The story of how St. Clair Avenue got its wonky name

Let’s unpack the story of St. Clair Avenue – it’s a bit less saintly than one might think. Rather than a misspelled nod to Saint Clare, this popular midtown Toronto name is a mix of literature, family banter, and a touch of religious flair. We’re turning back the pages to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for the real lowdown on how St. Clair Avenue got its name.

The narrative unfolds with the Grainger family, who, residing near the intersection of Avenue Road and St. Clair, found themselves taken by a stage production of Stowe’s novel. Two enterprising members of the family, Albert and Edwin, faced with the absence of given middle names, seized upon an opportunity for creative nomenclature. Edwin appended “Norton” to his name, while Albert, inspired by the character Augustine St. Clare, opted for ‘St. Clair,’ albeit with the spelling mistakenly borrowed from the theatre program.

In a playful jest, the Grainger brothers crafted street signs bearing their chosen names and erected them at Yonge and St. Clair. As the story goes, the St. Clair sign endured, gaining recognition as the moniker for what would later become the 3rd Concession Road, etching its way into the city’s history. The first documented use of the St. Clair name in print appeared in the 1878 publication, “Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of York.”

The plot thickens as, in 1913, the Earlscourt District witnessed the construction of St. Clare’s Church, a Roman Catholic haven situated at 1118 St. Clair Avenue West. This ecclesiastical addition paid homage to the actual Saint Clare of Assisi, marking a harmonious convergence of the avenue’s literary roots and religious reverence. The parish further extended its presence with the establishment of St. Clare’s Catholic School in 1910, an elementary institution standing as a testament to the enduring legacy of the street’s name.

As St. Clair Avenue meanders through the city, it carries within its name not only the whimsical creation of the Grainger brothers but also the echoes of an ecclesiastical tribute. Toronto’s urban landscape, shaped by literary inspirations and familial fun, unfolds a tapestry where the past and present come together, and the streets themselves become living chapters in the city’s narrative.

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