The Connection Between Steam and Rail in Toronto in the 1800s

The Connection Between Steam and Rail in Toronto in the 1800s


Philip van Riesen

Toronto - 2023

Toronto began as a largely rural, agrarian city at the beginning of the 1800s, which rapidly transitioned into to a more urban society focused on manufacturing and urbanization. When the Industrial Revolution began in the 1850s, Toronto experienced significant population growth and development. Toronto’s emergence as a major hub in the 19th century was largely due to the emergence of new modes of transportation, including steamships and railways. Steamships opened international and intercontinental trade, while the introduction of railways in Toronto furthered the connection between cities in Canada and the United States.1 These new modes of transportation expanded and integrated the infrastructure necessary to facilitate the seamless movement of people and manufactured goods through the city, as well as the transport of natural resources from land to water by steam and rail.

Steamships were introduced in Toronto in the mid-1800s with prominent businessmen investing in steamships that linked Toronto to Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, and Montreal. In 1850 there were 13 steamboats operating out of the port of Toronto. Steamboat companies such as the Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company, the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company and the Northern Navigation Company were among the prominent Steamship businesses in Toronto. The Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company was created in 1831 and had steamships that operated throughout the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence.2 The Canadian Pacific Steamship Company was established in 1881 and was originally a subsidiary company of the Canadian Pacific Railway.3 The Northern Navigation Company was also created in the late 19th century and provided transportation services for both cargo and passengers. Steamships allowed transportation of goods to and from Toronto with other Great Lakes ports, while railways connected Toronto to cities around Canada and across into the United States.

  Railways were introduced around the same time as steamships were being introduced with railway companies including the Grand Trunk Railway, the Great Western Railway and the Northern Railway of Canada being introduced in the early 1850s. It was not until later in the 19th century when the Canadian Pacific Railway emerged as a prominent railway. The Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) was incorporated in 1852 connecting Toronto and Montreal which were the largest and third largest cities in Canada respectively at the time. These railway lines soon extended into Quebec City, Chicago, Portland, and Sarnia.4 The Great Western Railway was introduced in Toronto in 1855 which linked Toronto to Hamilton, Niagara Falls, London, and Windsor. Finally, The Northern Railway of Canada, first known as the Toronto, Simcoe and Huron Railway which was the first railway introduced to Toronto that linked Toronto to Simcoe and Collingwood. The GTR, Great Western Railway, and the Northern Railway of Canada were the first railways to operate out of the first Union Station (see figure 1).5

Figure 1: Toronto Railway Historical Association, Showing the only known photo of the first Union Station taken circa 1860s.

The first Union Station was built in 1858 at York and Front Streets on reclaimed land on what was originally the lakeshore near Lake Ontario and was later reconstructed in 1871 to accommodate to the rapidly increasing population.4 These railways along with steamships, played a critical role in connecting Toronto to other parts of Canada and the United States. These connections allowed Toronto to become an important center for trade and commerce. Steamships facilitated the transportation of goods to and from Toronto with other Great Lakes ports, while railways connected Toronto to cities around Ontario and across into the United States. With Union Station being located so close to the harbour, this also connected the inland to the waterways.

The introduction of steamships and railroads had a major impact on the agriculture industry in Ontario. With the efficiency of steam and rail, farmers that were located within the Niagara Region were now able to easily transport their wine, fruit, and vegetables through the Great Western Railway (GTR), and the Great Lakes Steamship Company to Toronto and markets in New York State. These improved methods of transportation connected Toronto to regions known for farming that included the Niagara Region, Bruce Peninsula, Georgian Bay, Huron Track, and areas within New York State.6 In the later years of the 19th century, the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company began operating a fleet of steamships in the 1880s that included refrigeration. This allowed for meat, fruits, and dairy to be imported to and from Toronto from Europe and other ports within Canada. Refrigeration was also incorporated on rail cars with the Canadian Pacific Railway being one of the first companies to introduce this in the 1880s.7 An article from the Evening Star in 1897 discusses the benefits of the value of cold storage on rail cars and on steamships known as the Linde system. The article outlines the process of steamships and railways charging producers for the transportation of goods that require cold storage. Specifically, the transportation of dairy products from Canadian farms being exported using the Grand Trunk Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway to Steamships where they sent dairy to sell in Great Britain.8 The introduction of refrigeration on steam and rail allowed for the agriculture industry in Toronto to increase supply, expand markets and demand, reduce the cost of transportation, and create new job opportunities.

Prior to the introduction of steam and rail, farmers relied on hand tools such as the spade, hoe, and rake. Steam and rail revolutionized the agriculture industry in Ontario by providing farmers with access to better technology for production. However, these new modes of transportation increased access and affordability of iron. Iron was an important resource for farmers in the 1800s as it was used to make tools and machinery such as plows, harrows, cultivators, and reapers. These tools greatly improved the efficiency for farmers allowing farmers to produce more crops with the same amount of labour. Iron was transported by ship from Great Britain, Newfoundland and Labrador, and by rail from arenas within the United States including Pittsburgh, to ports in Canada. The GTR and the Northern Railway of Canada were some of the main rail lines that transported iron to Toronto from ports in the US and Canada, resulting in increased efficiency and productivity of the agriculture industry near Toronto. Furthermore, farmers were now able to more easily transport their crops and livestock to markets farther away because of the connectivity that steam and rail provided. The expansion of steam and rail not only allowed farmers to sell their products to a larger market, but it also led to increased efficiency and productivity due to the introduction of new technologies and machinery. As a result, farmers were able to improve their profitability significantly, contributing to the overall economic growth of the region.

The introduction of manufacturing as the foundation of Toronto’s economy was a key development for Toronto’s growth in the 1800s. The connectivity of steam and rail played a vital role in the expansion of the manufacturing industry. Steamships and railroads enabled manufacturing companies to increase access to raw materials from other regions and countries, which was crucial to Toronto’s development since the city is not located near any significant sources of raw materials. The GTR played an important role in importing timber to Toronto from areas in Northern Ontario. The route that operated from Toronto to North Bay (see figure 2) was particularly important for the expansion of the lumber and paper industries, as North Bay was a leader in the timber industry in Canada.9 The importing of other commodities including iron, coal, textiles, and leather, also proved crucial to the growth of manufacturing businesses in Toronto. Manufacturing businesses were able to establish connections with domestic markets including Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, and other cities in Ontario to freely trade and purchase goods.10 Steamships and railways played a significant role in the increased connectivity, efficiency, and access to resources which drove the growth of the manufacturing industry in Toronto paving the way for Toronto’s economic growth.

Figure 2: Map of the Grand Truck Railway at the end of the 19th Century.

Some companies, such as Gooderham and Worts, Toronto Iron Works, and George Laidlaw and Co., capitalized on the new opportunities that railroads and steamships provided. Gooderham and Worts were particularly instrumental in investing in transportation infrastructure, including the Northern Railway of Canada and in steamships to help in the exportation of products including whiskey, barley, and flour to other parts of Ontario and into the United States. Gooderham and Worts extended railways directly to their production facilities where they were able to bring in full railcars of grain, which could pass through the entire distillery system, straight to the whiskey barrel without human labour (see figure 3).11 This increased efficiency of production for the company and made it easy to import goods and export products. Additionally, the company also invested in steamships, for the distillery to export its products to other parts of Canada and the United States through the Great Lakes.12 Gooderham and Worts investments in steam and rail led the company to create the largest distillery in the world in 1877. Gooderham and Worts serve as a prime example of how companies took advantage of the new transportation systems to increase their profits and expand their businesses. Steamships and railroads had a significant impact on the manufacturing industry, allowing for increased cost-effectiveness, access to larger markets, leading to the growth of many businesses in Toronto.

Figure 3: Gooderham and Worts Mill Building, showing the railway that was located right beside the company’s production facilities, 1918.

In the late 1800s, railway transportation became an increasingly efficient way to move goods over long distances, while steamships took on a new role in service-oriented industries. Rather than being limited to freight transportation, steamboats began to be used for recreational activities, such as moonlight cruises, picnic excursions, and hunting trips. Steamboats played a significant role in the growth of tourism in the Toronto region.13 Routes including Toronto to Niagara Falls, Muskoka, The Thousand Islands, Georgian Bay, and Quebec were some of the most popular tourist routes that began in the late 19th century. As outlined in a newspaper from The Globe in 1898 that stated, passenger travel is on the rise in the summer as travel to Muskoka shows a considerable increase again. The article states, “Travel to Muskoka, this year shows a considerable increase again, it being estimated by the railroad officials that fully one-third more people have gone into the Muskoka district this year than up to the same time last year.”14 Expansion of travel by rail and steamboat increased tourism and broadened the use of rail and steam from moving goods to moving people to different places in Canada and the US.

Figure 4 displays a photo of Niagara Falls from the Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company Handbook for Travelers, that included photos of the destinations the company offered travel to in order to sell people on the routes they offered for tourism purposes.15 The connection between Steamboats and railways was also prevalent in many of these routes. In particular, the Ontario and St Lawrence Steamboat Company had routes that connected Lewiston, NY to Toronto and Niagara Falls that had a connecting railway to get to the destination.16 Both steam and rail played a crucial role in the introduction of tourism in the Toronto region making the Toronto area a hub for passenger travel throughout Ontario and into the United States.

Figure 4: Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company Handbook for Travelers, showing a photo of Niagara Falls.

Steamboats and rail also played a significant role in the immigration and population growth of Toronto in the 1800s. In 1851, Toronto’s population was approximately 30,000, increasing to 56,000 in 1871, 86,400 in 1881, and 200,000 in 1900.17 The relatively affordable means of transportation provided by steamboats and railways made Toronto an attractive gateway into Canada. Many immigrants arrived from Europe and Asia using steamboats such as the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. In 1884, The Globe published a newspaper article that highlighted that there was a new steamship service from London to Montreal and that there was a large amount of immigration coming from Ireland, England, Germany, and Scandinavia.18 Through the arrival of immigrants in the 19th century, Toronto transformed its identity into a more diverse population contributing greatly to the expansion of the economy, working in different industries including the transportation, manufacturing, hospitality, and construction industries. The integration of steamboats and rail transportation in Toronto in the 1800s had a profound impact on the city’s population growth both directly and indirectly. Steamboats and railways directly helped facilitate the arrival of immigrants. Correspondingly, the arrival of immigrants helped grow and expand Toronto’s economy making it an attractive place for new arrivals with the new and growing opportunities in the city.

The introduction of steam and rail in the 19th century in Toronto played a significant role in the industrialization, economic growth, and population growth of Toronto. Before railways and steamships were introduced in the 1850s, Toronto relied on horses and canoes to transport people and resources. After the 1850s, steam and rail technology greatly enhanced the efficiency of the agriculture and manufacturing industries in Toronto by providing greater access to raw materials and markets. Both industries grew exponentially with the expanded market access that increased profits for farmers and manufacturing firms. Furthermore, steam and rail were crucial to the introduction of the tourism industry in Toronto expanding access to new destinations. Additionally, steamships and railways provided efficient transportation for immigrants coming from other areas of the world, contributing significantly to Toronto’s population growth. Ultimately, the connection between steamships and railways fostered economic growth, population growth, and accelerated the overall development of Toronto as a major center for trade and commerce.

  1. Malcom Davidson, “Changing Patterns of Great Lakes Vessel Ownership as a Factor in the Economic Development of Toronto, 1850-1860 – Urban History Review. Urban History Review, August 7, 2013.

  2. Richard Palmer, “Thousand Islands Life, Steamboat Lady of the Lake Sailed Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.” Thousand Islands Life Magazine. Thousand Islands Life Magazine, January 14, 2022.

  3. George Musk, “Canadian Pacific: The Story of the Famous Shipping Line.” Internet Archive. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, January 1, 1981.

  4. Toronto Railway Historical Association. “Grand Trunk Railway.” Toronto Railway Historical Association. 

  5. Figure 1: Toronto Railway Historical Association, Showing the only known photo of the first Union Station taken circa 1860s. Toronto Railway Historical Association, Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. 

  6. Alan Skeoch, “Agricultural Implements.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published April 18, 2013; Last Edited March 04, 2015. 

  7. Omer Lavallé, "Canadian Pacific Railway." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published March 06, 2008; Last Edited July 15, 2021. 

  8. "Page 7: [1]." Evening Star (1894-1900), Jul 03, 1897, 7. Torstar Syndication Services, a Division of Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. 

  9. Figure 2: Map of the Grand Truck Railway at the end of the 19th Century. P. Brothers, Map of the system of the Grand Trunk Railway Company of Canada. map, Ottawa; Archives nationales du Canada. (1981). 

  10. G. Gad, Location Patterns of Manufacturing: Toronto in the Early 1880s. Urban History Review / Revue d’histoire Urbaine, 22(2) (1994); 113–138. 

  11. Figure 3: Gooderham and Worts Mill Building, showing the railway that was located right beside the company’s production facilities, 1918. Gooderham Whiskey Services. “Gooderham Whiskey.” GWS. March 25, 2023.

  12. Biography – Gooderham, george – volume XIII (1901-1910) – dictionary of Canadian

    biography. Home – Dictionary of Canadian Biography. (n.d.). 

  13. Ted Barris, “Steamboats and Paddle Wheelers.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published April 08, 2009; Last Edited March 04, 2015. 

  14. “The Railway World: Summer Passenger Travel in the Increase New Rolling Stock for the Grand Trunk – Meeting of the Baggage Agents – Night Depot Master Appointed.” The Globe (1844-1936), Jul 23, 1898. 

  15. Figure 4: Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company Handbook for Travelers, showing a photo of Niagara Falls. Thomas Jewett & Co., The Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company's hand-book for travelers to Niagara Falls, Montreal and Quebec: And through Lake Champlain to Saratoga Springs. (1854), 35. 

  16. Thomas Jewett & Co., The Ontario and St. Lawrence Steamboat Company's hand-book. 

  17. Mabel F. Timlin, “Canada’s Immigration Policy, 1896-1910.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science / Revue Canadienne d’Economique et de Science Politique 26, no. 4 (1960): 517–32.; Skeoch, “Agricultural Implements.” 

  18. Our Own Correspondent. “Montreal: Sir Hector Expnains as to the Masonic Ceremonies at Truro the Government did not Consent New Steamship Service Between Montreal and London Position of the People’s Bane Reduction in Canadian Pacific Railway Freight Charged Immigration to Canada a …Warder… in his Accounts Canadian Pacific Frights the British Association an … in Gaol Lumber Export Notes.” The Globe (1844-1936), Jul. 30, 1884.