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How Queens Quay came to be in Toronto

Posted by Derek Flack / February 28, 2016

queens quay history torontoTo walk along Queens Quay these days, one might imagine that it's always been Toronto's lakefront street. It's certainly been built up enough over time to make it seem as though as it's been around as long as Toronto itself. But, of course, in the grand scheme of things, our waterfront promenade isn't so old at all.

queens quay history torontoPrior to the mid 1920s, downtown Toronto's most southerly street was the Esplanade. In fact, many major north/south streets terminated at Front, which at the time was more aptly named than it is today. But as the city grew upwards, it also grew outwards. By 1926, a significant chunk of the inner harbour had been filled in as part of an extensive in-fill project.

And so Queens Quay was born.

queens quay history torontoOne of the city's most oft mispronounced and misspelled words (it's Queens not Queen's), the etymology of quay gestures to the concept of a sand bank. The reason it's pronounced "key" is that the modern word is a variant of the Middle English key/keye/caye, which denotes a "wharf."

queens quay history torontoOriginally the street was little more than a promenade and streetcar tracks, but over time it developed into a bonafide thoroughfare. By the dawn of the 1930s, city-bound residents were flocking to the ferry docks in the summer for the short trip to the Islands. The service was run by the TTC back then, which is at least partially why the street was well served by transit from the beginning.

queens quay history torontoIn the years that followed, Queens Quay become a major industrial hub. No one was much concerned with a beautiful downtown waterfront at the time. You could head to Sunnyside or the Eastern Beaches for that. The street remained something of a wasteland until the 1970s when the first developments re-envisioned its place in the city.

The (new) Toronto Star Building came in 1970, followed by the Westin Harbour Castle in 1975. Shortly thereafter, plans were set in motion to revitalize the Harbourfront as an arts and culture hub (thank you, Pierre Trudeau). It was around this time that the street's current character started to take shape.

queens quay history torontoWell, that is until the condos came. There have been various growing pains on Queens Quay, but somewhere along the way the city realized that it was a crucial part of our identity. As it exists today, this place that was once a glorified sandbank, is a vibrant part of Toronto that's slowly living up to its geographic status as our gateway to the lake.

Photos via the Toronto Archives.

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