Thursday, January 27, 2011

Photo: Front and Church and Wellington around 1885

Agatha Barc, who writes the excellent "Nostalgia Tripping" column over on blogTO, posted this photo as part of her history of the Flatiron Building—the iconic triangle-shaped building at the intersection of Front and Church and Wellington. This is what the corner looked like in the days before the Flatiron Building was built—when the very same spot was occupied by another one of the Toronto's most iconic historical landmarks: the Coffin Block.

The Coffin Block is the three-story building in the middle of the photo. You can't tell, of course, but it was yellow. It was built in the 1830s, when the city was only a few decades old, by the same architect who designed Osgoode Hall. Back then, Front and Wellington and Church was easily one of the most important intersections in Toronto, with the harbour just a few steps to the south and the St. Lawrence Market a stone's throw away. The Coffin Block would spend 50 years at the heart of city life, home to a variety of businesses, most notably some of our earliest telegraphs companies and William Weller's stagecoach company. The stage would pull up right out front—with the Wellington Hotel conveniently located right next door—and you'd buy your tickets from the small room at the from the building (where the stripey bit is in the photo). Before you knew it you'd be in Montreal; William Weller's stagecoach held the record for the fastest trip between the two cities in the days before trains: a blistering 35 hours and 40 minutes.

The photo was taken by F.W. Micklethwaite, who was one of Toronto's most important early photographers. I'll definitely be posting more of his stuff. Just a few years after he snapped this shot, the Coffin Block was torn down so that George Gooderham, owner of the massive Gooderhan & Worts distillery, could put the Flatiron Building in its place. You can find out more about him in the post I wrote about his company, here.

You can find out more about the Coffin Block here and here. And there's a drawing of it here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Canadian Military Occupation of Iceland — A Strange Tale from World War II

Reykjavik, 1942

Iceland didn’t want any part of the Second World War. It was all tiny and defenseless and alone out there in the north Atlantic. Most of the hundred thousand people on the island were peaceful farming and fishing families. They had no army; only a few dozen hastily-trained police officers. For the most part, the Icelandic arsenal was limited to a few pistols and rifles and a couple of antique cannons. But that was the point: ever since the end of the First World War, when they had been granted their autonomy under Danish rule, Iceland had been an officially neutral country. They weren’t going to be doing any invading — and no one was supposed to invade them.

Winston Churchill, however, had other plans. At the beginning of the war, he was in charge of the British navy. And he was worried. In April of 1940, the Germans had invaded Denmark and Norway — both neutral, just like Iceland — giving the Nazis a strategic advantage. If Iceland were captured next, the Allies would be in serious trouble in the north Atlantic. “It has been said,” Churchill wrote, “‘Whoever possesses Iceland holds a pistol firmly pointed at England, America, and Canada.'” He tried to convince Iceland to join the Allied cause, but when his efforts failed, he turned to a new plan.

In early May, Churchill launched “Operation Fork”. A few hundred British soldiers set sail for Reykjavik to invade Iceland, occupy the island and defend it against the Nazis.

Things got off to a rocky start. The plan was thrown together in a rush; they were still figuring out the details en route. None of the invaders spoke Icelandic. They had only a few maps and even those were unreliable; one of them was drawn from memory. The soldiers — who weren’t supposed to know where they were going — figured it out anyway. And on the trip over, lots of them were getting seasick. One of them even committed suicide. Then, the element of surprise was ruined: the plane sent ahead to scout the island woke people up in the middle of the night. By the time the Allies got there, a crowd had gathered at the harbour in Reykjavik and the German consul was already burning documents in his bathtub.

But when you’re invading a country that has no army, you can afford to make a few more mistakes than usual. When the Allied destroyers arrived — on the very same day Churchill became Prime Minister back in England — they were met by throngs of curious onlookers, but no resistance (expect for one guy who took a gun away from an Allied solider, stuck a cigarette in the barrel and handed it back). The Allies quickly fanned out across the island, disabling communications, arresting all German citizens and sympathizers, seizing whatever Nazi documents hadn’t been burned, and taking over strategic positions.

The Icelandic government was understandably upset. They officially protested, pointing out that their sovereignty had been “flagrantly violated” and their “independence infringed” — but they also asked their citizens to treat the occupying forces as “guests”. For their part, the Allies promised to pay for everything they broke and leave just as soon as the war was over. Today, the Icelandic government remembers the “brave and gallant” Canadian occupiers “with great gratitude”. They even gave us the very last shell from those antique cannons.

And after the invasion, it was the Canadians who were left to do the actual occupying. Leading the way was the Royal Regiment of Canada — one of Toronto’s most storied forces, with roots going all the way back to the Battle of Lime Ridge in 1866. Young men from places like Forest Hill and Kensington and Sunnyside — many of whom had never even left the city before their training in Halifax — were living in drafty military huts in places like Reykjavik, Hvalfjörður and Sandskeið, expanding airfields, building defenses and getting drunk on the local moonshine, “Black Death”.

It didn’t last long. About a year after they arrived, the Canadian troops were needed elsewhere in the war; the Americans took over. The Royal Regiment of Canada soon found themselves in much more dangerous places. The very next summer, they stormed the beaches of Dieppe. More than half of them were captured; almost half of them were killed.


Iceland, who declared independence from Denmark before the war was over, still doesn't have a standing army, but they are now apparently very happy that we occupied them back in the day. They even gave the very last cannon shell from those two antique cannons, inscribed thusly: “In honour of the brave and gallant Canadian soldiers who fought in the defence of a small nation. Iceland remembers them with great gratitude." Some Icelanders still live in the huts our troops built for shelter, and there's apparently a small graveyard of the Canadians who died while serving there.

Most of my information came from here and here and, of course, here. There are some neat wartime photos of the Icelandic police officers' training here and here. And another one of Reykjavik here.

The photo was found via a postcard on Ebay here.

Ooh and I also across this quote on Wikipedia. It's from the diary of Alexander Cadogan, one of the British military's civil servants during the war: "Home 8. Dined and worked. Planning conquest of Iceland for next week. Shall probably be too late! Saw several broods of ducklings."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Link: Canadian Heritage Minutes

If you lived in Canada in the 1990s and owned a television set, chances are you remember the educational minute-long history commercials produced for Canada Post. Hell, if you're anything like me, you  remember them better than most of the Canadian history you actually learned in school. And now, thanks to the superkickassing awesomeness of the internet, you can spend hours bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia, national pride and occasionally passable acting. There's an online archive of the commercials here and it has all your old favourites: James Naismith and his crazy old peach baskets, the woman who smells burning toast whenever Wilder Penfield pokes her in the brain, Jacques Plant getting hit in the face with a puck...

I could go on listing them forever so, here, I'll just give you a bunch of links to some of my favourites and embed a few of the more Toronto-related ones below:

James Naismith invents basketball here.
Wilder Penfield performs brain surgery here.
Jacques Plant wears a hockey mask here.
The Avro Arrow is developed here.
Winnie-the-Pooh is here.
Pierce Brosnan is Grey Owl here.
Baldwin and LaFontaine help invent Canadian democracy here.
Joseph Tyrrell finds dinosaur bones here.
Frontier College (where my father used to work, thank you very much) teaches people to read here.
Nat Taylor helps invent the multiplex here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Photo: The Glen Road Bridge in 1885-95ish

I suppose at some point I'll write up a short history of Rosedale, but for now I give you this photo from that neighbourhood's Wikipedia page. (Don't get too exited; those dudes aren't ghosts, they just moved during a long exposure.) That's the Glen Road Bridge, an earlier incarnation of the one that's still there today. These days it's a footbridge, stretching from the gorgeous old money mansions of Rosedale across the tree-lined valley below—over Rosedale Valley Drive—before linking up with a dirty concrete tunnel. The graffiti-lined tunnel passes under the roar of Bloor Street, by the dingy back entrance to Sherbourne Station, and into St. James Town, one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in Canada and one of the poorest in the city, where abandoned Victorian homes, built just before this photo was taken, have been left to decay on South Glen Road, in what the Heritage Toronto website calls, during one of their more melodramatic moments, "a pit of despair".

Today, there's also an historical plaque on the north end of the bridge. (That would be the non-despairing end.) It has to be one of the most sweetly heartbreaking historical plaques in the city, about the author Morley Callaghan. He used to be friends with Hemingway back when they both lived here and then were sent to Paris as correspondents for the Star. (I wrote about their famous boxing match in my first full post.) Well, a while after his days hanging out on the Left Bank with the Lost Generation, Callaghan moved back to Toronto with his wife and eventually settled down in Rosedale, on Dale Avenue, not far from the bridge. The last line of the plaque: "Neighbours often saw and talked to him as he crossed this bridge with his wife and dog, Nikki, then with his dog, then alone until he died in 1990."


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Donkey Baseball

Donkey baseball
Okay, so I haven't actually been able to find much information about this, but according to what I've pieced together from the internet and my dad's memory, it was an American promoter who first came up with the idea of donkey baseball. He figured people would be willing to pay to see baseball played on donkeyback—which of course they were. The  regular old non-donkey-riding pitcher would throw to the batter, who, once he'd gotten a hit, would clamber up onto his steed and do his best to coax it around the bases. Meanwhile, fielders would try to goad their own donkeys into going after the ball.

The promoter and his team toured around  North America challenging local baseball squads to mount up. It became quite the fad; people started organizing their own games, there was even a movie made about it. And when they came through T.O., they'd head  down to a diamond in New Toronto—by the lakeshore in Etobicoke—right across from the Goodyear plant where my grandfather worked. He and the rest of the company's softball team would cross the street, pair up with a donkey and play a few frustrating innings.


You can read more about one old game of donkey baseball in this Sports Illustrated article. And apparently people still play the game from time to today. There's YouTube video of it here and here, which really seems a lot less fun when you think of it from the donkey's perspective. There are also those who also play donkey basketball. It has its own Wikipedia page and denunciations from PETA and everything.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dude Jumps Off The CN Tower

Dar Robinson (click to enlarge)
Dar Robinson spent the seventies earning a reputation as one of Hollywood's greatest stuntmen. He'd done stuff in Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood films, jumping out of helicopters  onto airbags, driving over cliffs and then parachuting to safety, leaping from tall buildings. He set world records all over the place. But the most famous thing he ever did was to jump off the CN Tower.

He did it twice. The first time was with a parachute in 1979, when he was Christopher Plummer's stunt double in Highpoint (I'd link to the movie's Wikipedia page but there isn't one). And the very next year, he did it again as part of a documentary being made about him (hosted by Chuck Norris, thank you very much). This time Robinson was attached to a cable system he'd invented. And, unlike the bag of water they'd tested it with, he didn't get smashed to a pulp.

In fact, he'd go another six years before getting smashed to a pulp. He even got to be in Lethal Weapon first. But then, while doing a motorcycle stunt for Million Dollar Mystery (nominated for three worst supporting actors and a worst original song at the Razzies), he missed a turn on his motorcycle and went flying off a cliff. Lethal Weapon is dedicated to his memory.

Here's part of the documentary about the CN Tower jump. It's kind of totally crazy:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Getting Napalmed As A Child In South Vietnam

Phan Thị Kim Phúc, 1972

Phan Thị Kim Phúc was nine years old in the summer of 1972. She lived in Trảng Bàng, a town in South Vietnam, which was invaded by the Communists in early June. Their troops dug in, waiting for the inevitable American and South Vietnamese retaliation, while Phúc and other civilians took refuge with some South Vietnamese soldiers in a nearby temple.
Two days later, a pair of South Vietnamese bombers appeared in the sky above the town. They circled and then dove, using eight napalm bombs to turn the ground below into a hellscape of liquid fire, mistakenly attacking their own troops and civilians as they fled from the temple. Phúc's clothes were burnt completely off her. Her back and one of her arms were turned into a mess of blisters and peeling skin. Third degree burns covered more than half of her body. She ran, along with her brothers and the rest of the survivors, down the road out of town, naked, screaming, burning.

That's when Nick Ut, a photographer with the Associated Press, snapped one of the most famous photographs ever taken. He was standing a few hundred meters down the road with a handful of foreign journalists. When Phúc got to them, they gave her water to drink and poured some over her wounds. She passed out. Ut gathered her and some of the other children into his car and rushed them to the nearest hospital, in Saigon. He was sure she was going to die. So were the doctors. It would take 14 months and 17 operations before she was finally well enough to head back to a home that had been destroyed.

Meanwhile, in the States, Ut's photograph had given even more momentum to the rapidly mounting anti-war movement. The image became a thorn in Nixon's side; privately he wondered if the whole thing had been staged just to erode his support. Finally in 1975, nearly three years after the bombing of Trảng Bàng, he reluctantly withdrew the last American troops from Vietnam.

Phúc grew up in what was, in the wake of the war, a thoroughly Communist country. She started studying medicine at university, but the government pulled her out of school so that she could use her time to give interviews, pose for photos and generally be used as a propaganda tool for the state. She hated it with a passion; thought about killing herself. It took years before she finally convinced them to let her continue her studies in Cuba, at Havana University.

It was there that she met another visiting Vietnamese student, Bui Huy Toan. They fell in love. Got married. And went to Moscow on their honeymoon. On their way back, when the plane touched down briefly in Gander, Newfoundland to refuel, they applied for asylum. And they got it. Soon, they were Canadian citizens, having moved to the suburbs of Toronto and settled down.

That's where they still live now—in Ajax. At first, Phúc led a private life here, not wanting to relive the memories of the bombing and the horrifying photo that made her famous. But when the Toronto Sun tracked her down and put her face on the front page, she decided to use it as an opportunity to re-enter the public eye and do some good. In the years since, she's given speeches and interviews, started a foundation helping to find medical treatment and psychological counseling for children affected by war, and worked for the UN as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.


I guess it's cheating a bit, since she doesn't actually live within the boundaries of the city proper, but this is the story that leaps to mind every time Rob Ford repeats his absurd idea that Toronto can't afford to take in any more immigrants. Phan Thị Kim Phúc told her story to NPR here. And talked to the BBC, along with one the filmmakers who helped save her life that day, here. Nick Ut also talked to them, which you can find here. There are more deeply disturbing photos of the napalming and her burns here and here. Here's what she looks like all grown up. And, finally, I'll post footage shot by a film crew who were standing there with Ut that day. As you might imagine, it's upsetting as all fuck:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Photo: A Bison at the High Park Zoo in 1908

The High Park Zoo was founded in 1893, when they started keeping deer in pens along what is now, appropriately, called Deer Pen Road. High Park was then less than 30 years old. It had originally been owned by John Howard, an architect and amateur painter, who bought it to use as a sheep farm and gave it its name. He gave the land as a gift to the city in 1876, to be used as a public park on the condition that his family would still get to live there in the house they'd built, Colborne Lodge, that the city would keep the park's name, and that no one would ever be allowed to drink achohol on the grounds.

Well, um, two of three isn't that bad.

Gradually, those original deer were joined by other animals. Like the bison in this photograph, which they think was probably taken in 1908. Today, there are llamas and peacocks and cattle and stuff. Mostly they lead pretty peaceful lives, except that once in a while someone will try to let some of them out of their pens. And, bizzarely, in 1999 someone broke into the deer enclosure and attacked three animals, slashing two of them with a machete and killing a third, taking it away, apparently, to be eaten.