Thursday, September 24, 2009

HisT.O.ry: Ghosts of Harbord

Every once in a while, between the past and future, Acts of Minor Treason takes time to look backward at some of Toronto's history - preferably the parts of it that haven't been bulldozed already.

The Summary

It could just as easily have been called the original Dundas streetcar.

Fifty years ago, streetcars were king in Toronto. While the opening of the subway from Union to Eglinton in 1954 had expelled them from Yonge Street, in 1959 those iconic Presidents' Conference Committee streetcars still clattered along Rogers Road, Dupont, Bloor, and Harbord. While the Rogers Road route's 1970s disappearance represented one of the last gasps of the TTC's streetcar abandonment policy, the other three were made obsolete by the 1966 opening of the Bloor-Danforth subway.

Today, very little evidence remains of them, but they're part of this city's history nevertheless. The Harbord route in particular, meandering this way and that through residential neighborhoods east and west of the Don River and rocketing through downtown, is still fondly remembered by some transit aficionados. On September 13 and September 20, I took my camera and walked the route of the Harbord streetcar as it was in 1959, looking for impressions left in the concrete.

The Basics

The best online source for information on the Harbord streetcar is its page on Transit Toronto, written by James Bow. In 1959, it followed a thirteen-kilometer route from St. Clarens Loop at St. Clarens Avenue and Davenport Road in the west to Lipton Loop in the east. Unlike the Rogers Road route, which has been entirely obliterated except for its empty loop at Bicknell, nearly half of the route's total extent is still served by streetcars today.

The Harbord streetcar was originally longer than this, linking to Townsley Loop at St. Clair Avenue West and Old Weston Road, but service west of St. Clarens was cut in 1957. Though 168 Symington buses still stop at that loop, it was severed from the streetcar system a few years ago.

The Route: West to East

We start at St. Clarens Loop, from which Harbord streetcars pushed east on their runs to the Danforth - or, more appropriately, what was once St. Clarens Loop. Nearly forty-four years after the end of Harbord service, St. Clarens Loop no longer exists. I wasn't able to find anything more specific than "Davenport and St. Clarens" as to its location, but given the nature of that intersection, Primrose Avenue Parkette strikes me as the most plausible site of the former loop. Not only do the houses on the north side of Davenport look old and well-founded, the geography of the Iroquois Shoreline against which Davenport abuts doesn't lend itself well to a streetcar loop.

As on Rogers Road, one of the most obvious legacies of the streetcar line are the twin bicycle lanes, made possible by a street that had to be shared between rail and vehicular traffic. Many of the houses along Davenport reflect an early-century design ethos, one in which car ownership was not assumed to be universal, and as such a number of them lack driveways. Fifty years ago, cars wouldn't have been strictly necessary to residents along Davenport, with the Harbord streetcar providing a direct line to the downtown core. Today, the 127 Davenport bus connects this neighborhood to Spadina station.

Another hint that streetcars once ran here is the preponderance of metal utility poles. In this section of Davenport, only half the poles support streetlights, while the remainder are only there to hold up wires. These may be some of the original poles originally raised to support the Harbord streetcar's overhead wires.

The Harbord streetcar served only an abbreviated portion of Davenport Road; after barely more than one kilometer, cars turned south onto Dovercourt Road. The 161 Rogers Road bus serves that street today. It was at Dovercourt that I found the first strong evidence of the Harbord streetcar's presence, visible in the photograph above if you know what to look for.

Modern streetcar lines are embedded in concrete, a sight that should be familiar to anyone who's done much walking in Toronto's downtown core or along streets that have retained their streetcar service. In the 1950s these middle lanes were cobblestone rather than concrete, but the principle remains the same. Take a look down the two middle lanes of Dovercourt in the photo - and it's not a trick of the shadows. The two middle lanes of the street are darker than the two outer lanes. This, to me, is prima facie evidence of the streetcar.

What I believe happened is that, after the line's abandonment in 1966, the two inner lanes either were ripped out and put back in without tracks, or just paved over entirely. Dovercourt Road, being a purely residential road only a block away from Ossington, is not particularly high-traffic. It may well be the case that there has not been a need for roadwork along Dovercourt in the forty-three years since the removal of the tracks. The darker, fresher cast of the two inner lanes' asphalt is almost like scar tissue, covering the wound of their removal.

After one and a half kilometers spent rolling through Dovercourt's suburban charm Harbord streetcars turned east again, onto Bloor Street track shared with the booming Bloor streetcar. Passenger volumes here demanded that the PCCs frequently be run in two-car trains, ersatz predecessors of the modern, double-length ALRVs that provide the bulk of service along Queen Street today. It might not have been a rare occurrence for someone waiting at this intersection to hop onto a Harbord streetcar for a quick ride a bit further east. Harbord cars ran on Bloor for barely more than three hundred meters, turning south once more at Ossington. Though Bloor streetcar service in this area was abandoned at the same time as on the Harbord route, the level of traffic and development since has obliterated all trace of the former route here.

There are still streetcar tracks on Ossington, but I didn't cross their paths. They connect the lines on College Street and Dundas Street, purely non-revenue trackage that's only really used for diversions. Like Bloor, Ossington is high-traffic enough to warrant at least one resurfacing since the 1960s, and as a result the short metal poles that crop up between the light standards every now and then are the only local evidence of streetcar infrastructure. The 63 Ossington bus serves this corridor, rolling between Eglinton West station and Liberty Village. It's a comfortable street, and only the relatively high traffic level is a reminder that downtown Toronto is not too far away.

Harbord Street isn't a particularly long or prominent road, running for slightly more than two kilometers from Ossington Avenue in the west to St. George Street in the east, but it gave its name to the Harbord streetcar regardless. This might be because the streetcar served all but the eastern fragment of Harbord Street, turning south only at the border of the University of Toronto, which might have taken issue with its students dodging streetcars on the way to class. The bike lanes return here, and the low-rise commercial infrastructure speaks of a mini-downtown where businesses once catered to streetcar commuters. The 94 Wellesley bus picks up transit slack here, and Bickford Park and Harbord Park are healthy preserves of green.

It's along Harbord that past and present first intersect. The 511 Bathurst streetcar still runs from Bathurst station to the Exhibition grounds, and the rails that run through the intersection of Harbord and Bathurst are the first indications along the route that streetcars still run in Toronto.

At Spadina Avenue, the route of the Harbord streetcar rejoins the modern streetcar system, but that's not to say the rails are the same. Streetcar service on Spadina ceased with the death of the Harbord streetcar and the removal of most of its trackage, and it wasn't until 1997 that the present 510 Spadina service returned. The tree-lined right-of-way is entirely modern - period photos available on Transit Toronto show that the Harbord streetcar ran in mixed traffic in the same way as the modern 501 Queen, 504 King, 505 Dundas, 506 Carlton, and 511 Bathurst routes.

To my knowledge, this part of Spadina Avenue is unique in that it's the only component of the modern streetcar system where service was "permanently" cancelled and later reinstated. Harbourfront, the other major representative of Toronto's streetcar renaissance, was not previously served by streetcars. With the city's attention now focused on comparatively peripheral routes like Finch Avenue for new streetcar service, it's unlikely that any other former streetcar roads will see cars clattering down them again.

Upon reaching Dundas Street in the heart of Chinatown Harbord streetcars turned east, and while the track continued to the south it was used mostly for short turns and streetcar shuffles, as far as I understand. The only reason I was able to get a modern photo of a streetcar turning along the same route is only due to ongoing watermain construction further west on Dundas - outside of extraordinary circumstances such as that, streetcars don't turn at this intersection anymore. It's an eastbound 505 Dundas car that's pictured, but if you turn your head and squint I suppose you can imagine the photo's from an alternate world where the Harbord streetcar endured to the modern day. Assuming you're into that sort of thing.

Though I doubt streetcars would have carried anything as risque as modern Calvin Klein ads back in 1959.

As I said earlier, the Harbord streetcar is unusual among Toronto's vanished streetcars in that a significant portion of its former route still sees streetcar service today. In 1959, Dundas streetcars looped and turned back west at City Hall Loop just west of Bay Street, and service along Dundas East was provided primarily by Harbord cars. Where the western extents of the Harbord route passed through quiet, green, middle-class streetcar suburbs, east of Yonge they rolled through south Cabbagetown and Regent Park and bridged the Don River - which, on a good day like September 20, 2009 was, actually looks like a real, healthy, viable ecosystem, though that only lasts for as long as the Don Valley Parkway can be ignored. To expand on what I said before, the Harbord streetcar might have been more accurately termed the Dundas East streetcar.

East of the Don River, the Harbord route and the modern streetcar tracks both turn north off Dundas onto Broadview Avenue. Today, Broadview is a significant streetcar avenue serving Chinatown East and Riverdale, with 504 King and 505 Dundas streetcars running along it to Broadview station. Modern levels of streetcar service weren't seen on Broadview until the 1966 opening of the Bloor-Danforth subway enabled the surviving streetcars to feed it; in 1959, Harbord cars turned east on Gerrard Street, joining trackage used today by 506 Carlton cars. Modern streetcar service continues east along Gerrard far beyond where Harbord cars turned north again, leading into Main Street station on the Bloor-Danforth subway.

A railway bridge crosses Gerrard Street just east of Carlaw Avenue, used by GO Transit trains that started rolling one year after the last Harbord run. It's here that Harbord streetcars turned north, and it's here that their route departs the extant streetcar system. With the exception of Riverdale Shopping Centre, which may not have even existed in 1959, the neighborhood is almost purely residential. Harbord cars ran only a short distance up Carlaw before turning east at Riverdale Avenue. In the heyday of the Harbord car, the currently-empty building at the Carlaw and Riverdale intersection housed a variety store. With a shopping centre just down the street today, I suppose it just ended up being obsolete.

Riverdale Avenue today is a quiet, residential street, significant only because Pape Avenue is split in two by the aforementioned railway. There remain one or two old, rusting metal poles along its length from Carlaw to Pape, holding up streetlamps in the shadows of old trees and significantly shorter than the newer wooden poles. One is visible in the photograph above. Again, remnants of the streetcar's overhead wire infrastructure.

Pape Avenue south of the Danforth is relatively low-traffic and residential today, but it's poised for a renaissance. The proposed Downtown Relief Line, originally conceived in 1985's Network 2011 plan and drawing a great deal of attention today, might well be tunnelled below it and return higher-order transit to a street that's been without it for more than four decades. 72 Pape buses serve it today, connecting the neighborhood to Union Station. Still, traffic on Pape is high enough that it seems to have been resurfaced between 1966 and now, and aside from a few metal poles there's not much evidence the Harbord streetcar passed through here.

The End of the Line

Though the route rubbed up against it when it turned south onto Ossington from Bloor, it's only at the intersection of Pape and Danforth that the Harbord streetcar route directly confronts its killer and successor, the Bloor-Danforth subway. In 1959, Harbord streetcars looped for a westerly run at Lipton Loop, with tracks on Lipton Avenue, Gertrude Street, and a third road which subsequent development has entirely eradicated. Today, the site of Lipton Loop is occupied by Pape station, one of only a handful of TTC stations that boasts a Tim Hortons.

It's a transit nexus of its own today. The 25 Don Mills, 72 Pape and 81 Thorncliffe Park bus routes feed through Pape station. Should Transit City be built as it's currently proposed, streetcar service would return to the site, with the Don Mills LRT departing here toward Steeles Avenue, the city's northern border.

That alone demonstrates how much Toronto has changed since 1959. Fifty years ago, it would have been folly to contemplate a streetcar reaching to what was then a country road only beginning to see development boom. Fifty years ago, the streetcar network occupied a different place in relation to the people of the city. One thing I noticed throughout the route was the ubiquity of on-street parking. It's simple why; the houses along this route were built before automobile ownership became an end into itself, when no one really needed a car to get around.

Toronto has changed a great deal, but something like the Harbord streetcar could still fit within it today.

Ancient HisT.O.ry:

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