Tuesday, October 30, 2012

An Eyewitness Account Of The Terrible Night Hurricane Hazel Hit Toronto

It was a Friday night in October of 1954. The rain had started coming down late that afternoon, but most people in Toronto weren't worried. Hurricane Hazel might have killed more than a thousand people as it tore through the Caribbean and the eastern U.S., but it was supposed to have died down by the time it reached Ontario. The last official weather report came out at 9:30 that night: it would rain for a couple of hours with some strong winds, but Hazel was weakening. It sounded like everything was going to be fine.

But it wasn't. Thanks to a rainy autumn, Toronto's rivers and creeks were already swollen; they couldn't handle the extra 150 billion litres that was falling from the sky. All over the city, they burst their banks in the dead of night, sending roaring torrents of water flooding through neighbourhoods. Roads were destroyed, bridges washed away, homes flattened. Cars were plucked from the streets and hurled downstream. Firefighters and police officers and volunteers leapt into action — but many of them got stranded too, or were swept away by a rush of water. Word went out over the police radio: the force of the currents was so strong that rescue boats of any size were to be considered useless.

On Raymore Drive in Etobicoke, many families were already asleep when the water hit. The street curved along the banks of the Humber River just across from Weston — much of it on a floodplain. So when a crest of water surged down the river, the houses on Raymore were standing right in the way. It only took a few minutes for the neighbourhood to flood. Soon houses were floating away.

Brian Mitchell, a volunteer firefighter, was there that night. "I think some of them realized their houses were moving," he remembered years later in a book about the storm, "but a neighbour's house was on a solid foundation; therefore, they thought, 'Let's swim to the safety of the neighbour's.' That's what a lot of them did. Matter of fact as the water still rose they were right up on the rooftops of neighbours' houses, hanging onto TV aerials. Some stayed in their houses, and we could hear the screams when the houses were swept down the river with people in them.

"All hell broke loose. People were screaming, 'Save us... Save us.' We could get spotlights on them. We could see them... but they were just so far out you couldn't throw ropes. We tried floating ropes to them on logs, anything buoyant. We'd grab a piece of firewood, tie rope to it, and float it upstream, hoping the current would get it over to them and they'd tie it in some way to their house.... Sometimes the only possibility was to swim out with a rope. We saw feats of strength we’ve tried to reproduce since, and we can’t... But these things happened. Everybody was working so hard. And you could hear people screaming... screaming."

"I felt so helpless," he told the Toronto Star after the storm, "but there was nothing I could do, nothing anybody could do. The water was so deep, up to our chins, and all the firemen were weighed down by clothing and boats and equipment. It was like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille movie. The incredible roar of the water, like the roar of Niagara Falls. It was a gigantic flood with smashed houses and uprooted trees bobbing like corks, everything going down the river so fast. Houses crashing into the sides of other houses, people everywhere screaming. And then you couldn’t even hear the screams anymore."

"The firefighters did a good job," he said. "But for every one we got out, there was another we couldn’t get out."

By the time the sun came up, the hurricane had killed 81 people in Toronto — nearly half of them on Raymore Drive. Neighbourhoods all over the GTA were in ruins, leaving thousands of people homeless. The clean up would be massive: the military moved in with flamethrowers to burn the wreckage; it was months before all the roads and bridges were repaired.

In the wake of the disaster, the city developed a groundbreaking new plan for flood control. They built damns and reservoirs and retaining walls, installed concrete channels, and redirected streams. Thousands upon thousands of acres of land were expropriated in order to turn Toronto's floodplains into parkland. They didn't want anyone living there next time a big storm hit.

So that's what happened to Raymore Drive. Those houses were never rebuilt: the blocks that were underwater are now home to Raymore Park. There's an historical plaque there. And the ruins of a bridge that Hurricane Hazel destroyed. They're the only signs of the horror that swept through the neighbourhood on that terrible night in October, 1954.


Photos from Raymore Drive

From across the river in Weston:

Slightly upriver at Lawrence Avenue:

TTC streetcars:

 The Humber:

Other photos of the storm:


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller

If you're willing to suffer through two (ugh!) ads, the CBC has a neat video about Hazel (which I'm also told might not work for everyone):

That last photo is of a firetruck that was trapped on Humber Boulevard and then swept downstream, killing five firefighters. Mitchell, who would go on to become Fire Chief in Etobicoke hung the axe from it on the wall of his office. You can read one of the survivor's accounts on the Environment Canada website here. They've also got a photo gallery here. And they've got many more eyewitness accounts of the storm from around the city — which I might as well share some of too. (You'll fine them all here. And there's lots more info and photos on HurricaneHazel.ca.)

One of the resident's of Raymore Drive echoes Mitchell's recollection: “As I stood there I could hear people screaming, I could see the houses tumbling into the river. I ran down to the river to try and help, but there was nothing we could do. We tried to get a boat out but the water was too rough. The firemen tried going out with ropes, hand over hand, but it was just too difficult, the river was too swollen. And the water just kept coming. We were forced to stand there and watch people die.” he says in that book. And spoke to the Star as well: "The homes were literally lifted off their foundations and swept away. You could hear the people screaming. Many of them were standing on their roofs. In many cases the screaming just stopped; the homes just disintegrated, and that was the end of it."

Further downriver at the Old Mill: "I threw up my hands and grabbed the branch of a tree. I was swamped with water and the pressure was terrific. No sooner had I pulled myself up into that tree when my car was swept off the bridge and nested up against it. I stood on the roof for a moment holding the limb all the time. It seemed like only a minute when the tree I was holding crashed down and I was in that crushing swirl of water again. I was drowning. I knew it. I felt in a minute I would be dead. Then by some miraculous stroke of luck my hand felt another branch in the water. I grabbed it, struggled and struggled until I could pull myself up again. I looked around and saw my car going down the river..."

At the mouth of the Etobicoke Creek, in Long Branch: "I was trapped in my house and looking out the window I thought I saw a house slip by. There goes my father’s house, I remarked, but then when my own house crashed down. I realized it was my own that had moved." And Environment Canada fills in the rest: "What had happened was that Pickering’s house had been lifted from its foundation, transported 100 feet [30.5 m] where it was dropped onto his own car, which then became embedded in the mud."

A few of the other most heartbreaking stories: a child ripped out of his father's arms on a bridge in Woodbridge; and the "storm orphan" who was rescued by a firefighter who moved her to safety and then came back for her parents, but their entire house was already gone, washed away into Lake Ontario.

Hazel has also struck pretty close to home for me. Quite literally. I grew up about two blocks from what's now Raymore Park. And my father, who grew up in Etobicoke, down by the lake in New Toronto, was one of the people who looked for bodies at the mouth of Etobicoke Creek after the storm. That area is a park, too, now. Marie Curtis Park, which is very nice. I checked it out a couple of times this summer, and will probably post photos at some point. I saw the very first deer I've ever seen in the city there. And put up a sticky plaque about the firing range that used to be there, where they trained men to fire their rifles before shipping off to Europe to fight in World War I.

A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead

Coming September 2017 from Dundurn Press
Available for pre-order now

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The New Heritage Minute & A Bit Of Context

The first new Heritage Minute is out and — surprise! — like just about everything else these days, it's about the War of 1812. The commercial tells the story of Richard Pierpoint (who had the awesome nickname of Captain Dick), a former slave who had "earned" his freedom by fighting for the British during the American Revolution. He was given a bunch of free land near St. Catherines after that — although when the authorities denied his request to have former slaves given land next to each other (since many of them didn't have families and would need help clearing away the forest), he was forced to give it up and work as a labourer instead.

When the Americans invaded in 1812, Pierpoint petitioned Isaac Brock, the British commander: he wanted to be allowed to form a "Corps of Men of Colour" to fight on the Niagara border. (That's what's shown in the Heritage Minute.) Brock actually rejected the petition — but then, when not enough White Canadians were volunteering to fight, he finally allowed a White officer to form the corps and Pierpoint signed up.

"The Company of Coloured Men"
Some other Black Canadians, however, were still living in slavery at this point — including, it seems, in Toronto. Upper Canada's first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, had wanted to abolish it completely at about the same time he founded our city, but some of the slave-owning Tories on his Executive Council forced a compromise: no new slaves would be brought into Upper Canada, and new children born of slaves would be freed when they turned 25... but the rest would live in slavery for the rest of their lives. By the time slavery in the British Empire was finally abolished altogether in 1834, Toronto's slaves had all died, been freed, or sold away.

After the War of 1812, Pierpoint — like all veterans — was entitled to another tract of free land. But instead, he asked to be given passage back to Senegal (then known as Bondu) where he'd been born and raised before being sold away into slavery as a teenager. His request was denied. He died a couple of decades later, more than 90 years old.

A second new Heritage Minute will be released next year.... and will also be about the War of 1812, this time focusing on the contributions of the First Nations.


You can learn a bit more about Richard Pierpoint at the Toronto Star here, about captain Runchey's Company of Coloured Men on Wikipedia here, and about the poor job we've done remembering the contribution of that Company on OpenFile here. I wrote about one of Toronto's slave owners, Peter Russell, here. And about Canada's first race riot here. I found the image of the uniform on the website for Citizenship and Immigration Canada here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

King & John in 1961

Here's the Eclipse Whitewear Building on the corner of King & John in 1961. It was built in 1904 for the underwear company after the Great Fire wiped out a huge chunk of downtown Toronto. And it's one of the listed heritage properties they're planning to demolish to make way for the new David Mirvish/Frank Gehry towers.

Bloor & St. George in 1892

Here's the Gooderham Mansion at Bloor & St. George in 1892, where George Gooderham (the whiskey-making millionaire distillery guy) lived. After he died, it turned into the swanky York Club in 1909 and it's still there today — behind that red brick wall across from Varsity Stadium.