Tunnel Vision: A History of Toronto's Subway
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Tunnel Vision: A History of Toronto’s Subway

A new exhibit at the Market Gallery connects Toronto with its transit history.

In 1861, St. Lawrence Market was the terminus of Canada’s first streetcar line—a horse-powered tramway that operated from Yorkville, down Yonge Street, and across King Street to the market. Ninety-three years later, streetcars on Yonge Street were replaced by Canada’s first subway line. Within twenty years, the subway extended into Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough; it was the pride of the city. Since the mid-1970s, however, progress on rapid transit stalled as politics, rather than demand, dictated funding.

Today, St. Lawrence Market hosts Tunnel Vision: The Story of Toronto’s Subway in the City of Toronto’s Market Gallery. The exhibition, in partnership with the Toronto Transportation Society, and guest curated by the TTS’ Adam Zhelka and Robert Lubinski, brings together maps, photographs, plans, drawings, memorabilia, old equipment and the front of a 1974 subway car.

It’s a fascinating display that celebrates the story of Toronto’s subways.

The front of a 1974 “H-4” subway car dominates the small gallery. Visitors are encouraged to take selfies.

Though the Yonge Subway opened on March 30, 1954, the first subway proposals date as far back as 1910. These ambitious plans would have seen conventional electric streetcars brought underground in tunnels under Yonge, Bay, and Queen Streets; some of the routes looked very similar to the Relief Line subway that is once again part of Toronto’s ambitious plans.

Downtown Relief Line, 1910 edition.

Among the most interesting items on display are photographs of subway station signage prototypes, which originally had a very London Underground look to them. Happily, the Toronto Transit Commission went with the “flying keystone,” inspired by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which remains in use today.

Artifacts from the 1954 Yonge Subway opening.

Some of the plans and photographs on display at the Market Gallery illustrate the subways never completed, including the Eglinton West Subway, which saw construction started in 1994 and killed a year later by the newly-elected Progressive Conservative government.

Artifacts from the 1954 Yonge Subway opening.

Some of the most interesting items on display included mock-ups and drawings of futuristic subway cars designed in the 1970s but never realized. The first plans for TTC subway cars in the 1940s called for shorter vehicles based on the same design as PCC streetcars. But the TTC went for longer, heavier British-built cars; Canadian-built cars purchased in the 1960s and 1970s were even longer than the original fleet of red Gloucester trains.

Early mock-up of PCC-type subway cars, similar to Chicago’s “L” fleet at the time

Maps and brochures from various subway expansions in the 1960s and 1970s .

Tunnel Vision is on exhibition at the Market Gallery at St. Lawrence Market until June 11, 2016. The gallery is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 9:00 a.m. to 4:p.m. on Saturday. The gallery, like the market itself, is closed on Sundays and Mondays. Suggested admission is $2.

CORRECTION: MARCH 22, 9:33 AM This article incorrectly stated that the exhibit is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday. It is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday. We regret the error.