The Unsung Changes to the Yonge Subway

Woodlawn Avenue Portal Circa 1969

(Above) The Woodlawn Avenue Portal, south of St. Clair station, circa 1969. Photo by R. Hill

(Below) The Woodlawn Avenue "Portal" today.

The Woodlawn Portal today

Text by James Bow

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On March 30, 2004, the Yonge subway will be fifty years old. Sometimes it feels as though the Yonge subway was always around, but other times it seems hard to believe that this line will soon be around for a half-century. Much has been written about the planning and construction of Canada's first subway, and of the developments that occurred since. The original look of all but one of the stations has been dramatically altered through renovation, and even the remaining station (Eglinton), while retaining some of its original features, is undergoing significant construction to replace its aging facilities.

But the Yonge subway has changed in other subtle and not-so-subtle ways that have not been referred to in the history books. This article covers some of these developments, and exposes some of the subtler changes that have occurred to this stalwart subway line.

The Vanishing Yonge Subway Open Cut

When the Yonge subway opened in 1954, a significant length of it was exposed to the light of day. Indeed, between the Ellis Portal (just north of Bloor station) and Berwick Avenue (just south of Eglinton station), only short stretches of tracks (a 2000-foot section between Lawton Avenue and Pleasant Boulevard around St. Clair station, and an even shorter stretch beneath the CP railway tracks near the North Toronto railway station) were tunnelled. The portion of the line between Lawton and Berwick Avenues ran alongside Davisville Yards, a large complex which would have been expensive to put underground. The rest of the line operated along an open cut, possibly to save money on tunnelling. In fact, as construction began on the Yonge subway, plans called for the open-cut section to continue south of Bloor Street, to a point just north of Wellesley station, after which the line would dive underground in order to run beneath Yonge Street. However, in order to avoid the expropriation of several properties south of Bloor Street, the portion between Wellesley station and the Ellis Portal was put underground.

The open-cut section between Bloor and St. Clair stations gave passengers a pleasant, open-air travel experience after the featureless tunnels underground. However, as the line aged, the TTC covered over sections of the open cut between St. Clair and Summerhill stations. There were a variety of reasons this was done: to allow development to occur over the line, to reduce noise complaints from neighbouring property owners, to reduce the threat of people ending up on the subway tracks, or items being dropped in front of moving trains, and so on. The two pictures above and the three pictures below offer up a pictorial history of the changes along the route.

Former Open Cut

This picture was taken from the same location as the two pictures above (the Summerhill Avenue bridge over the Yonge subway tracks). This is what's left of the open cut. Here, a tunnel roof has been built, and topsoil and sod laid down on top of it. No development has occurred on this site, showing quite plainly that the covering of the tracks did not happen just to facilitate new development.

Note the "danger" signs, suggesting that the tunnel roof is not strong enough to hold heavy vehicles, despite the presence of wheelruts in the ground.

South of Summerhill Avenue

Looking south from Summerhill Avenue along where the open-cut section once was. This section was reopened and re-covered early in the 1990s, and covered over by a tennis court. Both the north and south side bridge railings are still present on Summerhill Avenue, pointing out roughly where the tunnel runs.

Woodlawn Avenue

At Woodlawn Avenue, only the south-side bridge railing remains, as seen here. One block north, at Jackes Avenue, both railings have been removed, leaving no visible sign of the bridge. Presumably the railings over the open cut north of Woodlawn were removed when it was covered, but the same was not done when the next section southward was done. We do not know exactly in how many separate sections the open cut between St. Clair and Summerhill stations was covered, or over what time period.

In 2009 the concealed bridge at Jackes Avenue was the site of an unusual incident when a construction crew was attempting to install a new gas main. They started with two lengthwise saw cuts along the road, intending these to be the sides of a trench; but when they started lifting the pavement between them, they saw the subway below. They stopped, but now there was a risk of a large piece of concrete falling in. The subway was closed between Eglinton and Bloor/Yonge stations for 6 hours until a temporary patch had been applied. This took the form of metal plates inside the tunnel, supported by shafts run through the concrete from beams lying on the road surface across the cuts.

Davisville's Elevators

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Brad O'Brien took this picture of Davisville station in 1999, after renovations removed the original green Vitrolite tiles with light brown. This was not the full extent of the changes which occurred to the station, however. In addition to a new automatic entrance (from an office building leading to the northern end of the northbound platform), new elevators were added in order to make the station wheelchair-accessible.

New elevator and corridor.

Elevators were installed well south of the passenger concourse, and new corridors had to be built along the platform roofs, as this picture illustrates.

Elevator to the southbound platform

Here is a picture of the new elevator to the southbound platform.

Between Davisville and Eglinton

Manor Road Footbridge

This picture, from the collection of Curt Frey, was shot from the Lola Road bridge, looking north towards the Manor Road footbridge.

Manor Road, Fifty Years Later

Almost fifty years later, the scene has changed significantly. Not only have trees grown up along the right-of-way, but the Manor Road footbridge has been rebuilt. You can see the new railings, rising higher than the old ones.

Changes are continuing to the original Yonge line, as the subway adjusts to its changing surroundings and its clientele. More stations will be made wheelchair-accessible (as of June 2003, Union, Queen, Dundas, Davisville and Bloor-Yonge were wheelchair-accessible), and some will be expanded with new exits installed to better handle traffic.

In the summer of 2002, the open cut section was decked over between Price Street to Rowanwood Drive, extending the tunnel south by one block. Vertical walls were put into place rather than the technique used between Summerhill and St. Clair. A municipal parking lot was placed on top.

Many of these changes will be logged by railfans, but others might slip under the radar. These lesser known changes today will become a treasure trove of trivia information for the railfans of the future.