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The Yonge Subway Line turns 60 years old

Posted by Chris Bateman / March 28, 2014

toronto yonge lineExactly 60 years ago this Sunday, Toronto mayor Allan Lamport and Ontario premier Leslie Frost gripped a ceremonial lever in front of an eager crowd at Davisville station. When they pushed it forward, a subway signal set up for the gathered photographers changed from red to green. The Yonge line, Canada's first subway, was officially complete.

The TTC's in-house brass band struck up a lively tune as two trains of dignitaries took the inaugural trip north to Eglinton, the end of the line, then rode south to Union. The subway, eight years in the making, opened to the public at exactly 1:30 p.m. Tokens were three for a quarter.

toronto yonge lineConceived as one of a pair of subway lines, the other a streetcar tunnel under the downtown portion of Queen Street, construction on the Yonge subway started in 1949, three years after a public referendum gave the project the green light (although financial worries almost killed both projects.)

toronto yonge lineBy digging a relatively shallow 7.4 km trench and covering it with heavy wooden planking, the city was able to keep Yonge street and its busy streetcars running while construction continued below. Dynamite blasts, pile drivers, backhoes, and shovels dislodged and removed some 1.3 million cubic metres of soil and rock in a winding strip from Union to Eglinton Avenue.

It took just under 5 years, 24,000 tonnes of steel, and 1.4 million bags of cement to build the physical structure of the line and much more to wire up the signals, install turnstiles, and erect collector booths.

toronto yonge lineSadly, black and white pictures of the era rob the Yonge line of its original vibrant aesthetic. The first fleet of 104 "Gloucester" subway trains, built in England at a cost of $7.8 million and shipped to Toronto through the ports of Montreal and Halifax, were painted an startling red. The first map that showed the various surface connections along the line was a bright royal blue and tan.

toronto gloucester ttcThe subway platforms, free from any embellishment due to financial constraints, were decorated using colourful glass tiles that have now mostly been replaced. Each of the 12 stops was finished in one of three colours - Pearl Grey, English Egg Shell (pale green,) or Primrose (soft yellow) - but were gradually transitioned to the current hodgepodge due to the tendency of the tile to shatter like glass. "Pearl Grey" Eglinton is the only station that has kept its Vitrolite wall fixtures.

toronto yonge lineSix decades after that first run, the Yonge line is still the busiest public transit route in the country. Without an outlet valve in the coming decades, it will remain so. In 1954, building the first subway the city so badly needed wasn't without difficulty or money concerns.

As a strangely incredulous CBC television new report from 1954 said: "Toronto got itself a subway - really!"

CBC news report about the opening of the Yonge line

Documentary (with some sound issues) about the construction of the subway

toronto yonge lineThe first train heads north to Eglinton

toronto yonge lineA TTC employee prepares to let the first members of the public onto the subway.

toronto yonge lineA TTC guide directs a woman at Bloor station.

toronto yonge lineKids on the first public subway ride.

toronto yonge lineA group of women pay their fares.

toronto yonge lineCrowds at the turnstile on opening day.

toronto yonge lineHundreds gathered outside Davisville station for the opening ceremony.

toronto yonge lineDignitaries aboard the first train

toronto yonge lineKing station shortly before the completion of the subway

toronto yonge lineBloor station before widening and the arrival of the Bloor-Danforth line

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

Images: York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC00048, ASC00027, ASC00042, ASC00033, ASC00041, ASC00020, ASC00028. ASC00024, ASC00036, ASC00018, ASC00014; Ben Mark Holzberg/Library and Archives Canada; City of Toronto Archives.



Simon Tarses / March 28, 2014 at 06:33 am
Cue people ready to castigate the TTC for being 'dirty' and 'filthy' and all sorts of modern complaints instead of being glad they have working public transit in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...
E. Toby Coke replying to a comment from Simon Tarses / March 28, 2014 at 09:08 am
Yeah -- how DARE people demand that infrastructure investment keep up with the city's growth!

MC / March 28, 2014 at 09:12 am
"Hundreds gathered outside Davisville station for the opening ceremony." If it weren't in black and white, I would've thought that was every stop along Queen, King and College during rush hour in the modern day.
Torontonian / March 28, 2014 at 09:20 am
Look closely at the photos.
I haven't seen so many hats since the late '50s!

The subway was an "eat-off-the-floor" clean
system--both cars and stations. Now look how
it is nowadays.
balin / March 28, 2014 at 09:47 am
Pretty sure those speakers in the 2nd pic are announcing '299 bloor' 299 bloor '
McRib replying to a comment from Torontonian / March 28, 2014 at 09:50 am
yeah, who'd have thought 60 years and millions of riders would dirty it up a bit?

what an outrage.
John / March 28, 2014 at 10:15 am
It doesn't look like anything has changed in the last 60 years. the infrastructure is exactly the same, despite the fact that the city has grown exponentially. The signalling system (that is the result of many of the delays, including the inexcusable repeated breakdowns last summer) is over 55 years old! It's disgraceful.
bathroom poche / March 28, 2014 at 10:30 am
there is something really satisfying about seeing toronto's subway system clean of hodge-podge advertisements and inconsistent signage.

would love to see the restoration of the bathroom-moderne. a uniquely Toronto aesthetic.
W. K. Lis / March 28, 2014 at 10:39 am
Apparently the original subway car floor did not line up with the platforms. Passengers had to step up. They had to change the wheels on the cars to smaller diameters to get the cars to line up level.
Steven / March 28, 2014 at 10:48 am
Wonder how many years councillors held back getting a subway even sooner in those days?
tommy replying to a comment from McRib / March 28, 2014 at 11:29 am
It's not so much the riders (thought they do contribute), as it is the nature of steel rail. When the subway brakes, the steel-on-steel friction gives off black particles, which coat absolutely everything in the station. Once upon a time the TTC used to power-wash the stations to get rid of it, but that was deemed bad for the environment, because all the water would wash down into the lake. Now we're stuck with those crappy wet-vacuum floor cleaners that don't really do anything, and the track-beds never get washed.
NotThatDave replying to a comment from John / March 28, 2014 at 11:42 am
But subways are forever...
Predictable Whiners replying to a comment from Simon Tarses / March 28, 2014 at 11:58 am
LOL! You nailed it about the haters and the freaks waiting in the sidelines to bitch about everything in this city. I think many people have never ridden subways around the world if they think this one is dirty/icky/filthy, etc... And the idiots who blame TTC and City Hall for what is CLEARLY lack of funding from senior governments. None of them seem ready to speak up to the Federal government and demand more money because they simplistically think infrastructure funding comes from City Hall.
Finally, I suspect most of the whiners don't even USE the TTC (or in some cases even live in Toronto) and are just here to bitch. As per usual.
Mike / March 28, 2014 at 11:59 am
People actually looked excited to take the TTC. Oh times have changed.
Lawrence Park / March 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm
The Yonge Subway Line turns 60 years old

and then the TTC decided the name was confusing so it was changed to 1.

stupid is as stupid does.
toronto dude replying to a comment from Lawrence Park / March 28, 2014 at 12:33 pm
as opposed to "Yonge-University"? how would that still make sense when the York U extension is done?? "1" makes perfect sense. for once they've got it right.
toronto dudette / March 28, 2014 at 01:13 pm
Since the order the lines were built makes no difference to today's riders, it also makes the same amount of sense to call Yonge-Uni line something like: "8". People like the number 8, so why not use it?

You can tell these photos are of Torontonians today because there are so many people smiling!
John replying to a comment from Predictable Whiners / March 28, 2014 at 01:23 pm
Lack of funding? the TTC generates over $3 billion in revenue a year. How much more money does it need before it can start to reinvest some profits in revamping its services.

And, if you honestly think Toronto's subway is better than that of other similarly sized cities around the world, you obviously haven't traveled much.
W. K. Lis replying to a comment from Steven / March 28, 2014 at 01:42 pm
"Wonder how many years councillors held back getting a subway even sooner in those days?"

From 1909-1911 until 1946 apparently.
Mr. Gloucester replying to a comment from W. K. Lis / March 28, 2014 at 02:37 pm
The wheels on the Gloucester cars were never changed. The wheels on the newer cars were smaller.
MER1978 replying to a comment from John / March 28, 2014 at 02:41 pm
RE: John... "How much more money does it need before it can start to reinvest some profits in revamping its services."

For someone so worldly you should be aware that with few exceptions ALL transit systems lose money.
Grahame replying to a comment from John / March 28, 2014 at 03:59 pm
You seem to be confused about the difference between revenue and profits. This "$3 billion" in revenue (which includes subsidies) does not magically turn into profit. Like every transit system in the western world the TTC makes no profits.
Moaz Ahmad / March 28, 2014 at 04:26 pm
Other amazing things about the Yonge subway. 1. It was paid for (almost entirely) from a surplus of fare revenue collected over the previous decade. 2. It didn't run entirely underground...almost everything north of Bloor was in an open trench.
iSkyscraper replying to a comment from Moaz Ahmad / March 28, 2014 at 04:48 pm
You aren't kidding about the trench part. People don't realize it today because later development roofed over much of the trench, but check this out:

Another amazing thing:

3. Its construction disrupted traffic, to say the least. But people understood it was for the greater good and no Save Our Yonge Street NIMBY's tried to block it.

toronto dude / March 28, 2014 at 09:32 pm
the construction of it also severely damaged yonge st retail both due to the years of construction and later as it took customers away from above ground stores as it transported them underground.
junctionist / March 29, 2014 at 03:14 am
Why not build a trench in Scarborough today for the subway? If there are houses in the way, then expropriate and demolish them. That can be done on the cheap.
Olivia Chow / March 29, 2014 at 02:57 pm
We do not NEED subways.. We need LRTs!
Don Yuan replying to a comment from Moaz Ahmad / March 31, 2014 at 11:03 am
I can tell you that Montreal did not pay for its Metro system. As usual the Canadian taxpayers did. Ditto for new rapid transit in Vancouver. It is Toronto that the feds don't want to cough up money for.
Silosi / March 31, 2014 at 12:30 pm
Very interesting. Times have changed.
Simon Tarses replying to a comment from Olivia Chow / March 31, 2014 at 01:49 pm
You said it, sister.
LizG replying to a comment from Olivia Chow / April 2, 2014 at 01:08 am
LRTs get stuck in snowstorms AND add ugliness to the landscape but oh well, who cares -- it's Scarborough after all, where the landscape has been given no regard since the 70s when urban sprawl, an over-explosion of horrific highrises and cheaply built (now crumbling) plazas ruled the day
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