history bay street toronto

How Bay Street came to be in Toronto

Bay Street has the type of geographically influenced name that you'd assume must have conferred upon it from the start, but a commonly held theory is that the first name given to this stretch of road was Bear St. That might seem fitting given the street's current place at the heart of the country's financial institutions and stock exchange, but the nominology was, in fact, literal.

Likely popularized by John Ross Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto (1894), the story goes that "Bay Street is said to be a corruption of Bear Street -- the latter name applied because of a bear hunt which once took place on that thoroughfare."

Officially speaking, Bay was already in use at the outset of the 19th century, but references to "Bear" still persisted.

history bay street toronto

Early Bay St. was a far cry from what we know today, and not merely because it lacked the stature of buildings it now boasts. Assuming it was intentionally named Bay (rather than morphing from Bear), it's worth noting that it was one of the streets that connected Lot St. (now Queen St.) to the harbour (or the bay, as you might have it).

history bay street toronto

Up until the 1920s, Bay St. was actually very well connected to the waterfront. The Railway Lands eventually interfered with this, as did the construction of overpasses to help trains access Union Station.

history bay street toronto

The street was also extended south around this time, but never given the "Lower" designation because its street numbering could accommodate the extension. The tip of the street actually terminated at the waterfront until the early 1970s before development extended even further south into the harbour.

history bay street toronto

During its first 120 years or so, Bay St. was quite short, as its northern terminus was Queen St. North of here, the street was named for Terauley cottage, the residence of Dr. John Macaulay, an original holder of one the Town of York's 32 Park Lots. The street was officially renamed Bay as far north as Scollard St. in 1922 and up to Davenport Rd. in 1924.

history bay street toronto

The northerly section of the street was largely residential through the 1950s, with many small cottage-style houses still in tact through the mid 1930s. It wasn't until the construction of the Manulife Centre in the 1970s, that Bay and Bloor streets would lay a claim for inclusion in definitions of "downtown Toronto."

history bay street toronto

Interestingly, Bay St. is due to reclaim its name as work commences on the revamped Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. Even as the tip of the street is presently the gateway to the Toronto Islands, it's almost entirely blocked off from the harbour itself. That will change with extensive work to fashion a green space that beckons residents to the waterfront whether they're hopping on the ferry or not.

As for old Bear St., it remains the stuff of legends from a time before the city had been mapped.

Photos from the Toronto Archives. Goad's Atlas (1884) from Goad's Toronto.

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