Historicist: From Magnificent Thoroughfare to Death-Trap

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Historicist: From Magnificent Thoroughfare to Death-Trap

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

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The Queen Elizabeth Highway, looking west, ca. 1950. From the Archives of Ontario (RG 65-35-3 ,11764-X2149).


Automobile ownership in Ontario exploded in the early decades of the twentieth century. From 4,320 in 1910, the number of vehicles in the province grew to 470,000 by 1934—with many of the vehicles concentrated along the Toronto-Niagara corridor. However, at the time, this area was only served by two main provincial highways out of Toronto: Highway 2, the first paved road in Canada in 1910, which followed the route of the old Lakeshore Road, and Highway 5, which followed the colonial Dundas Highway.
Before long, both of them were clogged with congestion. On Highway 2, at Long Branch Park, there’d been an average of 268.8 cars passing each day in 1914. By 1922, there was an average of 8,236.4 vehicles passing daily. On the same road at Fruitland, the number had increased from 189 to 2,849.8 over the same period.
There had been calls for a new highway with adequate capacity as early as 1916, but shovels weren’t in the ground until the Great Depression. The plan was to convert the Middle Road—an unpaved extension of Queen Street on the west side of the Humber River—into a four-lane provincial highway across the Credit River, to Hurontario Street (Highway 10) and eventually to Hamilton. It began as a make-work relief project for Depression labourers.
Under the tutelage of a new Minister of Highways, Thomas Baker McQuesten, in 1934, the project grew in scope to become one of the first super-highways in North America. And, as John Sewell has noted in The Shape of the Suburbs (UTP, 2009), it had “a major influence on the pace, size, and scope of urban growth” of Toronto and the region.


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Portrait of Thomas McQuesten, 1940. Image courtesy of the Whitehern Historic House & Garden, via Wikimedia Commons.

McQuesten grew up in Hamilton in the 1880s and 1890s—a member of the prominent family occupying the stately Whitehern House—before attending university in Toronto to study English, history, and classics. At Osgoode Hall, he studied law.
He returned to Hamilton to practice law and became active in local affairs. He served on city council as an alderman from 1913 to 1920 and as chairman of the Works Committee.
Ascribing to the ideas Frederick Law Olmstead had put into action with a coordinated system of parks in Buffalo, McQuesten was a strong promoter of Hamilton’s parks, and earned a permanent appointment to the city’s Board of Parks Management that lasted from 1922 until his death in 1948.
He was instrumental in establishing the Royal Botanical Gardens in the Niagara region in the 1930s. He was also a keen promoter of McMaster University’s move from Toronto to Hamilton.
He served as a long-time member and, later, chairman of the Niagara Parks Commission. In this capacity, he played a role in the construction of the the Niagara Parkway, the venue of many pleasant Sunday excursions for locals and tourists alike.
In the early 1930s, McQuesten was also involved in the construction of a new North West Entrance to Hamilton, including architect John Lyle’s high-level bridge over the Desjardins Canal. (The bridge was later renamed in McQuesten’s honour.) Although this project was primarily intended to improve traffic movement with a four lane roadway, McQuesten believed it could also be a picturesque public space and he brought in landscape architects to work closely with the engineers.
A member of the Liberal Party, McQuesten was elected to the provincial legislature in 1934. Shortly afterward, he was appointed Minister of Highways by the new premier, Mitchell Hepburn. As part of his new portfolio, the Middle Road project came to his attention. He sought to balance the highway’s role as an efficient traffic corridor with its potential as a park-like public space, according to John van Nostrand’s October 1983 article in Urban History Review.

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Queen Elizabeth Way near the junction with Highway 25, 1948. From the Archives of Ontario (RG 14-162-2, Vol. 1, ’36-41, 30405).


In order to ensure all of Ontario’s new highways were at the leading edge of design, McQuesten sent his staff to study Germany’s first autobahn (opened in 1932) and the latest innovations in the United States. With these lessons in mind, McQuesten completely revised the Middle Road concept, turning the project into the country’s first super-highway.
McQuesten’s first move was to extend the new highway from Toronto all the way to the American border, conscious of the tourist trade’s growing importance to the Ontario economy. Then, his team revised the plan to improve the efficiency and safety of vehicular travel by dividing the two-lane roadways—each twenty feet wide—with a grass median which varied in width from three feet to thirty feet. With thirty-foot verges on each side for drainage and gravel shoulders, the total width of the highway’s right-of-way ranged from eighty-six to one hundred and thirty-two feet wide. The intention, as the 1938 Department of Highways Annual Report put it, was to develop “a new type of highway, which not only gives a means of rapid transit over long distances but provides a degree of safety not possible in any other type of highway heretofore developed.”
With improvements such as “lower gradient changes, fewer curves, and no grade railway crossings,” A. A. Smith, an engineer at the Highways Ministry quoted by Sewell, believed “traffic would soon be traveling at sixty or seventy miles an hour—twice the speed limit in the province.”

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Cloverleaf at the Middle Road and Highway 10, 1937, from Wikimedia Commons.


The route was also redesigned to be a limited access highway by restricting access to the highway from private drives or buildings, reducing the number of stoplights, and by introducing a new piece of highway infrastructure to Canada: the cloverleaf interchange.
Canada’s first cloverleaf—”a grade-separated underpass and four circular access ramps, arranged to permit an uninterrupted flow of traffic,” as Nostrand described it—was built in 1937 where the Middle Road intersected Hurontario.
Another cloverleaf was built at Burlington, and the Toronto section of the highway had access fully controlled, but many intersections along the highway did retain stoplights.
As important as the engineering improvements were, McQuesten placed equal importance on the highway’s park-like setting. He had the Niagara Parks Commission plant 47,000 shrubs and 20,000 trees. He recruited landscape architects Humphrey Carver and Carl Borgstrom to design plantings between Brown’s Line (Highway 27) and Bronte Creek. Carver later wrote that their intention was “to disguise and conceal the rigidity of the engineering and to simulate the Ontario landscape.”
Carver added:

The route of this new freeway was through an area that had already lost its original landscape character and our planting was intended to restore the impression that here one was passing through orchard land, now through a strand of mixed woodlot, and there along the route of an old (colonial) concession road with hedges and tall elms on the fence line.

McQuesten also placed emphasis on the highway’s aesthetics, including the artistic details on its concrete and steel bridges, and ornamental wrought-iron light standards that, according to Nostrand, created “the largest continuous lighting system in the world over the valleys.” The artistic treatment of the Henley Bridge at St. Catharines was handled by Toronto-based sculptors Francis Loring and Florence Wyle and depicted a Viking ship in the median, bearing the crests of all nine provinces. At the highway’s entrance to Toronto, these sculptors collaborated with architect W. L. Somerville to create another sculpture: a roaring lion at the base of a forty-foot-tall column topped by a crown and medallion.

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Toronto Entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Way, ca. 1940, from Wikimedia Commons


Renamed the Queen Elizabeth Way, the highway as far as St. Catharines was officially opened with a visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (better remembered as the Queen Mother) on June 7, 1939. Subsequent sections were completed later on. Upon its opening, the QEW was given loud praise. The Hamilton Spectator called it a “magnificent new thoroughfare,” praising it for its balance between traffic, engineering, and landscaping.
Barely a decade later, however, the roadway was derided by one Hamilton official as “a deathtrap.” From 1952 to 1958, Nostrand reports, there were one hundred and seventy people killed and seven thousand accidents along the QEW.
In retaining a mixture of at-grade intersections controlled by stop lights and grade-separated interchanges that allowed for speedy, continuous traffic flow, the highway planners may have been short-sighted. But they couldn’t have predicted that drivers on the QEW would take to completely ignoring the signalled stop lights at at-grade intersections. It got so bad, Nostrand notes, that “it was soon as dangerous to stop as not.”

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The Queen Elizabeth Highway in Etobicoke, looking east, just west of Toronto, ca. 1950. From the Archives of Ontario (RG 65-35-3 ,11764-X2160).


Yet, unfamiliar with the limited access nature of freeways, the public also sought to use the highway in exactly the same way they used regular roads. Many homeowners along sections of the QEW that closely aligned with existing roadways had kept the Department of Highways in litigation for years, fighting to retain access to their private homes (and any fruit or commercial stand they had on their property) from the highway. Vehicles emerging from their private driveways became a major hazard.
From 1948 to 1957, the QEW underwent the first of several subsequent stages of reconstruction, each aimed at improving traffic safety and efficiency. The Department of Highways installed new interchanges to remove seventeen of the most dangerous intersections by 1957. During this time, the Department also introduced frontage roads to provide access to adjacent properties and to better channel the hitherto haphazard development along the QEW. The Dixie Plaza—one of Canada’s prototype shopping centres—was built on one such service road during this period, with an enormous parking lot nestled in the elbow of an interchange.
Once the original project had been enlarged beyond the scope of a mere expansion of the Middle Road, the Department soon discovered that it was more advantageous to direct the new highway through farmers’ fields, at some distance from areas that were already built up. But they did so with little fore-thought towards the long-term consequences for the adjacent region. A senior solicitor in the Department, A. R. Dick, noted:

At the present time, it is almost axiomatic that a modern highway will develop the countryside through which it passes, and yet this same development, if uncontrolled, will ultimately result in the elimination of the highways as a traffic artery capable of performing the function for which it was primarily constituted.

The super-highway’s presence—as well as the introduction of adjacent service roads—enabled rapid urbanization along its corridor.

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Photo of Frances Loring’s sculpture by swilton from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.


The QEW was no passive piece of infrastructure, Sewell argues passionately; it drove auto-centric development on the western wing of the region later dubbed the Golden Horseshoe. With new commercial, industrial, and residential developments came more vehicles. Once again, congestion and traffic accidents became problems.
The freeway was improved in several seemingly continuous phases of reconstruction. It was widened in some places up to ten lanes wide. And all of the at-grade intersections were eventually replaced. These utilitarian changes, made in the name of vehicular efficiency, required the removal of the original light standards, and the landscaped median.
Loring’s column was removed from the median to a nearby park at the mouth of the Humber River. Moreover, the shrubbery produced, as one official put it, “night-time ghosts—phantom pedestrians made by shadows sent across the road from oncoming headlights.” So the road-side plantings were also removed in the name of safety.
While McQuesten—who died in 1948—believed the QEW could strike a balance between utilitarian function and being a park-like public space, Nostrand argues, it is now hidden behind eight-foot tall concrete walls, scorned as an unseemly and noisy blemish.
Infrastructure has gone from being a visible symbol of prosperity and innovation in McQuesten’s day to being no more than a necessary evil of the daily commute in our own.
Other sources consulted: Stephen Davies, “Reckless Walking Must be Discouraged,” Urban History Review 18:2 (October 1989); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches 3 (Dundurn Press, 1994); and John van Nostrand, “The Queen Elizabeth Way: Public Utility Versus Public Space,” Urban History Review 12:2 (October 1983).

CORRECTION: December 27, 2010, 5:43 PM In this post we originally included a different photo we believed at the time to be of Thomas Baker McQuesten. One of our readers has informed us that this photo was mislabelled and is not in fact of McQuesten, and we have replaced that image with a new one courtesy of the Whitehern Historic House & Garden. Thanks to Mary Anderson for letting us know about the error.

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