Early Settlement in "Muddy York"
Native Canadians had long lived here -- at the entrance to the Toronto Trail, a short route between the lower and upper Great Lakes -- when in 1615, French fur trader Étienne Brûlé became the first European to travel the trail. It wasn't until 1720 that the French established the first trading post, known as Fort Toronto, to intercept the furs that were being taken across Lake Ontario to New York State by English rivals. Fort Rouillé, built on the site of today's Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) grounds, replaced the trading post in 1751. When the 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the Anglo-French War after the fall of Québec, French rule in North America effectively ended, and the city's French antecedents were all but forgotten.
In the wake of the American Revolution, the Loyalists fled north, and the British decided it was time to carve a capital city out of the northern wilderness. In 1791, the British established Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario) as a province. Its first lieutenant governor, John Graves Simcoe, made Toronto its capital and renamed it "York" in honor of Frederick, Duke of York (one of George III's sons). Simcoe ordered a garrison built and laid it out in a 10-block rectangle around King, Front, George, and Berkeley streets. Beyond stretched a series of 40-hectare (100-acre) lots from Queen to Bloor, which were granted to mollify government officials who resented having to move to the mosquito-plagued, marshy outpost. York was notorious for its always-muddy streets, earning it the nickname "Muddy York."
By 1796, the hamlet had grown, and the first parliament buildings were erected. Simcoe also surveyed Yonge Street, which would eventually become the longest street in the world. The first Parliament meeting confirmed York as the capital of Upper Canada.
Muddy York -- Just how muddy was the early settlement of Muddy York? It was a subject of continuous complaint by early settlers. One apocryphal story tells of a man who saw a hat lying in the middle of a street and went to pick it up. When he did, he found the head of a live man submerged in the muck below.
The War of 1812 & Its Aftermath
When America declared war on Britain in the War of 1812, President Madison assumed it would be simple to invade and hold Canada. The opposite proved to be true. In April 1813, 14 ships carrying 1,700 American troops invaded York (population 625), looting and destroying the parliament buildings, the Fort York garrison, and much of the settlement. It was a Pyrrhic victory because the Americans suffered heavy losses and failed to take any more Canadian territory. In retaliation, British and Canadian troops marched on Washington, D.C., in 1814 and burned all government buildings, including the American president's residence. (The Americans later whitewashed it to hide the charred wood -- hence, the White House.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the events of the war, York's ruling oligarchy shared a conservative pro-British outlook. Called the Family Compact, the group consisted of William Jarvis, a New England Loyalist who became provincial secretary; John Beverley Robinson, son of a Virginia Loyalist, who became attorney general at age 22 and, later, chief justice of Upper Canada; and Scottish-educated Dr. John Strachan, a schoolmaster who became an Anglican rector and, eventually, the most powerful figure in York. Anglo-Irish Dr. William Warren Baldwin, doctor, lawyer, architect, judge, and parliamentarian, laid out Spadina Avenue as a thoroughfare leading to his country house; the Boultons were prominent lawyers, judges, and politicians -- Judge D'Arcy Boulton built a mansion, the Grange, which later became the core of the art museum and still stands today.
The Early 1800s Rebellion & Immigration
In 1834, the city was incorporated, and York became Toronto, a city bounded by Parliament Street to the east, Bathurst Street to the west, the lakefront to the south, and 366m (1,201 ft.) north of the current Queen Street (then called Lot) on the northern edge. Outside this area -- west to Dufferin Street, east to the Don River, and north to Bloor Street -- laid the "liberties," out of which the city would later carve new wards. North of Bloor, local brewer Joseph Bloor and Sheriff William Jarvis were already drawing up plans for the village of Yorkville. In 1843, the University of Toronto opened; this was an intellectual achievement but also an aesthetic one, as the university added new and beautiful architecture.
As increasing numbers of immigrants arrived, demands arose for democracy and reform. Among the reformers were such leaders as Francis Collins, who launched the radical paper Canadian Freeman in 1825; lawyer William Draper; and, most famous of all, fiery William Lyon Mackenzie, who was elected Toronto's first mayor in 1834.
The Toronto Rebellion
William Lyon Mackenzie, Toronto's first mayor, founded the Colonial Advocate to crusade against the narrow-minded Family Compact, calling for reform and challenging their power to such an extent that some of them broke into his office and dumped his presses into the lake. By 1837, Mackenzie, undaunted, was calling for open rebellion. The city's financial turmoil in the wake of some bank failures made his wish come true. On December 5, 1837, 700 rebels gathered at Montgomery's Tavern outside the city (near modern-day Eglinton Ave.). Led by Mackenzie on a white mare, they marched on the city. But Sheriff Jarvis was waiting for them, and his militia crushed the rebellion. Mackenzie fled to the United States, but two other rebellion leaders were hanged (their graves are in the Toronto Necropolis). Mackenzie was later pardoned, returned to Toronto in 1849, and was elected to the Upper Canada legislature.
Immigration was changing Toronto more than anything else. During the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, immigrants -- Irish Protestants and Catholics, Scots, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other nonconformists -- arrived in droves. Slavery was outlawed throughout the British Empire in 1834; by the 1850s, roughly 3% of Toronto's population was black. But the biggest change was the arrival of the Irish. In early 1847, Toronto's population stood at 20,000. That summer 38,000 Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine landed in Toronto, forever changing the city.
Canadian Confederation & the Late Victorian Era
During the 1850s, the building of the railroads accelerated Toronto's booming economy. By 1860, it was the trading hub for lumber and grain imports and exports. Merchant empires were founded, railroad magnates emerged, and institutions such as the Bank of Toronto were established. The foundations of an industrial city were laid: Toronto gained a waterworks, gas, and public transportation.
Despite its wealth, Toronto lagged behind Montréal, which had twice Toronto's population in 1861. But under the Confederation of 1867, the city was guaranteed an advantage: As the capital of the newly created Ontario province, Toronto, in effect, controlled the minerals and timber of the north.
By 1891, Toronto's population was 181,000. The business of the city was business, and amassing wealth was the pastime of such figures as Henry Pellatt, stockbroker, president of the Electrical Development Company, and builder of Casa Loma; E. B. Osler; George Albertus Cox; and A. R. Ames.
The boom spurred new commercial and residential construction. Projects included the first steel-frame building, the Board of Trade Building (1889) at Yonge and Front streets; George Gooderham's Romanesque-style mansion (1890) at St. George and Bloor streets (now the York Club); the provincial parliament buildings in Queen's Park (1886-92); and the city hall (1899) at Queen and Bay streets. Public transit improved, and by 1891, the city had 109km (68 miles) of tracks for horse-drawn cars. Electric lights, telephones, and electric streetcars appeared in the 1890s.
From Boomtown to the Great Depression
Toronto's Great Fire of 1904 demolished 5.6 hectares (14 acres) of downtown, and the damage was an estimated C$10 million (in 1904 dollars). Miraculously, no one died in the fire, the cause of which was never discovered. Less impressively, insurance companies raised all premiums for businesses in the torched area by 75%, retroactive to the night of the fire, April 19th.
Between 1901 and 1921, Toronto's population more than doubled to 521,893. The economy continued to expand, fueled by the lumber, mining, wholesale, and agricultural machinery industries, and after 1911, by hydroelectric power. Much of the new wealth went into construction, and three impressive buildings from this era can still be seen today: the Horticultural Building at the Exhibition Grounds (1907), the King Edward Hotel (1903), and Union Station (1914-19).
The booming economy and its factories attracted a wave of new immigrants -- mostly Italians and Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe -- who settled in the city's emerging ethnic enclaves. By 1912, Kensington Market was well established, and the garment center and Jewish community were firmly ensconced around King Street and Spadina Avenue. Little Italy clustered around College and Grace Streets. By 1911, more than 30,000 Torontonians were foreign-born, and the slow march to change the English character of the city had begun.
"Toronto the Good"
Toronto's reputation for conservatism was well deserved. While the city was blessed with many beautiful churches, its nickname, "Toronto the Good," had less to do with religion and more to do with legislation against fun. This was, after all, the city that, in 1912, banned tobogganing on Sunday. As late as 1936, 30 men were arrested at the lakeshore resort of Sunnyside because they exposed their chests -- even though the temperature was 105°F (41°C)! In 1947, cocktail lounges were approved, but it wasn't until 1950 that playing sports on Sunday became legal. Leopold Infeld, a University of Toronto physicist who worked with Einstein, famously said: "I dreaded the Sundays and prayed to God that if he chose for me to die in Toronto he would let it be on a Saturday afternoon to save me from one more Toronto Sunday."
Increased industrialization brought social problems, largely concentrated in Cabbagetown and the Ward, a large area that stretched west of Yonge Street and north of Queen Street. Here, poor people lived in crowded, wretched conditions: Housing was inadequate; health conditions were poor; and rag picking, or sweatshop labor, was the only employment.
As it became larger and wealthier, Toronto also became an intellectual and cultural magnet. Artists such as Charles Jefferys, J. H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer, Tom Thomson, Lawren Harris, Frederick Varley, and A. Y. Jackson, most associated with the Group of Seven, set up studios in Toronto. Their first group show opened in 1920. Toronto also became the English-language publishing center of the nation, and such national magazines as Maclean's (1896) and Saturday Night (1887) were launched. The Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Alexandra Theatre all opened before 1914.
Women advanced, too, at the turn of the 20th century. In 1880, Emily Jennings Stowe became the first Canadian woman authorized to practice medicine. In 1886, the University of Toronto began to accept women. The women's suffrage movement gained strength, led by Dr. Stowe, Flora McDonald Denison, and the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
When Britain entered World War I, Canada was immediately pulled into it, as well. Toronto became Canada's chief aviation center; factories, shipyards, and power facilities expanded to meet the needs of war; and women entered the workforce in great numbers.
The 1920s roared along, fueled by a mining boom that saw Bay Street turned into a veritable gold-rush alley. Then the Great Depression followed, and the only distraction from its bleakness was the opening of Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931. Besides being an ice-hockey center, it was host to large protest rallies during the Depression; later, it welcomed anyone, from the Jehovah's Witnesses to the Ringling Bros. Circus and the Metropolitan Opera.
As in the United States, hostility toward new immigrants was rife during the '20s. It reached a peak in 1923, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning Chinese immigration. In the 1930s, antagonism toward Jews intensified. In August 1933, the display of a swastika at Christie Pits Park caused a battle between Nazis and Jews. As if things weren't bad enough, a polio epidemic broke out in 1936.
World War II & Aftermath
Unlike World War I, Canada wasn't automatically bound to enter World War II by Britain's declaration of war. However, the Canadian Parliament voted to declare war on Germany on September 10, 1939, a move that was widely supported by Canadians.
The Second World War brought new life to Toronto -- literally. Toronto men rushed to volunteer to serve while women took their place in the factories. At the same time, 8,000 British children were sent to Toronto by their parents, to keep them safe from the war. Once again, the city became a major aviation center.
After World War II, prosperous Toronto continued to expand, especially into the suburbs. By the 1950s, the urban area had grown so large, disputes between city and suburbs were so frequent, and the need for social and other services was so great, that an effective administrative solution was needed. In 1953, the Metro Council, composed of equal numbers of representatives from the city and the suburbs, was established.
Mid- & Late 20th Century
Toronto became a major city in the 1950s, with the Metro Council providing a structure for planning and growth. The Yonge subway opened, and a network of highways was constructed. It linked the city to the affluent suburbs. Don Mills, the first post-war planned community town, was built between 1952 and 1962; Yorkdale Centre, a mammoth shopping center, followed in 1964. American companies began locating branch plants in the area, fueling much of the growth.
The city also began to loosen up. While the old social elite continued to dominate the boardrooms, politics, at least, had become more accessible and fluid. In 1954, Nathan Phillips became the first Jewish mayor. In 1947, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 was repealed. And after 1950, Germans and Italians were allowed to enter once again. Then, under pressure from the United Nations, Poles, Ukrainians, Central European and Russian Jews, Yugoslavs, Estonians, Latvians, and other East Europeans poured in. Most arrived at Union Station, having journeyed from the ports of Halifax, Québec City, and Montréal. At the beginning of the 1950s, the foreign-born were 31% of the population; by 1961, they were 42%, and the number of people claiming British descent had fallen from 73% to 59%. The 1960s brought an even richer mix of people -- Portuguese, Greeks, West Indians, South Asians, refugees from Chile, Vietnam, and elsewhere -- changing the city's character forever.
In the 1960s, the focus shifted from the suburbs to the city. People moved back downtown, renovating the handsome brick Victorians so characteristic of today's downtown. Yorkville emerged briefly as the hippie capital -- the Haight-Ashbury of Canada. Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell sang in the coffeehouses, and a group called the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme helped many Americans fleeing the Vietnam draft settle in Toronto.
Montréal's Loss, Toronto's Gain
In the 1970s, Toronto became the fastest-growing city in North America. For years, it had competed with Montréal for first-city status, but it was the election of the separatist Parti Québécois, in 1976, that boosted Toronto over the top. Montréal's loss was Toronto's gain, as English-speaking families and large companies chose Toronto over French-speaking Québec. The city overtook Montréal as a financial center, boasting more corporate headquarters. Its stock market was more important, and it remained the country's prime publishing center.
During the 1970s, the provincial government also helped develop attractions that would polish Toronto's patina and lure visitors: Ontario Place in 1971, Harbourfront in 1972, and the Metro Zoo and the Ontario Science Centre in 1974. The CN Tower is another development from that era, and for more than 3 decades, it was the tallest free-standing structure in the world (now surpassed by the Burj Dubai tower). Unfortunately, in spite of strong efforts by preservationists, Toronto lost many historic buildings in the 1960s and '70s.
The 1980s were an interesting time in Toronto. On the one hand, the city fell into the habit of conspicuous consumption that seemed to define the era. Yorkville was transformed from hippie coffeehouse central into a hive of chic boutiques. But, on a more positive note, previously neglected neighborhoods such as the Annex and Cabbagetown were revitalized, the grand mansions brought back to life by new waves of residents. In fairness to the oft-mocked 1980s, this was a time when people began to appreciate Toronto's historic architecture, working to restore it rather than tear it down as they had in the 1970s. The Elgin and Winter Garden theaters were fully renovated and reopened, as was the Pantages Theatre (now called the Canon). In 1986, Toronto's Mirvish family (of "Honest Ed's" fame) created Mirvish Productions, which (along with the now-defunct Livent group) ushered in a renaissance on the Toronto theater scene. There was also important new construction in the city: Roy Thomson Hall opened in 1982, and SkyDome (now called the Rogers Centre) debuted in 1989.
In the 1990s, the GTA really began to boom, fueled in part by rising immigration to the city. In 1998, the megacity merger forced the former city of Toronto into a union with five previously independent boroughs, causing cuts in public services as the provincial government off-loaded transit and welfare costs to the city.
The 21st Century
The new century began with a renewal of the city's cultural inventory. At long last, the city got a purpose-built opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2006. Also, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ontario Science Centre, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the National Ballet School, and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art all underwent extensive renovations.
By 2008, Toronto had become North America's largest condo market, with towers going up all over the city. The trend continues unabated, and Toronto's future seems destined to become a city of high-rise living. In 2011, the market reached a new extreme: C$28 million for a penthouse suite in the new Four Seasons hotel/condo tower, which was still under construction.
Also on the rise are efforts (long overdue) to reclaim the waterfront; developments are bursting, complete with hotels, stadiums and theaters, bars, restaurants, and parks. Some of the parks are especially attractive, like the whimsical Sugar Beach, at the foot of Jarvis Street (a reference to the Redpath sugar refinery, one of the last remaining industrial uses on the waterfront). There is no access to the lake from this beach, but a new boardwalk heads east to this burgeoning new East Bayfront neighborhood. The 1.5-hectare (3 3/4-acre) Sherbourne Common is a welcome addition of green space on the site of a former industrial area, plus it claims to be the first park in Canada with a neighborhood-wide storm-water treatment facility as an integral part of its design. And Don River Park, when completed in 2012, should draw people to the previously uninviting Don River in re-naturalized 7.3 hectares (18 acres) with bike trails, plenty of open green space, and a pavilion for entertainment.
As the city grows, heritage-minded preservationists are stepping up to do their part. Three recent additions bridge past and present. Artscape Wychwood Barns is an artist's colony and local food resource center fashioned from streetcar repair barns from the 1920s. The Toronto Railway Heritage Centre, just a fly-ball away from the Rogers Centre, is set in an old railroad roundhouse. And Evergreen Brick Works has transformed a quarry into a center for sustainable living.
Toronto continues to be very much a work in progress. As the skyline becomes more crowded, there's a noticeable increase in street life and energy as all those rising condos fill up. This dynamic metropolis beckons with an embrace of diverse and cosmopolitan cultures that give shape to an ever-changing city.