185 Years Of Toronto History (Abbreviated Edition)

Posted On February 13, 2019

Toronto will be celebrating its 185th year on March 9 and 10 at Nathan Phillips Square. It celebrates the day York was incorporated as a city and renamed Toronto, on March 6, 1834. They say those that don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it, so here’s a cribs notes of all (well, a lot of, at least – we’re not Google!) the notable events that have happened in Toronto in those 185 years.

1834 – 1910s

King’s College is renamed the University of Toronto in 1849. That same year, the first great fire of Toronto happens. The Toronto Islands are formed in 1858 after a violent storm sweeps what was once a peninsula (an outcropping of land into the water attached to the shore) into Lake Ontario.

In 1858, the first Union Station takes shape and three years later, in 1861, the Toronto Stock Exchange is formed. Eight years after that, in 1869, Eaton’s is established.

In 1873 another Union Station opens in the first’s place. Though large in stature, it never really worked well for the number of passengers passing through and after the 1904 great fire (yes, another one) the land that is cleared there is to be used for another iteration of Union Station.

In 1899, the Old City Hall, Romanesque in design (E.J. Lennox, who designed Casa Loma, also designed this building), opens and remains in operation until 1966.

In 1903, the King Edward Hotel, opens and two years later, in 1905, the first Toronto Santa Claus Parade starts.


The Royal Ontario Museum opens its doors on March 19, 1914. An expansion in 2002, with a design by architect Daniel Libeskind, is controversial for its ultra-modern design, compared to the museum’s older aesthetic.

The Prince Edward Viaduct – better known as the Bloor Viaduct – opens in 1913. It cost almost $2.5 million, which in 2017 dollars is closer to $36 million. The lower level, which is designed for public transit use is controversial because of its added expense, but it pays off nearly 50 years later when the Bloor-Danforth subway line opens, using the Viaduct to cross the city.

From 1911 to 1914, Sir Henry Pellatt and architect E.J. Lennox build the Gothic Revival Casa Loma. It cost $3.5 million to build and its grandeur was unrivaled in Canada. Unfortunately, due to an increase in taxes and a lack of funds, Pellatt had to vacate the castle by 1923. Its gone through several iterations, as a hotel, a rumoured secret spy station, an event space and now a restaurant called Blueblood Steakhouse.


The financial district Concourse Building – now known as EY Tower – finishes in 1928. Remnants of the past remain, most notably the colourful art deco exterior (with mosaics by Group Of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald), which can still be seen amongst the gleaming glass buildings at 100 Adelaide Street West, across from First Canadian Place and Cactus Club.

The Royal York hotel opens its doors on June 11, 1929. In its almost 90-year history, the hotel, now part of the Fairmont Hotel chain, has acted as the backdrop to countless Hollywood films and shows, held performances by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Tina Turner, and hosted celebrities and heads of state like Nicolas Sarkozy, Ronald Reagan and even the Queen herself. Built in the Chateauesque style, with Art Deco and Romanesque influences, it was once not only the tallest building in Canada, but briefly, the tallest building in the British Empire.


The Canadian Bank of Commerce (a precursor to CIBC) head office opens at 25 King Street West. With 34 storeys, it tops the Royal York as the tallest building in the British Empire, holding on to the title until 1962. Commerce Court North still has plenty of evidence of the original building, most notably the grand arched ceilings on the ground level.

Zeller’s tries again in 1931, after a previous company with the same name declared bankruptcy.  Their only Toronto store was at Yonge and Albert, where the Eaton Centre now sits.

On November 11, 1931, Maple Leaf Gardens opens its doors to 13,000 fans wanting to see the Maple Leafs take on the Chicago Black Hawks. Chicago won and the Gardens are now home to a Loblaws, an LCBO and Ryerson’s athletic centre.

In February 1939, the Island Airport, soon named Port George VI Island Airport to commemorate an upcoming visit by King George VI, opens. After World War II broke out, the island became a military training base. It is now known as Billy Bishop Airport (after World War I flying ace Billy Bishop) and home to Porter Airlines.


The Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup four times this decade, in 1942, 1945, 1947 and 1948.


On March 30, 1954, the Yonge subway line opens to 200,000 passengers excited for Canada’s first underground transit system. The line stops at Eglinton Station and goes to Union Station. That same day, streetcar service on Yonge Street shutters forever.

On August 9, 1951, the weather beacon on the Canada Life building at Queen and University goes live. The addition to the building, which was built in the 1930s, puts it at the third tallest building in Toronto, after the Commerce Building and the Royal York. The flashing lights going up the tower mean warmer weather, going down mean cooler and steady means no temperature change.

On Canada Day, 1952, Highway 400 opens, after planning began in 1944. Nearly 70 years later, people are still complaining about the traffic.

Hockey Night in Canada – which was already a radio broadcast dating back to the 1920s – premieres on CBC Television in 1952.


Another winning decade for the Toronto Maple Leafs, they score the Stanley Cup in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967. They haven’t managed to win one since, though not for Toronto’s lack of team spirit.

In 1964, the Bloor Danforth subway line opens, from Keele station in the west end to Woodbine station in the east end.

On February 26, 1964, Yorkdale Mall, with over 1,000,000 square feet of leasable space, debuts. It cost $40 million to build and was one of the largest shopping centres in the world at the time, dwarfing other Canadian retail spaces. Today, it sees almost 18 million people annually and is the country’s busiest mall.

New City Hall, in Nathan Phillips Square, opens in 1965.


Ontario Place opens on May 22, 1971. Its futuristic design included pods suspended over the water and a geodesic dome. The final cost for the entire plan, which included the creation of artificial reefs to stop wave action from Lake Ontario, came in at $29 million (a staggering $181 million in 2017 dollars). It has been refurbished in recent years, with Echo Beach and Trillium Park bringing new visitors to the area.
After major public uproar, in 1971, the Spadina Expressway (later named William R. Allen Road after Chairman of the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto William “Bill” Randall Allen) is cancelled to go no further than Eglinton Avenue. It was originally intended to go all the way to the Gardiner.

The Art Gallery of Ontario – which has existed since 1900 – moves to its current site on Dundas Street in 1974. A 2008 renovation by Canadian architect Frank Gehry gives it its current look and increases the viewing space by 47 percent.

In 1975, they finish First Canadian Place. At 298 metres (or 978 feet), it was (and remains) Canada’s tallest skyscraper, the 15th tallest building in North America (including spires) and 9th highest to roof top. At the time, it was the tallest building in the commonwealth. Not to be outdone in terms of height, the CN Tower finally completes construction in 1976 and holds the record of world’s tallest freestanding structure for 32 years until 2007, when it is topped by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It is still the largest freestanding structure in the Western Hemisphere, though.


Canada’s Wonderland opens in May of 1981 with a huge fake mountain dubbed Wonder Mountain at its centre. Lots of rides come in the years that follow, including the almost vertical drop of Leviathan, but for our money, there’s no ride that compares to the Great Canadian Minebuster.

The home of the Blue Jays, the Skydome, premieres in June 1989. It has a retractable roof, which remained open on its first day, despite a rainstorm and some in the crowd of 50,000 shouting “close the roof”. The Jumbotron was, at the time the stadium opened, the largest screen in North America.


Simpsons, the retailer purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company back in the 1970s, finally closes for good, with retail spaces either sold or taken over by the Bay.

Scotiabank Area – then known as the Air Canada Centre – opens in 1999, as a home for the Toronto Raptors (which were established in 1993, the first Canadian team in the NBA). The Raptors were purchased by the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (the same conglomerate that owns the Leafs, among others) and the building design was changed to also accommodate the Toronto Maple Leafs. From February 20-22, 1999, a Leafs game, Raptors game and a
Tragically Hip concert are all held at the venue.


The Skydome is renamed Rogers Centre in 2005. Those of us old enough to remember the original iteration still slip up and refer to it by its original name.

The modernist Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts holds its grand opening in 2006, to Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). The building, designed by Diamond and Schmitt Architects, cost $181 million and seats 2,000. Because it is built near both a subway and streetcar line, the building sits on 489 rubber insulating pads to
reduce vibration.


In 2015, the Union Pearson express allows travellers to get from Union Station to the Pearson Airport more quickly and efficiently (and cheaply!) than other modes of transit. A month later, the Pan American games come to town. Even later still, that same month, the tunnel to Billy Bishop Airport opens, meaning passengers no longer have to take the ferry.

In 2017, Toronto hosts the Invictus Games, a project by Prince Harry, where he and Meghan Markle make their first public appearance.

In 2018, the Air Canada Centre is renamed the Scotiabank Arena.

James Strathy Warren

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Alexander Obradovich

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