For Toronto's tireless city hall reporters, filing copy is quicker and easier than ever thanks to the Internet: write directly into a special web application, paste text into an email - both reach editors in seconds.
For the Toronto Star in 1930, however, filing a story from
its bureau at Old City Hall took considerably longer. A draft dashed off
on a battered Smith Corona typewriter would be handed to a copy boy who
would sprint from the press gallery, down Bay Street, and over to the
paper's towering art deco headquarters on King West.
Then the paper did something that would change all that; it teamed up with the Toronto Telegram
to install a system of pneumatic tubes under Bay Street capable of
sucking a sealed canister from the press room of Old City Hall - then
home to courts, police headquarters, and the offices of aldermen - to
either paper's headquarters in 70 seconds. Sending a reply was just as
It was the first time in North America that newspapers were directly linked with a beat via tube.
The system, while novel and exciting for the Star and Telegram,
was far from new. Paris' Poste Pneumatique, the most extensive such
system in the world at its peak, blasted letters, telegrams, and other
physical media through more then 400 kms of pressurized pipes beneath
the city's streets. By 1919, it handled around 12 million pieces of
The network was installed on the inside of sewer pipes and linked the
city's various sub post offices. To send a piece of mail, a perfumed
note to a sweetheart, say, all one had to do was pay the postage and
hand it off to the local "tubiste."
The precious cargo would be sealed inside a cylindrical canister and
dropped in the end of the correct pneumatic tube. The result was similar
to vacuuming something large off a carpet. The pressure of the tubes,
generated by a giant central steam plant, would suck the canister at
speeds approaching 30 km/h to its destination. Well, most of the time.
As architectural historian Molly Wright Steenson recalls in the excellent 99% Invisible podcast on pneumatic tubes, Paris' tubiste's would fire a gun into a blocked pipe and use the resulting echo to locate an obstruction.
Practically every major city had a similar system. Even Toronto had one.
April 1904, Sir William Mulock, a prominent lawyer, businessman, and
postmaster-general, wrote to the Toronto's board of control offering to
lay a network of iron tubes connecting the city's post offices with a
new central distribution office to be built near Old Union Station, if
the federal government could be convinced the chip in the cash.
"Owing to the peculiar local difficulties in securing rapidity of
despatch of the Toronto mails between all parts and the Union station, I
have come to the conclusion that these difficulties cannot be overcome
by vehicles or streetcar service and the only solution, it seems to me,
is the Pneumatic Tube System," he wrote, recommending a site behind the
customs house on York Street.
Mail would come off trains, be quickly sorted, and delivered to the
appropriate sub post office by mail tube where postal workers would be
waiting to deliver it, Mayor Thomas Urquhart said.
It was an ambitious plan but one with almost universal support. A
company in Glasgow had started making the pipes when, later that year,
the great fire of Toronto destroyed a swath of downtown buildings,
leaving prime real estate east of Old Union Station on the south side of
Front Street up for grabs.
The Grand Trunk Railroad wanted to build a new, larger Union station
between York and Bay, which by now was the city's preferred site for its
pneumatic mail depot. Canadian Pacific wanted part of the action too,
and the three squabbled about who should claim the vacant land. In the
end, the railways built the current Union Station and the high-tech
pneumatic post office idea faded.
But that wasn't the end of tube mail in Toronto. Eaton's and other large businesses like the Royal York Hotel and the Toronto Star had internal systems, staffed by teams of dedicated operators, for sending paperwork between departments.
a rare show of co-operation in 1928, Canadian Pacific and Canadian
Nation Railways laid what would become the foundation of the Toronto Star and Telegram
system by running an elaborate 4,500-metre pneumatic tube network from
their respective transmitting offices - at Yonge and Melinda and Bay and
Temperance - down Bay to Postal Station A at Union Station. A small
spur connected to the mail room at the Royal York Hotel.
Each property had two tubes: one for receiving and another for
sending. The Royal York was connected to the CP building, CP and CNR
were connected to the station post office but not to each other.
Manholes every 300 feet down Bay provided access to the 2 1/4-inch
copper tubes - which were laid on a concrete foundation and encased in
creosoted wood - in case a canister became stuck.
It took almost a full minute for the eight-inch fibre containers to
travel from the 15th floor of the CP building, down to the street, under
Bay, to the mail room at Union Station. A special percussive buffer
attached to the front of the canister absorbed the shock of delivery.
Similar systems were in use in Montreal and Winnipeg, but this small
network was the biggest in Canada.
Two years later, the Star and Telegram
joined the pneumatic mail system, installing two sets of pipe in
parallel down Bay Street. At its extent, the system included 7
properties, though there was no central exchange and most were only
connected to one other place.
It's not clear when the pneumatic tubes fell into disuse. The Royal
York still has the transparent pipes of its internal system on display
but, sadly, its staff have found more convenient (though infinitely less
exciting) ways of getting messages through the giant old building.
Of all the properties that were ever connected to the pneumatic mail
system, the Royal York, Old City Hall, and Union Station are the only
ones still standing. No-one working in any of the buildings knows
anything about the old network. Presumably much of it would have been
destroyed when the TTC excavated Union subway station under Front Street
later times, Robarts library opened with a pneumatic tube system,
NASA's Houston mission control centre had one, and the devices were
briefly in vogue with banks before fully automatic ATMs.
The Bay and Front branch of Royal Bank introduced the first
"Television Banking" terminal in 1976. Users would walk up, press a
button, and be connected to a teller in a secure part of the building
via a closed circuit camera. The transaction would be carried out via
pneumatic tube and loudspeaker, with checks and cash dropped into the
whooshing pipe. A telephone receiver was available for sensitive
"You don't feel cut off from the customers even though you're only
watching them on TV," said Anna Sauve, one of the tellers. One of the
first users, 62-year-old Saul Shapiro of Bathurst Street was less than
impressed: "big deal," he said when the Star asked him what he thought of the new technology.
Pneumatic banking worked better in the suburbs where drivers could
pull up to a special terminal and transact business from their seats.
Several of these systems lingered in to the 1980s and beyond.
Amazingly, the biggest system of them all, the underground air mail
system in Paris, would last until 1984. In Toronto, tube mail is now
largely confined to supermarkets.
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