This Week in History


Collection of articles from previous weeks.

Canada’s first subway system

Tearing up Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, to build the subway (1950) © Libraries and Archives Canada

For the week of March 27, 2023

On March 30, 1954, the first subway system in Canada opened in Toronto, Ontario. More than 20,000 people waited in line to ride the Yonge Street subway, which cost $57 million to complete. Introduced by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to control downtown traffic and modernize the city’s transit system, the project was not without its challenges and critics.

The creation of a subway system had been discussed for decades, but it was not until the 1940s that these discussions became more serious. Increased wartime usage of streetcars, postwar population growth, and suburban expansion put a strain on Toronto’s transit infrastructure. As more people commuted downtown, the traffic along Yonge Street—the city’s main thoroughfare—became untenable and the streetcars could not handle the influx of passengers. A subway, the TTC argued, could replace the 93-year-old Yonge streetcar line by travelling much faster underground and accommodating twice as many commuters. The TTC had the resources to fund the project and public support, as the city entered a period of increased interest in urban development.

The proposed subway line would run 7.4 km north to south, servicing 12 stations from Front Street at Toronto’s historic Union Station to Eglinton Avenue. Land along this route was expropriated and relocated in advance of construction, including the Alexander Muir Memorial Gardens. Some property owners contested the expropriations, insisting they had not received fair compensation for their homes. A few refused to sell or leave until they were evicted by force.

Construction of the subway began in September 1949 and continued for almost five years. A large part of the project employed a “cut and cover” method, where the ground was dug up and covered with a temporary wooden street so that life aboveground could continue while construction happened below. Despite extensive planning, construction ran into unforeseen challenges. During excavation, crews had to use dynamite charges when they unexpectedly discovered solid rock under Yonge Street. Workmen also occasionally hit water and gas mains, flooding basements.

Traffic diversions, noise, heavy machinery, and rubble disrupted local businesses, and the repaving of city streets kept cars and customers away for months after the subway was completed. By contrast, businesses near stations or with direct subway entrances, such as the two Eaton’s department stores off of Yonge Street, benefitted from the proximity and easy access. Some merchants even created subway-themed advertising to increase sales.

The subway’s fast speed and low cost made it a popular alternative to driving for many commuters and aboveground traffic decreased almost immediately. As a result of the Yonge Street subway’s success, the TTC opened two more subway lines in the 1960s: one under University Avenue and another running east to west along Bloor Street. The TTC also added extensions to the Yonge Street line in the early 1970’s. Today, Toronto has four subway lines that cover 76.5 km and service 75 stations. In 1966, Montréal opened its first subway line, making it the only other Canadian city with an underground railway system.

Union Station was designated as a national historic site in 1975. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic sites, which can include a wide range of historic places such as gardens, complexes of buildings and cultural landscapes.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events, and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.

Learn more about Parks Canada’s approach to public history by checking out the Framework for History and Commemoration (2019) on our website.

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