That time when Toronto was covered in railway tracks
It might be hard to fathom today, but Toronto used to be defined by its massive Railway Lands south of Front St. What today we call South Core and CityPlace were once just a vast expanse of tracks that severed the city from the lakeshore far more than the Gardiner Expressway ever did.
To sketch in rather broad strokes, the history of the Railway Lands dates back to 1858 when Toronto's first Union Station was erected by the Grand Trunk Railway. Prior to this period, Toronto relied on its port and horse-drawn carriages to fuel the economy.
The first Union would be replaced by a far grander structure in 1873 (now often referred to as Old Union Station), which was unfortunately demolished in the late 1920s after the completion of the station that currently bears this name.
By the 1930s when the City reclaimed some of the land around the waterfront, the Railway Lands had swelled to an enormous size, a process that would continue through the 1940s. Basically all the land south of Front Street to Queen's Quay was owned by rail companies.
The first significant plans to revitalize the Railway Lands came in the 1960s, when Metro Centre was proposed, of which the CN Tower was the only facet to come to fruition (though in a much different form than initially proposed).
After the CN Tower was completed there were plans to continue to develop the area, but they were ultimately put on hold until the birth of the SkyDome more than a decade later.
Post-Dome, development again slowed as the city tried to figure out the best use for the remaining lands. Another sports stadium would eventually follow in the form of the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena), which finally kickstarted work on what would come to be CityPlace.
The Toronto Archives are littered with urban design photographs of plans, models and presentations devoted to the Railway Lands in the 1980s and 1990s, but the end result of the process is still a matter of some debate.
CityPlace was widely criticized in its early years, though it's now slowly becoming more of community. Meanwhile, South Core has shifted the Financial District south and reshaped what we consider downtown.
This is doubly reclaimed land — once from water and once from a sea of rails that turned into an urban wasteland when Toronto transitioned away from an industrial economy. Where once there was wide empty space, now there are skyscrapers everywhere you turn.
This is what Toronto's Railway Lands looked like before the towers.
Toronto Archives. Writing by Derek Flack.
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