The intention of the Eye-Spy segment is to pick an area of interest and give a general overview of points of interest, both for modeling potential and historically minded purposes. I’m not going to delve too deep into some historical or modeling aspects, but might go into more detail for others. User input and information, photos, personal experiences, etc is always welcome, as it contributes to the overall “story”.
Quickie Historical Overview
Rexdale, the northern part of Etobicoke, was built up starting in the early 1950’s as post-war suburban growth pushed the boundaries of Toronto out into farmland in surrounding towns and villages.
Above: Before the Boom: Islington Avenue looking north at Rexdale Blvd, June 5th 1955. J.V.Salmon photo via Toronto Public Library (S 2-3056, source)
With growth came new neighbourhoods, places of commerce and retail (strip plazas, open malls, and a new concept for the time – enclosed malls!), parks, and of course, industry and the jobs they brought. Land was cheaper and more plentiful in the suburbs, and factories could move out of cramped downtown to build larger, more modern facilities out here with nearby rail and highway access to ship their goods across the country (in the pre-free trade era, Canadian “branch plants” were often necessary to manufacture goods in Canada to avoid import tariffs and fees). The new Highway 401 was build through the area at this time as well, offering smooth, quick and efficient highway access (fast forward to today…hah!) to the ever-expanding northern reaches of Toronto suburbia that catered to the personal automobile.
Above: A lot of change can happen even in a few years: The Kipling/Islington/Rexdale Ave area in 1950, 1955, 1969, versus a present-day view. Aerial imagery via City of Toronto Archives (source), with final image from Google Maps.
Above: Parking lots, malls, supermarkets – suburban grown arrives! Dominion supermarket at Rexdale Plaza, Islington & Rexdale Blvd, 1950’s (City of Toronto Archives photo, s1454_fl0001_id0025)
Above: During the early development period, new suburban factories and warehouses co-existed with farmer’s fields of old, witnessed in this photo of the new Simpsons-Sears factory poking over farmland at Islington Ave and Rexdale Blvd (looking SE) in the 1950’s (City of Toronto Archives photo, s1454_fl0029_id0019)
Ship it by Rail
Canadian National (as Grand Trunk) had built their busy Brampton Subdivision (later renamed the Weston Subdivision, or sub) rail line through here in the 1850’s when it was all still countryside. A web of new rail spurs and sidings seemed to spring up as fast as factories were built, crawling out from the mainline to the new industries and businesses large and small that were locating in the area. In those pre-intermodal days, sidings were necessary to receive or send out shipments by rail on a regular basis. Today, depending on the business, operating mantra (e.g. JIT, lean manufacturing), distances and products involved, trucking can be more competitive, or a combination of multimodal transportation involving handling a shipping container from the factory to a central rail yard for any rail shipping. This eliminates any sidings to maintain, no waiting for the daily or weekly switching job to bring you shipment in, and allowing you greater flexibility to ship out or receive product (the boxed container replaced the boxed car, as it were). But many industries still use rail to ship in cargo more efficiently transported by rail than road.
Above: Mileages, station name signs, and planned passenger trains on CN Weston Subdivision, extract from CN’s 1974 Employee Timetable. By 1974 most of the mainline freight traffic was bypassing the downtown Toronto area (and Weston Sub) to get to Toronto/MacMillan Yard in Vaughan. Local, lower-class freights and switching jobs didn’t usually show up in ETT’s, it was usually regular priority mainline runs with set departure times from their end terminals that appeared here.
The only railway in the area was Canadian National (ex-Grand Trunk Western), so industries with private sidings in the area would have been served off their Brampton Subdivision (later becoming the Weston Sub in the Toronto bypass reorganization of 1965). By 1965 most mainline freights would have been taking the bypass route around Toronto to the new MacMillan Yard, but locals and roadswitcher jobs would have plied the corridor often to service the on-line industry. The Brampton/Weston Sub was also an important part of CN’s passenger network radiating from Toronto Union Station (as can be seen in the timetable above) which VIA inherited in 1978. GO Transit commuter service began on April 29th 1974 to Georgetown (Rexdale is served by GO’s Etobicoke North station), and today forms the mainstay of traffic, so much so that GO Transit parent Metrolinx bought the line outright from CN in 2009. The corridor has since underwent a huge transformation for the new Union-Pearson Express train to the airport (launched in June 2015), future expanded GO service, and potential electrification.
Over time, in the 80’s and 90’s as free trade, intermodal shipping and the global economy took hold, many of the local industries closed down, moved, disappeared, found new ways of shipping, or consolidated manufacturing. Today, probably only 5% of the industries in Rexdale that used to use private rail sidings to ship/receive from their plants still do so. Rexdale itself has gained the image over the years of that unwanted crime-ridden, low income, lower class suburban stepchild, in comparison to the trendy downtown Toronto, upscale Leaside, and hip Liberty Village (and West Queen West…).
CN’s Rexdale Industrial Zone – Part 1 (Kipling to Humber River)
Here’s a general historical overview of some of the larger businesses in the area that utilized rail service, starting from Rexdale’s initial development in the 1950’s and progressing to the present-day. It should be noted that many companies and properties have changed, expanded buildings, moved out or redeveloped over time, so covering all the changes is difficult and would make this post far longer and pedantic than most still reading would probably tolerate. Part 1 (below) will be starting in the east end between the Humber River (CN “McGill”, Mile 9.4) and covering to Kipling Ave (CN “Rexdale”, Mile 11.1) on the Weston Sub, with future segments moving west or east.
Above: CN’s Rexdale Industrial Zone “X” some of its industries (expanded on below) along the Weston Sub in 1969. This and further aerial closeups below from the City of Toronto Archives 1969 imagery (source).
If someone was intending to do a small model railroad switching layout or set of modules, Rexdale offers many different industries and the option to either build small with a few of the main ones, or build big including long snaking spurs and many small customers to suppliment them. Operations-wise, in the steam era small switchers like 0-6-0’s would be ideal to switch tight industrial trackage. In the diesel era, little CN Alco/MLW S-series and EMD/GMD SW units would be the normal fare, likely with a switching job based out of Rexdale just to service all the industries in the immediate area.
Modern-day operations changed around every few years. Due to the lack of customers, there are few small yards along the subdivision and no switching jobs stationed along the line. Instead, a switching job or “local” train is dispatched from CN’s nearby MacMillan Yard to spot and lift cars at customers along the line. At one point (circa 2005/6) the work usually handled by a nightly local from Mac Yard (#579) that typically ran at night to stay clear of GO trains during the day. There was also an interchange run that ran down the Weston Sub (#577 daily from Mac via Malport) to interchange with CP at West Toronto Yard, but did no switching enroute. The train numbers and operational practices changed over the years, with trains merging, changing numbers, taking on other duties, making it hard to give a consistent overview of operations from one year to the next. At present #559 (that does the Brampton customers on the Halton) switches the remaining Weston Sub customers a few days per week, and #549 handles the interchange run. GP9RM, GP38-2 and GP38-2W units, with other 4-motors like GMD-1’s and GP40-2W’s showing up occasionally too. The line was sold to Metrolinx (GO Transit) a number of years back (and underwent heavy upgrading), but CN retained switching rights for customers, and the line is still dispatched by the CN RTC.
I’ll include a summary of current customers that still get rail service in a future segment for those wondering, as well as covering other areas on the line. For location/proximity reference, see labeled map above.
Simpsons-Sears Ltd warehouse – 2200 Islington Ave. The large warehouse facilities here were built in the early-mid 1950’s in what would become suburban Rexdale, as an alternative to their downtown “catalogue” warehouse near Mutual St. & Dundas. Reportedly the land was purchased from Canadian General Electric (who owned a building to the south, described later). Close proximity to Highway 401 was a plus for their trucks making deliveries to their stores in the Greater Toronto Area. Rail service was likely used as part of their distribution network, with lots of boxcars noted on the multiple sidings on site in the 60’s (a 1969 view is presented below, note the spur curving south near the highway and joining the mainline):
According to a set of CN car control diagrams dated 1969, the main Simpsons-Sears warehouse sidings were along the western buildings, there were also sidings for other entities on site as well: a siding for Photo Engravers Ltd for the on-site printing of Sears Catalogues, and one for Krever Paper, likely involved in the catalogue printing too (newsprint in boxcars would have been inbound traffic). Another siding is listed “Post Office – (Catalogue Mail)”, possibly used for shipping out mail-order items to their other warehouses by rail. All of those were located in the buildings along the eastern side of the property (Quebecor Media was still printing out of the site in recent years, address 2250 Islington Ave – likely at the old paper/catalogue printing facilities mentioned above).
The Simpsons-Sears partnership broke up in 1978 when The Bay gained control of longtime rival Simpsons and the warehouse became a Sears property (it should be noted there were still competition restrictions in place restricting Sears from opening stores in certain areas a Simpsons existed, until Simpsons was folded into parent The Bay in 1991). Sidings appear to have been removed sometime between 2003-2005, although rail service likely ended years before. The site is largely underused by Sears – a retail/outlet store with repairs and servicing operate on the site. Their warehousing functions were moved elsewhere and some of the property sold off. A recent proposal was submitted to the City of Toronto in 2014 to redevelop much of the site into commercial/office space.
Steinberg’s Limited (Miracle Food Mart Division) – 75 Rexdale Ave. The warehouse and offices here were initially built between 1957-1959, possibly predating Steinberg’s entry into the Ontario food marked (Steinberg’s bought out US chain Grand Union’s Ontario stores in 1959, to gain entry into the Ontario markets as Loblaws had recently made inroads into the Quebec market. Grand Union could have possibly been building the warehouse for their own store distribution).
Above: Steinburg Ltd warehouse overview in 1969 (way before the Home Depot off Kipling and Etobicoke North GO Station to the south were built). White roofed car likely a silver refrigerated or insulated CN reefer.
Old CN track diagrams and aerial photos show two sidings into the building and a number of cars sitting for spotting outside their warehouse over the years. On the CN car control diagram, one siding was labeled for Produce and the other Grocery (produce would typically be handled in insulated or refrigerated boxcars). Additional building expansions were built on over the years. Steinberg rebranded their Ontario division supermarkets Miracle Food Mart starting around 1969, with an emphasis on value pricing. An employee who worked there at the time stated that by the late 1980’s the rail sidings were out of use, and most goods were trucked to the warehouse by suppliers, and trucked out by Steinberg/MFM trucks for local delivery to stores. At the time, the MFM Ontario division was operating 4 distribution warehouses to supply their stores, with the main one being this Rexdale location.Embed from Getty Images
Above: Chairman and founder Sam Steinberg and daughter Mitzi Dobrin (VP of Miracle Mart div.) at the opening of Steinberg Ltd’s new Miracle Mart new administration building on Rexdale Blvd. on the site of their distribution warehouse in May 1977. Frank Lennon (Toronto Star) photo via GettyImages.
This warehouse became the subject of a messy labour situation in the late 1980’s. Steinberg Ltd was experiencing turmoil with labour and at the same time was in talks with buyers interested in taking over their Ontario stores, all the while dealing with takeover actions by a few interested outside parties. Steinberg, via CEO Irving Ludmer, had come to some agreement with the union to take concessions and keep labour peace, in exchange for the company keeping the warehouse a going concern. But, when Steinberg sold their Ontario stores to A&P in 1990, A&P wanted the warehouse closed down as they had more than enough warehousing space in their existing facilities off Hwy 427 in Etobicoke (served by rail off CP’s Galt Sub). As usual, legal action between the parties involved eventually resulted from the decision. Currently, the warehouse here is occupied by XTL Transport, with an active siding receiving rail service (boxcars) but word from a source is the other siding is going back in.
Above: CN 4710 and a GP9RM switch the XTL warehouse in Rexdale, originally the Steinberg Ltd. warehouse. April 2015. Cameron Applegath photo.
Labatts Brewery – 50 Resources Road, built c.1969-1970 on a 14-hectare property south of Highway 401 and east of Islington Avenue. Shown under construction in 1969 below with rail spurs in place:
The Rexdale service track lead east under Islington before curving into the plant’s grounds with sidings to the west and east building portions. Raw materials were likely shipped in by tank car using those sidings, and cases of beer were likely shipped out of the plant in insulated or refrigerated boxcars from the warehouse portion (the LCBO warehouse in downtown Toronto off Cooper Street also had a spur for shipping/receiving alcoholic beverages). The Labatts plant was closed November 2005 due to a plant rationalization strategy (the Toronto/Rexdale plant was producing under capacity, production shifted to their London and Montreal plants). The sidings were removed and buildings demolished circa 2006-2007. Since then, a Lowes store was built on site, and there are plans for a Metrolinx maintenance facility for Union-Pearson Express trainsets on the south part of the property north of the Weston Sub (that has since been expanded with additional mainline tracks).
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Above: Labatts plant pre-demolition, Hwy 401 & Islington circa 2005. Lucas Oleniuk via Gettyimages.
Above: The last of the Labatts plant under demolition, Hwy 401 & Islington February 2008. MrDan photo from a passing GO train. Government building in background at right (Regional Public Health Laboratory, 81 Resources Rd.).
Canadian General Electric, Radio Valve Division – built off Islington south of Highway 401 in the mid-1950’s, with a single siding into the north end of the building (that, like Steinberg’s warehouse, was expanded over the years). I haven’t been able to find too much information about this facility or what it would be receiving/shipping out, but judging by the name, they probably manufactured vacuum tubes used in TV’s, radios, etc. and used rail as part of their distribution network. As tubes fell out of use, the plant was probably converted by CGE to other purposes, closed up, and/or sold. No rail service to the building today.
Ironically enough, in recent years Kodak Canada had occupied this building (6 Monogram Place), another manufacturer faced with a product that became largely obsolete (film production). Their main offices and manufacturing facilities at 3500 Eglinton Ave W. in nearby Mount Dennis were sold for redevelopment and largely demolished in the mid-2000’s, and they had moved their offices to this location, residing here until at least 2012 (checking Google’s Streetview, by 2014 the Kodak signage had been removed). I suspect their offices here may have been a casualty of the 2012 Kodak bankrupcy protection filing. Current tenant appears to be Toronto Hydro.
Above: CGE Radio Valve Division in 1969, tucked in south of Highway 401 off Islington and Radio Valve Road. Single siding lead inside north end of building.
A side note, the CGE plant here was located off a small sideroad branching off from Islington once named “Radio Valve Road”, since renamed to Monogram Place. The Toronto-based new wave band Martha and the Muffins’ song “What Ever Happened to Radio Valve Road?” is in reference to this (and now you know).
Parting Shot: Islington Avenue looking south to the CN Brampton Sub (later Weston Sub) grade crossing (with wig-wags!) in May 1955. J.V.Salmon photo via the Toronto Public Library (source):
…which later became an underpass in 1962. Below (left to right) is a 1956 aerial showing what everything looked like around when Mr. Salmon took his photo, one from 1961 when a “shoefly” road was built to divert traffic, and the completed overpass in 1962:
Next (when I get a chance) we’ll move a little bit west, and look at some of the industries west of Kipling, including the CN’s Rexdale Industrial Lead.
Be sure to leave a comment below if you have any corrections, comments, personal stories, or polite heckling. I don’t do this Blog thing much, so impolite hecklers will be mauled by an angry grizzly bear sent to their front door via air mail.