Travel by Road in Early Upper Canada
Updated: Jul 26, 2021
Nowadays, travelling up Yonge Street is relatively easy, given that Highway 404 now stretches up all the way to Woodbine Avenue; people can easily reach the city of Toronto in less than an hour or sometimes longer depending on the traffic. However, this week, we will examine how people traveled up and down Yonge Street shortly after construction was completed on February 16, 1796. If you did not read my previous blog post on the origins of Yonge Street, you can find it here.
When anyone wanted to go to Toronto, there was a marked preference for travelers to walk rather than ride in a conveyance such as a wagon. The first version of the Yonge Street Road was merely a cleared area with hard packed earth going north in a straight line. In the spring and fall the roads were muddy and rough; it was not much better during the summer, given the fact that roads were typically dusty and ill kept, with deep ruts and holes that horses and wagons could fall into and become stuck. Stumps and roots were also left on the road as well, adding to the difficulty of travel on the road (see figure 1 below). When available, people would also prefer to go by boat, as that was typically faster and had less risk involved in travelling from one place to another.
Figure 1: Watercolor entitled "The Road between Kingston and York", by Lt. Colonel James Cockburn Pattison (c. 1830). Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
Stagecoaches started travelling up and down Yonge Street in 1825. George Playter & Sons formed a stagecoach business and started offering regular coach service from York up to Holland Landing. However, these vehicles were prone to becoming stuck in the mud. One observer who travelled up Yonge Street in 1829 noted that the roads “are generally excessively bad, and full of mudholes in which if a carriage fall, there is great trouble to get it out again. The mail coaches and wagons are often in this predicament, when the passengers instantly jump off, and having stripped rails off the fence, they lift it up by sheer force.” However, running a stagecoach was a lucrative business, and many companies were formed and disbanded during the 1830’s and 40’s. In 1829, William Garbutt won the contract to carry the mail from York up to Newmarket and would charge passengers going between the two points a fare of six shillings and three pence. William Weller bought the stagecoach line going up Yonge Street from George Playter in 1842, and subsequently sold it to Charles Thompson in 1840.
Figure 2: Stage coach serving Richmond Hill during 1880 - 1895. Photo courtesy of Richmond Hill Public Library.
In the Toronto Directory and Street Guide for 1843-4, it advertises the stagecoach schedule up to Holland Landing thusly: “A Stage leaves the Stage Office, bottom of Church Street, every morning at 7 o’clock for Holland Landing, and returning leaves the Holland Landing every morning at 5 o’clock and arrives in Toronto in time for the Kingston and Hamilton boats.” Later, two stage coaches a day would leave for Holland Landing, one at 7AM and the second at 3 pm; it would take about six or seven hours to make the thirty-five-mile (or 56 kilometer) trip town to Toronto. As a result, many inns and taverns sprang up along coach routes across Ontario to accommodate hungry and thirsty travelers looking for a place to sleep after their ordeal by stagecoach.
With the opening of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway in 1853, the coaches to Barrie and Holland Landing were discontinued since the train was a much faster and more reliable method of travel to these more northern locations.
 Scadding, Henry (1878). Toronto of Old: collections and recollections illustrative of the early settlement and social life of the capital of Ontario. Toronto: Willing & Williamson, page 414. Retrieved from https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.50832/477?r=0&s=1.
 Lewis, Frances (1843). The Toronto Directory and Street Guide for 1843-4. Toronto: H & W. Rowsell. Page