Toronto’s 1st Union Station

By Derek Boles, originally published June 16, 2008

An iconic building today, Union Station was much more modest 150 years ago

2008 marks the 150th anniversary of the first Union Station in Toronto. This sesquicentennial will be commemorated by an illustrated lecture at 7 pm on June 23 at the Toronto Reference Library near Yonge and Bloor Streets. This presentation is co-sponsored by Heritage Toronto and the Toronto Public Library.

The railway era began in Toronto in 1853, when the first Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Ry. train departed from the city for Machell’s Corners, thirty miles to the north. A year later, that community was renamed Aurora. The Toronto passenger station was located on the south side of Front Street about where the eastern entrance to Union Station is today. The Great Western Railway opened between Toronto and Hamilton in 1855 and built its own station at the foot of Bathurst Street.

In October 1856, the Grand Trunk Railway opened between Toronto and Montreal and between Toronto and Stratford although the two separate lines did not yet connect. The Western Division from Stratford terminated at Queen’s Wharf near the foot of Bathurst Street. The Eastern Division from Montreal ended at the first Don Station located on the west side of the Don River. Passengers traveling through Toronto were carried by horse-drawn omnibus between the two terminals until early 1857, when the Grand Trunk joined the two divisions by building a right-of-way along the Esplanade.

The first Grand Trunk downtown station opened on February 12, 1857 adjacent to the original Ontario, Simcoe & Huron station on Front Street. This structure was located close to the present Scotiabank entrance to the east wing of Union Station. Newspaper accounts describe both stations as rudimentary wooden sheds and both were soon replaced. There were by then three railways in Toronto and there wasn’t enough room for them between Front Street and the top of the embankment above the waterfront. It was at this point that the filling in of Toronto Harbour began in earnest, with the railways quickly occupying the new real estate and the wharves extending further out into Lake Ontario.

Illustration 1 by the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 24

Illustration No. 1 is one of the famous Armstrong, Beere & Hime series of panoramic photographs taken in 1857 from the roof of the Rossin House Hotel. The shoreline at the center of the illustration was to be the site of a new station that would replace the two earlier structures on Front St. The new station was to be built by the Grand Trunk and would be a “union” station, a facility that is used by two or more railway companies.

The Grand Trunk had quickly evolved into the most important railway in Canada, connecting the east coast of the United States with Montreal, Toronto and eventually Chicago. Illustration #2 is an 1857 handbill advertising the railway’s routes and services although most of the U.S. destinations highlighted were only reached by other connecting railways. Also shown is an illustration of the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, the first bridge over the St. Lawrence River, then under construction.

Illustration 2 by the Toronto Public Library

On June 21, 1858, the Grand Trunk opened Toronto’s first Union Station on reclaimed land about 200 feet west of York Street halfway between Front Street and today’s Bremner Boulevard. It was by later standards a modest frame structure built of wood, although at the time Torontonians were thrilled with the new station. The GTR shared the facility with the Great Western Railway and the Northern Railway of Canada (renamed from the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railway).

Illustration 3 by the Association of Canadian Map Libraries

Illustration #3 is a reproduction of an 1858 map of Toronto and shows the location of several railway facilities. Union Station can be seen in the center of the map just to the left of the Esplanade. The two earlier stations can be seen at the corner of Front and Bay Streets. Other sites of interest include the Parliament Buildings, now the location of Simcoe Place and the CBC Broadcast Centre; Upper Canada College north of King St. and the Rossin Hotel at King and York Streets. The heavy black line indicates the railway track.

Illustration 4 by the Toronto Public Library T12188

Illustration #4 is a circa-1860 watercolour by William Armstrong that has been reproduced in almost every book about Toronto history and depicts a view looking southwest from the first Union Station. Armstrong used artistic license to incorporate a number of interesting details into his work. Just south of the tracks can be seen the shoreline of Toronto’s waterfront, with Grand Trunk passengers cars stored on a siding. The uniformed gentleman with the walking stick standing under the overhang is probably the first stationmaster. The family in the centre of the picture is enjoying a picnic on an overturned crate while awaiting their train. Possibly they are recently arrived immigrants waiting for a connecting train to take them to a smaller agricultural community. Above them in the distance can be seen a railway brakeman engaged in the dangerous but then standard practice of standing on top of the cars and using hand signals to communicate to the engineer while the train is being assembled. The woman on the left illustrates the propensity for new world artists to include First Nations people in their scenes to provide a touch of the exotic for the European audiences who purchased these prints. In the far distance can be seen the Northern Railway grain elevator that was located at the foot of Portland St. between Bathurst and Brock (now Spadina Ave.) Streets.

There were two separate structures comprising the station and both can be seen in the illustration. The far building housed the dining room, telegraph office and ladies’ waiting room. The nearer building contained the baggage facilities and possibly the men’s waiting room as separate facilities for the genders were maintained in railway stations well into the 20th century. The station also included a barbershop, a tradition that has continued in Union Station up to the present time.

Illustration 5 by National Archives of Canada C000945341

There was thought to be no photograph of this first Union Station, however Illustration #5 was recently found in the National Archives in Gatineau, Quebec. It is a stereograph image dated about 1860 and is looking west, similar to the view of the Armstrong watercolour. In fact this photograph may very well have been taken by Armstrong and used as the basis for his painting. This is also the same Armstrong who headed the Armstrong, Beere & Hime photographic firm that was responsible for the 1857 panoramic photos of the city. William Armstrong will be the topic of a future installment of this column.

The first era of railway building in Canada West (Ontario) ended about 1859, a reaction to a financial depression that had begun two years earlier. There were no new railway companies entering Toronto for at least another decade. However, the existing railways continued to improve their Toronto facilities as Canada prepared for nationhood and the city assumed its role as the capital of the new province of Ontario. While the 1858 Union Station impressed Torontonians when it first opened, the facility was soon inadequate to handle Toronto’s expanding population and increased railway traffic. By 1868, a year after Confederation, there were 24 trains a day using the station.

The two tenant railways at Union Station were apparently not satisfied with the facility. The Northern Railway opened its own terminal just west of Brock Street around 1860. The Great Western Railway moved into its own station at the foot of Yonge Street in 1866. In 1868, the Northern Railway also opened City Hall station on the Esplanade west of Jarvis Street. At that time Toronto’s City Hall was located in the structure that is now enclosed within the northern end of the building housing the St. Lawrence Market. Some of the Northern’s best customers were farmers bringing their agricultural products for sale at the market. As a convenience for their passengers, both Great Western and Northern trains continued to stop at Union Station on the way to their own terminals.

Illustration 6 by the Toronto Public Library T12192

In the early 1870s, the Grand Trunk decided to build a much larger Union Station in the same location. In 1871, Toronto’s first Union Station was demolished and a temporary station was erected west of Simcoe Street. This facility served for two years until the second Union Station opened on July 1, 1873. It was at the time the most lavish train station ever built in Canada and is shown in Illustration No. 6. This facility will also be the topic of a future installment of this column.

Illustration 7 by Derek Boles

Illustration No. 7 shows the site of the 1858 Union Station, now buried under 17 feet of landfill that supports the railway viaduct built for the present Union Station in the 1920s. Although all the railway tracks using Toronto’s first Union Station have since been replaced and realigned, GO Transit and VIA Rail continue to offer passenger service along the original routes. These are now all owned by Canadian National Railway except for the Union Station Rail Corridor between the Don River and Bathurst Street,which is owned by GO.

• The Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Railway route now hosts GO service between Toronto and Barrie.
• The Great Western Railway is used for the GO Lakeshore West corridor as well as VIA trains for Niagara Falls, London and Windsor and the daily Amtrak train to New York City.
• The Grand Trunk’s Western Division now carries GO trains to Georgetown and VIA trains to Guelph, Kitchener, London and Sarnia.
• The GT’s Eastern Division hosts the GO Lakeshore East corridor as well as VIA’s numerous trains between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

Passenger Trains at Union Station

June 1868


Railway From Time

GTR Montreal 2:00 am
GTR Detroit 5:15 am
GWR Hamilton 9:25 am
NRC Collingwood 10:22 am
GWR Hamilton 11:05 am
GTR London 11:50 am
GTR Montreal 1:30 pm
GWR Hamilton 3:55 pm
GTR Detroit 5:00 pm
GTR Kingston 8:15 pm
NRC Collingwood 9:05 pm
GWR Hamilton 9:40 pm


Railway To Time

GTR Montreal 6:30 am
GWR Hamilton 7:00 am
NRC Collingwood 7:00 am
GTR Detroit 7:30 am
GWR Hamilton 10:00 am
GTR Montreal 1:00 pm
GTR Detroit 1:30 pm
GWR Hamilton 2:40 pm
GTR London 3:45 pm
NRC Collingwood 4:00 pm
GTR Montreal 6:00 pm
GWR Hamilton 6:20 pm

Trains ran daily except Sunday

Railway Companies
GWR = Great Western Ry.
GTR = Grand Trunk Ry.
NRC = Northern Ry. of Canada

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