Today the Toronto streetcar system is the largest in North America, but it's only a fragment of what it used to be. Today, those trusty Red Rockets are confined to a few of the major arteries of old Toronto, like King Street, Queen Street, Dundas and Spadina.
It wasn't always this way.
Rogers Road isn't exactly a well-known street. North of St. Clair Avenue, in the old city of York, it runs east-west from Oakwood Avenue to Weston Road through streetcar suburbia that still reflects the face of Toronto fifty years ago. The Rogers Road streetcar, running from Oakwood Loop at St. Clair Avenue to Bicknell Loop in the heart of York from 1924, bound it all together. James Bow at Transit Toronto has an excellent overview of the route, and you should read it.
In 1974, the Rogers Road route in the old city of York was abandoned, one of the last victims of the TTC's streetcar abandonment policy. Recently I retraced its route to see what evidence remains of the route, thirty-five years on.
These days, when it comes to streetcars St. Clair Avenue is as far north as they get. More recently buses have been providing service west of St. Clair West station due to the reconstruction of a right-of-way. As a result, Oakwood Loop has been temporarily severed from the streetcar system. When I visited, it was occupied by a flatbed carrying a couple of fassettas - a kind of track handling machine - and the rusted rails spoke to its disuse.
Oakwood Loop is the only place served by the Rogers Road streetcar where rails still exist, and even then it's changed. The cobblestones that the rails were set in have been removed, and today the loop's tracks run through the same bland concrete as the rest of the system. They turn sharply left on Oakwood Avenue, running south to meet St. Clair. There's not even a hint that rails once turned north from here as well.
The first street sign north of St. Clair tells me what's changed. Gone is the familiar acorn sign of Old Toronto - the starkly utilitarian blue-and-white signs are evidence I've crossed over into the old city of York. The close-packed houses that line Oakwood Avenue weren't built to identical blueprints; they represent a philosophy that died when Levittown was born. Oakwood's warm, residential atmosphere endures north to Earlsdale Avenue, where they give way to what may have been one of the old village downtown, which since 2008 has been the Oakwood Village Business Improvement Area. It reflects, I think, modern Toronto's heritage as a "community of communities," and the low-slung cityscape reminds me of streets like Roncesvalles Avenue, Queen Street West, Gerrard Street East, and St. Clair West, where the streetcars are still running.
It's the sort of cityscape that a streetcar line holds up - a cityscape anchored by small groceries and comfortable stores, where commuters coming home can hop off the streetcar, buy a few provisions, and walk to their doorstep - a cityscape reflective of the city as it was a hundred years ago. Today, it's served by the 63 Ossington and 161 Rogers Road bus routes. This pattern of development continues well north of Oakwood's intersection with Rogers Road.
Rogers Road endeared itself to me immediately for one welcome reason, one that I didn't encounter anywhere else on my trip; it had a bike lane, one that runs all the way from Oakwood Avenue to Old Weston Road. This wouldn't have been possible when the streetcar still ran. Witness all the sound and fury from right-wing members of City Council over the planned narrowing of Jarvis Street.
From Oakwood Avenue to Old Weston Road, Rogers Road is reasonably straight as it traverses small rolling hills. Residential roads branch off north and south, and leading eventually to the village downtown of Silverthorn, reminiscent of Oakwood but smaller and with more rockin' guitars.
At Old Weston Road, Rogers jogs north, and it took a moment of fumbling with my map to figure out which way to go - north, as it turned out. The cityscape of two-story brick-and-mortar commercial buildings endured all the way to Keele Street, where I came across the first substantial building that was for sure not built in the 1950s, dwarfing the houses below.
In its heyday, the Rogers Road streetcar brought smooth, comfortable, electric transit service to the people of York along a route nearly four kilometers long. East of Weston Road, just short of the railway tracks, it all ended. Bicknell Loop, at the northwest corner of Rogers Road and Bicknell Avenue, was where westbound Rogers Road streetcars turned around to clatter east, back to Oakwood Loop. Bicknell was where I found the only evidence north of St. Clair that streetcars had ever been here.
At Bicknell, the past was palpable.
The Western Terminus
The only thing that's changed at Bicknell Loop is the degree of rust. Pictures of Bicknell as a functioning loop are available at Transit Toronto, and the shelter, chain link fence, and center pole are all still there. The pole held up some of the electrical wires, still used when Rogers Road streetcars were replaced with trolleybuses, but eventually even those were pulled down. The pole remains, but it doesn't do anything.
Neither, for that matter, does Bicknell Loop itself. A sign on the shelter advises vandalism to be reported to the City of York, which has not existed for eleven years. The signs at the entrances say "Bus Entrance Only," but none have used it for nearly ten years. The buses pass by Bicknell Loop for Avon Loop on the other side of the bridge, itself another relic of a vanished streetcar route. The TTC declared Bicknell to be surplus back in 2000, and eventually something new may rise on its site. When that happens, the last tangible evidence of the Rogers Road streetcar will disappear. Its obliteration will be complete, remembered only by a few.
The streetcars might not run on Rogers Road anymore, but you can still hear them when the wind is right. You hear them in the bustle of the village downtowns the route passes through, and you see them in the state of the streets the streetcars once rolled down. Evidence for the Rogers Road streetcar is still there, but implicit, like an Iroquois village reconstructed from the buried foundations of longhouses.
There are patterns in the roads still, no matter how long it's been since the pattern-makers disappeared.