One of Toronto’s greatest debates concerns Yonge Street’s controversial claim as “the World’s Longest Street”. Indeed, the Guinness Book of World Records published Yonge Street’s status as the true record until 1999; a bronze art installation in front of the Eaton Centre at Yonge and Dundas has a map of Yonge Street extending to Rainy River.
This claim rests on the rather tenuous claim that that the 1,896 kilometre length of Yonge Street from Queen’s Quay on Toronto’s Harbourfront to Rainy River via Highway 11, at the Minnesota-Ontario border is in fact, the longest continuous “street.”
While a popular claim, I’ve been a skeptic of this local legend. Highway 11 and Yonge Street have never been one and the same, especially after the downloading of Highway 11 south of Barrie by the Harris government in the late 1990s.
In 1920, Yonge Street was added to the Ontario provincial highway systemas Highway 11, which extended from Downtown Toronto as far as the end of Simcoe County, at the Severn River north of Orillia, where an unnumbered highway continued through the unincorporated Districts of Muskoka, Parry Sound and Nipissing to North Bay. In 1937, Highway 11 assumed the Severn River-North Bay portion and the newly-completed North Bay-Hearst section.
During the Second World War, the section between Nipigon and Hearst was completed; it finally provided a complete provincial highway link between the Manitoba and Quebec borders and formed a crucial part of the Trans-Canada Highway until the more direct Highway 17 link from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa was completed in the 1960s. Indeed, Highway 11 could still claim as the longest signed route within a sub-national entity but several national routes, such as US Interstates and US highways, are longer. In fact, the last reference to Yonge Street on Highway 11 north of Holland Landing is a short section of former Highway 11 in south Barrie.
The original Yonge Street , named for a friend of the Simcoe family, did not have such lofty ambitions. Yonge Street was built as a rough, yet straight path from Toronto Harbour to the Holland River near Lake Simcoe(then called Lake aux Claies) under the direction of John Graves Simcoe. Work started in 1794, one year after Toronto’s founding as the Town of York. From Lake Simcoe, a water route via Lake Couchiching and the Severn River provided a rudimentary alternative route for the defense of Upper Canada and British possessions from the Americans and a early settler route. Later, during the War of 1812, Penatanguishine Road between Barrie and the new garrison and naval base (the road’s namesake on Georgian Bay) was built to shorten the original route.
Other early roads radiating from Toronto that were started after Yonge were less direct routes – Dundas street struck west to the town of Dundas from the corner of present-day Queen and Ossington, but later extensions continued west as far as London. Danforth Road and the successor Kingston Road provided the early pioneer route to points east.
By the time Highway 11 was established a over century later, Yonge Street was a major route with regular towns and villages from Aurora south. It hosted radial cars from the CPR tracks in North Toronto to Aurora (at which point the Metropolitan Railway veered east from Yonge to serve Newmarket, Keswick and Sutton) and hosted city cars south of the CPR tracks. In 1920, the new Highway 11 branched north-west of Yonge Street in Holland Landing on a route built in 1824 to serve Bradford, Barrie and points north mostly using existing concession-system roads.
While Highway 11’s official southern terminus was at the foot of Toronto Harbour until the great highway downloadings of the 1990s, Metropolitan Toronto maintained Yonge Street south of Steeles. After 1997, Highway 11, including most of Yonge Street, was formally downloaded in its entirety south of Barrie. It is now officially referred only by its municipal or county names and numbers – Yonge Street/Regional Road 1 through most of York Region (the part where it separates from Yonge Street near Bradford is still known as Highway 11) and Simcoe County Road 4 from Bradford to Barrie.
Today, north of Newmarket, a modern 4-lane highway leaves the Yonge Street alignment west to Bradford. To continue on Yonge Street requires a right turn off the through Highway 11. But Yonge continues directly north as a two lane county road through the village of Holland Landing, before ending just north of Queensville Sideroad in the Holland Marsh. A short section picks up again off a dead-end section of Ravenshoe Road just west of Keswick, but by this point, it is merely a farm access lane and not even marked on many maps or on street signs.