The Beltline Railway was a late-Victorian folly, but a large part of it has become the Beltline Trail today, an oblique route through the middle of Toronto for runners, walkers and cyclists. Losing rails is a melancholy thing: so much effort made to establish civilization erased, the only upshot being some right-of-ways are converted to trails.
Opened in 1892, the railway lasted only two years as the expected residential development in the north of the city didn’t materialize. As the name suggests, the Beltline was a commuter loop that began at Union Station and ran up the Don Valley, veering northwest at the Brickworks through the Moore Park Ravine to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. After crossing Yonge St. it followed a diagonal path through Forest Hill to just north of Eglinton and continued west to what is now the Barrie GO train line by Caledonia Rd., where it headed back to downtown.
The best-known section is the oldest stretch of trail between Yonge St. and the Allen Rd. It’s named the Kay Gardner Beltline Park after the local activist and city councillor who, along with then-mayor David Crombie and others, saved the right-of-way from development in the 1970s. The Forest Hill section seemingly ends at the Allen Rd. sound barrier with little to suggest it continues on, but those who know cross over the Allen on either the Elm Ridge Dr. or Aldburn Rd. bridges and find the beginning of the York Beltline trail west of Marlee Rd., though the entrances can be difficult to discover.
“The York Beltline isn’t as accessible as the Kay Gardner section,” says Councillor Josh Colle, whose ward begins at Marlee. “It’s quite hidden and sheltered and there are people who’ve lived in the neighbourhood forever who don’t know the trail is there.”
Colle says there are plans in the works for better signage and even a grand gateway entrance this year, and the trail will be extended to Marlee as the city still has an easement where it currently dead ends at community gardens belonging to an adjacent TCHC building. The gardens will be relocated nearby.
There are also studies looking into making street crossings easier along the entire Beltline; right now trail users must cross most streets without a light or crosswalk. In the east trail, accessibility will be improved with the Chorley Park switchback, though some Rosedale residents are holding that process up right now.
Back on the west side, the York Beltline passes through a hodgepodge mix of residential and industrial buildings and the cluster of interior design stores around Castlefield Rd. The trail ends at Bowie Ave. by the new Canada Goose Down factory that recently opened in the old Hilroy school and office supply building, and Colle would like to see some kind of connection made to the nearby Caledonia Rd. station that will open along the Eglinton Crosstown LRT.
Until the 1990s this stretch was used as industrial spur railway but today it’s marked with occasional shelters fashioned as old train stations with maps and the image of railway tracks laid into the paving bricks. The railway was in use so recently here that there are still signs on Fairbank Ave. telling motorists that the street continues on the other side of the tracks.
The bridge over Dufferin is one of the nicest bits. Toronto Parks installs flower boxes on it each summer and a new mural underneath pays homage to the former Coats & Paton yarn mill, an art deco gem converted to condos just east of here that overlooks the beltline itself.
Toronto’s lucky to have such Victorian follies; if only there could be more.
Shawn Micallef writes every Friday about where and how we live in the GTA. Wander the streets with him on Twitter@shawnmicallef.