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Blazing a Trail Through Upper Canada

For the week of Monday January 27, 2003

On January 29, 1796, the initial portion of Yonge Street was opened to traffic in York (Toronto). Intended to be a direct military and trade route linking Lake Ontario to the Upper Great Lakes, Yonge Street is now a major road through the province and has been the site of settlement, expansion and, occasionally, violence.

Queen's Rangers under Lieutenant Governor Simcoe cutting out Yonge Street, 1795.

Queen's Rangers under Lieutenant Governor
Simcoe cutting out Yonge Street, 1795.

© LAC / C.W. Jefferys / C-073665

The street was devised by John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, and named after Sir George Yonge, British Secretary of War. Simcoe built the initial portion of the street in anticipation of an American invasion. The task of constructing the road originally fell to the Queen’s Rangers, Simcoe’s regiment from the American Revolutionary War. Settlers seeking free land carried on the construction and upkeep of the road: they were required to clear one acre of forest, construct a quarter-mile of road and make emergency repairs. The work was not limited to settlers alone. In 1800, the Stump Act required all people convicted of public drunkenness to remove logs and stumps from public highways.

Yonge Street quickly became the major route to York from the north and the site of many events in Toronto’s history. One of the most famous was during the Rebellion of 1837. Yonge Street was the main route taken by William Lyon Mackenzie and the rebels as they moved to attack the influential “Family Compact” governing the province from York. The militia rallied under Lieutenant Governor Bond Head and the rebels were defeated.

View of the east side of Yonge Street, south of Queen Street.

View of the east side of Yonge Street,
south of Queen Street.

© LAC / John Boyd / RD-000014

The southern part of Yonge Street developed much faster than areas to the north, due to the arrival of mass transportation. In 1861, the Toronto Street Railway Company opened the first Canadian streetcar line along Yonge Street, later replaced by Canada’s first subway line. Yonge Street became Toronto’s main shopping destination by the late 1930s, anchored by the construction of large department stores such as Eaton’s and Simpson’s. Yonge Street also housed more taverns than any other street in the province and, by the late 1930s, had developed a reputation for its rough crowds.

Yonge Street today incorporates a line of connected roads stretching 1 900 km to Rainy River, Ontario. Since 1796, the “longest street in the world” has played a pivotal role in opening central Ontario to settlement, commerce and tourism. A plaque commemorating the national historic significance of the Construction of Yonge Street stands in Oak Ridges.

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