The Evolution of Roundhouse Park

By Derek Boles, originally published January 13, 2009

The Toronto Railway Heritage Centre at Roundhouse Park is scheduled to open later in 2009. The museum is located in the old John Street Roundhouse, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1929 to service the CPR passenger trains using the new Union Station. The CPR abandoned the Roundhouse in 1988 and turned it over to the City of Toronto. For over twenty years, there were various schemes to build a museum but only in the last year or so have these plans come to fruition in time for the 80th anniversary of the Roundhouse.

Probably the most unique feature of the museum is its location on Bremner Blvd. between Simcoe and Rees Streets. Most rail museums in North America were built in isolated locations where land values were relatively inexpensive. There are noticeable exceptions: the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum, although the latter is located in a run-down and seedy part of town.

However, no rail museum can compare with the prime real estate occupied by Roundhouse Park, located adjacent to four of the most popular venues in Toronto: the Rogers Centre, Metro Convention Centre, CN Tower, and Air Canada Centre. Moreover, the museum is a ten minute walk from Union Station, the busiest transportation hub in Canada. This article will trace the evolution of the park, from the mid-19th century to 2010.

Image #1 is of a well-known watercolour by artist William Armstrong depicting the visit of HRH, Edward, Prince of Wales to Toronto on September 7, 1860. The Lake Ontario shoreline was located just south of Front Street and the structures on the right are the Parliament Buildings, which were situated where the CBC Broadcast Centre and Simcoe Place are today. This perspective would have been obtained from a boat, roughly located where the Roundhouse is today. The colourful and elaborate arch welcoming the prince was a typical embellishment of the era and was located at the foot of John Street. Prince Edward arrived in the city on board the Kingston, the steamship to the left of the arch. The royal visit was the most glittering social event in the quarter century history of Toronto, the first time that a member of the royal family had made an official visit to the city and when the vast majority of Torontonians were still fiercely loyal to the crown. An amphitheatre seating thousands of people flanked the arch and also functioned as a railway station on the two occasions that HRH boarded a train during his four-day stay in Toronto.

Image #2 shows Toronto Harbour in 1873. Railway tracks and related facilities fill most of the newly claimed land between Front Street and Lake Ontario. John Street intersects Front in the middle of this view. Roundhouse Park would be located just above the two masts of the sailing ship at the bottom. At least ten church steeples dominate the horizon, the tallest of which is St. James Cathedral at King and Church Streets. Just to the right of the steeple in the middle ground close to the harbour can be seen the three towers of Toronto’s second Union Station, opened in 1873. The bridge over the tracks on the left of this view carries Brock Street as Spadina Avenue was then known. The large structure to the right of the bridge is the fully enclosed Grand Trunk Railway roundhouse, later replaced by the Canadian National Spadina roundhouse and later still by Skydome, which was obviously not the first domed structure to occupy this site. The smallish building with the chimney located centre view between the grain elevator and the train is Toronto’s first water pumping station. This was built to combat the frequent cholera epidemics that plagued the populace when they drank water right out of the badly polluted Lake Ontario. The station pumped water as far away as the Rosehill Reservoir, located five miles to the northeast, just south of St. Clair Avenue. The Grand Trunk Railway grain elevator is the most prominent feature on the waterfront. At the time, Toronto was the largest exporter of grain to the U.S. eastern seaboard, although most of it originated in the American Midwest and was shipped by rail from Collingwood to Toronto to avoid a lengthy voyage through the Great Lakes. There was another huge grain elevator operated by the Northern Railway further to the west, the top of which probably provided the perspective used by the artist to create this image.

Image #3 dates from around 1884 and was taken from the chimney of the water pumping station in the previous image. Roundhouse Park would occupy the centre of this view, with the Gardiner Expressway on the right. Union Station is a lot grimier than in the previous image and St. James Cathedral can be seen to the left of it. The sprawling white structure centre left is a freight shed erected by the Credit Valley Railway, which was taken over by the Canadian Pacific Railway around the time this photograph was taken. Once the CPR obtained a right of way down the Don Valley to the Toronto waterfront, they began filling in the harbour at this location and built the first John Street roundhouse, which opened in 1897.

Another interesting aerial view of the roundhouse site in 1927 can be seen at Ray Kennedy’s Old Time Trains website at:

The John Street bridge crosses the railway tracks in the centre of this photo. This bridge was built in 1896 and dismantled in 1929. To the left of it is the Toronto Water Pumping Station, which was considerably modified over the years and moved in the 1980s to its present location further south in order to make way for Skydome. The Spadina bridge on the left is under construction as is the Canadian National Railways Spadina roundhouse, whose circular form is just starting to take shape halfway between Spadina and John. At the top left of this view can be seen much older facilities, some of which date back to the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron, the first railway to operate in Toronto in 1853. All of these were swept away in the months after this photograph was taken.

Image #4 was taken in early 1929 and the old roundhouse can be seen on the far left. It was located on the lower grade, which was made obsolete by the new elevated Waterfront Railway Viaduct that opened in 1930. The building on the far right with the two tall chimneys was the Central Heating Plant, built by the Toronto Terminals Railway, who also built Union Station. The CHP opened in 1929 and was the largest steam heating facility in Canada. It supplied heat to the Royal York, Union Station and several other buildings and was demolished in 1990. This photograph was taken from the top of the Toronto Terminal Grain Elevator, which opened in 1928 at the foot of Peter Street and was itself demolished in 1982-83 as part of the $250 million Harbourfront redevelopment. The tracks running along the bottom of this view form the Canadian National Railways “High Line,” built so that CN freight trains could bypass Union Station. The road opening under the tracks is for lower John Street, soon to be renamed Rees Street, since the John Street bridge over the railway corridor was being demolished. The landfill in the centre of this view is for the new roundhouse complex soon to replace the old building on the left. Some of the fill undoubtedly came from the huge pit dug along Front Street for the Royal York Hotel, briefly the tallest building in the city and which was also built by the CPR. The road running parallel to the High Line is Fleet Street, later renamed Lakeshore Blvd. The strip of land between it and the boxcar would be occupied by the Gardiner Expressway three decades later.

Image #5 is a colour postcard view that dates from around 1930-31 and is based on a photograph taken from the same location as the previous view. There are dramatic changes evident in just a year. The new Royal York Hotel opened in June 1929 is clearly the most prominent building on the horizon although the taller Bank of Commerce Building, completed in January 1931, is just peeking over the hotel roof in this perspective. The long, low building located on the other side of the tracks below and to the left of the hotel is the Canadian National Express building, opened in 1929. In 1989, the top two floors of this structure were demolished and the Skywalk was built on top. Union Station, the reason the Roundhouse was built, can be seen to the right of the express building.

The two largest buildings surrounding the Roundhouse include the Passenger Car Repair Shop, under construction on the left, and the Stores Building, the pink structure which, from this angle, appears to be enclosed by the Roundhouse. Both these buildings were demolished in the 1990s to make way for the Convention Centre which is located underground and occupies much of the middle third of this view. Bremner Blvd. is located between the Roundhouse and the Repair Shop and is also situated on top of the Convention Centre.

The Toronto Railway Historical Association has been unable to identify the purpose of the narrow building with the red roof located on the north side of the High Line. It doesn’t appear to be in the plans for the Roundhouse complex. If anyone has any information about this structure, please let us know by posting to the blog.

In 2009, the two other surviving roundhouse structures are the water tower on the far right and, just to the left of it, the sanding & coaling tower. The latter was moved 600 feet to the west in 1995 and is now located near the centre of this view. Also in the centre of this view is the annex attached to the Roundhouse known as the Machine Shop and it too will become part of the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre.

Image #6 dramatically illustrates the Roundhouse’s proximity to downtown Toronto and was taken on November 2, 2007. TRHC locomotive No. 1, seen on the right, is framed by Toronto’s largest skyscrapers, including the light coloured BMO First Canadian Place, the tallest building in the city since it opened in 1975. The bank towers dwarf the Royal York Hotel and Union Station. The dark-coloured buildings located between the hotel and First Canadian Place form the Toronto Dominion Centre complex, the first modern high rise office towers built in Toronto. The tallest of these buildings opened in 1967 and the former observation gallery on the top floor is hosted and interpreted by Heritage Toronto during the annual Doors Open event in May. The landscape of Roundhouse Park itself changed recently with the 19th century Cabin D interlocking tower and Don Station that were moved here in December 2008.

Image #7 is a rendering of the Roundhouse Park area showing what it will look like some time around 2010. The striking view from the Roundhouse depicted in the previous image will not be available much longer once the buildings on the north side of Bremner Blvd. are completed. There will also be considerably more traffic in the area with the opening soon of the Simcoe Street underpass beneath the rail corridor. The numerous condos are key to the City of Toronto’s revitalization of Union Station, which will be partly financed by building a new retail level underneath the heritage structure. Planners estimate that about 50,000 people will live within walking distance of Union Station and hope that many of them will shop and dine there. The dramatic changes to this area are highlighted by the fact that a generation ago, there probably weren’t 50 people who lived close to Union Station.

Derek Boles is one of the founding members of the Toronto Railway Historical Association and has written and lectured extensively on Toronto’s railway heritage. For the past few years, he has coordinated the annual Doors Open event at Union Station. He also leads popular monthly tours of the station that have attracted over 1,000 people since they began in 2006. Mr. Boles has just finished writing a book on the history of the Canadian Pacific Railways North Toronto Station, now the Summerhill LCBO. 

Image Credits
Image #1- From a watercolour by William Armstrong
Image #2, 3, 4 & 5 are from the collection of Derek Boles
Image #6- Courtesy of Daniel Dell’Unto
Image #7- WATERFRONToronto

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