History of the Toronto Transit Commission
The Toronto Transit Commission has a long and fascinating history, spanning decades. Indeed, currently they are boasting that they have moved the equivalent of 25 Billion people, 4 times the world’s population.
What is mostly unknown here in Toronto is the origin of several of the TTC station names. While are usually named after nearby street, they are often captivating glimpses into the history of Toronto.
I would like to examine some of the different names, in the hope of sharing some of this intriguing history.
To begin with, we will take a look at the history of Museum Station. Located directly beside the grandiose Royal Ontario Museum, many people assume that it is named for the ROM. This is, amazingly enough, untrue.
It is obvious, to the discerning thinker, that if it were supposed to be named for the ROM, it would in fact be named “Royal Ontario Museum Station.” In actual fact, it is named for the Textile Museum of Canada, which is, strangely enough, closer to the St. Patrick subway stop.
Why then, you could very well ask yourself, is it not called “Textile Museum of Canada Station?” Well, Phineas McGovern, the maverick impresario who took over operations at the early TTC (who will play a remarkable role in this history), was noted to say “I’ll be dead in the cold cold ground before I have any subway station with an “X” besmirching its good face.” The name was thus shortened to “Museum Station.” Confusion has reigned ever since.
One of the busiest stations in Toronto, Bloor station, found at the intersection of Young and Bloor streets, is another example of a TTC station with a fascinating history.
Bloor Street is the most important East-West corridor in Toronto, excepting highways, and perhaps Heath Street. It spans the entire width of the city (although it changes its name to “The Danforth” in the east end, we all know what it really is.) Bloor Street gained and kept this popularity at the beginning of the 19th Century. Back then, it was a popular area for bars, dens of inequity, and the occasional house of ill repute. Any upstanding Torontonian who wanted to seriously get their drink on would head to one of the several drinking establishments found along this as yet unnamed avenue. Indeed, now tony hot spot Yorkville was founded in 1853 to have a close proximity to this avenue, finally nicknamed “Blur Street,” do to the ocular inhibiting effects of its most regular product, a sort of Bathtub Gin that was cheap to make, and often somewhat dangerous to consume. Many of the Yorkville glitterati of the 1800’s could be seen stumbling home, their hands outstretched in front of them to ensure they did not crash into one of the new fangled lamp posts that had recently been installed (indeed, if one were to visit this area now, one would still see much of the same thing.) For years, this street was known as Blur Street, and one can still find signs to this effect along its furthest stretches in the wilds of Etobicoke.
But where, then, came the alternative spelling (and slightly different pronunciation) Bloor? Well, once again Phineas McGovern has a role in this. McGovern was a noted teetotaller, indeed, he was a vigorous supporter of American Prohibition, and fought to have it extended across the border. He was visibly upset that one of his glorious stations would be named after so shameful a history. In a letter to his dear friend Marcus McCallum, he lamented, “What should be the jewel of this system will instead be a complete mockery. It heavies my heart to even contemplate it.” He decided to name the station Bloor instead. This was one of his most difficult times. His efforts to change the name were thrown out of City Hall, and finally, he had to resort to bribing the painters and sign makers at the station to change the contemptuous “U” with the far more civilized “OO.” Imagine the surprise when the station was finally unveiled, double O and all! Eventually the people of Toronto grew to call the street as well as the station Bloor, and its’ true, disreputable history is now mostly forgotten.
Today we will look east, to far off Midland Station. Midland station is part of the LRT (Light Rapid Transit) line that runs in the wilds of Scarborough. Looking more like a streetcar than a subway, the LRT runs on a dedicated track, away from roads and traffic.
Midland station is something of a compromise. Originally envisioned as a subway stop leading to the city of Midland Ontario, it was decided that a 150 kilometre subway line that would cost over 7 Billion dollars to build, serving a population of less than 16000 people was perhaps not the wisest investment.
Phineas McGovern fought long and hard for his vision of a country link. “Just because we are the Toronto Transit Commission,” he said, “That is no reason to be limited to one singular metropolis. Imagine the economic benefits to the City of Midland, and to Toronto. To have the country-side a mere 3 hour TTC ride away, well, it’s magnificent!” There is speculation amongst the most cynical of TTC historians that McGovern had invested in land rights in the Midland region, and was merely attempting to inflate the value of these investments. These salacious charges have never been proven.
Don and York Mills Stations
Today we will look at not one, but two TTC stations, Don Mills and York Mills. Although geographically diverse, with many years separating their construction, these stations have a direct link, which once again leads us to our old friend, Phineas McGovern.
Elsewhere in this series, we have touched upon the fact that Phineas McGovern was a theatre impresario who later, through a Byzantine and Machiavellian plan, took control of the TTC Board of Directors. It is still unknown why he was so desperate to control the TTC, but he has cast a long shadow over its history.
Don Mills and York Mills stations take their names from now almost-forgotten vaudeville performers Don and York Mills, a pair of brothers who revolutionized McGovern’s travelling entertainment. McGovern’s acts such as The Flying Diphtheria Family, Squish the Wonder Pug, and Little Sammie’s’ All-Castrato Review were not putting bums in seats as they once did. After years of dismal box office receipts, the Mills Brothers approached McGovern with a new idea for an act, known as “The Aristocrats.” Although no details of the performance survive, it galvanized audiences, playing to sold out shows almost from its initial run, and revived McGovern’s waning fortunes. A grateful McGovern promised the brothers that he would ensure their names were never forgotten in Toronto.
McGovern was unable to include the Mills brothers in the initial stations, but left specific instructions that, as stations opened, the TTC would use the names Don Mills and York Mills. York Mills station opened first, in 1973, with both Mills brothers in attendance at the lavish ceremonies. Sadly, Don Mills station did not open until 2002. Neither Don Mills nor York Mills survived to see the day, but their names will live on in Toronto forever, just as McGovern promised.
Castle Frank Station
Long after Phineas McGovern was but a memory to most TTC employees, and the good citizens of Toronto, a board of governors, who would these days be called nerds, led the TTC. Long before the nerd-chic of the late 1990’s, this group was interested in all things nerdy. Science Fiction, robots, math, astronomy, and The Lord of the Rings were what the board truly loved. They were actually responsible for many great improvements at the TTC, including the installation of the first computer system in Canada, and the first electric switching station in North America. They were true visionaries, visionaries of all things nerdish. One of the nerdish things that they all loved was comic books. Comic books littered every corner of the TTC head offices, and many a staff meeting devolved into arguments as to who would win in a fight, Thor or Superman (aside: Thor would obviously win this fight. He is, after all, a God) One of their favourite characters, a character they could all agree upon as being “neat o,” was The Punisher.
Their love for the Punisher knew no bounds, and they all decided that they should use their station in life to honour their hero. Construction was just finishing on “Prince Edward” station. The board vetoed this name, and voted unanimously to call it “The Punisher” station instead. In a rare move, Toronto City Council vetoed this name, arguing, quite sensibly in fact, that both residents and visitors would be afraid of travelling to a subway station with such a threatening name. The TTC board was grudgingly able to see the logic of this, and changed the name to “Frank Castle” station. Frank Castle is of course, the alter ego to The Punisher (his Peter Parker to Spider-man, as it were). Both the board and the Toronto City Council were happy with this compromise. For several years, “Frank Castle Station” was the name of this station.
In 1980, Toronto hosted the largest convention of Comic Book Inkers ever seen. Hundreds of Inkers flocked here to enjoy 3 days of ink-related mayhem and high jinks. Inkers are surprisingly high-spirited individuals, and there are still people who talk of the inkers converging on CN Tower and covering it totally in Hulk-Green ink. One of the visiting inkers took a photo of himself next to “Frank Castle” station, and hung it in his cubicle at Marvel Comics Headquarters. A passing Marvel lawyer happened to notice it, and decided this was in total violation of Marvel’s copyright on the character. After a hard-fought battle in the courts, a compromise was established. The station would, once again, change its name. It would henceforth be known as “Castle Frank” station.
In an interesting coincidence, Castle Frank was also the name of the summer home of Lieutenant-Colonel John Graves Simcoe, who was the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. This home stood very close to the location of Castle Frank Station.
This is but a small sampling of the rich and varied, fascinating and exciting history of our TTC. There are still literally dozens of stations to be examined. Someday perhaps there will be a definitive history that will examine all of the glorious old times of the Toronto Transit Commission.