New website gives Torontonians a glimpse of the city's past

Sidewalk Labs has created an online tool that gives Torontonians a glimpse into the past. It’s a digital map that has incorporated more than 30,000 photos from the city’s archives.

Sidewalk Labs has unveiled a interactive map that allows people to view old pictures of Toronto

University College in 1922. (City of Toronto Archives)

Ever wish you could go back in time and see what Toronto looked like 100 years ago?

Well, now you can, sort of.

Sidewalk Labs, the sister company of Google that's partnering with Waterfront Toronto to build a "smart" neighbourhood of the future on the city's waterfront, has created an online tool that gives people a glimpse into the past.

It's a digital map that has incorporated more than 30,000 photos from the city's archives. People can pick a location and look at photos that are anywhere from 30 to 150 years old.  

Residents can find old photos of the street they live on, and in some cases they may even find pictures of their house.

"That is absolutely what the idea is," said Dan Vanderkam, the software engineer who designed a website.

"That's really one of the most exciting things," he said. "Seeing them recognize places that are familiar to them, but in a completely different context and a completely different time."
Top: Northwest corner of Yonge Street and Dundas Street in 1926. Bottom: The same location today. (City of Toronto Archives)

Tania Rasie was standing in Yonge-Dundas Square when CBC Toronto showed her a picture of the same spot from 1926.

"I think that's pretty cool, like you can see the history kind of, behind it," she said

Rasie would even consider using the Old Toronto web tool to conduct her own tour of the city.
Dan Vanderkam is the software engineer who designed the Old Toronto website. (CBC News)

"I think like, when we're exploring downtown, I think that'd be cool to do," Rasie said.

Jim Shedden was just as amazed when he looked at an 1865 photo taken from the intersection of Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue. He considers himself somewhat of a history buff.

"I've been kind of digging through the hard way over the years on Facebook groups, or the city's archives, which are not very user friendly."
Sidewalk Labs has created this interactive map of Toronto with 30,000 historical photos. (Sidewalk Labs)

Shedden says he's looking forward to using the tool to explore some of his favourite locations around the city.

"I grew up in the suburbs when I came downtown to go see bands in the punk years," Shedden said. "I want to see what those corners look like. What does Yonge and Isabella look like what does Queen and Dovercourt look like."

Before Toronto, Sidewalk Labs had already created similar maps in New York and San Francisco.
Jim Shedden looks at a picture taken from the intersection of Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue in 1926. (Ousama Farag/CBC News)

The photos may be from decades ago, but Vanderkam says there's nothing old about the technology they used to create the map.

"We wrote computer software to look through the images, try to find geographic information and try to use that to put it on the map," he said.
Top: Intersection of Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue from the 1890's. Bottom: The same intersection today. (City of Toronto Archives)
Sidewalk Labs will continue to add photos to the site as well. The city archives has around 1.7 million historic pictures, but so far only 100,000 of them have been digitized.
Toronto's Union Station in 1908. The building in the photo was built in 1896. The current Union Station was built between 1914 and 1920, and was opened to the public in 1927. (City of Toronto Archives)

Vanderkam says they are also willing to consider that people may want to donate photos.

"We've already had a few institutions that have historic photos of Toronto reach out to us," he said. "We'd be really excited about adding photos from other places as well."
Picture of the Grand Trunk Railway looking west from the top of the old Union Station in 1895 (City of Toronto Archives)