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5 things you may not know about Toronto's Yonge Street

It’s Sir George Yonge’s 283rd birthday this week (we think, the records are patchy.)

If the name's not familiar to you, it should be. Toronto's most famous street is named in his honour. John Graves Simcoe, the founder of York (now Toronto,) selected the name as a shout-out to his English friend, who was a UK member of parliament and Secretary of War.

Yonge never actually visited York, or Canada, but he had a keen interest in ruler-straight Roman roads, which Yonge St. resembled.

A 1790 portrait of Sir George Yonge.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

A 1790 portrait of Sir George Yonge.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

1. Yonge St. started out as a strategic military route. Carved out of virgin forest, mostly in the dead of winter, the route reached Lake Simcoe, its intended destination, in 1796. John Graves Simcoe, the founder of Toronto, hoped the unpaved trail would make it easier for British troops stationed north of his fledgling town to head south in the event of an American invasion.

Torstar News Service

Torstar News Service

2. The Yonge subway line was the first underground metro system in Canada. When it opened in 1954, trains only ran between Union and Eglinton, replacing one of the city's busiest streetcar lines. At the time, the city hoped to eradicate surface rail in favour of a comprehensive subway network. In 1963, the Union-St. George section was added, and, in 1966, the Bloor-Danforth line took its first passengers. The Spadina line arrived in 1978, but the streetcars never left.

Torstar News Service

Torstar News Service

3. Toronto's principal thoroughfare was notorious for vice in the late 1970s. Between Queen and Bloor streets, porn theatres, strip clubs, and dingy bars lined the downtown sidewalk. Drugs, prostitution, and crime were common. The murder of Emanuel Jaques, a shoeshine boy, in 1977, shocked the city and prompted efforts to clean up the strip.

Torstar News Service

Torstar News Service

4. Though it still boasts four lanes of traffic, downtown Yonge St. carries more pedestrians and transit riders than it does cars. In 1971, the city pedestrianized the street during the summer months. Patios spilled out into the street and there were decorations hung in the air. The idea was nixed in 1974 amid concerns the festivities had allowed illegal activities to flourish.

Torstar News Service

Torstar News Service

5. Ask most Canadians which is the longest street in the world, and most will say Yonge St. Sadly, it's not officially true. The Guinness Book of Records took away the coveted title in 1999. The dispute centres around whether Yonge St. and Highway 11, which ends in Rainy River on the Ontario-Minnesota border, are the same entity. Without the extra length, Yonge St. officially ends in Barrie.

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