On Nov. 19, 1896, the first electric train of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company arrived in Richmond Hill
by Jim Vollmershausen
originally published in The Liberal, February 2022
In the last year or so, there has been some excitement in Richmond Hill about the extension of subway service to the City. People are looking forward to a fast and convenient connection to Toronto.
This isn’t the first time, though, that citizens of Richmond Hill have been excited about the development of a rail link with Toronto. In 1896, there had already been a number of years of speculation, planning and ultimately the construction of a rail link connecting Richmond Hill and the northern sections of Toronto’s Electric Rail System. On November 19, 1896, the first electric train of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company arrived in Richmond Hill along a track that paralleled Yonge Street. Residents now had an opportunity to travel to Toronto in 45 minutes rather than the 3 hours it took by stagecoach. The cost was 40 cents a trip or 60 cents return, and there were four round trips a day.
An early casualty of this new development was John Thompson’s Stagecoach Line, but, by all accounts, other businesses in Richmond Hill flourished, and the population grew. Richmond Hill was so easily reached from Toronto, in fact, that predictions were made that Richmond Hill could become a suburb of the much bigger city to the south. By 1899, the benefits of a Railway connection with Toronto were extended to Newmarket, as well.
The Metropolitan Street Railway Company contributed a further benefit to Richmond Hill when it bought some land near Bond Lake to build a generating station, and subsequently developed the first park in Ontario with electric lights. Residents and tourists were able to take advantage of baseball facilities, a pavilion and, of course, swimming, boating and fishing.
In 1904, the Metropolitan Street Railway Company was purchased by the Toronto and York Radial Railway Company, a larger company that meant more tracks in Ontario and more trains in Richmond Hill. 1904 also brought a second Railway to Richmond Hill, when the James Bay Railway Company built a station in as a stop on its freight line from Toronto to Sudbury — Richmond Hill residents and businesses were now blessed with reliable rail transportation for both freight and passengers.
In 1912, Richmond Hill officials were able to take further advantage of the Railways presence when they arranged a deal with the Toronto and York railway Company to buy surplus power from the Railway’s generating station at Bond Lake. The result was that, on Dec. 30, 1912, the first electric street lights were lit in Richmond Hill. Soon after, stores and shops were also able to benefit from this new development, as well as many homes.
The Radial Electric Railway continued to serve Richmond Hill, even after the Toronto Transit Commission became the owner in 1922. By 1929, though, the Commission was planning to close the service due to poor ridership, a move that the communities north of Toronto were not happy with. In 1930, Richmond Hill, along with North York, Markham, and Vaughan purchased the railway, renamed it the North Yonge Railways, and carried on serving their communities for another 18 years.
The end of the Electric Railways came with the rationing of power in Ontario after the end of the war. The North Yonge Railways was a huge consumer of electricity, so a temporary fix was found in 1948 by replacing the trains with buses. Though initially unpopular, the buses caught on quite quickly, ridership ballooned and profits were realized. A vote in 1949 did away with the old railway, and the Electric Railway was no more.
Though Richmond Hill has benefited from GO Trains for some time, the notion of a regular subway connection with Toronto is as exciting now as electric train service was in 1896.
—Jim Vollmershausen is the president of the Richmond Hill Historical Society