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The Bloor Viaduct at 100 Years Old

It’s now 100 years since the bridge crossing the Don Valley was opened to the public – it remains one of our strongest testaments to building cities for the future.

A view of the Bloor Viaduct nestled in the Don River Valley Park. Image: Geoff Fitzgerald
Image: Geoff Fitzgerald

Published on October 11, 2018

Rising over titanic concrete legs and arcing steel beams, the Bloor Viaduct bridge stretches nearly half a kilometre across the Don Valley. Each day, thousands of people in trains, cars, buses, bikes and on foot use it to pass back and forth from Toronto’s east and west sides. It is a connecter, a core piece of city infrastructure, and over time, it’s become an indelible part of the Don Valley.

Its mix of steel and stone have come to blend into the green expanse, but that process has taken time.

A close up of the Bloor Viaduct
Photo: Geoff Fitzgerald

On October 18, the Bloor Viaduct will be 100 years old.

Now in use for a full century, the bridge holds important lessons for how we plan infrastructure. Canada is on the cusp of major investments in city infrastructure, and we should remember that the bridge remains vital today because its initial champions fought for the future they wanted.

Toronto was booming in the early 1900s, and city officials knew that the minor bridges crossing the valley weren’t cutting it. More and more people were coming from Toronto’s core to the underdeveloped east end, and access was the biggest barrier to more growth. City officials needed a bigger bridge, more centrally located, and gave the people of Toronto a say in the decision.

In 1910, the people of Toronto took part in a referendum to determine whether the bridge would be built. Because there wasn’t yet much development on the Valley’s east side on Danforth Avenue, people dubbed it a “Bridge to Nowhere.” It was too expensive, they said, and voted it down.

City Councillors were determined and hired a respected international engineering firm to assess the problem.

After an extensive study, the engineers presented a vision for a banner project that would help the city greet the new century, encouraging movement and development. They suggested a wide bridge that could accommodate streetcars, pedestrians, and bikes up top, and a second deck below for a new technology: subways.

They were met by naysayers who didn’t think it could work; angry residents concerned with how a bridge would impact their view; and timid politicians afraid it was too expensive and ambitious.

The new bridge plan went to a vote. Though the existing bridges weren’t holding up, the electorate was frugal-minded and voted "no" to construction. It went to referendum again in 1912, losing by fewer than 60 votes. Those opposed included Rosedale residents who worried the bridge’s path would ruin the bucolic beauty of the Rosedale Valley.

That loss led to a compromise. The engineers redrew the plan, giving the viaduct a three-phase system. Now, Bloor Street would zig south-east from Sherbourne to Parliament, and zag back north again, preserving Rosedale Valley.

This concession helped the viaduct gather greater public support, but it still faced one last hurdle: its price tag.

Eager to save funds, City Councillors and the Mayor wanted to do away with the viaduct’s lower deck. Toronto didn’t have a subway, they said, so what use was it to build for one?

It was the newly installed Public Works Commissioner, RC Harris, who was the subway infrastructure’s greatest champion. Along with Edmund Burke, the bridge’s chief designer, Harris believed that the limitations of the present shouldn’t guide the viaduct’s design. With Toronto growing into Canada’s biggest city, he felt it was only a matter of time before the city built subways. They needed to plan for the bridge with the future in mind.

Despite detractors who argued forcefully to reduce the bridge’s price tag, it won its final referendum by nearly 10,000 votes. The bridge cost about $35 million in modern dollars.

With construction of the bridge came construction in the city’s east end. Soon the “Bridge to Nowhere” had bustling traffic that built up the Danforth, Beaches and everywhere in between.

When Toronto finally got its subways nearly 50 years later in the 1960s, Harris was vindicated. The viaduct’s second deck helped save millions of dollars and sped along the subway’s construction.

It’s now 100 years since the Bloor Viaduct opened and we have some historical perspective on the bridge. The controversy around its construction is a firm reminder that when we plan for a city and its future, we can’t afford to be limited in the perspective of the day.