"Let us in the West... push through a western railroad, cheap or dear. Let us have the road."
The Globe, March 19th, 1850

Toronto entered the railway era on May 16, 1853 when the engine "Toronto" pulled four passenger cars to Machell's Corners (Aurora). This first trip took about five hours. Beginning at Front and Simcoe Streets near the Provincial Parliament building, the train ran west on track south of Front Street passing Bathurst Street and then curved north. The route's destination, Collingwood, resurrected Lieutenant Governor Simcoe's "Toronto Passage" as a shortcut for western travel. However, the railways' greatest benefit was to permit year round travel on a regular basis.

Toronto was well-situated to take advantage of the railway era with an excellent geographical location for trade. At the end of the 1840s, British trade laws had changed drastically, ending Montreal's export trade monopoly. American and Torontonian commercial drive meant that New York became a valuable market for Toronto. Markets were also developed when railways opened up the area around the city as well.

Railways were enormously expensive to build. The Ontario, Simcoe & Huron (by 1858, renamed the Northern Railway) took eleven years to finance and build the city's first railway. Toronto's second railway, the Grand Trunk Railway was the biggest. The Montreal-based Grand Trunk entered Toronto first with a Toronto-Brampton-Sarnia line in October 1855. Its station was built at the foot of Bathurst Street. The third railway, the American-financed Great Western, came from Hamilton in December 1855 and located its passenger terminal at Bathurst Street, just north of the Grand Trunk's. All three railways built their yards on the western edge of the city on open land, known as the Esplanade. Parliament had deeded this land in 1818 to the citizens of York for their recreational use. The railways eventually occupied all of it.

In 1856, the Grand Trunk Railway's eastern line from Montreal crossed the Don River south of Queen Street. A temporary station was constructed east of the river. The track followed the Don's western bank around Gooderham & Wort's mill, curved around the old Gaol on Parliament Street and crossed the open Fair Green land. Railways need land, and a great deal of it for track, stations and yards. Toronto's problem in the 1850s was that it went to the water's edge. The Front Street shoreline from Berkeley to Bay streets was filled with houses, businesses and wharves. The City and the Grand Trunk Railway wrangled for several years about the solution to this problem. Finally, the railway agreed to create a 100 foot landfill strip across the harbour. Forty feet would be for the railway's use. This landfill was the beginning of the eastern Esplanade.

The Grand Trunk Railway faced two problems. First, the landfill would take months to settle before tracks could be laid. Secondly, the railway had two stations at the city's edges – one at Bathurst Street and the other east of the Don River, but no station in the centre. As a solution, temporary track was laid along the south side of Front Street through the crowded district to west of Bay Street where it joined the Northern Railway track. As all three railways were built to a similar 5'6" track gauge, known as "Provincial Gauge", trains were able to run on each other's lines. A temporary station, adjoining Northern's at Front and Bay Streets was built. As soon as the Esplanade landfill settled, the railway laid track to its western yards. In 1858, the Grand Trunk built the first Union Station just west of the foot of York Street. The two other railways, Northern and Great Western, moved into it closing their own stations. The new station had such amenities as a ladies' waiting room, refreshment room, and barbershop, in addition to ticket, telegraph and baggage offices.

At this time, the largest segment of Toronto's population was Irish. While Toronto's earliest settlers had come mainly from the British Isles or the United States, the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and 50s caused a huge number of poor Irish Catholics to immigrate. These immigrants were one of the first waves that came to Toronto for a new life. The railways and the accompanying industries provided desperately needed jobs for many of these new settlers as they struggled to re-establish their lives. Many lived in houses on the small streets at the eastern end of the city, within easy distance of work at the foundries, breweries and the Grand Trunk's Don Yard. The area became known locally as Corktown.

The physical face of the city began to change. Industrial and residential areas started to separate, at least for the affluent. Railways, because of their own needs and large bulk-carrying capacities, caused manufacturing and heavy industries to concentrate along railway lines. As the number of lines and yards increased, people who could afford to gradually moved away from the waterfront and the noise and dirt of the yards and tracks. Their properties were subdivided into smaller housing lots or became used for commercial and industrial purposes.

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