Search Transit Toronto

Early Toronto Subway Proposals

Text by James Bow.

"We have got to get past the stage of swaddling clothes and we must be prepared to do things in a large way."

--Mayor Oliver, 1909

Very Early History

The world's first subway opened in London in 1863, but it was not entirely satisfactory, since it used steam locomotives. The first electric subway began in 1890 (also in London) and created a vogue for this form of transit, with systems opening in several cities around the turn of the century. In the years 1904 to 1907 alone, London opened four new lines and replaced the underground steam working with electricity, and New York opened the first four-track subway. With these developments nearby and in the "home country", Toronto received its first serious proposal for a subway in 1909.

On April 29, 1909, the Evening Telegram reported that a meeting held between representatives of Toronto's engineering department and a British syndicate. The syndicate was proposing to build and operate two underground streetcar lines for a price tag of $1 million per mile. One route ran under Yonge Street from Eglinton Avenue to Front Street, while the other ran from East Toronto via Queen, Dufferin and Dundas to West Toronto.

The syndicate had a receptive hearing, in part because of the longstanding dispute between the City of Toronto and the Toronto Railway Company. The TRC had been granted an exclusive franchise in 1891 to provide streetcar service on the city's streets until 1921, but when the city expanded, the company refused the city's demand that they serve the annexed areas. The resulting court case went all the way to the British Privy Council, where the company won. In addition, the quality of the TRC service was considered poor. But in 1891, nobody had contemplated underground streetcars, so the franchise did not cover those; hence, by arranging a competing underground service, the city could punish the TRC.

Undaunted, the City of Toronto appointed a special committee in June 1909 to report on the city's transportation network. Among the committee members was City Controller Horatio C. Hocken, a strong advocate of subway construction. Mayor Oliver was also an advocate, stating "If we can not get the railways we want on the surface, we can do so in the tubes.".

City Engineer Moyes submitted a preliminary report to council in the fall of 1909. In it, he predicted that a subway could cost $5 million. At the November 23rd meeting of city council, councillors debated for four hours whether a referendum should be held to pursue subway construction further. There were voices for and against subway construction, but councillors still decided unanimously to put the question on the ballot.

Two Referendums

1911 Proposal

A map from the November 25, 1911 Evening Telegram showing the Rust-Cousins proposal. Taken from the July 9, 1989 issue of the Toronto Sun

Horatio C. Hocken, made the underground issue the main plank of his campaign to become Toronto's mayor in 1910. On the same ballot, voters were asked: "Are you in favour of the City of Toronto applying to the legislature for power to construct and operate a municipal system of subway and surface street railway, subject to the approval of qualified ratepayers?" The results of the vote, which was held on January 1st, 1910 (at the time, and until the middle part of the century, municipal elections and associated referendums were held every year, on New Year's Day), were favourable, with voters supporting the proposal by a count of 19,268 to 10,697. However, the mayoralty was won not by Hocken but by George R. Geary, who had opposed subways due to their expense.

Editorial Cartoons

A sample of the editorial cartoons lampooning aldermen who opposed the subway proposal. A year later, many of these same newspapers would be editorializing against the city's subway proposal.

The City continued to look into the subway question and issue reports. In 1910, an American engineer named James Forgie of the Jacobs & Davies company of New York City was consulted by the City of Toronto to make a report on a possible underground/surface transit system. His report was submitted to council on September 1, 1910, and recommended a $23 million, 11.6 mile long network featuring three lines extending from the intersection of Front and Yonge streets. One line would run northeasterly to Broadview and Danforth, while a second would run northwesterly to Keele and Bloor, both beneath new arterial roads. The third line would extend up Bay and Yonge Streets to St. Clair Avenue.

The 1910 plan was followed up by another report by E.L. Cousins, the Assistant City Engineer. His report, submitted on November 20, 1911, noted that the northeasterly and northwesterly lines could not be constructed without the corresponding roads. As these roads themselves might not be feasible, he suggested an alternate plan with a north-south subway line similar to the Forgie proposal, and two east-west lines, one following Queen Street from High Park to Woodbine Avenue and another following Bloor Street from High Park to Broadview. The two lines could be connected at both ends, forming a large loop. It is possible that it was on the basis of this proposal that the designer of the Prince Edward Viaduct, Thomas Taylor, had a lower deck built into his Bloor Street Bridge over the Don Valley to accommodate underground streetcars.

In the fall of 1911, the City of Toronto decided to press forward with subway development and called for tenders for the construction of cement tubes designed to house a three-mile subway running from Bay and Front to St. Clair Avenue. The lowest bid was $2.6 million; adding in the cost of track, signals, electrical power, and cars would probably have doubled the cost. The approach was strikingly similar to the decision in 1996 to complete the Sheppard subway tunnels but not lay down any tracks. But whereas the Sheppard subway was eventually built, in 1911 the strategy failed.

The expenditure was put to the voters on January 1, 1912 and this time voters were not so willing to embrace the subway. Weary of the taxes required to pay for other infrastructure projects, and with four of the city's five newspapers solidly against the project, voters turned down the proposal by a vote of 11,291 to 8,486. Hocken had been returned to the Board of Control on January 1, 1911, and was chief magistrate in 1912. Despite being defeated on the issue in 1910, he continued to advocate subway construction until the 1912 referendum. After the referendum defeat, he did not raise the issue further.

Fixing the Issues that Raised the Need for Subways

Support for subway development faded quickly after this. Chicago traction expert Bion J. Arnold reported in 1912 that "Subways should be looked upon in the nature of a last resort, a necessity forced by conditions for which there is no other remedy. Toronto does not at present need subways nearly so much as it needs more surface tracks and more and better and faster service cars..." Further, he concluded that Toronto's street railway network suffered from three particular issues and that, addressing these issues, the City of Toronto could improve transit service without resorting to subway construction. These three issues were:

  1. Poor track maintenance. The TRC was cutting back on maintenance to save money as the end of its franchise approached.
  2. Low streetcar speeds. Bion believed the problem could be corrected by removing trailers and improving track conditions.
  3. Congestion on heavily used lines, especially Yonge Street. Bion suggested that too many streetcar routes were using Yonge Street to get downtown because the TRC was refusing to build alternate lines as their franchise drew to a close. In particular, he recommended that the Avenue Road and College streetcars be rerouted down Teraulay (now Bay) Street and Victoria and Church streets be used for other cars heading downtown.

These issues were addressed by the Toronto Transportation Commission when it took over streetcar operation throughout the city in 1921. But at the time of the report, 1921 was still nine years away. Bion suggested that more co-operative measures be taken between the City of Toronto and the TRC, but this particular recommendation was not followed, or could not be followed.

Bion did suggest that, if the City of Toronto could not come to some sort of accommodation with the TRC, an underground streetcar line could be built beneath Yonge Street from a loop beneath Queen, Bay and Temperance Streets to St. Clair Avenue with a branch beneath Bloor Street from Yonge to Broadview. However, a report submitted in 1915 concluded there was no justification whatsoever for subway construction. As 1921 approached, the City of Toronto prepared for its takeover of the TRC's streetcar network, and the newly formed Toronto Transportation Commission devoted all of its attention to rebuilding the dilapidated system left behind by the TRC. The issue of subways for Toronto would lie dormant for years.

The Second World War and Post-War Growth.

Toronto continued to grow through the 20s and the 30s, and so did society's love affair with the automobile. Traffic on Toronto's streets began to burgeon. In 1931, City Controller Hacker proposed a north-south subway running from Avenue Road and St. Clair south to Front and York Streets, making a wide loop via Front, Scott, Victoria and Gerrard. The TTC examined the proposal and found it "not justified on economic grounds" and not needed until Toronto's population grew substantially. The Great Depression kept expansion of the streetcar network to a minimum and kept a lid on any further subway proposals.

Then the Second World War arrived. Although the onset of hostilities put car buying on hold and brought passengers back to the streetcars, the flow of commuters from home to work strained Toronto's road and transit network. The end of hostilities and the repatriated soldiers would mean that development, suppressed after fifteen years of depression and war, would suddenly revive and explode. This prospect convinced many, the TTC among them, that bold action had to be taken to prevent the city from choking on its own traffic.

In October 1941, the TTC drew up a proposal for a system of two streetcar subway lines. The north-south line was to operate from a loop beneath Wellington, York and Front Streets, up Bay, to past Bloor. After a northeasterly jog through Ramsden Park, the subway would continue beneath Yonge Street to St. Clair, where it would come to the surface. A new line operating along the right-of-way of the Belt Line railway would take streetcars through Forest Hill and into the Township of York. The east-west streetcar subway would operate beneath Adelaide, Richmond and Queen Streets from Trinity Bellwoods Park to Logan Avenue. Suburban streetcars would run into the subway lines at their extremities, offering commuters a fast, one-seat fast ride downtown.

1942 Proposal

Maps of the 1942 proposal (above) and the 1946 proposal (below) for subways in Toronto. The Queen subway was to be a streetcar-subway.

1946 Proposal

The TTC submitted this proposal to the City of Toronto on January 22, 1942, but were turned down. Going back to the drawing board, the TTC proposed a "rapid transit subway" beneath Yonge Street running from Eglinton Avenue south to Front Street and then west along Front to Union Station. A Queen streetcar subway would operate to the north of Queen Street from Trinity Park to McCaul, beneath Queen Street from McCaul to Mutual, and then north of Queen Street in an open cut from Mutual to St. Paul.

On January 1, 1946 the following question appeared on Toronto's municipal ballot: "Are you in favour of the Toronto Transportation Commission proceeding with the proposed rapid transit system provided the Dominion government assumes one-fifth of the cost and provided that the cost to the ratepayers is limited to such amounts as the City Council may agree are necessary for the replacement and improvement of city services."

In plain English, the proposal called for the federal government to pay for 20% of the cost, and for TTC revenues to pay for the rest. City taxpayers were to be almost totally off the hook, except in cases where the city moved and improved pipes and reinstalled roads.

The proposal was ratified by a vote of 69,935 to 8,630. Toronto city council approved construction of the Yonge Street subway line on April 26, 1946. Toronto would finally have its subway.

Early Subway History Image Archive

Next, see the Original Yonge Subway.


  • Bromley, John F. and Jack May Fifty Years of Progressive Transit, Electric Railroaders' Association, New York (New York), 1973.
  • Filey, Mike, Not a One-Horse Town: 125 Years of Toronto and its Streetcars, Gagne Printing, Louiseville (Quebec), 1986.
  • Filey, Mike, The TTC Story: The First Seventy-Five Years, Dundurn Press, Toronto (Ontario) 1996.
  • Smith, Douglas N.W. "Canada's First Subway: From Conception to Operation." p80-93.
Support us on Patreon Button

Welcome to Transit Toronto! This is an information site dedicated to public transportation in Toronto, maintained by transit enthusiasts for transit enthuasiasts. This is NOT the official website of the Toronto Transit Commission, Metrolinx or any other transit provider or government agency. To access the official websites of these agencies, consult this page here.