Now in its 90th year, we look back on the development of the Bloor Street Viaduct: a bridge that united a city.
By Lindsay Benjamin
It has been 90 years since the Bloor Street Viaduct was completed and the east and west ends of Toronto were united. Now linked to the rest of the city, the Danforth area has evolved from its humble beginnings into a unique and vibrant Toronto neighbourhood.
Toronto author—and Danforth expert—Lorne Miller investigates the rich history of Danforth Avenue in his community memoir Our Danforth: One Hundred Years of Memories. In an Inside Toronto interview, Miller remarked that his memoir focuses “not on an individual life, but the life of a community that has undergone phenomenal changes.”
Historically, Danforth Avenue was a sleepy dirt road spanning open fields—a place where Torontonians ventured for a weekend escape. It was named after Asa Danforth, an American contractor. In a personal interview, Miller noted that “[Danforth] was commissioned in 1799 to build a military road linking the Town of York to the Bay of Quinte.” Danforth Avenue was envisioned as a “route out of the city, but it wasn’t finished. It never became the great highway to the east, which is a good thing or the Danforth wouldn’t have maintained its character.”
Building a Bridge
In the late 1800s, the City of Toronto was growing due to an increasing immigrant population. Few crossings were made over the Don River at that time, but the newly annexed lower-middle-class communities in the east, settled by British immigrants, desired easier access to downtown. The existing bridges were unable to handle the westward flow of traffic in what was becoming an increasingly car-filled city. As a result, the Bloor Street Viaduct was constructed, marking a revolutionary moment in the Danforth’s history.
The proposal to build a bridge met with controversy in the early 1900s. Critics questioned its cost (which soared to $2.5 million) and its purpose, calling it the “bridge to nowhere.” Many Rosedale residents were suffering from a serious case of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome, fearing that the massive construction project would threaten their property values. Toronto voters twice defeated plans to build the bridge, first in 1910 and then in 1912, but the proposal was finally approved on January 1, 1913. The bridge system would be built in three parts: a Rosedale section, a Sherbourne section, and, most ambitiously, a Don section—an immense three-hinged arch bridge.
Construction began in 1915, and the Don section opened for traffic on October 18, 1918. In September 1919, city council renamed the bridge the Prince Edward Viaduct to honour Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), following his recent visit to Toronto—an interesting beginning, considering Edward would later abdicate the throne after only 325 days.
Rowland C. Harris, public works commissioner from 1912 to 1945, conceptualized the Bloor Street Viaduct and was instrumental in its construction. As Christopher Hume wrote in an article for the Toronto Star, “Focusing celebratory energy towards Toronto’s infrastructure . . . Harris’ most pressing concern was to prepare the city for the onslaught of the automobile. In 1911 . . . there were 2,562 registered vehicles in the city. Less than 20 years later there were 93,663.”
In addition to providing five lanes of traffic, the Viaduct anticipated the presence of the subway. Harris insisted that a lower platform be built with twin decks, a controversial decision due to the higher costs involved. Fifty years later in 1966, when the TTC opened the Bloor-Danforth subway line, Harris’ planning saved millions of dollars—trains could cross the Viaduct without major structural changes.
A Growing Sense of Community
Once the Viaduct was completed, Toronto steadily expanded eastward. Building this bridge allowed a flood of speculators and developers to reach Danforth Avenue with ease, which in turn triggered a period of major development and economic stimulation. Fervent building continued east of Pape Avenue throughout the 1920s, extending the stretch of two-storey, brick-and-mortar commercial buildings still characteristic of the Danforth today. After World War Two, the community received waves of Italian and, later, Greek immigrants. By the mid-1970s, young professionals began moving to the area, attracted by the inexpensive housing and close proximity to downtown.
Miller, who emphasizes the importance of leaving memories behind for future generations, has observed that, “The amazing thing about the Danforth—in a city full of box stores—is that it has maintained its sense of community better than other areas of the city.” The character of the Danforth as a physical avenue and symbolic manifestation of the past, coupled with the towering majesty of the Bloor Street Viaduct, represents a living memoir of over 200 years of life, anguish, prosperity, and growth. This is a community that has struggled to exist and one its residents should be proud to call home.