Historicist: Bridge of Sighs
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Historicist: Bridge of Sighs

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.

British Immigrants Standing on the Bridge of Sighs to Simcoe Street from Union Station, 1911, by William James. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 102.

Writing in the 1970s, Pierre Berton called Union Station “the soul and heartbeat of Toronto,” noting that train stations accrue “a certain aura” invested by the thousands who have passed through them. “It does not matter if the furniture and bric-a-brac have been stripped away,” Berton’s essay in Richard Bébout’s The Open Gate (Peter Martin Associates, 1972) continues, “a sense of presence remains—a feeling, an echo perhaps, that tells you lives were lived here, tragedies enacted, triumphs rewarded, loves consummated, and that this building knew the cycle of birth, life and death, of hope and despair, of sadness and joy.” The same is true of the city’s second Union Station, which served as the main rail entrance from 1873 until the present Union Station was opened in 1927.
For locals, the dramas that have played out in Union Station and its eponymous predecessor, in operation from 1873 to 1923, have included departures to travel on extended holidays and vacations, to attend university on a far-off campus, or to fight wars on foreign shores. The stations have also witnessed many happy homecomings and reunions for Torontonians.
In addition, these stations were imprinted with the experiences and stories of immigrants, newly arrived via steamship to Halifax, Quebec City, or Montreal, and then aboard an immigrant train to the interior of the continent. The tens of thousands of immigrants who arrived in Toronto in the early twentieth century had to pass through one of those stations which—before the rise of air travel—served as the primary point of entry to the city.
It was a quirk of the design of the earlier (that is, the second) Union Station that one of easiest exits from the station was across a small steel bridge to the corner of Front Street and Simcoe. It was here that one of the city’s prolific early photographers, William James, captured families and groups of immigrants entering the city for the first time. It’s not clear what motivated James, but perhaps it was a sense of common experience. He was himself a recent immigrant from Britain—as were three-quarters of immigrants to Canada at the turn of that century.
Though anonymous, the newcomers were immortalized by James’ photographs. The sense of dislocation, bewilderment—and perhaps even excitement—stemming from their arrival shows on their faces. Crossing the bridge from the station was but the last step in the long, perilous journey to arrive in Toronto. Although each immigrant’s experience was unique, their respective journeys followed well-worn routes and patterns.

British Immigrants on the Bridge of Sighs to Simcoe Street from Union Station, 1911, by William James. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 103.

In the early twentieth century, official government policy promoted the peopling of the West with farmers and families, and favoured British or northern European immigrants. But many immigrants, Harold Troper writes in his contribution to The World in a City (University of Toronto Press, 2003), rebounded into the booming city of Toronto. They found work “paving streets, laying trolley tracks, labouring in the expanding textile factories, and tunnelling the sewer systems.” By 1911, there were roughly 3,000 Italians and 18,000 Eastern European Jews in Toronto, along with notable ethnic clusters of Finns, Syrians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Croats, and Poles.
Immigrants were each motivated by a constellation of push and pull factors. Many sought to escape oppressive serfdom, miserable conditions, or political and religious persecution in Europe. They might depart with the official permission of their governments, or rely on clandestine immigration networks. Others were sojourners who regularly made the long journey to Canada to work, with no intention of settling permanently. These migrants remitted most of their savings to their families back home, hoping to improve their position.

Arrival of immigrants at Union Station, ca. 1910 by Pringle & Booth from Library and Archives Canada (C-047042).

In the most isolated villages of Europe, letters arrived from distant Toronto, either from sojourning workers or from family members who had immigrated earlier as the first link in the chain. Hyperbolic letters told of success, encouraged fellow villagers to follow, and sometimes even included prepaid tickets of passage for family members.
In a 1919 speech in Toronto, Michael Sansone, a recent Italian immigrant, recalled the excitement of receiving this correspondence:

A letter from America—envelope quickly torn, a bulky package of papers drawn out, and the family group listens attentively to the news. What! We are going to America at last! At last, we are bound for the Land of Gold, where you pick money up in the streets; where lots and lots of candies are piled up in the schools. These fanciful tales had been often uttered by the town folks, and to our childish ears it was only a few tit-bits [sic] of the many wonderful things which existed in America.

It is interesting that, although referring specifically to Toronto, Sansone uses the generic “America” to better capture the mythic idea of immigration.

British Immigrants from Kent, 1908, by William James. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 107.

Once the decision was reached to pull up roots, the immigrant family entered the network of commercial immigration, where shipping agents (employed by steamship lines and receiving pay for each immigrant they recruited), labour bureaus, and benevolent societies all played a part.
At the turn of the twentieth century, passage to Toronto cost about $20–$30 via Halifax, or about $25 through New York City. The most convenient bookings were with the Canadian Pacific Railway, which (owning both a fleet of steamships and a railway) could offer integrated fares that independent companies could not match.
If the immigrant family couldn’t leave easily from a port in their own country, they’d first have to travel overland to Le Havre, Bremen, or Liverpool. They might encounter assistance along the way from religious or fraternal colonization societies, or—as Robert F. Harney and Harold Troper note in Immigrants (Van Nostrand Reinhold Ltd., 1977)—they might make “the mistake of trusting all people of their ‘own kind’ simply because they were their own kind.” Such perils heightened the financial and emotional costs of the trip.
All but a few immigrants travelled in steerage aboard freighters and liners. The fare was cheap, but the food was terrible, and hundreds of people were packed in the deepest bowels of the ship. For peasants aboard a ship for the first time, seasickness was common on the week-long voyage.

British Immigrants, 1911, by William James. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 105.

Most immigrants to Canada arrived in Halifax, where they were processed at Pier 2 (until the Halifax Explosion of 1917) or Pier 21. After clearing medical examinations—where an out-of-place cough might be cause for delay or deportation—and completing other intake paperwork, the immigrants boarded waiting trains at the adjacent station, bound for their ultimate destination.
In the early twentieth century, the trip aboard the immigration train (or colonist train) was anything but luxurious. Those sitting closest to the coal-burning stoves at either end of the car were overheated, while those sitting in the centre froze. The seats were stiff and wooden, and anyone who wanted to try to sleep through the uncomfortable din of crying babies and the smell of unwashed crowds could crawl onto a platform above.
On the three-day trip, the train passed through unfamiliar wilderness, and through Canadian towns large and small. Michele, a composite character based on historical experiences of actual immigrants in historian Susan Gabori’s In Search of Paradise (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993), recalled the trek to Toronto. “In Italy I had studied the geography of Canada and I knew about the vastness of the country but studying it and seeing it were very different,” she said. “To be moving through all this open space was marvellous, it was a marvellous sense of freedom.”

Union Station and the Bridge of Sighs, 1910, by William James. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 100.

The immigrant train pulled into Toronto along the Esplanade, then shunted into the massive train shed (located where the present-day Skywalk follows the course of Station Street). Built in 1873 to the the design of E.P. Hannaford (chief engineer of the Grand Trunk Railway), the second Union Station was considered, according to Robert McMann in The Open Gate, to be one “of the most modern and handsome edifices on the North American continent.” The station, located south of Front Street and west of York Street, was capped on the south side by three white-brick towers, the tallest of which (at one hundred feet tall) housed a four-sided clock and an enclosed lookout room. Although the station looked impressive from the lake, its placement as an island in a sea of rail tracks made it inconvenient. For example, for many years reaching the main passenger area on the south side required pedestrians to navigate a series of dangerous at-level crossings along York Street.
Disembarking with bundles containing all their life’s possessions, immigrants strained to find waiting friends or relatives on the crowded platform and in the station. As Theresa Wallace shows in The Role of Transportation in Immigration 1900-2000 (Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2001), Canadian train stations themselves could also be fraught with peril for bewildered newcomers. They were packed with pimps (looking to enrapture unattached women), confidence men (often targeting trusting newcomers from their own ethnic background), pickpockets, and snatch-and-grab baggage thieves waiting for distracted travellers. Howard Akler dramatized the perils of the Toronto train station in The City Man (Coach House Books, 2005). Later, the Travellers’ Aid Society—which sprang from the city’s branches of the YMCA and Women’s Christian Temperance Union—would offer respite from these hazards. Their staff and volunteers scoured the crowd for passengers who might need assistance, such as food, helpful suggestions, or directions.

York Street Bridge with Second Union Station in Background, 1908. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 594.

A massive renovation in 1893–94, meant to keep up with passenger traffic, ruined the south facade with another train shed. It also added a seven-storey building along Front Street, which connected departing passengers to the train station by means of a concourse bridging over the trams that ran along Station Street.
“The high, two-storey arch through which travellers entered and left the re-arranged station presented, for the first time in Toronto, the role of the station of the station as a gateway to the city,” William Dendy noted in Lost Toronto (Oxford University Press, 1978). However, as Williams James’ photos show, many passengers continued to leave the station via the narrow steel footbridge. This small bridge, which local historian Bruce Bell notes was dubbed the Bridge of Sighs in reference to its namesake in Venice, framed the immigrants’ first impressions of the city.

Bridge of Sighs to Simcoe Street from Union Station, 1907, by William James. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 101.

Some newcomers were certainly impressed by the city’s tall, modern buildings. But others, as Lillian Petroff writes in Sojourners and Settlers (University of Toronto Press, 1995), “got a rude introduction to Toronto after the clean and open spaces of the village—smoke, grime, and identical squalid and box-like houses greeted them as they met urban industrial life and Canadian society head on.”
Whatever their reactions, many newcomers—if not met by family or fellow villagers or caught in James’ lens—would have paused street-side to fumble through the bits of paper they’d been carrying and guarding preciously since departing. The papers might include official documents, or cards listing the addresses of boarding-houses, relatives, or immigrant societies. Then, with a final destination in mind, they would walk off and melt into the ethnic enclaves and workplaces of the city.
Other sources consulted: Derek Boles, Toronto’s Railway Heritage (Arcadia Publishing, 2009); and Alan Green and Mary MacKinnon, “The Slow Assimilation of British Immigrants in Canada,” Explorations in Economic History 38 (2001).