Historicist: Those Vicious, Devilish Machines
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Historicist: Those Vicious, Devilish Machines

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Noon Hour Traffic, Queen Street West Looking East From James Street, 1924. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1115.

Following her usual route home from work, Della Hazelton made her way down Yonge Street in the early evening of October 2, 1907. On the south side of Bloor, the forty-two year-old widow stepped off the curb and was part-way across the street when she was startled by an approaching streetcar. Jumping back, Hazelton was struck by a northbound car, thrown under its wheel, and killed instantly. Constable Hobbs, who’d been directing traffic at the intersection, and other witnesses testified at a subsequent coroner’s inquest. They confirmed that the driver, Frank E. Mutton, had slowed his big touring car—and had even sounded his horn—as he approached the busy intersection.
Exonerating Mutton of all blame, the inquest concluded that Hazelton, walking with her head down, had become bewildered with the noise and congestion of traffic and that the accident was unavoidable. In this way, Hazelton became recorded as the city’s first automobile-related fatality in the chief constable’s annual report for 1907. Her unfortunate end and the steadily rising number of fatalities in the years to come were symbolic of just how deeply the proliferation of automobiles impacted urban life. Cars precipitated a revolution in urban planning and street design, as well as in police responsibilities. And, as Hazelton shows, the introduction of the automobile reshaped the pedestrian’s relationship to the street.

Russell Car On Muddy Yonge Street at Balliol Street, 1913. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 42.

According to local historian Mike Filey, the first automobiles in Toronto were likely driven by American visitors. But the new toy was readily and enthusiastically adopted in Toronto by wealthy locals such as Sir John Eaton, Dr. Perry Doolitle and Frederick Fetherstontaugh—a patent lawyer who used to roam the streets in a specially built, battery-operated auto. The number of cars on city streets steadily rose from only 178 in 1903 to more than 2,000 in 1908. Two years later, the number had tripled. According to traffic surveys cited by Stephen Davies in an October 1989 article for the Urban History Review, 349 automobiles and 248 horse-drawn vehicles passed through the Bloor and Dundas intersection each day in 1914. By 1925, the daily average of cars travelling through the same point had increased to 7,943, while horse-drawn traffic had dwindled to 15.
There was some hostility to the intrusion of automobiles on roadways, such as that expressed by one MPP who labelled them “vicious, devilish machines” in 1906. So, in the spring of 1903, the city’s auto enthusiasts formed the Toronto Automobile Club—which evolved into the Ontario Motor League and eventually the Canadian Automobile Association—to promote the responsible ownership of automobiles and to lobby government for fair legislation and better roads. Their earliest success was to convince lawmakers to raise the speed limit from eight miles per hour to ten by taking politicians on an automobile excursion to prove that the higher speed was safe.
For early motorists, the biggest barrier to enjoying their cars was a lack of infrastructure. Long treated as an after-thought by municipal officials, streets were in desperate need of modernization. The vast majority were worn-out dirt roads that became almost impassable in rain and mud. According to Roger Reindeau’s contribution to Forging A Consensus: Historical Essays on Toronto (UTP, 1984), of the city’s nearly 260 miles of roads at the turn to the century, only about 30 miles were paved in asphalt—and most of these had only been paved in the three previous years. By 1930, the city had 483 of its 571 miles of roads paved. Over the long term, this sort of improvement accelerated the geographic expansion of Toronto. The Prince Edward Viaduct, connecting Bloor with the Danforth in 1918—and similar viaducts constructed in Leaside and Etobicoke—prompted building booms in previously isolated areas. According to Richard Harris in Unplanned Suburbs (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), by 1923 Toronto’s real estate developers noticed that home buyers placed greater importance on access to a nearby highway than they did on proximity to the streetcar routes that had originally spawned sprawl. The groundwork for the post-war explosion of suburbanization was laid in the 1920s and 1930s—as were the gas stations and restaurants that developed to service automobiles.

Imperial Gasoline Station and Walsh’s 10 Minute Car Wash, 1920s. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 555.

Sidewalks were likewise expanded and improved. In 1900, the vast majority of the city’s 429 miles of sidewalk was constructed of wooden planks. In 1930, there were nearly 900 miles of concrete sidewalks. Yet the automobile inevitably came into conflict with pedestrians who continued to behave as they’d always done in the horse-and-buggy era: crossing the street wherever they pleased with hardly a sideward glance. As late as 1910, the government upheld that pedestrians should have the first right of the road. “It is not the pedestrian who must get out of the way of the automobile,” Premier Sir James Whitney argued, “but the automobile that must get out of the road of the pedestrian, even if he is standing still.” The Ontario Motor League and the city police disagreed. Claiming that the vast majority of automobile accidents injuring pedestrians were caused by the pedestrians themselves, they called upon pedestrians to cross only at intersections—the norm that still persists. Just as the extension of the sidewalk marked a growing separation for pedestrians from the street, parks and playgrounds became more common features of urban planning designed to keep children safely away from playing in the automobile-dominated street.
Maclean’s called the auto a “sign of a quicker-moving age” in 1914. Yet, for all the car’s connotations of speed and freedom, its appearance ushered in an age of greater government regulation. Lawmakers acted upon the recommendations of Toronto’s chief constable, who suggested a license system, speed limits, and adjustments to traffic patterns. It’s worth noting that between 1875 and 1925 the only suggestions for legislative change made by the chief constable related to the automobile. He recognized early how the machine was changing society and, by extension, the scope and nature of police work. At the turn of the century, constables still walked beats with the only vehicles being horse-drawn wagons to pick up culprits. As Bill Rawling points out in “Technology and Innovation in the Toronto Police Force” in the March 1988 issue of Ontario History, the automobile changed all that.

Police Motorcyle Division, Between 1926 and 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1014.

As early as 1907, the chief constable expressed concern over the danger speeding cars posed to public safety. His initial reaction was to increase the speed limit so that police didn’t have to issue so many summonses. But, as he made clear in 1908, Chief Constable Henry J. Grasett knew the only sustainable solution was for the force to acquire “motor cycles or other means to compel observance of the speed limit.” Although initially resistant, city council eventually gave into Grasett’s argument that motorization would make the force more efficient and would save the high cost of feeding and housing horses. By 1912, a motorcycle squad was chasing down speeders, and the following year a motorized patrol wagon replaced the obsolete horse-and-wagon. According to Reindeau, “By 1930, 81 automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles were part of basic police equipment.”

Police Officer Directing Traffic at Bay St and Wellington St, 1924. City of Toronto Archives, TTC Fonds, Series 71, Item 3589.

In addition, the automobile created previously unknown duties for the police. Traffic congestion was not a significant problem prior to 1910, when the growing number of automobiles combined with streetcars, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and delivery vans to grind downtown streets to a standstill. The informal system that had existed, where vehicles each yielded the right of way at otherwise uncontrolled intersection, clearly did not work in the automobile age and simply created traffic snarls throughout downtown. In 1918, policemen were placed at all congested intersections to control traffic flow. Wanting to free up his officers for other duties, the chief constable repeatedly suggested the city install mechanical automatic controls, the precursors to traffic lights, that alternated “Stop” and “Go” signs to control traffic. By 1928, automatic traffic signals had been installed at 71 intersections. Additional automobile-related duties the police had to address included enforcing parking regulations, investigating car thefts—a crime that by 1920 accounted for 62.8% of the value of all property stolen in Toronto—and doing safety and brake inspections of vehicles in the 1920s.
By 1930, the automobile had not only fundamentally altered the physical look of Toronto’s streetscape, it had also caused a cultural shift as drivers, pedestrians, municipal planners, and policemen all had to adjust to its dominance of the roadways.