Yonge at Heart
Many of Toronto's streets have developed their own individual flavours and styles over the years, and much of what we see today has only taken shape through decades or even centuries of construction, destruction, renovation, gentrification, and so on.
To say that some of Toronto's most iconic streets have their own character is a profound understatement; these streets breathe life into the communities that have grown around them, and they hold stories and pasts that deserve to be discussed and shared.
Toronto's streets serve as incredible free venues for walking tours around the city. With this in mind, Guided Toronto is dedicating an entire series of blog posts to exploring the stories behind some of the city's most well-known stretches of pavement, and we'd be delighted if you'd join us for a brief stroll down Memory Lane, Avenue, Street, Road, etc.
For this edition, we're starting big and taking on Toronto's main thoroughfare: Yonge Street.
What's in a Name?
With its foundations dating back to the end of the 18th century as a military road, Yonge Street borrows its name from Sir George Yonge, who served as the British Secretary of War around the time that the initial portion of the road was established. Sir George Yonge was said to be an expert on ancient Roman roads, so it would probably serve as quite an honour for him to learn that his name is now linked to perhaps Canada's most important street. Yonge was also a friend of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada and founder of Toronto (known as York in his time). It never hurts to have friends in high places!
The Myth behind Yonge Street
Yonge Street is often called the "longest street in the world" and was even given this title in the Guinness Book of World Records up until 1999. Sadly, this is a misconception tied to a bit of confusion over where Yonge Street diverges from Ontario's Highway 11, which goes on for almost 1,200 km. Yonge Street itself is actually only about 86 km long. This may not sound like much in comparison to Highway 11's length, but drivers can still rely on this one street to take them all the way from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe.
Throughout Yonge Street's history spanning roughly 220 years, it has seen great changes unfold across the GTA – often serving as the actual stage for such changes to take place. From a very practical standpoint, Yonge Street became the baseline for dividing the city's east and west, making it an indispensable reference point, wherever you might find yourself.
Yonge Street would go on to become the heart of Toronto's shopping district in the early 1900s, in large part due to the establishment of the original Eaton's department store around Yonge and Queen.
Crowds and businesses gathered along Yonge, leading to its selection as one of the first routes for the city's fleet of horse-drawn streetcars. Electric streetcars appeared in 1892, and this set the tone for even greater expansions in public transit.
Indeed, the first subway line soon followed in the 1950s, and the original Yonge Street subway ran from Union Station up to Eglinton Station. Not only was this a first for the city, it also represented a first for all of Canada.
Yonge Street Today
Today, Yonge Street is home to such Toronto landmarks as Eaton Centre, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Yonge-Dundas Square (sometimes referred to as 'Toronto's Times Square').
Though the city has grown exponentially from its original grid, Yonge Street has maintained its significant place in the heart of Toronto (and Torontonians). As such, large gatherings – for both demonstrations and celebrations – are often held on Yonge, and it also serves as the main portion of the routes for the city's Gay Pride and Santa Claus parades.
A trip to Toronto inevitably has visitors crossing paths with Yonge Street on at least a handful of occasions. We hope that this brief history lesson will help visitors appreciate all that Yonge Street has to offer – even if it's no longer in the Guinness Book of World Records…