Sunday, August 26, 2012

How Toronto neighbourhoods got their names

toronto neighbourhood names
Toronto's reputation for being a city of neighbourhoods has deep roots. A hundred years ago, many of the city's best known areas - Parkdale, Leslieville, Rosedale, Yorkville, and others - were independent outlying towns with their own local government and distinctly separate identity.

The patchwork city of Toronto most likely takes its name from the Mohawk word tkaronto, meaning "where there are trees standing in the water." Originally applied to The Narrows at Lake Simcoe, the name gradually worked its way south to be applied to Fort Toronto and later the city of York. But what about the neighbourhoods - where did those names come from?

Rosedaletoronto rosedale sherbourne
How apt that Toronto's swankiest locale has a pretty name to match the sprawling homes, tree-lined streets and carefully manicured lawns. Interestingly, the flowery name predates the neighbourhood's reputation for old money.

Named by Mary Jarvis, the wife of William Botsford Jarvis, sheriff of the historic Home District and a founder of Yorkville, for the abundance of wild roses that grew nearby, the name "Rosedale" was first applied to the Jarvis' family estate but later grew to encompass the area north of Bloor and east of Yonge. The "dale" suffix, common to many Toronto neighbourhoods, means broad valley in Old English.

Rosedale was once home to the opulent Chorley Park residence, Ontario's fourth government house, which was torn down in a moment of utter insanity to create parkland.


Cabbagetown has perhaps the most unusual name in Toronto. After all, how does a neighbourhood get named for a hearty but hardly glamourous leafy, green vegetable?

Originally the village of Don Vale, the working class area developed around the old Winchester Street Bridge which, before the Prince Edward Viaduct, was a major crossing point over the Don river. The Cabbage name, used derisively by some snooty Torontonians, arrived with Irish immigrants who planted the vegetables, among others, in their front yards.

Liberty Village

Inmates released from Toronto Central Prison, once located near King and Strachan, got their first tastes of post-incarceration life on Liberty Street, named for its route to freedom. Though the brutal prison closed in 1915 amid changing attitudes to corrections, the name remained attached to the street.

The use of the Liberty Village name, derived from its central street, was intended to help separate the development from nearby Parkdale.

Leslievilletoronto neighbourhoods leslieville jones queen mural
Another part of Toronto that began life as an independent village, Leslieville was once home to a substantial community of brick factory and nursery workers. George Leslie, the owner of a large gardening business and major employer east of the city, gave his name to the area now south of the CN tracks, west of Coxwell.

Alexander Muir, the first principal of Leslieville Public School, is famous for penning the poem The Maple Leaf Forever, so the story goes, after a bright maple leaf fell from a nearby tree onto his jacket. The inspirational tree still stands on Memory Lane south of Queen Street East.


The pastoral sounding Summerhill has transit in its blood. The area is named for Summer Hill, the former home of Charles Thompson, a Canadian shipping magnate whose estate once encompassed the area subdivided to create the neighbourhood.

Thompson ran a successful stagecoach and steamer company but later used parts of his estate to build a popular amusement park overlooking the nearby ravine. Summerhill Avenue was once the grand entrance to Thompson's Summer Hill Spring Park and Pleasure Grounds. The area is also known for the North Toronto Railway Station and CN railway.


Another neighbourhood named for its founder, Davisville was established in a similar way as Summerhill. In 1840, English immigrant John Davis purchased the plot of land and ran the area's first post office. A hard worker, Davis also operated a local pottery company - the biggest local employer.

The original plot was subdivided in the late 1800s and sold off for residential use. John Davis' grandson, Jack, ran the old post office at Yonge and Davisville, which is now a Starbucks.


Kensington Market in Toronto most likely got its name from Kensington Avenue that runs through the once predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. Kensington Avenue itself was likely named for Kensington district in London, which is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "Kenesignetun" or "Kenesigne's land or meadows."

Though separated by an ocean, the Kensingtons share a common trait: London's Kensington also had a market, a hub for various sub-cultures in the 60s and 70s, which was contained inside a now-demolished building.


Famous for its railway history, Leaside is named for John Lea, an English-born American immigrant, who purchased the plot of flat land near the Don River in 1820. Originally known as Lot 13, the Canadian Pacific Railway signed a whopping 999-year lease on the part of the land in 1884
In 1914, two railway entrepreneurs, William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, planned the upscale settlement of Leaside - marketed as the "new Rosedale" - between the railway, Eglinton, Bayview and Leslie. Unfortunately, thing's didn't quite work out. Financial difficulties meant many of the homes were never built and the areas around Laird Drive, Hanna Road and Wicksteed Avenue - named for railway employees - originally went undeveloped.

In the 20th century, industry arrived in the form of munitions factories and an air field during the first world war. Leaside was eventually annexed by East York in 1967 and absorbed in Toronto in 1998.

Junction Triangle

The triangular area between the CNR and CPR railway lines has only been the Junction Triangle since March 2010. Originally an industrial area without a definitive name, local residents held a vote two years ago to chose a suitable title. Losing suggestions included Perth Park, Black Oak Triangle, The Wedge, Railtown and Railpath.

Yorkville and The Annex

 toronto neighbourhoods annex bloor bmv books
Like Leslieville, Yorkville was once distinctly separate from the city of Toronto. Founded by William Botsford Jarvis and Joseph Bloore, a brewer, as a residential suburb named for the old city of York, the community was later officially incorporated as the Village of Yorkville. As the population grew and the village became unable to properly service its citizens, the government asked the city of Toronto to annex the area, which it did in 1883.

The Annex started life as a Yorkville subdivision created by developer Simeon Janes in 1886. Originally called the Toronto Annex, The Annex was annexed by Toronto in 1887, partly retaining its original name.


The historic village of Parkdale once gave Rosedale a run for its money in terms of glamour and exclusivity. A former independent outlying town of Toronto, Parkdale thrived on its lakefront location and proximity to the recently purchased High Park, from which its name is derived.

With the construction of the Gardiner Expressway and reworking of Lake Shore Boulevard, Parkdale lost its way and its major attraction, Sunnyside Amusement Park. A period of decline around the second world war led to many of the larger homes being sold and divided into rooming houses or demolished entirely for apartment buildings.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

More stories about the origins of Toronto street names

Street Names Lead Signs E Victor C
A couple of weeks ago I investigated the meaning behind some of Toronto's street names and explained why a road miles from the seat of government is called Parliament Street, how a battle in the Napoleonic wars gave its name to a street near High Park, and who gave Spadina Avenue's its semi Native title.

There wasn't enough room to cover the entire city in just one post and there were plenty of choice tales left over for this: part two in a collection of street names and their backgrounds. A lot of this information can be traced back to the research done by Leonard Wise and Allan Gould for their definitive book on the subject, Toronto Street Names. Be sure to grab a copy for more insight into the history of our street nomenclature.


Despite pushing for migration from Britain to Canada after the war of 1812 and granting the charter for King's College, Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst, never felt the need to visit the country he took an active interest in shaping. In addition to Bathurst Street, the Brit also gave his name to Bathurst Island, Nunavut and the city of Bathurst in Australia. Random fact: Henry Bathurst was portrayed by Sir Christopher Lee in Shaka Zulu, a South African TV series.


The fun-loving, north-south nightlife spot gets its name from the slightly more formal surroundings of Ossington Hall in Nottinghamshire, England, the ancestral home of the Denison family who were early land owners in the area. Ossington Street in London is named for John Evelyn Denison, 1st Viscount Ossington, a former speaker of British House of Commons born at Ossington Hall.


Street Names Bloor Keith
Named for Joseph Bloore (no-one seems sure how the "e" got lost), Bloor Street was called variously Second Concession, Tollgate Road, St. Paul's Road and Sydenham Street until 1855. Bloore ran a brewery in the Rosedale Valley near today's Sherbourne Street and owned property in early Yorkville. You can visit Joseph Bloore at Necropolis Cemetery at your convenience.


There are plenty of Toronto streets named after people but Rebecca Street at Ossington and Queen isn't quite what it seems. In the early 1840s, the Rebeccaites of southern Wales were staunch opposers of road usage fees responsible for destroying many toll gates in protest. Often men dressed as women, the riot leaders were called "Rebeccas" and the gangs were collectively known as "daughters." The name comes from Genesis 24:60: "Rebekah ... posses the gate of those who hate them."

Rebecca Street in Toronto bypassed an unpopular toll gate at Queen and Ossington that frequently charged workers for accessing the shore as part of their work. A contractor, fed up with the situation, bought the plot of land north of Queen and set up Rebecca Street to avoid the fees.


Street Names Maple Leaf Gardens Carlton
Another case of the mysterious vanishing "e", Carlton was named by Ann Wood, wife of Andrew McGill and John Strachan (of Strachan Avenue), for her brother Guy Carleton Wood. Before realignment, Carlton Street intersected Yonge just south of College. Ann herself lives on in the name of McGill Street.


Yep, there really is a street named after a brand of toothpaste, or rather the owner of a brand of toothpaste. Located a block north of Queen East between Logan and Carlaw, Colgate Avenue, formerly known as Natalie Street, was once home to a soap and toiletries factory. The building might be gone but the name of William Colgate's business lives on.

Street Names Gardiner Expressway Redevil72Gardiner

Frederick Goldwin Gardiner, chairman of Metro Toronto, was instrumental in the construction of the elevated arterial road that bears his name, the Don Valley Parkway and the controversial Spadina Expressway. Unusually, Toronto's lake-front highway was named while Gardiner was still in office in 1957. Known for his aggressive, "get it done" attitude, Gardiner was a perennial source of great quotes, including: "Smile and the world smiles with you. Tax and you tax alone" and "The only symphony I understand is the one played on a cash register."


Sure he makes great cookies, but Mr. Christie is also a decent namesake too. Scottish biscuit apprentice William Mellis Christie came to Canada and found work at Mathers and Brown bakery. He later took over the company and made it a success under his name. Today the Mr. Christie brand is owned by Nabisco.


Street Names Wellesley randyfmcdonald
We've done pretty well out of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Hero of the Penninsula War, Battle of Waterloo and nemesis of Napoleon, Wellesley was also prime minister of the United Kingdom before Earl Grey, of hot bergamot infused beverage fame. Both Wellesley and Wellington Streets are named after the duke.


The street running east from the top of Broadview has a distinctly sweet history. Named for Senator Frank Patrick O'Connor, the founder of the Laura Secord candy empire, the company's first store was on Yonge Street and was named for a Canadian heroine of the war of 1812. Secord warned British troops of an impending attack by American forces that led to a key victory in the Battle of Beaver Dams.


We've all had a good snigger at this one - especially Old Cummer GO Station - so I suspect a lot of people will be disappointed to learn the street is named for Jacob Kummer, a German-Pennsylvanian miller who moved to the area in the late 18th century. Sadly, nothing funny or sexual about that. He did have 14 kids though.

Bloor Street by Keith.CA, Gardiner Expressway by ReDeViL72, Wellesley Street by randyfmcdonald in the BlogTO Flickr pool. Lead image by E. Victor C, Loblaws/Maple Leaf Gardens picture by Derek Flack.

The story behind Toronto street names

Toronto Street Name Meanings
The meaning of Toronto street names often comes to mind when my subway train pulls into the station, and I make up stories about the scenery above my head à la Bill Bryson in his book Notes from a Small Island. At Pape there's a community of solemn Catholic nuns; at Donlands I imagine vast grass plains inhabited by the wild Don tribe. Greenwood, my stop, is buried below an beautiful but treacherous forest of towering pines.

Back on the street, I continue to wonder after their provenance. Many are named for people, a symptom of rampant cronyism in the early days of settlement, but there are some interesting stories nonetheless. Here's a handful of the best.


Spad-ee-na, Spad-eye-na, however you want to say it, the broad, majestic avenue is one of Toronto's cultural hot-spots and a vital thoroughfare. Derived from the Ojibwa word "ishpadinaa" meaning "high or sudden hill", Spadina was the name chosen by Dr. William Baldwin (of Baldwin Street) for his property at the top of the escarpment behind today's Davenport Road. Designed by Baldwin, Spadina Avenue was the name of the street between Bloor and Queen. The section below Queen was known as Brock Street until 1884. Pheobe Street is named for Baldwin's wife.


Adelaide Street might sound like a polite tip of the hat to our Australian pals, but in reality Toronto had the name first. Named in 1797 for the young Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, later the wife of King William IV, Adelaide Street has been extended several times east and west consuming lesser streets in its path. The capital of South Australia was also named for Princess Adelaide in 1836.

Toronto Street Names Spadina Phil Babcock 
Avenue Road

Rumour has it that Avenue Road was named by Scottish construction workers who, arriving at the site, proclaimed "let's 'ave a new road here". I would say it's far more likely the street was named for its tree-lined character. The presence of other Avenue Roads in London, Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland further suggest the urban legend might be false.


Although there's nothing remarkable about the name, the weird thing about Parliament Street is that it doesn't run anywhere near the parliament buildings. 218 years ago, it did. The Parliament Buildings of Upper Canada were located at the foot of Parliament Street on the south side of Front Street, which was then known as Palace Street. Berkeley Street originally held the title "Parliament" until it was shifted a block east.

Dundas Street Flickr by Maxxime   

Considering Dundas' importance as a thoroughfare, it's surprising to discover the street is a relatively recent addition to Toronto's grid. Named for its destination, the historically important town of Dundas near Hamilton, the street's winding route hints at its past as a multitude of unconnected roads through the centre of Toronto. Although the route and name was established much earlier west of Ossington, several streets had to be renamed to form the section of today's Dundas Street that passes through the core of the city including Arthur Street, St. Patrick Street, Agnes Street and Wilton Street, among others.


One of Toronto's principal thoroughfares, regal Queen Street used to have a slightly less majestic name. Renamed for Queen Victoria in 1837, the route was originally known as Lot Street for the 100-acre "park lots" laid out by Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada John Graves Simcoe (of Simcoe Street). Designed to entice people to settle in the new town of York, the narrow, deep lots provided ample space for a villa with a waterfront view. A total of 32 rectangular properties from the Don River west to roughly Lansdowne were marked out for purchase. Toronto Family History has more on Toronto's park lots.

 Street Names Roncesvalles SniderscionRoncesvalles

There's something about the name Roncesvalles that just doesn't roll off the tongue. Meaning "valley of thorns" in Spanish, the street was named by Colonel Walter O'Hara, an early Irish settler to the area, for the 1813 battle of Roncesvalles Gorge, a bloody conflict in the Napoleonic Wars between French and Anglo-Portugese forces in which he fought.


In a piece for the National Post in 2003, Liz Clayton told the story of how Caroline Street lost its name thanks to "the vilest wretch this world was ever cursed with." Named for Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of George IV, the name was discreetly canned in favour of Sherbourne, a misspelling of the town of Sherborne in England, when the lady lost the affection of the public.

Street Names Danforth Taste EvicencEDanforth

No-one seems sure how the street became simply The Danforth. What is known, however, is that the avenue and road get their name from Asa Danforth Jr., the contractor who built the original Kingston Road east to Prince Edward County. An American who arrived in Upper Canada in the late 1700s, Danforth Jr. had already had a career in land speculation in the state of New York and around the town of York when he turned to road building. Despite financial trouble, the Yankee finished the 106-mile road but was never able to collect all the money promised to him.


Once appearing in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest street in the world, Yonge Street is today one of Toronto's principal streets. Home to Canada's first subway, "Main Street Ontario" follows an ancient trail north from Lake Ontario. Developed by John Graves Simcoe and named for his pal Sir George Yonge, an English MP and British Secretary at War, the route was first built north from Eglinton to Lake Simcoe before it was extended south to Lake Ontario.

Street Names Broadview Downtown Riverdale Broadview

One of my personal favorites, Broadview Avenue is perfect for the game I mentioned in the introduction. Not surprisingly, Broadview gets its name for the expansive view it affords over the Don Valley. Dylan Reid at Spacing has a great piece on other literal street names in Toronto. The best vista the street has to offer comes from Riverdale Park.


Before it was named for Samuel Jarvis, the north-south road was called New Street. Created by the sale of Jarvis' Hazel Burn estate north of Queen Street, the road was the first to be paved in Canada. Kids in the area no doubt were pleased when the first Hazel Burn was cleared - children were apparently locked in the smokehouse if they were caught stealing fruit from the estate's orchards.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The great murder mystery of University College

toronto university college before fire 1800s
A couple of weeks ago I recounted the story of J. P. Rademuller, the first lighthouse keeper at Gibraltar Point whose mysterious demise has led to one of the most enduring ghost stories in Toronto. Tales of bumps in the night and ghostly happenings are also attached to University of College at University of Toronto where two stonemasons caught in a love triangle tragically squared off more than a hundred years ago.

The original University College was established in 1853 out of a desire to create a place of higher education free from religious association. At the time, the only colleges in Canada were affiliated with the Church of England or Presbyterianism.

Three years later, architect Frederick William Cumberland - the man behind the Toronto Street Post Office, Cathedral Church of St. James, and Adelaide Street Court House - was hired to design a home for the college on what is today's University of Toronto campus.

toronto university college construction workers stonemasonsCumberland's plans called for intricate stonework throughout the grand Norman Romanesque style structure, and a team of stonemasons were brought on to carve gargoyles and detailed patterns while builders worked on the main structure.

Onto the worksite arrived Herculean Russian Ivan Reznikoff and Paul Diabolos, a man described in Douglas Richardson's A Not Unsightly Building: University College and Its History, as "pale, young, handsome and of a subtle nature." A David and Goliath if there ever was one.

The pair worked closely on the construction site and never seemed to see eye-to-eye. It's rumored that the wispy Diabolos hated the sight of Reznikoff so much he carved his nemesis' face, "more like a baboon than a man," into several of the original gargoyles that decorate the building.

Reznikoff, meanwhile, slaved nearby - drinking on the job from his hip-flask - producing lesser-quality, shaky stonework. Despite his rough appearance, the Russian was engaged to be married and had saved hard to afford the upcoming wedding. At the same time, Diabolos had taken a shine to Reznikoff's fiancé, Susie, and had persuaded her to elope out west with him instead, along with the Russian's savings.

toronto university college under construction
The plan might have worked if Reznikoff hadn't caught on to the plans of the conniving pair and confronted Diabolos on the deserted site one night after work.

After a brief argument, Reznikoff produced an axe and swung wildly at his enemy. Naturally, Diabolos backed off and fled, even though he was carrying a dagger. Soon, the furious, jilted lover had his target backed against the wooden door of the Croft Chapter House. As Reznikoff swung, intent on killing Diabolos, the door swung open and the Russian missed his target, leaving a gouge in the woodwork that is still visible today.

Intent on landing a fatal blow, Reznikoff continued the chase through scaffolds, work tools, and masonry while Diabolos tried to elude his attacker.
toronto university college archways brickwork stonework
At some point, Reznikoff lost sight of his target and began slowly exploring the construction site, bathed in darkness with the moonlight glinting off the metal of his blade. The place was silent, and Diabolos appeared to have escaped.

Suddenly, Diabolos leapt out from the shadows clutching his dagger and grabbed Reznikoff. The pair collapsed into a heap, each one scrambling to land a blow. Moments later, the Russian was sprawled out, bleeding from a fatal wound to his torso.

Panicked, Diabolos hauled the body to a hiding place somewhere in the building and fled - presumably with Reznikoff's fiancé - never to be heard from again. The murder would go unreported but the legend would slowly develop among students over the coming years.
toronto university college fire watercolour
Decades later, on February 14, 1890, lamp-lighters preparing the college building for a visit accidentally started a devastating fire that gutted most of the east wing. While picking through the smoldering remains, workers came across a human skeletal remains, reviving the old murder story.

The skeleton was never confirmed to belong to Reznikoff - some versions of this story say a stonemasons' belt buckle was found too - and the body, sometimes described as headless, was apparently buried on the college grounds nearby.
toronto university college fire remains 1800s

As you might expect, stories like this written more than a century after the actual event use some poetic license. Depending on which account you read, the personalities, physical descriptions and circumstances of the characters will vary slightly. It's impossible now to separate fact from fiction with any degree of certainty.

Images: City of Toronto Archives; University of Toronto Archives: Department of University Extension and Publicity, A1965-0004 [1.11]; Archives of Ontario and Wikimedia Commons.

The lost street names of Toronto

Lost Streets
Earlier this week we saw how Google Maps is helping chart Toronto's forgotten laneways, paths and trails to make for a more comprehensive map of the city, potentially at the loss of a little mystery. Despite the current map being extremely detailed, it turns out there are still plenty of gaps.

There are, however, some routes that get lost and stay lost. Generally speaking, Toronto's street grid has remained largely unchanged since the early days of the city, but there are a few examples of streets which have demolished, renamed or absorbed into other routes, never to be seen again. Here's a look at a few:

Albert, Louisa and Alice Streets (Eaton Centre)
 Lost Streets Eaton Centre Alt
The image above shows Albert, Louisa and Alice as they appeared before both city halls or the Eaton Centre were built. The blue highlighted area shows the footprint of the shopping centre today that partially severed or erased the streets from the map.

Albert Street, still partially hanging on behind new city hall, was named for the husband of Queen Victoria, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. His death from typhoid in 1861 had a profound effect on the monarch. The block that includes Osgoode Hall, City Halls I and II, and several other buildings has been significantly altered over the years leaving only a few fragments of the original layout.

Terauley, Saint Vincent and North Streets (Bay Street)
 Lost Streets Terauley Saint Vincent North 
(Image rotated 90 degrees)

The first incarnation of Bay Street, which was originally called Bear Street, ended at Queen. North of Queen several unconnected streets - Terauley, Saint Vincent and North - would eventually form the extension of Bay to Bloor, a fact still visible in the diagonal intersection at Queen and Bay. The blue line shows the current route of Bay north of Gerrard to Bloor.

Terauley Street was named after Terauley Cottage, the home of John Simcoe Macaulay, an early political figure and godson of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. The word is thought to be a portmanteau of Ter, a Gaelic word for land, and a slightly altered spelling of the latter part of Macaulay.

Duke and Duchess Streets (Richmond and Adelaide)Lost Streets Duke Duchess

Although we've hung on to King, Queen and Princess Streets there used to be more rank-based street names. Duke and Duchess Streets once ran parallel with the waterfront east from Jarvis Street before both were absorbed into other routes as part of the construction of the Don Valley Parkway: Duchess Street with Richmond and Duke with Adelaide. Like Bay and Queen, the diagonal intersections at Jarvis Street give away the fact two streets used to be four.

The Duke and Duchess in question were the Duke and Duchess of York, most likely Prince George (later King George V) and his wife Mary of Teck or Prince Albert (later King George VI) and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

St. Patrick, Anderson, Agnes, Crookshank, Wilton, Beech (Dundas)Lost Streets Dundas
Dundas Street, a relative newcomer to the city, was formed by stitching together several distinctly separate streets. Major deviations at Bathurst and Yonge (forming Yonge-Dundas square) demonstrate the fact the streets didn't entirely line up. The roads listed above were renamed between Bathurst and the Don River to form Dundas. The list is even longer if you include the roads in the east end and west of Bathurst.

Czar Street
Lost Streets Czar Charles According to Liz Clayton in the National Post, Czar Street, located one block south of Bloor west of Bay, was named "in honour of the autocrat of all Russians" until it was absorbed into Charles Street. Czars were the emperors of Russia before the revolution 1917 that overthrew the monarchy. In a similar vein, Sultan Street to the north was presumably named in honour of Muslim sovereigns. The latter lives on today as a service road south of Bloor.

South Park Street
Lost Streets South Park Street
South Park Street ran parallel with King up to its intersection with Queen and over the Don River. A North Park Street, now Sydenham Street, ran for a block north of Queen. Perhaps named for King's Park, an open marsh on the banks of the once winding Don that was the centre of misplaced health concerns, South Park Street followed the approximate route of today's Eastern Avenue.

Don Street
Lost Streets Don
Absorbed by Gerrard, another power hungry street in Toronto, Don Street once forded the Don River to reach an entirely different Danforth Road. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Danforth Avenue and Danforth Road are named for Asa Danforth Jr., an American builder and land speculator who laid out the first road east to Kingston.

The mighty Don gets its current name from the ubiquitous John Graves Simcoe who named it after a minor river in South Yorkshire, England. The original Don is named for Dôn or Danu, a Celtic goddess.

All images from Wadsworth and Unwin's Map of the City of Toronto, 1872.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

5 long-gone acts from the CNE of old

toronto cne performers
It's that time of year once again. The CNE will be thrilling, terrifying, wowing, and amazing thousands of guests for the 134th time this summer with new rides, performances, shows, exhibitions and, of course, deep fried everything.

Over its thirteen decades, the flavour of The Ex has slowly changed as successive organizers each strive to produce a cleaner, more modern event. In 2009, CNE director of operations Virginia Ludy told blogTO that "times [had] changed" once again. Gone are the freak shows and other sleazy acts - by today's standards anyway - that once made the CNE unmissible to its devoted fans.

"The public has raised the bar - we see cleaner, newer, more attractive midways than years ago," Ludy told writer Rick McGinnis.

In contrast, a visitor to the CNE in the early part of last century could expect to find divers consumed by flames plunging into pools of water, daredevil horseback performers, and sideshow performers of every conceivable size and shape to stare and poke fun at. Here are a few of the acts that have been lost to time, for better or worse.

The High Dive
toronto CNE performers balancing act
As if clambering up to a perch high above the ground wasn't terrifying enough, high divers would leap, perform a trick - a couple of flips maybe - and splash into sometimes dangerously shallow pools for a shot at applause.

To up the ante, some divers at the CNE set themselves on fire before taking the jump. The falling, burning man made for some spectacular photography as well as a stunning performance.

toronto CNE performers flaming high diver
And without flame.
toronto CNE performers high diver 
The Freak Showtoronto CNE performers freak show
Believe it or not, freak shows of various kinds ran at the CNE until the early 70s. Under the stewardship of Conklin, the Ex had a distinctly seedy element that, like it or not, is long gone today.
Now considered completely gauche, the touring attractions often featured people who were extremely overweight or underweight, suffering from serious disabilities, or unable to find work in any other field because of their condition. As a photo below shows, these attractions often served as a distraction from worries elsewhere.

toronto CNE performers clownstoronto CNE performers european war 
The Horseback Performerstoronto CNE performers horse rider
If it's worth doing, it's worth doing on horseback. Animals - especially horses - were, naturally for the time, a big part of the Ex for many years. Cars were still a relative rarity on Toronto's streets, though they were a hugely popular exhibit at the Crystal Palace, when these pictures were taken, and horses were still common working animals as well as a viable mode of transportation.

At the Ex, performers wowed spectators with daredevil tricks and perfectly synchronized dance routines all from the back of well-trained horses. Equines are still an important part of the CNE, and this year's event includes a dressage and other activities at the Horse Palace and Ricoh Coliseum.
toronto CNE performers horse balancing
The Performing Elephantstoronto CNE performers circus elephants
For decades, performing elephants were a staple at circuses and fairs across North America, and the CNE was no exception. One particular 500-pound, big-eared visitor to the Ex was apparently able to waterski, or at least withstand being pulled behind a boat.

When they weren't wrestling with water craft, the elephants were used in circus acts, parades and countless other highly dubious roles. Off duty, the animals were also available for a bit of old-fashioned gawping.

Auto Polo and Other Stuntstoronto cne ex grandstand auto car polo
Sadly, bike stunts like these are no longer part of the Ex, though if you ask me they really should be. Auto polo, shown above, was exactly what it sounds like. A game of polo - complete with mallet and ball - with stripped-down, two-man cars instead of horses. Competitors would swerve, crash, flip and burst into flames all while trying to score points in front of capacity crowds at the grandstand, later Exhibition Stadium.

The picture below show a team of acrobatic cyclists putting on an extremely skilled performance inside the same arena a few summers later. Though its doubtful bikes drew as much attention as the roaring autos - cars would later get an entire building at the CNE - I think we can all appreciate the skill involved here.
toronto cne performers stunt bike riders

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Remembering Gibraltar Point's grisly past

toronto gibraltar point lighthouse island skylineThe Gibraltar Point Lighthouse on the western tip of the Toronto Islands is Toronto's oldest remaining structure. Built from a mix of Queenston and Kingston stone, its guiding light helped ships navigate the city's harbour and lake shoreline for more than 150 years.
Despite ushering countless ships away from ruin, the lighthouse is perhaps best known for the mysterious disappearance of its first keeper, J. P. Rademuller (sometimes spelled Raden Muller.) Leaving behind only bloodstains and speculation, the accepted story of grisly murder leaves more questions than answers.
toronto islands gibraltar point mapStarted in the early part of the 19th century, the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse once stood on the western shore of Centre Island, then part of a sandbar attached to the mainland. Upon its completion in 1808, the stone structure was built to 52 metres - 25 metres lower than its present height - and was powered by sperm oil, a flammable substance refined from a liquid in the head of sperm whales.
The lighthouse's secluded location and glowing beacon was, by design, easy to spot. It was perhaps its status as a local landmark that gave rise to its use as a waypoint for smugglers hoping to dodge taxes on imported alcohol. If stories are to be believed, it was common knowledge that Rademuller kept a stock of something potent on the property.
On the night of 2nd January, 1815, Rademuller was at his post in the lighthouse when, according to reports written after the event, a group of soldiers arrived from Fort York with an eye for a sip from the lighthouse keeper's illicit brew. What happened next is a little hazy.
toronto gibraltar point lighthouse island sketchEither Rademuller welcomed the hooch hunters and they began to drink or the lighthouse keeper decided it he didn't want to liquor up the soldiers and tried to turn them away. Either way - it was curtains for Rademuller. The next day, a bloodstain on one of the wooden steps leading up to the oil lamp was the only evidence of his untimely departure.
With no body and no suspects, authorities had a hard time pinning down exactly what had transpired. Someone must have had some clue, though. An informed search of the area west of the lighthouse turned up part of a coffin and a jawbone. Whether it actually belonged to Rademuller is up for debate - contemporaneous investigative methods were unable to tell for certain. What is known is that the tragic lighthouse keeper was never seen again.
toronto islands gibraltar point beach haunting lighthouseAccording to newspaper reports published after the discovery of human remains, a group of soldiers did stand trial for Rademuller's murder but none were ever convicted. With that, the case went cold. Almost 200 years later no-one is any the wiser about exactly what happened on that chilly night. With all evidence lost to time, it's unlikely any answers will be forthcoming.
Naturally, the bloody story lends itself perfectly to paranormal and there are countless tales of ghost sightings, mysterious sounds, and other creepy happenings in and around the lighthouse. Keep an eye out for ghouls next time you ride by after dark.
Photos: City of Toronto Archives and Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A brief history of the Battle of Montgomery's Tavern

battle montgomerys tavernPostal Station K at Yonge and Montgomery stands on important ground. The land now occupied by one of Toronto's finest examples of art deco architecture used to be home to Montgomery's Tavern, the location of a historic battle in the Upper Canada Rebellion. It was here in 1837 that a collection of armed militants angered by the mechanics of British rule made their stand against loyalist soldiers.
With the sale of Postal Station K by Canada Post and the threat of condos taking over the site making headlines earlier this week I thought it was worth revisiting this key part of Toronto's (and Canada's) history.
In the early 1800s, all wasn't well in Upper Canada. Disputes over the allocation of land by the British government to members of the Anglican church had many ordinary citizens angry, mainly due to the policy's negative effect on the price of land. Many of the residents of Upper Canada felt they had no representation under colonial rule which was dominated by a privileged few, known as the Family Compact. An increasing amount of American settlers moving north into Upper Canada raised fears of republicanism developing within the province.
toronto montgomery's tavern rebels mackenzieIt was from this situation that William Lyon Mackenzie, a Scottish laborer and journalist, came to prominence in York with calls for a republican government. The founder of The Colonial Advocate, a newspaper that supported his views, Mackenzie had a seat on the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada and became the first mayor of Toronto after council voted to drop York as its name.
Though his republican agenda never gained much traction and he eventually lost his positions on city council and in the legislative assembly, Mackenzie saw a chance to make his case and seize the capital when the Lower Canada Rebellion broke out in what is now Quebec in the fall of 1837. Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada Sir Francis Bond Head - nicknamed "Galloping Head" - dispatched troops from Toronto to help suppress the uprising.
With the city decidedly under protected, Mackenzie and his followers raided an armory and organized a march south down Yonge Street from Montgomery's Tavern, just north of Eglinton. Near today's Maitland Street, Colonel Robert Moodie, a loyalist leader, attempted to pass through the rebel roadblock in an attempt to alert Bond Head to Mackenzie's actions.
Showing a distinct lack of judgement, Moodie fired his pistol in the air to clear the path. Naturally, the rebels returned fire and swiftly dispatched Moodie and his mount.
toronto montgomery's tavern siegeMackenzie's troops moved south down Yonge street to city hall (then located at King and Jarvis) to acquire more weapons. Anthony Van Egmond, a close friend and ally of Mackenzie, was appointed the military leader for the rebels, apparently for his dubious claims to battle experience in the Napoleonic wars. There is also some suggestion that Mackenzie may have threatened to kill Van Egmond if he didn't comply.
Later that day, Egmond engaged a small group of 27 loyalists led by William Botsford Jarvis, cousin of Samuel Jarvis, the famous street's namesake. Jarvis, popular with the Family Compact, was the sheriff of the Home District - the now defunct sub-region that included Toronto - and the founder of the community of Yorkville with Joseph Bloore. His residence, named Rosedale by his wife Mary, gave its name to the surrounding neighbourhood.
During the brief exchange of fire, Jarvis' loyalist troops fired a volley at Egmond's gang and dropped to reload. Thinking the loyalist soldiers had been killed, Van Egmond gave the order to charge and in the ensuing melee many of the rebel soldiers fled or deserted the group. That night, loyalist reinforcements arrived from Hamilton and significantly bolstered the loyalist forces.
On December 7th, two days after the skirmish on Yonge Street, the rebels began to reform at Montgomery's Tavern in the building itself and the surrounding forest. In preparation for another battle, Egmond and Mackenzie's men convinced Peter Matthews, a rebel from Pickering, to create a diversion at the Don River. Matthews, with Samuel Lount, burnt several buildings, a bridge, and killed one person, but failed to generate the necessary confusion.
This time led by veteran soldier Lieutenant-Colonel James FitzGibbon, the loyalists moved up Yonge Street and engaged the gathered rebels at Montogmery's Tavern artillery fire, killing three. At this point, many of the unarmed and rebels scattered and regrouped inside or close to the building itself. As FitzGibbon's soldiers and militiamen moved toward the building the group dispersed completely with very little actual fighting. For good measure, Fitzgibbon's men looted and burned the tavern to the ground before returning to Toronto.
battle of montgomery's tavernIn the aftermath, Peter Matthews and Samuel Lount, the diversionary pair, were tried and hanged at the King Street Gaol for their crimes. Anthony Van Egmond was captured at Montgomery's Tavern and held in a small cell in Toronto where he developed pneumonia and suffered from malnutrition. Despite transfer to a hospital, he died in January 1838.
Mackenzie, however, fared much better. He escaped to Navy Island near Niagara and was part of another quashed uprising before quitting Canada for the United States. He would later return to the Province of Canada, as it had then become, and rejoin mainstream politics.
Post seige, the site of Montgomery's Tavern became home to a building used as a hotel, a masonic lodge and council offices for the North Toronto township before being lost to fire in 1881. A new building on the same site also saw use as a hotel before being acquired for a postal office. The office was demolished in the 1930s and replaced with the art deco structure present today.
Due to short reign of Edward VIII, Postal Station K is one of very few buildings to bear the royal cypher EVIIIR, short for Edward VIII Rex. Its loss would be an architectural blow and may jeopardise an important yet neglected historic site.
Images: Public Domain and Wikimedia Commons.