in the day.....
toronto dude / March 6, 2014 at 10:15 pm
just imagine the stench and the primitive conditions back in 1850s Toronto...horrifying
not as much in the area pictured with the brick houses but surely in the other less fortunate areas would not be good...corktown area for example
robert bruceford / March 7, 2014 at 07:13 am
*high squeeky voice* cha! nor kelly didnt call me for the cake cuttin celemony in the city hall atrium. thats it norm kelly, imka call my big brother to whoop your tiny history-talkin hiney. whatcha gonna do mr kelly? run like a turtle? i can run faster than you once i get some speed. after i will jump up n down in japanese-school-girl-like glee, maybe throw some candy at all the other councillors i am gonna kick out. and.then my momma who is a royal class 8!tch will get a coincillor or chow to fingerpaint a picture of me. and my fishing buddy harper will sing us ALL a beetles or barney song with his child-molesting band mate. go toronto! i saved a *fart* bzillion taxes *coughing* while smokin crack, bumloving lisi, beating my wife and paying for anthony smiths hit *cough* :O
Ken / March 7, 2014 at 08:53 am
I'm amazed that there aren't more celebrations being planned at the moment. For people who are so "proud" of where they live, I guess Torontonians just don't care about their city's history to bother giving a damn about it. At least some people on the site are floating ideas around
St Olaf / March 7, 2014 at 12:54 pm
Yup. The settlers who conversed on a daily basis with the local natives back in 1793 must have been completely wrong when they reported the meaning of Toronto was "Meeting Place". Experts looking back 200 years into the past with a crystal ball know much better than those who were actually here at the time. People in the present are always much more knowledgeable and much more clever than those in the past.
Jo replying to a comment from St Olaf / March 7, 2014 at 01:27 pm
You'll need to look back much further than 1793 for a more complete history of Canada.
St Olaf replying to a comment from Jo / March 7, 2014 at 02:49 pm
Ah, I see. Your crystal ball goes back to the dawn of time. You thinking the First Nations people of 1793 didn't have a clue what their own area was called in their own language, but historians of 2014 do? Does having a University Degree on your wall make a person psychic?

Think about it for a moment.
Jo / March 7, 2014 at 03:45 pm
No need to flaunt arrogant ignorance with such poor manners.

You should try instead to learn about how many *different* FN's societies have inhabited this region, before wallowing in any deeper.

Pay particular attention to the tribes that were here around the same period that early French explorers/traders were drawing their maps/records. Those are among the earliest written records of the region, and that's where the word "Taronto" first came from, even if its usage changed over the next 150 years during successive influxes.

You might at least try to learn about Canadian history, if not about civilised manners, before demonstrating your limited grasp of both.
Jo / March 7, 2014 at 04:32 pm

I'm not sure why you communicate the way you do, nor why you're so stuck in 1793.

When in fact, the origin of the word Toronto goes back to the early French explorers and traders of the 17th century, and was derived from the FN's people who were here at that time in history.

Do you understand how the original meaning of a word can change in that much time, and by the successive influx of other FN's people?
St Olaf / March 7, 2014 at 04:36 pm
Jo, you speak of Theories as if they were automatically Facts. Neither of us were there at the time and our sources of information are limited, so I'm just here to provide a gentle reminder that theories and facts sometimes turn out to be quite different beasts.
Jo / March 7, 2014 at 05:44 pm

So if you recognize the shifting nature of history, why would you plant yourself in an Anglicised interpretation of a Mohawk word rather than consider one that was first recorded 150 years earlier from the Huron?

Keep in mind that the Mohawks and Huron were (to put it mildly) not allies, either. So there's no reason for their linguistics to agree with each other. Esp. ~150 years later, after the Wendate had been destroyed and were scattered!

Also keep in mind that the English Governor General Simcoe was renowned for disliking aboriginal names, and was busy changing everything to English names around 1793 (ie York!). Not a great point in history to be setting bench-marks on what any supplanted Mohawk words meant, much less what any previous native words meant...I'd humbly suggest.

Allow me to also quote from the prevailing "theory" which is based on a more proper understanding of the French record of Huron interpretation 150 years earlier.

" The most common meaning for Toronto given in current references is "place of meetings", derived from the Huron toronton. This origin was suggested by historian Henry Scadding in Toronto: Past and Present (1884),where he interpreted Récollet missionary Gabriel Sagard's 1632 definition -- "il y en a beaucoup" (there is much) -- to mean a gathering of tribes, or meeting place.

Since then others have stressed the idea of "plenty" in toronton, as in the Huron's land of plenty. Historian William Kilbourn promoted that view in Toronto Remembered (1984), where he wrote, "So when anyone asks what Toronto means, I would suggest that the best reply is 'abundance'.

So in short...What do you think a most suitable interpretation of a Huron word "toronton" would be, for the narrows where fishing weirs were constructed between planted stakes to gather large catches of migrating fish out of L.Simcoe . Keep in mind that archeology is not based in theory, but actual/factual artefact.


a) "where there are trees standing in the water"
(later English translation of Mowhawk "Tkaronto")

b) "place of meetings"
(poor English trans. of French trans. of Huron "Taronto")

c) "where there is much" or loose trans. 'place of plenty'
(French trans. of original Huron)

I'll leave you to decide (at least for yourself) what theory makes the most sense, based on both facts and speculations.
Canadian ZingBot / March 7, 2014 at 06:00 pm
680 reports: Sandra Pupatello named Hydro One Chair."




St Olaf replying to a comment from Jo / March 7, 2014 at 11:38 pm
Well, I'll grant you that you have laid out some tantalizing arguments. We don't really have any choice but to rely on English or French interpretations of first Nations words, because no Native languages had ANY written history of their own until the 1840's. All interpretations are based on the writings of explorers and settlers who talked to the tribes; so how confident are we in believing one version over another? I don't know. However, if I was rude or ignorant in my speech I apologize and thanks for taking the time to answer so logically.
G Had replying to a comment from Todd Toronto / March 9, 2014 at 04:45 am
Ford would be the closest. Dartford, Hartford, and the like, ford is a shallow allowing for a crossing at least by wading. I guess Indian etymology always included the land or water and what was in or on it. Land of stinking or smelly onions...ref Chicago.
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freshie replying to a comment from G Had / March 9, 2014 at 11:37 am
"ford is a shallow allowing for a crossing"

Funny, nowadays it refers to a shallow Mayor!! / May 9, 2014 at 06:29 am
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