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Casa Loma seen under construction in this file photo c. 1911/1912. (William James/City of Toronto Archives/William James/City of Toronto Archives)
Casa Loma seen under construction in this file photo c. 1911/1912. (William James/City of Toronto Archives/William James/City of Toronto Archives)


The centenary of the subway that might have been Add to ...

For local history buffs, 2012 will be dominated by the bicentennial events commemorating the War of 1812. But New Year’s Day also marks a less auspicious and largely forgotten anniversary, despite intriguing echoes to present-day Toronto.

In a plebiscite held on Jan. 1, 1912, Toronto voters roundly rejected a proposal to raise $5.4-million to finance the construction of a subway line up Yonge Street, the first leg of a rapid transit plan that had been in the works for three years.

The move marked a surprising reversal: Voters in 1909 had given their blessing to a “tube” network. City officials quickly gained approval from Queen’s Park to proceed with the project, a response to poor streetcar service provided by a private firm, explains author Mark Osbaldeston, who recounts the story in Unbuilt Toronto 2. The city retained a New York firm to flesh out the plan; their report stated that building a subway network would be like “grasping time by the forelock.”

But when presented with the bill, local voters balked. “It would have been pretty early for a city like Toronto to have a subway,” said Mr. Osbaldeston, noting that it would be 42 more years before a subway would run beneath Yonge. “To me, it’s interesting that a hundred years later, we’re still grappling with the same issues.”

Despite the defeat of the subway plan on day one, 1912 turned out to be a profoundly important year in the history of Toronto, marking an era when the city began to make serious attempts to modernize its infrastructure, social and health services, industrial base and cultural profile.

Stephen Otto, a local history expert and one of the driving forces behind the Fort York Visitor’s Centre project, describes Toronto’s mood at the time as “optimistic, constructive and go-ahead.” “The clouds of World War I had not yet appeared to darken the sky, there was a new king on the throne, [and]the country prospered as the west boomed and immigrants flooded in.”

On the crest of Russell Hill overlooking Spadina Avenue, Sir Henry Pellatt, the financier who’d made a fortune from hydro power, had just begun construction on his gothic revival chateau, Casa Loma.

In May, 1912, Toronto council promoted an up-and-coming young bureaucrat named Roland Caldwell Harris to shake up the city’s moribund works department and deal with chronic water shortages. He went on to serve as commissioner for a record 33 years, eventually building hundreds of kilometres of sidewalks and sewer mains, numerous bridges, and the iconic east-end water-treatment plant that bears his name.

What’s less well known is that Mr. Harris and Charles Hastings, who had been appointed as the city’s medical officer of health the previous year, quickly embarked on a high-profile crusade to bring modern sanitary systems to the city’s most destitute neighbourhoods, including “The Ward,” now the site of City Hall.

The campaign included the elimination of outhouses and the chlorination of the water supply – measures advocated by the two bureaucrats as a means of reducing typhoid and cholera outbreaks. Both men had lost young children to infectious diseases. At the same time, Dr. Hastings began building a citywide network of public-health nurses and forced Toronto’s dairies to pasteurize milk.

That year, the city also opened Canada’s first supervised playground – on a block of Elizabeth Street where Sick Kids Hospital now stands – to serve poor children living in what today would be deemed a “priority neighbourhood.”

But Toronto officials weren’t just focused on improving social conditions downtown. The city annexed the towns of North Toronto and Moore Park that year as residential development activity pressed outward along new streetcar lines. “For a brief time, public transit was assumed to be how most people would get around big cities, if they didn’t walk or ride a bicycle,” said Mr. Otto.

Beyond these municipal reforms, 1912 marked the passage of the Royal Ontario Museum Act by Ontario premier James Whitney’s Conservative government. It laid the foundations for what was to become one of the city’s pre-eminent cultural and academic institutions. The ROM opened two years later.

The city’s business leaders were also pushing ahead with game-changing plans to modernize Toronto’s industrial base. Responding to intensive lobbying from the Toronto Board of Trade, Ottawa in 1911 established the Toronto Harbour Commission. In 1912, the new agency unveiled a far-reaching master plan to transform the harbour into a major Great Lakes port that could rival Buffalo’s, said Gabriel Eidelman, a University of Toronto political scientist who is completing a PhD on the history of development proposals in the Port Lands.

The plan, to be financed by bonds, involved extensive dredging and lake-filling to create a 2,000-acre industrial zone in what was the heavily polluted marsh at the mouth of the Don River. Over the next 20 years, the THC built the Keating Channel, the Port Lands and, later, the finger-shaped peninsula that became known as the Leslie Street Spit.

The THC’s 1912 economic development plan “drastically reshaped Toronto for the next hundred years,” observed Mr. Eidelman.

Ironically, though, it failed to produce the intended result. The St. Lawrence Seaway, completed in the 1950s, allowed freighters to bypass the Port of Toronto, triggering the long decline of the area’s economic viability.

The current plans to revitalize the Port Lands with mixed-use development, which includes a provision to renaturalize the mouth of the Don, represent a “reversal” of what was set in motion in 1912, Mr. Eidelman added. “There is literally land we have to move out of the way to undo the mistakes of the past.”

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