Tracking Toronto Union Station’s turbulent 151-year history

Who knew complaining about pedestrian access to the waterfront is a Toronto tradition dating back to the late 1800s? During over 151 years of Union Station history, Torontonians demanded improved waterfront access as crossing a dozen train tracks was often a matter of life and limb.

So says Derek Boles, railway historian for the Toronto Railway Historical Association, board member at Heritage Toronto, and chair of the Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group. He provided an illustrated history of Union Station at a North Toronto Historical Board meeting in the Northern District Library (40 Orchard View Drive) on Nov. 25.

Toronto's second Union Station between York & Simcoe Sts., 1873 (courtesy image)

The familiar commuter train hub at 65 Front Street West wasn’t Toronto’s first Union Station either.

“The first was in service from 1858 to 1871; the second from 1873 to 1896. The third one was an extensive alteration to the 1873 station and it served until the present Union Station opened in 1927,” he said. “With all these train tracks being built, access to the waterfront was a real problem for the people of Toronto . . . the great crossing issue remained an important priority with thousands of people streaming across the busy tracks.”

On May 16, 1853, the first steam-powered passenger train left Toronto for Aurora from a “wooden depot located close to the eastern entrance of today’s Union Station. Over the course of the next century, the railways were to have a profound impact on the City of Toronto and its geography.”

The first Union Station was shared by the Grand Trunk Railway Co., and two other companies. The second, considered to be the most opulent of its time, was opened on Dominion Day 1873 (the clock that once adorned the tower of that station is still in use today at the town hall in Huntsville, Ont.).

By 1884, the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. entered Toronto. Shortly thereafter the renovations were completed in 1896 and marked what was to be the third incarnation of Union Station. It functioned until 1907 though not necessarily to satisfactory levels.

“By this time, Union Station had become totally rundown . . . there were up to 200 trains a day, almost as many that come into it now,” he said.

And then there was the Great Toronto Fire of 1904. It cleared off all the buildings on the site for what later would become the present Union Station. Toronto Terminals Railway (a group of architects) was incorporated in 1906 to build a new Union Station but construction wouldn’t actually begin for another decade.

Once built, it sat vacant for seven years because of political disagreements over where tracks running in and out of the City should be laid. This was a huge issue in Toronto throughout the 1920s.

“You can only imagine how frustrated Torontonians must have been to have this beautiful, massive building, one of the largest and most impressive structures in the City, sitting empty for seven years while they were forced to use the old Union Station,” he said.

Leap ahead to 1966 when Toronto came dangerously close to losing Union Station. It was called inadequate for modern transportation needs and talk turned to replacing it with something more contemporary. New York City’s mighty Pennsylvania Station was being demolished between 1963 and 1966 and there was increasing pressure to do the same here.

The most serious threat to Union Station came in 1968 when the railways decided to commercially redevelop its land. “The railways were encouraged by a pro-development city council under Mayor William Dennison, who never saw a new building he didn’t like.”

In 1975 Union Station was declared a national historic site but the designation didn’t afford much protection; that came in 1990 with the Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act.

If you peer up today at the Front Street entrance, you can see the names of the railways that built it, which includes the Grand Trunk Railway. “By the time the station opened the Grand Trunk Railway was no longer in existence . . . none of their trains ever actually used the station.”

For an in-depth look at Union Station’s history, Boles’ new book on the subject, “Toronto’s Railway Heritage” (Arcadia Publishing), is available at Chapters-Indigo.

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