By David Wencer, originally published May 5, 2009
The treacherous streets of old Toronto
When the city was incorporated in 1834, it reverted to the name of “Toronto.” Since that time, however, Toronto has retained – amongst other unofficial sobriquets – the nickname “Muddy York,” said to have originated from the poor quality of the local streets.
Toronto’s first streets were, of course, unpaved thoroughfares which differed drastically from the roads used today. Rainfall helped transform the roadbed into mud, although this would have been no different in most other cities. There were other factors at work, however. 1834 Toronto is now the heart of today’s downtown, some of the lowest land in the city today. From the north come several springs and creeks (some naturally underground, where the others have since been diverted), draining into Lake Ontario. Some of these are continually-flowing streams, whereas others are seasonal occurrences brought on by rainfall or the spring thaw. These geographic features conspired to keep Toronto’s ground moist, and sometimes even soupy – one source describes Yonge Street near Yorkville (then still an independent village) as having a consistency akin to quicksand due to underground springs.
Prior to 1834, there was little in the way of road maintenance; it was not unusual for streets to contain tree stumps, stones and other debris. One urban legend from the era describes a person seeing a man’s hat moving down King Street. Upon picking up the hat, a man was said to be found underneath it, who, upon being hoisted out of the mire, exclaimed “Dig away, boys, there’s a horse and cart under me!” (Morphy, 22). While this tale is no doubt an exaggeration, an account from Conyngham Crawford Taylor says “it was no unusual sight to behold the heavy lumber waggon sticking fast in the mud up to the axle” (Taylor, 59).
In an era without modern civic conveniences such as sewage or garbage collection, the mud contained elements considerably worse than just dirt and water. The problems were further exacerbated by the many animals which Toronto citizens kept on their property, whose waste would integrate with the mud in the streets. These conditions surely helped contribute to the numerous diseases prevalent at the time, including the water-borne cholera which struck Toronto in both 1832 and 1834.
The first city council was not unaware of the problems facing Toronto’s streets, but lacked the capital to quickly improve the situation. In April of 1834 a committee was formed which recommended hiring staff and then prioritized the most pressing road improvements needed. Per the committee’s recommendations, the City approved an expenditure of 10 pounds in each ward towards road maintenance. They began implementing 15 inch wide drains, lined with brick, until sewers could be constructed, thereby allowing water and other liquids to evacuate to the lake rather than stagnate. The council minutes for June of 1834 reveal Toronto’s decision to construct the first sewers along the lower sections of Yonge, Church & Jarvis streets. Prior to their completion, it became necessary to construct little foot-bridges over the road drains to prevent citizens from treading in them.
To improve the road surface, there were several efforts in the early years such as the laying of stones, gravel and macadamisation (compacting small stones to create a hard surface). These efforts were not implemented on a large scale, however. E.M. Morphy wrote that in 1835, “only a few of the streets were macadamised so that after a heavy shower of rain the virgin soil became a sticky clay and hence the name ‘Muddy York,’ which the writer had a little experience of when he sunk knee-deep, leaving his old country shoe about two feet below the surface” (Morphy, 21). Later in the decade, Anna Jameson’s first impressions of Toronto liken the young city to a swamp (Jameson, 5), and she describes taking her first steps off the boat in Toronto and immediately sinking up to her ankle (Jameson, 4). In early 1838 she names Yonge Street, recently macadamised for 12 miles, as “the only road one can drive on in comfort” (Jameson, 50).
Prior to 1834 sidewalks in Toronto were rare, implemented only on a section of King Street, and by a few business owners who had taken it upon themselves to place boards in front of their establishments. In her book Original Toronto, Lucy Booth Martyn describes the early citizens strapping wooden pattens to the bottoms of their shoes in order to stay clean (Martyn, 9).
In Toronto’s first year, the city approved the implementation of wooden planks along several streets to accommodate pedestrians, a project overseen by noted surveyor John George Howard. Due to budget constraints, these sidewalks were only placed on one side of the road. W.H. Pearson, recollecting 1840s Toronto, describes the wooden sidewalks as still being inadequate: “the nails frequently became loose, causing the ends to tilt, making it somewhat risky for pedestrians” (Pearson, 122-123). In addition, several accounts of the time express the belief that the early sidewalks were not sufficiently wide, forcing some Torontonians to take their chances in the road.
Toronto streets were built with materials that could be ignited. Laws were passed regarding fires, a particularly important issue at a time when the new sidewalks were flammable. Lighted lamps or candles could only be kept in closed lanterns, and citizens were forbidden to walk in public streets with lit coals or other burning items.
While not all of Toronto’s streets may be in perfect shape today, today’s pavement and drainage systems make city excursions far less treacherous than they were 175 years ago, when Toronto truly deserved, despite the formal name change, to be called Muddy York.
Guillet, Edwin C. Toronto: From Trading Post to Great City. The Ontario Publishing Co., Ltd: 1934, Toronto.
Anna. Sketches in Canada: and rambles among the red men. New Edition. Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans: 1852, London.
Martyn, Lucy Booth Martyn. Original Toronto. The Paget Press, Sutton West & Santa Barbara: 1983.
Morphy, E.M. A York Pioneer’s Recollecting of Youthfull Days in the Emerald Isle: also of his emigration and first impressions of Canada, especially Toronto (late York), and its inhabitants when the City was only one year old, and its population 9,000. Daniel Rose, Printer: 1893.
Pearson, W.H. Recollections and Records of Toronto of Old: with references to Brantford, Kingston & other Canadians towns. William Briggs: 1914, Toronto.
Taylor, Conyngham Crawford. Toronto ‘Called Back,’ from 1888 to 1847, and the Queen’s Jubilee: the wonderful growth and progress of Toronto, especially as an importing centre, with the development of its manufacturing industries; and reminiscences extending over the above period, including the introduction of the bonding system through the United States. Published for the author by William Briggs: 1888, Toronto.