Monday, April 29, 2013

The Old Island Airport Terminal, In Limbo

This is the old Island Airport terminal. It's sitting out there at Hanlan's Point, all by itself, as Porter planes take off in the background. It was built by in the 1930s — by the federal government as part of a Trans-Canada airway — back when passenger planes were still something of a novelty. And that's one of the reasons the building has been officially recognized as a National Historic Site: it's one of the few terminals to have survived from those early days of air travel.

It used to be right in the thick of things, but last year it got in the way of the construction of the new tunnel to the mainland they're building so that Porter customers don't have to take the ferry. The building was uprooted and moved out here (despite, it seems, the historical designation — which specifically includes "the building on its footprint"), where it waits on blocks for someone to decide what to do with it.

At the time of the move, a spokesperson from the Toronto Port Authority told the Star, "We are looking to make sure it's properly used as a heritage building, whether it's to move it or keep it on site and make it accessible long term... We haven’t had a final firm offer but we're confident that there will be interest."

A year later, as Porter looks to expand the airport even further, it seems that the fate of the old terminal is still up in the air. Shawn Micallef recently wrote about some of his ideas for the building — and his memories of it — in his column for the Star. You can check that out here. And the website for Canada's Historic Places has more detail on the building's history and architectural significance here.

Photo by me on Instagram: @TODreamsProject.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Brand New Canadians in 1949

I don't actually know much about this one — it's from December 1949, appeared in the Toronto Telegram, and is labelled "immigrants" — but it's one of my favourite old Toronto photos ever. I came across it while I was browsing York University's Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, which you can check out online here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Toronto In Context (From Outer Space)

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (he's from Milton, just outside Toronto) took another great photo of our city while he was up there in outer space today doing his thing as the current Commander of the International Space Station. This photograph shows almost all of the Great Lakes, so I figured I'd throw a few labels on it and put our metropolis in context from an angle you don't usually get to see.

Click on the image to make it bigger. And you can see the original, without labels, here.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Spring Comes To Toronto in 1837

One of my favourite primary sources for old Toronto history is Anna Jameson's diary, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada. She was a British writer and feminist who spent the winter of 1836-37 living here. She was in town to visit — and get a separation from — her husband, Robert Jameson, the Attorney General of Upper Canada. They lived down by the lake, he'd later own land where Parkdale is now. Jameson Avenue is named after him. That's her sketch of the harbour I've posted above. The view included the edge of the islands and the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, which is still standing there today, nearly 200 years later.

Anna Jameson wasn't exactly a fan of Toronto during the winter... for all the obvious reasons. The first entry she made in her diary after arriving in the fledgling city of about five thousand people was far from a glowing review. It was December:

"What Toronto may be in summer, I cannot tell; they say it is a pretty place. At present its appearance to me, a stranger, is most strangely mean and melancholy. A little ill-built town, on low land, at the bottom of a frozen bay, with one very ugly church, without tower or steeple; some government offices, built of staring red brick, in the most tasteless, vulgar style imaginable; three feet of snow all around; and the grey, sullen, wintry lake, and the dark gloom of the pine forest bounding the prospect: such seems Toronto to me now. I did not expect much; but for this I was not prepared."

She spent most of the winter making similarly miserable entries in her diary. They're full of snowstorms and sleet. One night, she writes that the ink is freezing in her pen and her fingers are growing stiff with cold. By morning, even her fireplace is a block of ice. Words like "dreary" and "monotonous" and "desolation" keep coming up. She'd later call it "the relentless iron winter." By the time January rolled around, she was having the kind of thoughts familiar to many Torontonians:

"I could almost wish myself a dormouse, or a she-bear, to sleep away the rest of this cold, cold winter, and wake only with the first green leaves, the first warm breath of the summer wind. I shiver through the day and through the night; and, like poor Harry Gill, 'my teeth they chatter, chatter still.'"

The cold weather carried on into April that year. For the first two weeks of the month, the lake was still covered in ice. But then, on this very day 176 years ago — April 15, 1837 — Jameson wrote that spring had finally come to the city:

"The ice in the Bay of Toronto has been, during the winter months, from four to five feet in thickness: within the last few days it has been cracking in every direction with strange noises, and last night, during a tremendous gale from the east, it was rent, and loosened, and driven at once out of the bay... The last time I drove across the bay, the ice beneath me appeared as fixed and firm as the foundations of the earth, and within twelve hours it has disappeared, and to-day the first steam-boat of the season entered our harbour. They called me to the window to see it, as, with flags and streamers flying, and amid the cheers of the people, it swept majestically into the bay. I sympathised with the general rejoicing, for I can fully understand all the animation and bustle which the opening of the navigation will bring to our torpid capital."

It was, of course, just the beginning. Over the course of the next month, as the weather slowly improved and flowers bloomed, Toronto began to work its way into Anna Jameson's heart. By the middle of May, her tone had very much changed: 

"This beautiful Lake Ontario!—my lake—for I begin to be in love with it, and look on it as mine!—it changed its hues every moment, the shades of purple and green fleeting over it, now dark, now lustrous, now pale—like a dolphin dying; or, to use a more exact though less poetical comparison, dappled, and varying like the back of a mackerel, with every now and then a streak of silver light dividing the shades of green: magnificent, tumultuous clouds came rolling round the horizon; and the little graceful schooners, falling into every beautiful attitude, and catching every variety of light and shade, came curtseying into the bay: and flights of wild geese, and great black loons, were skimming, diving, sporting over the bosom of the lake; and beautiful little unknown birds, in gorgeous plumage of crimson and black, were fluttering about the garden: all life, and light, and beauty were abroad—the resurrection of Nature! How beautiful it was! how dearly welcome to my senses—to my heart—this spring which comes at last—so long wished for, so long waited for!"

A month later, she was complaining about the heat.


Images from Anna Jameson's sketchbook, via The Toronto Arts Foundation's website here. The Toronto Public Library Flickr page had a whole bunch more here.

You can buy Jameson's diary here or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here. I've already pulled excerpts from it: about Canada's first race riot here; the Northern Lights here; deforestation here; and sledding across the ice here.

Stephen Otto has a piece about Jameson's villa here.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Toronto's First Great Baseball Team — the old-timey Toronto Baseball Club of 1887

Today, the Blue Jays start yet another new season trying to capture their first World Series in more than 20 years. But those glory days of the early 1990s weren't the first time a Toronto baseball team won a championship. To find the city's first baseball heroes, you have to look back more than 125 years, to the star-studded old-timey Toronto Baseball Club of 1887.

Baseball was still brand new back then. So new, in fact, that some of the rules were still being sorted out. That year, a pitcher needed four strikes to get a batter out. He could throw five balls before giving up a walk. He was also allowed to hit the batter with a pitch — luckily the ball was softer back then. Umpires were still allowed to ask players and fans for their advice. Sacrifice flies didn't exist yet. For the very first time, every home plate would be made of rubber instead of marble. And the International League — which included the Toronto team along with 11 others — would become the very first professional baseball league to declare themselves as officially racist: halfway through the season, they introduced a new rule banning the signing of Black players.

The Torontos, as they were called, played in a beautiful brand new stadium on a spot overlooking the Don Valley. Spectators could walk in off Queen Street or ride up in their carriages and park their horses on the grounds. Admission was a quarter — or an extra ten cents to sit in the best seats in the house. The sheltered grandstand had enough room to seat more than 2,000 people. The stadium was originally known as the Toronto Baseball Grounds, but would soon be nicknamed Sunlight Park in honour of the nearby Sunlight Soap Works factory. When it opened in 1886, even the Lieutenant Governor came to see the first game. Someone in his entourage had their hat knocked off by a foul ball.

But 1887 was the season to remember. The International League might have only been a Minor League — it still is: the Blue Jays' AAA affiliate in Buffalo is one of the current teams — but the Torontos were stacked with star players and memorable characters. 

There was outfielder Mike Slattery. He was as fast as anything. He stole 112 bases that year, setting the International League Record. It still stands to this day. Only a handful of professional baseball players in any league at any level have ever stolen more. And as if that wasn't impressive enough, he and another one of his teammates — August Alberts — both hit for more than a .350 batting average that year. (John Olerud is the only Blue Jay to have ever pulled it off — back in that magical 1993 season.)

Then there was the catcher, Harry Decker. He's best remembered for inventing a new kind of catcher's mitt — some people still call them "deckers" — and also, for his life of crime. After a brief stint in the Major Leagues, including time with the Phillies, Pirates and Nationals, he popped up as a star player for San Quentin Prison.

The Torontos' other catcher was George Stallings. He would go down in history as a Major League manager — "The Miracle Man" who led the hapless 1914 Boston Braves from last place in July to a stunning World Series sweep of Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics, a team filled with future Hall of Famers. Bill James (the man behind the modern "Moneyball" revolution in baseball statistics) gives Stallings credit for being the first manager to successfully use a platoon — realizing that left-handed hitters tend to do better against right-handed pitchers and righties better against lefties. Managers still use his technique to this day. After Stallings retired, he would come back to Canada and help bring the minor league Royals to Montreal.

But none of those players was as incredible or as memorable as Cannonball Crane.

They say he was a giant: big and tall and incredibly strong. He once threw a baseball farther than anyone else ever had before. And he threw it faster than just about anyone else too. In 1887, he was by far the best pitcher on Toronto's Baseball Club. He won 33 games that year — more than any other pitcher has ever won on any Toronto team. At one point, he won 16 in a row. His "deceptive drop ball" completely fooled opposing hitters — and not just for Toronto; he'd go on to have an excellent 3.80 career ERA in the Major Leagues.

That's not all he was good at, either. When Cannonball wasn't pitching, he was playing at second base or in the outfield, because he was also Toronto's best hitter. In fact, he was the best hitter in the entire league that year. He hit for a .428 average. It's still considered to be the best batting average by a pitcher in professional baseball history. (If he'd hit that in the Majors, it would put him 6th on the all-time list for any position.)

His greatest moment in Toronto came right at the end of the year. The race for the pennant came down to the very last weekend of the season. On Saturday, the Torontos played two games. Cannonball pitched in the first one and won it. Then, in the second one, he not only pitched but also drove in three runs with his bat and launched the game-winning home run. The next day, he came back to pitch again — and he won again. It was over. The Torontos had clinched the 1887 International League pennant and the city of Toronto celebrated our first baseball championship.

It would not, of course, be our last. For the next few decades, Toronto was a major hub for Minor League baseball. The Toronto Maple Leafs are listed five times on the official MLB list of the top 100 greatest Minor League teams ever. Some of the biggest stars in the history of the game played in the new stadiums that replaced Sunlight Park — three of them were built at Hanlan's Point over the years. Babe Ruth famously hit his first professional home run right into our harbour.

Toronto's last Minor League ballpark — the majestic Maple Leaf Stadium at the foot of Bathurst Street — was finally torn down in the 1960s, when the team was sold off and moved to Kentucky. But a decade later, the Blue Jays came to town. Twice they've been crowned as champions. And tonight, at what was once the futuristic SkyDome, the newest cast of star players and memorable characters will try to carry on the winning tradition that started on the banks of the Don River all those years ago.


Image: Mike Slattery (left); Harry Decker (centre); Cannonball Crane (right); Yonge Street in 1885-1895 by Frank Micklethwaite (background) via the Wikimedia Commons and some liberal Photoshopping.

I first learned about this team thanks to the book Baseball's Back In Town: From the Don to the Blue Jays A History of Baseball in Toronto by Louis Cauz. You can buy it here or borrow it here.