Tuesday, February 21, 2012

You Could Still See The Nothern Lights Here in 1837

Aurora Borealis by F.E. Church
In 1837, Toronto was still a very small city. There were only a few more than 10,000 people living here. And since we were still decades away from our first electric lights, light pollution at night was absolutely not even anywhere even a little bit close to what it is today. So back then, when the Sun sent a stream of energized particles into the upper reaches of the Earth's atmosphere, as it likes to do, it was much much much much easier to see the northern lights. 

That particular winter, an English writer and feminist, Anna Brownwell Jameson, was living in Toronto. And in her diary, she recorded a particularly pretty description of what she saw outside her window:

"The Aurora Borealis is of almost nightly occurrence, but this evening it has been more than usually resplendent; radiating up from the north, and spreading to the east and west in form like a fan, the lower point of a pale white, then yellow, amber, orange, successively, and the extremities of a glowing crimson, intense, yet most delicate, like the heart of an unblown rose. It shifted its form and hue at every moment, flashing and waving like a banner in the breeze; and through this portentous veil, transparent as light itself, the stars shone out with a calm and steady brightness [...] It is most awfully beautiful! I have been standing at my window watching its evolutions, till it is no longer night, but morning."

You can actually still see the northern lights on the outskirts of the GTA on very, very rare occasions. There was a massive solar storm last October, and another in August of 2010, that created auroras seen by people around the Golden Horseshoe. But in the centre of Toronto, where our lights burn bright even in the middle of the night, it seems sightings are a thing of the past.


I've been reading Jameson's book about her time in Toronto, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, which, obviously, is where I came across this. It's full of neat passages, so I'll be quoting from it some more, I think. And I already did once, here, in my post about Canada's first race riot. You can buy her book here or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here.

The painting is by an American artists, F.E. Church. It really has nothing to do with Toronto, but you can learn more about it at the Smithsonian here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Queen and Gladstone Looked Like in 1893

Wow. Well, here you go hipsters, this is what it looked liked right outside the Gladstone Hotel in 1893. The Gladstone (which isn't in this photo, just out of sight to the right) would have only been four years old when this was taken. But the awkward "Dufferin jog" was already in place -- created by the railroad running by over the bridge in this photo. The bridge only had an underpass built on Queen, not Dufferin, meaning traffic traveling up and down Dufferin had to take a detour up Gladstone Avenue instead. It would take more than 100 years for a second underpass to be built; it just opened back in 2010.

Maybe even more interesting than that, though, is that in 1893 Toronto was in the middle of switching for horse-drawn streetcars to an electric system. According to the Wikipedia, the very first electric streetcar had started running just the year before; the final horse-drawn streetcar would be retired the year after. This photo captures that brief transition. The guy in the foreground is laying down Queen Street's first streetcar tracks, with the soon-to-be-obsolete horse-drawn transportation behind him.

I came across this photo in a TTC gallery put together by the Toronto Star, which you can check out here. I'll probably post another couple of photos from it over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Canada's First Race Riot

Slavery didn't last very long in Toronto. The man who founded our city, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, wanted it banned from the beginning. But since some of the men he'd chosen to help him rule Upper Canada were slave owners, he was forced to compromise.

Slaves who had already been brought into the new province would live the rest of their lives as property. But no new slaves would be allowed on our soil and any new children born into slavery would be freed when they turned 25. They say it was the very first law to limit slavery in the history of the British Empire.

So when the English finally abolished it altogether in the 1830s, Toronto was already slave-free. By then, Canada had become a beacon of hope for Black Americans escaping to freedom along the Underground Railroad. And there are stories of slave hunters – men who came north to capture former slaves and take them back – being violently run out of town.

But there was still a shitload of racism in this city. And some of it came from the most powerful people in Upper Canada. Like, say, the man who the British had chosen to be the new Lieutenant Governor of the province: Sir Francis Bond Head.

Bond Head was one of the crappiest rulers our city has ever known. He was sent to Toronto (the capital of Upper Canada) from England to make progressive reforms, but turned out to be a die-hard conservative whose incompetence and corruption helped push liberals into full-blown rebellion. And just a few months before his army clashed with William Lyon Mackenzie's rebels on Yonge Street, he was behind a particularly shameful moment in the history of Canadian government.

In the spring of 1837, a man by the name of Solomon Moseby escaped from slavery in Kentucky. His "master", David Castleman, was a rich and well-connected horse breeder. (His nephew would one day lose a presidential election to Abraham Lincoln.) That May, Moseby took off on one of his master's horses and rode north. It took him two long, dangerous months to make it to Canada, but he did eventually escape across the border and into Niagara-on-the-Lake. There, it seemed like he was finally free.

But his owner wasn't ready to give up. Back in Kentucky, Castleman had the courts charge Moseby with theft – for having taken the horse. And then he followed him to Canada with an arrest warrant. Our government had already made it perfectly clear that we wouldn't return former slaves back to the United States to live a life of servitude. But we did return criminal fugitives to face American justice. When Castleman showed up in Niagara-on-the-Lake with the warrant, Moseby was immediately arrested and thrown into jail. It would be up to Bond Head to decide whether or not he'd be sent back south, where Castleman promised to make an example out of him.

Niagara-on-the-Lake rose up in protest. The town, so close to the American border, was home to lots of escaped slaves. They say a full tenth of the population was Black. Many of the town's leading citizens, including the mayor, signed a petition demanding that Bond Head release the escaped slave. Hundreds of supporters spent weeks camped outside the court house where Moseby was being held, promising that if the authorities tried to move him, they would be there to stand in the way. They even offered Castleman $1,000 to cover the cost of the horse and his travel expenses. He, of course, refused. This wasn't about the horse; this was about making sure slaves couldn't get away.

Sir Francis Bond Head
It was September by the time Bond Head announced his decision: "this land of liberty," he declared, "cannot be made an Asylum for the guilty of any colour." He ordered that Moseby be extradited back to the United States.

But it wouldn't easy. The crowd of supporters gathered outside the courthouse made sure of that. Moseby was led out of the court house in handcuffs by constables and soldiers with bayonets drawn. They loaded him into a carriage, but before it could move it was surrounded by hundreds of Black Canadians. A throng of women blocked the entrance to the bridge the carriage needed to cross, singing hymns and standing their ground. The local preacher who had been leading the protests, Herbert Holmes, got in front of the horses. Another man, Jacob Green, stuck a fence post in the spokes of the carriage's wheels.

That's when the sheriff ordered his men to open fire. Holmes was shot through the heart. Green was run through with a bayonet. They both died. Others in the crowd were slashed and bloodied. Some threw stones. Dozens were arrested. But it worked. In the confusion, Moseby slipped out of the carriage and out of his handcuffs (at least one witness claimed that his guard had left them loose on purpose; another that the blacksmith had intentionally forged them to be weak). In the days that followed, the government would put a price on his head, but years later, he'd travel to England and successfully win his legal freedom. In the end, he was allowed back to Niagara to live the rest of his life in peace.

Still, the extradition of former slaves would be an issue in Canada for decades to come. The last case wasn't heard until the 1860s, just before slavery was finally abolished in the United States. It seems that even in Canada, an escaped slave couldn't feel entirely safe.

That same autumn Solomon Moseby was fighting for his freedom, an English feminist and writer, Anna Brownwell Jameson, happened to be staying in Toronto. On a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake, she met Sally Carter, one of the leaders of the protests. And then wrote about it:

"She was a fine creature, apparently about five-and-twenty, with a kindly animated countenance; but the feelings of exasperation and indignation had evidently not yet subsided. She told us, in answer to my close questioning, that she had formerly been a slave in Virginia; that, so far from being ill treated, she had been regarded with especial kindness by the family on whose estate she was born. When she was about sixteen her master died, and it was said that all the slaves on the estate would be sold, and therefore she ran away. 'Were you not attached to your mistress?' I asked. 'Yes,' said she, 'I liked my mistress, but I did not like to be sold.' I asked her if she was happy here in Canada? She hesitated a moment, and then replied, on my repeating the question, 'Yes—that is, I was happy here—but now—I don't know—I thought we were safe here—I thought nothing could touch us here, on your British ground, but it seems I was mistaken, and if so, I won't stay here—I won't—I won't! I'll go and find some country where they cannot reach us! I'll go to the end of the world, I will!' And as she spoke, her black eyes flashing, she extended her arms, and folded them across her bosom, with an attitude and expression of resolute dignity, which a painter might have studied; and truly the fairest white face I ever looked on never beamed with more of soul and high resolve than hers at that moment." 


The main image is a photo of the court house where the riot happened.

Anna Brownwell Jameson, while progressive for her time, could still be more than a bit condescendingly ethnocentric (as you can tell a bit from that excerpt). Her book, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, is full of interesting stuff from her travels here in 1836-37 though, so I'm thinking I'll be posting lots of quotes from it over the next while. You can read a volume of highlights from it in the much more terribly-titled Sketches in Canada, and rambles among the red men here.

The Solomon Moseby riot happened just a few years after the first race riot in Detroit's history, which was a similar story. In that case, it was Thornton Blackburn and his wife who escaped from slavery in Kentucky and ended up settling Toronto, where he founded our city's first cab company. You can read that story here.

I wrote about Bond Head's role in the Rebellions of 1837 in a post called "Bond Head The Bonehead" here.

And you can read more information about Solomon Moseby and the riot in places I've pieced all of this together from: here and here and here and this PDF here

The photo of the court house I found here

Update: Ooh cool. Mackenzie House tweeted some related William Lyon Mackenzie quotes from his paper, The Constitution, on September 27, 1837:  "Moseby was doomed by law to perpetual slavery in Kentucky – his master might buy and sell and torture him...not because he was a criminal, but because his complexion was dark...they say he mounted his tyrant's horse and sought a home and freedom in Upper Canada. This is his crime with Sir Francis!" Mackenzie, as I briefly mentioned in the post, was in a huge political battle with Sir Francis Bond Head in 1837 that would culminate in outright rebellion that December.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Mimico Creek Looked Really Freaking Beautiful Back in 1889

This, according to me, has to be one of the most beautifully pastoral photos ever taken of Toronto. It shows us what it looked like in 1889 at the very south-east corner of Etobicoke, in the spot where Mimico Creek meets Bonar Creek just before they empty into the lake. (Well, where they used to meet anyway; most of Bonar Creek was buried in the 1950s.)

It's just a few block west of the mouth of the Humber, and these days it's easily recognizable thanks to the gleaming white arch of the Mimico Creek Bridge (which purposefully looks like a smaller version of the bridge over the Humber).

Amazingly, even though it looks like these Victorian Torontonians are in the middle of the countryside, not far to the east of them our city was undergoing a crazily enormous boom, quickly becoming a full-blown metropolis. Between 1861 and 1901 the population quadrupled from about 60,000 to about 240,000 people.

I came across this photo in the veryvery good book I'm reading at the moment: HTO: Toronto's Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost River to Low-flow Toilets. So you can probably expect a bunch of water-related posts over the next little while. You can also buy the book for yourself from Coach House here or borrow it from the library here.