If I had to say one thing about the early history of mass transit in Toronto it’s that we really ought to be grateful for the TTC. For much of the city’s history mass transit was put in the hands of private enterprise. As the story shows, good business isn’t always in the public interest.
While there had been many networks of horse drawn carriages in Toronto, it was Alexander Easton and his Toronto Street Railways (TSR) who introduced street rail. In 1861, the City gave Easton a monopoly on rail transit. The deal was, his company would maintain the area around the track, paying an annual fee per car, and not running his street cars on Sunday. How this last stipulation changed is a story for another time, but it’s worth mentioning that it took three, deeply divisive plebiscites.
Toronto Street Railways under Sir Frank Smith
While Easton’s tenure was relatively mild, his successor, Sir Frank Smith, brought a great deal of controversy to the TSR. Smith transformed the TSR into a cash cow, largely by ignoring repair work, neglecting to replace carriages, and having employees work fourteen-hour days, six days a week, at a rate of ten cents an hour. Eventually, the workers of the TSR grew tired of their situation, formed a union and went on strike. Smith tried to call in scabs to anger of the crowds of striking workers. Shortly thereafter, the factions began hurling mud and bricks at one another. Smith tried the sue the police for “failing to keep order”. In short, it became quite the mess. However, the mayor and most of the citizens at the time believed that Smith had brought it all upon himself.
Smith had done a lot to turn the city against him. The policy that was probably the most frustrating at that point was Smith’s attitude toward expanding the network. There was considerable pressure to push the TSR into land that the City had recently acquired. The land east of the Don.
There was a land speculation boom in Toronto around this period, increasing the coverage of public transportation was one way to keep prices high and users riding. Smith, however, was first and foremost, a businessman. He was not interested in expanding into the new sections of the city, knowing that there weren’t enough people out there to make any hypothetical line profitable and affordable. So, naturally, other companies stepped in to fill the gaps. The result was that the city had multiple fare rates and polices, with the stops farther from the downtown core usually costing more. The expensive fares in the suburbs made it much harder for working-class Torontonians to get around. The wealthy could hire private carriages or afford whatever fare they were charged.
The monopoly Smith had acquired from Alexander Easton was only valid for thirty years and while Smith was eager to keep his contract, the City was not. They even when so far as to sue Smith out of the contract early. Unfortunately for them, the court ruled in Smith’s favour. After the City purchased the rail lines from Smith — for a million dollars… in the 1890s — Toronto Street Railways was done with Sir Frank.
The Early 1900s – Toronto Railway Company
With the TSR up for grabs, there arose a push from the pro labour journalist Thomas Phillips Thompson to have the City run the rail network. However, the City itself had other ideas. They wanted to electrify the street network and eliminate horses entirely. To do that, run the lines, and merge the fares, was a much larger project than the City wanted to take on. So what did they do? The City launched one of the biggest bidding wars in its history.
The winner, a group formed by Smith’s former partner, George Kiely, and lead by western railway tycoon William Mackenzie. Key to their campaign was a promise that they would electrify the rails within a year. They delivered, along with a few bribes to hesitant aldermen. Mackenzie christened his new holding the Toronto Railway Company (TRC) and with it, we see the birth of what we’d now recognize as Toronto’s streetcar network.
The TRC wasn’t without problems. For starters, Mackenzie wasn’t really interested in running the network. The construction of the (futile) Canadian Northern Railway occupied most of his time. Meanwhile, Torontonians found that there weren’t nearly enough of the new electric streetcars to meet demand. Whenever someone actually got a car, it was often far too overcrowded. To make matters worse, Mackenzie, like his predecessor, refused to expand the network to the city’s eastern and western suburbs.
When the TRC’s monopoly ended in 1920, Toronto voters decided that a publicly-owned transit system was well worth the money. A public entity could standardize fare and subsidize the less populous lines to make sure that anyone could get anywhere in Toronto for a rate they could afford.
Stay tuned for the next chapter in the history of the TTC coming soon.
Feature Image: Toronto Transit, Toronto Archives