GENOVA TOURS 2014 ! (Toronto Walking Tours)



Notes of historical interest

  Torontos Waterfront

By Bill Genova


At one time giant glaciers towered over our waterfront. They were three times the height of the CN Tower. Later when these icy towers melted flora, fauna and animals appeared. Humans quietly soft shoed through the forest on the lakes edge or glided softly in their canoes as they past the waterfront. A great marsh was found at the delta of a River that came to the waterfront in the bay, and hunting was good. Their long houses and palisade enclosures grew on the shore. Rival parties and Huron and Iroquois warriors stalked each other along the waterfront.


Time passed and the chanting song of the voyageurs and coureur de bois echoed along the waterfront. Names that have since become historic, Etienne Brule, Father Brebeuf, Father Hennepin, Jolliet, Champlain and LaSalle were familiar with the waterfront. The French also built forts along the waterfront but they were abandoned after an epic battle was fought on the Plains of Abraham.


Soon Red coats appeared speaking with British, Scottish and Irish accents. The booming of canons was heard in the bay as Governor Simcoe and his wife landed amidst great ceremony and claimed this waterfront as part of a new capital. They established a small 10-block town called York on the eastern end of the bay and built a Fort to the west to defend the harbour entrance.


This small community grew into a British Imperial Military garrison. It had been established to protect these new British lands from former British subjects who had rebelled and won their independence. These Americans as they were now called wanted this land as well and a war ensued. In 1812 they attacked the nascent community of York and burnt its Parliament buildings terrorizing its small community that in total would fit into a modern waterfront Condo building.


Peace finally came and the town grew more successful. Its harbour filled with sailing ships and long fingered wharfs poked out from the waterfront as goods were loaded and unloaded. The Street that fronted on the waterfront was called Palace Street since it led to the Palace of Parliament at Parliament and Palace. Along the waterfront great homes for the time were erected like Russell Abbey and Maryville. After the second Parliament Building accidentally burnt a third one was established at Front and Simcoe.


Waterborne traffic increased in the Harbour along the waterfront. In the winter on the bay sleigh riding and curling proved popular. Great ships with white canvas sails took and brought goods to York. It soon became a concern that the new wharfs would impede traffic in the harbour of the waterfront. An imaginary line was draw from the Gooderham and Worts Windmill at the base of Parliament Street to another Windmill located at the new Fort York called the Stanley Barracks. This was called the windmill line and a warf could not be built beyond this point.


The peninsula was breached by a storm and this channel was kept open as an alternate eastern entrance to the harbour. Every since that event we have referred to the peninsula as the Toronto islands. More and more people crossed over from the waterfront to the islands to escape the urban growth. Boats driven by horses walking in a circle on the deck where amongst the many craft that transported people from the waterfront to the island. By 1834 the town had grown in size and no longer liked the name York since many referred to it as Little York. The name was changed to its original name of Toronto and it became Upper Canadas first city.


After the American incursion the community became more and more British even outdoing the mother country. A small group of men called the family compact began to rule, their primary leader being the Archbishop of the Anglican Church Bishop Strachan. Others in the community took exception and led by a fiery Scotsman name William Lyon MacKenzie fermented an open rebellion in 1837 with skirmishes up and down Yonge Street. The waterfront saw loyal troops rushed in from Hamilton and other areas. The rebellion failed.


The political system was reformed and Victorian Toronto began to grow up and away from the waterfront to the north and the west.  Palace Street became Front Street and on it at Jarvis Street the market that had started from the very beginnings had now grown and farmers from the outlining communities brought an every increasing volume of their goods and produce to sell. Theatres, businesses, hotels, warehouses and offices grew along Front Street and spilled over to King and Wellington.


The waterfront became the playground for Torontonians. Great sailing events occurred off the waterfront.  Toronto citizens rich or poor traveled from the waterfront to the island to enjoy the pleasant breezes and open areas. A cottage community with residences, stores, hotels and amusements were built. A heroic oarsman appeared called Ned Hanlan wining local rowing competition and going on to conquer the world. In the Winter Curling and sleighing continued to be popular. The entire community focused on the waterfront economically and for pleasure.


The train arrived in the mid 19th century and its barons wanted access to downtown via the waterfront. The city fathers had other ideas since they established a bucolic esplanade along the waterfront. The Barons were frustrated and threatened to build the rail line down Queen Street. The lesser of the two evils it seemed was to fill in the land along the waterfront and bring the progressive economic railways along the waterfront. The first landfill was imitated along the waters edge. Two giant stations were built. The Union Station south and to the west of the current Union Station and the Grand Truck Station where the Hummingbird Centre now stands.


Great Freight and marshalling Rail yards grew up along the waterfront and now cut off the people from the waterfront. As the railways expanded industry moved in especially east of Yonge Street. Here were established, great Iron works, coal yards, breweries and distilleries, tanneries, and carriage makers. Progress demanded more land be filled in to accommodate the every increasing railway traffic along the waterfront. There was work to be found along the waterfront as in the past but no pleasure was found amongst this Victorian industrial landscape.


By the 1920s the waterfront had deteriorated and the city fathers decided to rejuvenate it. The Harbour Commission building on the Lakeshore, the Lakes edge at that time, was built as a symbol of their determination. More land was filled it. A baseball stadium was built called the Maple Leaf Stadium at the foot of Bathurst Street. A new airport appeared in the 30s just of the waterfront  on the western tip of the islands. During WWII it served as a training centre for pilots from Norway who lived on the waterfront opposite the airport. It is still called to this day Little Norway.


In the 50s the community on the island was destroyed to make parklands. Resistance was strong and a small number survived on Wards Island. A second obstacle was now placed in front of Torontonians as they tried to use the waterfront. In the 60s a new-elevated highway The Fred Gardiner marred and psychologically blocked access to its waterfront.


A third obstacle was now built along the waterfront. Expensive condos walled the waters edge in increasing numbers. Attempts were made to improve the area as various levels of government rode off in seemingly all directions as they told of their vision of what the waterfront could be. A path was established, the Martin Goodwin trail to along access along the waterfront.


So today the waterfront has condos, hotels, SkyDome, the CN Tower, theatres, a convention centres, ancient  markets, historic buildings, a great arena, a major transportation centre and the lake. Torontonians lucky enough to live on the waterfront enjoy panoramas of the city and the lake unrivalled by other citizens. Torontonians continue to pressure to gain easier and greater access to their waterfront. We wish them well since both those living on the waterfront and those wishing to enjoy it have the same desires.


Bill Genova is a historian, storyteller and tour guide. If you would like to take one of the many tours organized by Bill Genova check out Genova Tours web site at or phone him 416-367-0380.



Who put the grid in gridlock?


By Bill Genova. Historian, tour guide, writer.


As you sit in traffic fuming along with your car have you ever wondered who laid out the streets of Toronto that you slowly progress on? Why a grid? Why not a radial spoke design like Paris?


We owe it all to Lord Simcoe when he landed on this forested northern shore of Lake Ontario in 1793. The colonies of Canada had been divided into Upper and Lower Canada and Simcoe had been appointed the Lt. Govenor for Upper Canada with the responsilbily of creating a capital and infra structure. He decided to establish his new capital on the northern shore of Lake Ontario where a peninsula formed a defensible harbour, placing a fort to guard the entrance and a town a little more than a mile east.


He had chosen this site for his new capital since the original capital was across the river from the newly created United States who was spoiling for another fight with Great Britain. The original capital was called Newark or as we know it today Niagara-on-the-Lake. His concern was borne out when both sides went at it again a few years later in the war of 1812. He called his new capital York after one of the sons of the current King. Its fort was know as the Garrison at York or as we know it Fort York.


Simcoe had his surveyor lay out a grid pattern for future growth outside the town. Each square on the grid was one and quarter mile north to south and one and quarter mile east to west. The main axis was a military commercial road that he named Yonge Street after Sir George Yonge who was Secretary of War and a friend of the Simcoe family. It was built between York and Lake Simcoe, which was part of the waterway system that led to Georgian Bay and the Upper Great Lakes.


The main east west base line north of the city of York was followed each one and quarter miles by a another grid line. These grids eventually became roads and are the main traffic arteries of Toronto today. The east west base line became Lot Street and eventually achieved the name we call it today, Queen Street. One and quarter miles north running east to west is concession one, which we call Bloor Street. You can guess the rest. 


In case you can't here are the following concession roads running east to west moving south to north and their current names. Concession two, St. Clair. Concession three, Eglinton. Concession four, Lawrence. Concession five, York Mills. Concession Six, Sheppard. Concession seven, Finch. Concession eight, Steeles. The first concession running north south to the east of Yonge Street was Bayview and on the west Bathurst Street.


Between these concessions Simcoe lay out 100-acre estates to tempt his civil servants from Newark, the old capital, to York the new capital. He also planned these lots as rewards for his military leaders. They were narrow land grants, one and quarter miles in length and 1/8th of a mile wide. He had hoped to create a Canadian landed aristocracy against the Jeffersonian democracy of the Americans. The result was that over the years when these great estates were subdivided roads that ran north south following the original grid are usually unimpeded. Those that ran east west often are interrupted and continue in a jagged fashion if one follows them. This was because as the sub division of these estate lots occurred one owner divided it into two while another into three and yet another into ten. The east west streets often didn't line up.


This grid pattern disregarded the lay of the land and other considerations. However some deviation occurred. Whenever a road doesnt run in a straight or level line there is a story. For example at the corner of both Richmond and Adelaide at Jarvis the road on the western side jogs. The reason for this is after the original 10 blocks of the old town of York were laid out it was realized that the blocks were too small. The new town outside of this area was laid out with larger blocks hence the jog in the road.


When you travel north on Yonge Street just north of St Clair it turns to the east. The reason for this is the engineers at the time had been told to build a road north south so it ended up at Holland Landing on Lake Simcoe, directly north. If they had followed the original alignment it would miss Holland Landing by miles. They had to realign the road to arrive at the targetted destination.


Some roads never fit into the grid pattern since they had been here long before the British arrived. These were ancient native trails. Two examples of this are Davenport Road, which the Indians used when they wished to travel from the Don to the Humber River or visa versa. If they didnt want to be seen on Lake Ontario going from one river or the other they went up the Don Valley to the Rosedale Valley, followed it and came out to approximately where Yonge and Davenport is today. They then followed the Davenport escarpment to the Humber River. The name Davenport was taken from a home built by a Major Davenport at the northeast corner of Bathurst and Davenport Road.


Another trail that we use today cut through the property of John Cheney which was located on a strip of land south of Bloor St. between Sunnyside and Parkside Drive. He had bought the property from John Howard who lived next door to the west. Howard eventually gave his property to the city and today we know it as High Park. Cheney developed his property building the first house in the area and naming it Sunnyside. It stood on the grounds of where St. Joseph's Hospital is overlooking the lake. He named many of the wandering trails still used by the natives at that time after them. We know them today as Indian Road, Indian Grove, Indian Valley Crescent and Indian Trail.


If a road takes a dip chances are there is a story there as well. Front Street at one time fronted on Lake Ontario. Over the years and several landfills the city has moved out into the harbour. As you travel down York, Bay, Yonge, Church, Jarvis, and Sherbourne Street to the bay as you cross Front Street it drops to a lower level. This was the old Lake Front now smoothed over. At one time it was a 20-foot drop.


Roads originally were dirt roads that became impassable in the spring and fall. The picture at the right is of Bloor St near Indian Road in the High Park area in 1913. One solution was to build roads with planks but over time they deteriorate as well. Brick roads were also built. Final in Scotland a man named Macadam discovered that if you could keep water off the road then a quagmire would not result. He used elevated gravel as a roadbed with drainage ditches along the side of these roads. Traffic compacted the gravel further making them stronger. These macadamized roads soon were being built in Toronto. Our modern roads are built on these bases with a paved surface. As an aside when tar was applied to these surfaces they were called tarmacadamized or tarmac for short.


As traffic grew the width of the roads expanded as well. The grand avenues of Toronto like University and Jarvis as seen on the left were once two-lane tree lined streets that eventually over time expanded to six and eight lanes. The result was the loss of the great trees that lined these Avenues as well as the grand lawns in front of the mansions that once stood stately on these streets. The roadway has now encroached to a few feet from the front doors of these grand mansions.


Another story has a giant circle with radiating spoke like streets being built at the corner of Spadina and King Street. They didn't opt for this but rather two squares with a stately avenue between them. The eastern square is on Spadina and is called the Clarence Square Park and the broad avenue running to the west called Wellesley ended up at Victoria Memorial Square. The grandness of this street is only hinted at with one or two grand mansions standing like worn out old ladies on the street surrounded by vulgar commercial boxes housing commerce and industry.


So as bad as the current grid is imagine that our roads wandered over the terrain of the city, turning and dipping over the land. Our journey between a and b would seem like a to z.






By Bill Genova historian, tour guide and story teller. For more information about tours of historic Toronto check out


Toronto was originally established as York. The original settlement was located one block east of Jarvis Street along King Street. It consisted of 10 blocks, five blocks east to west and two blocks north to south. Directly west of York, land was set aside for a market, court house, jail and church, while on the east side more land was set aside for the first parliament buildings. Over a mile to the west guarding the entrance to the harbour a fort was built. Above York grid lines divided the land into squares with each side being one and quarter miles in length. The east west base line of this grid we know today as Queen Street, and the first concession to the north became Bloor Street.


Within these squares ten 100-acre lots were subdivided and given to the civil servants and military personnel. These narrow park lots, as they were called, were 1/8 of a mile wide and 1- miles in length north to south.  The first park lot east of Yonge and Queen Street was awarded to George Playter, next to him to the east John McGill and next to him William Jarvis. If you look at a map you will see these long 100-acre grants form the neighbourhood in which the Gay Village is now focused.  


Eventually over time a north south street was built through the approximate centre of John McGills property and we know it as today as Church Street. A similar north south street was created through the centre of William Jarvis park lot and is called Jarvis Street. Church Street grew from the Lake to the north. Located at Front Street, which then fronted on the Lake, was Coopers Warf. Until the arrival of the train most people and goods arrived by boat at this and other wharfs in the area.


Church Street took its name from the first Church, shown on the left, built in Toronto at the northeast corner of Church and King Street. The current St James is the fourth reincarnation of churches on that corner. Four other churches were eventually built along Church Street. The Metropolitan United Church at Queen, St Michaels Cathedral at Shuter, St Pauls Anglican Church at Bloor Street and the fifth place where many Torontonians worshiped, worshiped hockey that is, Maple Leaf Gardens.


 As York grew eventually it changed its name to Toronto and the area at Church and Front St increased as the main focus of markets, transportation, municipal and judicial affairs, hotels and entertainment. On Church St south of King St many hotels were built. At the northeast corner at Colborne St the Russell Hotel once stood while the Wellington Hotel was located at the northwest corner of Wellington St where Pizza Pizza now sits. This hotel was later replaced by the Bank of Toronto, pictured above, which was owned by Mr. Gooderham who also owned the building across the street the Flat Iron Building.


To the west of St. James Church the first jail was built where the current King Edward Hotel is. Later to the west of Church St in this area a second courthouse and Jail were built. North of them, later still, the third courthouse was built on Adelaide Street whose central section still stands today.


On the East side of Church between Adelaide and Richmond St was the Home District School built as a gift from John McGill who as you will recall owned the park lot it is located on. Later it was renamed the Royal Grammar School and for a brief period Upper Canada College shared this building. Later the Mechanics Institute, which eventually became Torontos first library, was built at the northeast corner of Church and Adelaide St.


At the southeast corner of Church and Richmond St the current building located there has a unique story. After WWII a photographer moved in and when he developed his picture they were blurred. After investigation it was found that during the war dials for aircraft had been manufactured there. The luminescence paint was radioactive and this is what caused the blurring.


At the northwest corner of Queen and Church St, where the Metropolitan Church is located, was the home of the McGill family. It was called McGill Square and after several generations was sold to the Methodist Church which at a later point joined as part of the United Church. At the northeast corner of Shuter St is St. Michaels Church. Its entrance is not as one would expect on Church St but rather Bond St. The reason for this is that by tradition the entrance to a Catholic church was to the west while the central altar was to the east. Just north next door is the Palace, which is the office of the Archbishop of Toronto.


At the southwest corner of Gould and Church St is Oakham house, still standing today. This was the home of William Thomas an architect. Amongst his many works are St. Michaels Cathedral, St Lawrence Hall and the Brock Monument at Queenston.


At the northwest corner at Gould St is the main campus of Ryerson University. Inside this quadrangle building stands the centre front of the Normal and Model Schools, pictured right, which Ryerson himself had established to train the teachers for the schools of Ontario.


At the corner of Church and Carlton St is Maple Leaf Gardens built in five months during the depression. Kitty corner at the southeast corner was located in the past a butcher shop, shown here, that catered to the surrounding residences.


The 519 Community Centre in the past housed the Old Comrades Club of the 48th Highlanders and before that the famous Granite Club. To the north of the property on Monteith St there are a series of restored identical row houses. This is where many servants lived that worked in the grand mansion that once lined Jarvis Street. One house was the birthplace of Lord Thomson of Fleet. He is remembered in todays Toronto with Roy Thomson Hall being named after him.  Many other Heritage homes line the street up to Bloor St. Just short of Bloor St to the east on Hayden St the Carlton Club once stood. It merged with the RCYC and no longer exists.


The street names along Church Street all have interesting stories. Front St. which fronted on the Lake was originally called Palace St. since it led to the Palace of the Government at its east end. Wellington was named after the Duke of Wellington. Colborne St. was named after Sir John Colborne a Lt. Governor. King St. after King George the III.  Court St after the courthouse located there. The Dowager Queen of William IV is remembered in Adelaide St. Lombard St. reflected the celebrated financial street in London. Richmond St. after the Duke of Richmond one time Governor-General Canada. Queen Street was named after Queen Victoria.


John Shuter was a friend of John McGill and as a result had a street named after him. Dundas St.  was named by Simcoe after the Home Secretary of England at that time. Two other friends of McGill had a streets named after them as well. Nathaniel Gould and Gerrard. McGill Street was named after Ann Wood who married Andrew McGill a descendant of John McGill. She named Carlton Street after her brother Guy Carleton. Granbys history I haven't found yet.


Alexander Wood, who was an openly gay man in the early years of Toronto bought 25 acres north of Carlton St., including the area where Alexander St. and Wood St. now run. Sir Peregrine Maitland was a Lt. Governor and is remember with Maitland St. Wellesley St. honours Arthur Wellesley also known as the Duke of Wellington.


Dundonald and Gloucester St is another mystery to me at this point. Isabella is named after the daughter of the man who opened up this street Mrs. Isabella Roaf. The Rev. Charles Winstanley owned property on the street bearing his name. Another landowner who built the Jail and Court House in 1824 named a street after himself. Youll recognize the street in his name William Hayden. A brewer and land developer of Yorkville, who partnered with a Jarvis, is remembered by one of Toronto's main arteries. You know it as Bloor Street.


Now you know some of the history of the streets and places on the Axis Gay Mundi.

Bill Genova

Genova Tours
230 Rose Park Drive
Toronto, Canada, M4T1R5