As I Walked Out On The Streets of Toronto…

Banner photo is of Yonge St, south of King, in 1875.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

A handful of years ago, when I lived on lovely Roncesvalles, the whole street was torn up to replace the streetcar tracks and a water main.  And it took a ridiculously long time to get it all done.  When, at long last, the work was finally completed and we had our street back, it was discovered that the new tracks lay too close to a gas line, and so it was all ripped up again.  I remember the day I heard they were going to do it and it seemed like a pretty good joke – the kind that’s only funny because it’s so far-fetched.  But it was all too true and it proved ruinous for the small businesses that made the street such a great place to live and shop, and many were lost.

About the only enjoyable part of it all was that when they tore out the sidewalks they put down planks that bridged the gaps from street to doorways, and I quite liked clambering across them.  It satisfied some leftover childhood fantasy about pirates and high seas and all that.  But yeah, I’m sure there weren’t many who shared my feelings.

Anyhow, the reason I bring this up is because the whole experience gave me a fairly good idea of what it must’ve been like in early Toronto.  Street-wise at least.  All was dust, dirt, and precarious wooden sidewalks.  Of course, there was one major element missing from my experience that was ever present in the past.   It was the mother of all gripes and grumbles and something everyone – male, female, rich, poor, Orangeman, Reformer – took issue with: mud.

Now I’m sure we’ve all heard that Toronto was derisively called “Muddy York” in its early days but really, you wonder, how muddy could it have been?  Well, an early Toronto historian, Conyngham Crawford Taylor, had this story to tell in his Toronto “Called Back” from 1892 to 1847:

“A gentleman, walking on the loose planks forming a sidewalk on King Street, espied a good-looking hat in the middle of the street.  Curious to see and pick up the hat, he managed to reach it, and on removing it, discovered to his surprise the head of a living man underneath.  This individual at once appealed for help and deliverance, urging, as a special plea, that if prompt assistance was not rendered, his horse, which was underneath, would certainly perish.”

… okay, so it’s a joke, but it’s a pretty good one and cracks me up every time.  But the mud was real enough and so was the struggle against it.

From the 1830s (at least), when the city was still being carved from the wilderness, visitors were already complaining about the muck at their feet.  One early, appalled visitor was Anna Jameson who sailed here in 1836 to meet her husband Robert, who was serving as the Attorney General of Upper Canada.  No sooner had she disembarked than she sank ankle deep in mud, literally.  This, coupled with the fact that she didn’t even want to be here in the first place but was forced to visit by command of her husband, probably went a long way in colouring her description of the city thusly:

“It is a little, ill-built town, on low land, at the bottom of a frozen bay, with one very ugly church, without tower or steeple (St. James’ cathedral), some government offices, built of staring red brick, in the most tasteless, vulgar style imaginable, three feet of snow all around, and the grey, sullen, uninviting lake and the dark gloom of the pine forest bounding the prospect.”  Welcome to Toronto!

In 1838, two years after the jovial Ms. Jameson’s visit, E. M. Morphy, an Irish immigrant, landed in Toronto and had some nicer things to say about it when he wrote A York Pioneer’s Recollection of Youthful Days in the Emerald Isle – Also of his Emigration and First Impressions of Canada:

“-we had a good stroll through the town and were favourably impressed with the regularity of its streets and their royal names, also of the beautiful bay and island in front, and the friendly inhabitants whom we found to be chiefly from the British Isles and ‘the old sod’.”  Take that Jameson – our streets are regular.

Alas, even Morphy couldn’t ignore the ignoble mud:

“Only a few of the streets were macadamized, so that after a heavy shower of rain the virgin soil became a sticky clay, and hence the name “Muddy York” which the writer had a little experience of when he sunk knee-deep, leaving his old country shoe about two feet below the surface.  He also saw an ox-team stuck in a hole on the corner of King and Yonge streets which had to be hoisted out by fence rails.”

Bishop Strachans funeral 1867 King St looking E from W of Yonge
Here we see King St, looking east to Yonge, in November of 1867. The occasion is Bishop Strachan’s funeral, which enjoyed a great turnout as you can see. You can also see that almost 30 years after E. M. Morphy’s arrival in Toronto, King St is still a mess.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

Morphy may have been unable to raise his old country shoe, but he did raise an interesting word: macadamized.  Do you use this word often?  I know I don’t.

For the layman (or laywoman, which would be me), macadamizing is a method of paving a road.  It’s named for its Scottish inventor, John Loudon MacAdam, and is described by John Stilgoe of Harvard as being “a multilayered surface of crushed stone: the largest stones, about the size of an adult human skull, at the bottom, then another layer about the size of an adult fist, then a top layer of stones no larger than can go into an adult mouth.”  … Is it just me or is there a fairly grisly theme running through this?  In any case, you get an idea of what the few paved streets of early Toronto were like.  And no doubt you will be surprised to learn that the science behind them wasn’t all that exact.

MacAdam himself had doubts as to whether the foundation should be hard or soft.  He eventually came to the conclusion that soft was the way to go.  As noted in the thrilling Methods of Constructing Macadamized Roads, “Macadam’s great objection to laying down a bottom of large stones was that such a foundation acts ‘as a sieve which lets the water in which penetrates the whole mass, when the road is liable to give way in all changes of weather.”  So, when you hear about teams of oxen getting stuck in holes at a major intersection, you have a pretty good idea which method our early engineers employed.

Unluckily for Torontonians, there was an alternative to macadamizing – cedar blocks!  Yes, yes, for a time it was much ballyhooed by aldermen as the paving of the future.  It looked like this:

Cedar Blocks
From A Treatise on Roads and Pavements by Ira Baker, 1906.

Freshly done, it actually didn’t look too bad:

cedar block pavement Toronto 1899
A Toronto street paved in cedar block – from Popular Science Monthly, March 1900.

The downside was that it had a relatively short life (five years) and that was if it was well cared for.  But, as you can probably imagine, the blocks were easily worn down.  The caulks on horseshoes – the bits at the open end that project from the sides – were especially damaging to the blocks and created grooves that, when wet with rain or snow, became waterlogged and caused them to split.   When the skies weren’t dumping wet stuff on the city, street cleaners also unwittingly played a role in destroying the blocks.  The summer heat, so marvellous at drying up the mud, turned it to dust which blew all over the place, blinding citizens.  And so sprinkler carts were dispatched to wet the street to keep the dust down.  Before long, cedar paving looked like this:

Cedar Plank after the damp
Pretty terrible – even worse when you consider the figure in the centre is 6′ tall.  …kidding. From Popular Science Monthly, March 1900.

You might be wondering “What are those dopes doing standing in the street?  Why not take the sidewalk?” Well the sidewalks were no better and, sometimes, quite a lot worse:

The Daily Advertiser June 8 1874
Even married women weren’t safe. From the Daily Advertiser, June 8th 1874.

Men of the cloth weren’t spared either.

Toronto Daily Mail August 1 1887
Toronto Daily Mail August 1st, 1887.

The sidewalk issue got so hot that concerned citizens wanted the police to get involved:

Toronto Daily Mail May 9 1891 Police and Defective Sidewalks
The ‘three pieces of orange peel’ rule? The ‘banana peel nuisance’? What the -? Toronto Daily Mail, May 9th 1891.

You wonder how they could’ve been so bad.  Well, according to W. H. Pearson in his Recollections and Records of Toronto of Old:

“All the sidewalks were of wood and in the principle streets were from eight to ten feet in width, the planks being laid crosswise, and on many of the private streets not more than four planks (four feet) in width, laid lengthwise.  The nails frequently became loose, causing the ends to tilt, making it somewhat risky to pedestrians.”  The funny thing is that Pearson was recollecting that about the 1840s but, as you can tell from the news bits above, the sidewalks were still regularly taking people out in the same way a half-century later.

The modern age – or at least the beginning of the end of ‘Muddy York’ – finally arrived in the 1890s with the arrival of brick sidewalks and asphalt paved streets.   It’s hard to believe now, especially when you know how mucky the place was, that people initially fought them both.  Especially fierce was the battle against asphalt.  The “ratepayers”, as they were always referred to, had major doubts that it was any good and, even if it was, they didn’t want to pay for it.  The debate eventually got so hot that smear campaigns were started about members of the committee lobbying for it.  A Yonge St newspaper office even went so far as to create a window display showing the purported defects of asphalt in a bid to alarm citizens.

Happily, reason won out – or rather, sheer determination to push it through did – and the first asphalt was laid on Adelaide between Victoria and Toronto streets.  This strip saw a marked rise in traffic and proved an unexpected treat for a community many had not considered – bicyclists.

And so, slowly, Toronto’s muddy streets were tamed with smooth paving and its sidewalks bricked-up until they were no longer a menance.  And now, unless you lived on Roncesvalles in 2010, the idea of it being any other way is truly unfathomable.


6 thoughts on “As I Walked Out On The Streets of Toronto…

  1. I have been known to use the word macadam, history nerd that I am (not often though, mind), but I had no idea it was actually named after someone named MacAdam. This makes me suspect I’ve been mispronouncing it. I think that happens quite a lot actually, because I just read things but never hear anyone say them. I kind of disastrously attempted to refer to Roentgen rays the other day and got put in my place. And what IS up with that three pieces of orange peel rule? One is fine, two is ok, but three, that’s just over the line. You’re officially a slob then.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I’ve had similar experiences with mispronunciation. Out of curiosity, should I ever have reason to use it, how do you say Roentgen?
      Yeah, the whole fruit peel thing is beyond bizarre! And the idea that the old ‘slipping on a banana peel’ gag was an actual concern just kills me. I’ve certainly never done it myself – though I did once go careening on a piece of celery. Of course it happened in front of a guy I had the biggest crush on. Life is cruel that way.


      1. Well, I’m not sure if I should trust the guy who pronounced it, because he’s very posh and we don’t like each other, so he could have just been trying to be a dick. But he said it something like “Ron-gin” instead of “Roan-gen” with a hard “G”, which is how I was saying it.
        Oh no! I hate celery, and I would hate it even more if I slid on it. I don’t think I’ve slipped on produce, but I did slip on a freshly mopped floor when I worked at an ice cream shop, and ended up spraining my wrist.


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