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Toronto's Railway Legacy Begins in 1853

  On May 16, 1853 the first passenger train steamed out of Toronto from a wooden depot located close to the site of the eastern entrance of today's Union Station. Over the course of the next century, the railways were to have a profound impact on the economic fortunes of the city. What had been the sleepy little town of York was transformed into a regional manufacturing centre because goods could be transported from Toronto to the Ontario hinterland by rail. At the beginning of the railway era, Toronto was a commercial backwater compared to the city of Montreal. By the 1960's and the end of the railway era, Toronto had surpassed Montreal as the economic engine of Canada.

As with all sweeping technological change, the railways were a mixed blessing for the people of Toronto. The tracks disfigured the city and effectively cut Toronto's citizens off from Lake Ontario, the municipality's most important recreational and scenic asset. The railway companies hogged the best real estate in town, swallowing up vast tracts of prime waterfront land for stations, roadbed, tracks, buildings, yards and servicing facilities; all of which further distanced Torontonians from their lakeshore.

It is this railway legacy that is in large part responsible for one of the most important debates currently engaging Torontonians: the revitalization of the waterfront. Few stakeholders engaged in this debate understand the direct link between the shape of the waterfront and Toronto's railway heritage. The history of Toronto's railways is a fascinating and dynamic story, filled with colorful personalities, massive engineering and construction projects, visionary political leadership tempered by corporate corruption, municipal rivalry and the most magnificent railway terminal ever built in Canada.

The Toronto Railway Historical Association and the Toronto Railway Museum are dedicated to interpreting this story to the people of Toronto.

Written by Derek Boles, TRHA Historian, who retains copyright on the content. These pages are not to be reproduced without written permission.
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