Sunday, March 6, 2011

# 21 ~ Union Station, Then and Now

On Friday, I was waiting to meet a friend in the “Great Hall” of Union Station, just inside Front Street, on the main level. It was a few minutes past noon, and there was barely any pedestrian traffic coming through the station. It was hard to believe that this was the great transportation terminal for Toronto, through much of the twentieth century.

It all started on May 16th, 1853, when the first steam powered passenger locomotive headed out of Toronto. On that date, three passenger carriages and one freight car made their way for Aurora, pulled along by that great new Victorian innovation, the steam powered locomotive. Steam power was to the first half of the nineteenth-century what nuclear power became in the second half of the twentieth century. It drove industry, enabled wars, and powered a great boom in transportation – and it terrified those who didn't understand it. There were environmental issues, too. To provide steam power, great piles of coal were burned, churning out dark soot and smoke into the air, and lighting the pyres that fuelled the Industrial Revolution. Industrialists in England, in America, and then in up-and-coming Canadian cities like Toronto, looked at the dark smoke clouds in the skies over their cities, and they new that business was booming, and that there was money in steam powered mass production, and they thought that it was good.

THEN : This steam locomotive, called "The Toronto", become the first steam powered locomotive to leave Toronto in May of 1853.  It headed to Aurora, pulling three passenger carriages and a freight car behind it.

The intersection of steam powered transportation meant that many people could afford travel for the first time. The horse and buggy had held sway on roadways across the globe for centuries, but now people could step on to a train, and watch as travel time was diminished exponentially. People used steam powered travel to quit the countryside and move into the city, where they looked for jobs in the industrial suburbs of the big cities. In most countries that were at least moderately developed, the arrival of the steam powered train meant a shift from a rural population, living down on the farm, to a much larger population living in urban areas. The agricultural serf was a thing of the past; his replacement was the poor, immigrant worker toiling away in a brick factory. But to some, the Industrial Revolution, which was powered by the steam engine, meant a shot at the Middle Class. Mass production meant that merchandise which had previously been made by hand could now be purchased more cheaply. And steam powered trains meant that the emerging Middle Class could actually get away for the weekend.

The locomotive that steamed out of Toronto in May of 1853 was soon dubbed “The Toronto”. It rain the rails of the Ontario, Huron and Simcoe Railway. Three years later, the Grand Trunk Railway was extended into Toronto. These were the predecessors of the big rail companies that would come later – the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the Canadian National Railway. When the first steam powered locomotive left Toronto, followed by those three passenger carriages and a freight car, the Toronto “train station” was a wooden shed that had been run up very quickly near the eastern entrance of the present day Union Station. Everyone knew it was just a temporary fix, and 1858, Toronto's first Union Station was constructed by the Grand Trunk Railway, the Northern Railway of Canada, and the Great Western Railway. This “union” of railway companies, sharing the same facility, is what makes the term “Union Station” so popular in train depot nomenclature around North America. Toronto's first Union Station brought a great boom in commercial and population growth in Toronto, and ultimately, it fell prey to its own success. By the 1870s, the city had expanded so much, that the 1858 station was obsolete. The Grand Trunk Railway built a second Union Station on the same site as the first. It opened on Dominion Day, July 1st, 1873.

THEN : The only known photograph of Toronto's first Union Station, taken in 1860 for a stereograph card.

THEN : A watercolour painting of Toronto's first Union Station, painted in 1859 by William Armstrong.  The lake, along with a ship, can be seen in the background.  Soon after the arrival of the railways, the lake water south of Front Street would become gradually more and more filled in, to provide the land required for the growing system of railway tracks.  A family seen in the middle of the painting has overturned a crate to have a picnic, while they wait for a train.  Painters would often include a person of Aboriginal background, like the woman on the left, to make their work seem more "exotic" to British or European audiences.  In the centre background, a brakeman can be seen, standing on the top of a train, waving his arms to send messages to an engineer, while the the is being assembled.  It was a dangerous but necessary practice at a time before modern radio communications. 

Almost as soon as it opened, this second Union Station suffered the same problems as the first one had. It was too small for a constantly expanding city. The station was expanded in 1892, featuring a new three track train shed on the south side of the station. A new seven-storey Romanesque-style office tower addition was also built along the Front Street side of the station. At seven-storeys, it would have been amongst the tallest buildings in Toronto at the time. A covered arcade connected the 1873 portion of the building with the 1892 expansion. Much of the 1873 station was demolished by 1927, but portions from the 1892 expansion would survive until 1931.

THEN : Toronto's second Union Station, pictured in 1888.  At a time when shipping was still important, the trains had to connect with the lake.  So, the train station and its tracks were built on the edge of the lake.  The tracks kept coming south, and the lake kept getting filled in.

THEN : Toronto's second Union Station in 1873.

THEN : Toronto's second Union Station and the Toronto Harbour, looking east from John Street, in 1884.

THEN : Toronto's second Union Station and city skyline from the waters of Toronto's harbour in 1885.  It still astounds many people who live here to see old photographs showing just how much of the city has been built on landfill.  All those condominium towers south of Front Street, between Union Station and the C.N.E. grounds are built on landfill that started out as a bunch of garbage thrown into Lake Ontario.
THEN : An architectural drawing of the 1892 expansion to Toronto's second Union Station.  A covered arcade connects the train platforms (seen to the left) with the Romanesque style addition to the right.  This addition, on Front Street, included a large pedestrian entrance to the station, and an office tower that soared to a dizzying height of seven storeys.

THEN : The Front Street facade, with the seven storey tower, in 1906.

THEN : The tracks of Toronto's second Union Station in 1907.

THEN : Interior of Toronto's second Union Station in 1908.

THEN : Toronto's second Union Station, seen from York Street in 1908.

THEN : Toronto's second Union Station, seen from York Street in 1916.

THEN : Toronto's second Union Station and tracks in 1926.

The expansion of 1892 helped to hold off the inevitable need for a replacement, but only for so long. An 1899 issue of the “Railway and Shipping World” magazine stated that “The Toronto Union is one of the most inconvenient stations in (North) America, expensive to run and unsatisfactory in very many other respects.” Debates went on for several years in regards to replacing the station, but no one could agree on a new design. By 1910, an average of 150 trains and 40,000 passengers were passing through Toronto's Union Station every single day. Finally, in 1915, construction began on a third Union Station for Toronto.

THEN : Demolishing Toronto's second Union Station in the summer of 1927.

THEN : "Regarding the Future", looking from the tower of Toronto's second Union Station towards the third Union Station in 1926.  The second Union Station stood more or less where the "Skywalk" is today.
THEN : Excavating the site of Toronto's third Union Station in 1915, with the second Union Station visible in the background.

THEN : Constructing Toronto's third Union Station in 1918.

THEN : Constructing Toronto's third Union Station in 1918.

THEN : Constructing Toronto's third Union Station in 1918.

THEN : Constructing Toronto's third Union Station in 1918.

THEN : Constructing Toronto's third Union Station in 1918.

THEN : Constructing the interior of Toronto's third Union Station in 1919.

THEN : Constructing the interior of Toronto's third Union Station in 1919.

Construction was delayed because of the First World War, but the work was completed by 1920. However, it took several years to realign the tracks from the old station, into the new one. The third and present Union Station was opened on August 6th, 1927. It was an international affair. The Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) was present, as was his brother, the Duke of Kent. The Canadian Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was present, as was his British counterpart, Stanley Baldwin, along with Baldwin's wife. Also in attendance were Donald Ross, the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, George Howard Ferguson, the Premier of Ontario, and a number of other officials from various levels of the federal and provincial governments. The Prince of Wales quipped that North Americans “build their train stations like we build our cathedrals”.

THEN : Although construction of the third Union Station was completed in 1920, the official opening didn't take place until August of 1927.  It took several years to align the tracks from the second Union Station into the third one.  Altogether, it was a span of a dozen years from when construction started in 1912, 'til the completion in 1927.  Jokes about the construction became a part of the routines for circuit comedians who performed in Toronto.

THEN : August of 1927 saw several Canadian and British dignitaries at the official opening of Union Station.  At the head of the list was the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII), his brother the Duke of Kent, and both the Canadian and British prime ministers.

Along with the new Union Station, a Central Heating Plant was constructed at the corner of York Street and Fleet Street (now Lakeshore Boulevard). This replaced the old heating plant on Scott Street, which had been torn down to make way for a new track viaduct leading to the station. This heating plant was fuelled, of course, by coal, which was delivered by train. When it opened in 1929, it was the largest Central Heating Plant in Canada. It belched out 150,000 kilograms of steam per hour to heat Union Station, the passenger cars in the train sheds, the Royal York Hotel (which had also opened in 1929), the Dominion Public Building, the post office building (which was then located next to the train station), as well as various other train yard facilities that covered what are now areas of the Gardiner Expressway, the Rogers Centre, and the Air Canada Centre. The Central Heating Plant was decommissioned in the 1980s, and torn down in 1990.

THEN : This 1936 photograph of the foot of York Street from the Royal York shows the Central Heating Plant.  It produced up to 150,000 kilograms of steam every hour, in order to heat not only Union Station and all of the passenger coaches, but several buildings in the neighbourhood as well.  Many parts of downtown Toronto were industrial throughout the 20th century, and the grime and soot that was belched into the air made a wreck - sometimes literally - of many of Toronto's older buildings.

Change came a little more than a quarter of a century later, when Toronto became the home to Canada's first subway system. The Toronto Transit Commission opened up Union subway station, buried underneath the train station that stood on street level. Renovations to mezzanine of the subway station came in 1979, along with a new passenger concourse that replaced the one that had been built in 1954. The TTC brought innovation again in 1990, when the new Harbourfront LRT opened, running streetcars along the Harbourfront and Spadina lines. TTC patrons can use Union subway station and the LRT lines without setting foot in the 1927 train station.

THEN : Constructing the TTC station under Union in 1950.

THEN : Constructing the TTC station under Union in 1950.

THEN : Constructing the TTC station under Union in 1950.

THEN : Constructing the TTC station under Union in 1950.

THEN : Constructing the TTC station under Union in 1950.

THEN : Constructing the TTC station under Union in 1950.

THEN : Constructing the TTC station under Union in 1950.

THEN : Constructing the TTC station under Union in 1950.

THEN : Constructing the TTC station under Union in 1950.

THEN : Crowds gather outside Union Station for the grand opening of the Yonge Street subway, from Union Station, north to Eglinton, March 30th, 1954.

THEN : Dignitaries gather inside Union Station for the grand opening of the Yonge Street subway, from Union Station, north to Eglinton, March 30th, 1954.

THEN : A procession of bagpipers parade through Union Station for the grand opening of the Yonge Street subway, from Union Station, north to Eglinton, March 30th, 1954.

That last is an interesting point, since it today it is the TTC, along with the regional GO Train commuter service, which has taken over the bulk of transportation service from Union Station. Throughout most of the twentieth-century, rail was the leading method of travel, but rail travel has been in decline over the last fifty years or so. The rise of the automobile and then the aeroplane have taken their toll on train travel. Today, it's the concourse that connects the TTC station with the GO Train commuter area that sees the highest amount of volume at Union Station. Gone are the days when hundreds, or thousands, of passengers would cram into the Great Hall of Union Station, all clamouring for a train ticket somewhere across Canada or into the United States. It was in the Great Hall at Union Station that thousands of Canadian soldiers waited to be transported to Halifax, where they would be shipped across the Atlantic to fight overseas. Six years later, those who returned filtered back through the Great Hall, to find their way home.

Today, there never seem to be more than a handful of people buying tickets at the ticket kiosks in the Great Hall. A leisurely trip by train across the country seems like a thing of the past, and today it is only usually experienced by those looking to travel by way of the “scenic route” across the country. It is the local area transportation, the TTC and the commuter lines, that make Union Station the busiest public transportation structure in Canada, with apparently more annual passengers than even Toronto's Pearson International Airport. One statistical source quotes that as many as 200,000 passengers go through Union Station in the course of a single day. Most of those are passing between the subway station, through the basement food court an onto the GO-Trains. The “cathedral” like Great Hall remains a mostly empty reference to the transportation history that bound Toronto to the rest of Canada with a set of railway ties.

THEN : Front Street, outside Union Station, about 1980.

THEN : The barren looking rail lands south of Union Station, about 1990.

THEN : "What to do?" City planners meet in the empty rail lands south of Union Station, about 1990.

THEN : Lakeshore line GO trains, about 1990.
NOW : The Front Street exterior of Union Station today.

NOW : The Front Street exterior of Union Station today.

NOW : The "Great Hall" inside Union Station today.

NOW : Union Station, interior detail.
NOW : Union Station, interior detail.  The names of various Canadian and American cities are inscribed all around the Great Hall of Union Station, just beneath the ceiling.  Sault Ste. Marie is spelled incorrectly ~ the "e" at the end of "Ste." is missing.

NOW : A rather abandoned looking ticket stand for VIA Rail.

NOW : The Union Station barber's pole.

NOW : The bench for luggage porters at Union Station.

THEN : For more than twenty years, the "Harveys" at Union Station was a fast food landmark, but it recently closed.

NOW : The arcade in the basement of Union Station.  Most of the games are at least several years old.  With the closing of all those video game arcades on Yonge Street, this is one of the last in downtown Toronto.  Back in the day, about twenty years ago, admission to the nearby CN Tower was only $10.  The main floor of the observation deck was similarly jammed full of arcade games.

NOW : The historical plaque at Union Station.
NOW : The plaque commemorating rail employees who fought in the war, and below, details from the plaque.

NOW : The Fairmont Royal York Hotel, as seen from the pedestrian underpass of Union Station.  The hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway, and opened in 1929, right across from Union Station, to take advantage of all those weary travellers, disembarking right across the street.


  1. We did a tour of Union Station about two years ago ... it was soooo interesting!

    I've had many burgers at that Harveys ... what's going in there now?

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