Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Twelve Most Favourite Posts from 2014

This was a big year for The Toronto Dreams Project. I published more posts on this blog in 2014 than in any other year since I launched this thing back in 2010. And for the first time, I got to leave to dreams about the history of Toronto not just in Toronto itself but all over the place. Thanks to the supporters of my Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, I took the Dreams Project on the road to visit Toronto-related historical sites in England and Wales. Plus, I made treks to Quebec City and Niagara Falls. I launched twelve new dreams this year, continued to write my column over at Spacing, and added new, musically-themed sticky plaques to Toronto's grungy bar bathroom walls.

Now, with just a few days left before 2015, I figured I would be completely self-indulgent and look back at some of my favourite posts from the last twelve months, giving you the chance to catch any of the best stuff you might have missed. I've picked a dozen of my favourite stories, covering everything from Fraggles to vikings to The Beatles to baseball to the apocalypse... Some of them are among the most popular posts I wrote this year; some are just personal favourites.

So here we go:

Elizabeth Simcoe's 1794 Nightmare — The Story Behind One of Toronto's First Recorded Dreams
Toronto was founded in a troubled time. It was the summer of 1793 when the first British soldiers showed up to clear the forest and make way for our brand new town. Just ten years earlier, some of those same men had been fighting in the American Revolution. Their commander, John Graves Simcoe, was a hero of that bloody war; no stranger to danger and death. In fact, he seems lucky to have survived the Revolution at all. He was wounded three times — once very seriously. At one point, he was captured and spent six months in an American prison. But by the end of the Revolution, he had earned a reputation as one of the bright and rising stars of the British military. He did so well that when the British created a brand new province in what's now southern Ontario — a home for Loyalists driven out of the United States by the rebels — they chose Simcoe to run it: the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada... [continue reading this post from January 6, 2014]

Down At Fraggle Rock... In Yorkville — The Muppets Take Toronto
It all started in 1981 at the Hyde Park Hotel in London, England. Jim Henson was there with some of his writers and puppeteers. For the last five extraordinary years, The Muppet Show had been filmed in a nearby studio, but now it was coming to an end. Henson wanted to brainstorm ideas for a new children's television series. This one was going be even more ambitious. Years later, one of the puppeteers remembered the moment it all began: "Jim walked into the room and said, ‘I want to do a show that will change the world and end war.'" That's how Fraggle Rock started... [continue reading this post from February 13, 2014]

How Toronto Helped Break Up The Beatles
At first, no one believed it was really happening. It sounded too good to be true. The Toronto Rock 'N' Rock Revival Show was going to be a massive, thirteen-hour spectacle in tribute to old-timey jukebox rock & roll. The line-up was going to feature some of the greatest rock stars that had ever lived: a mix, mostly, of old greats from the 1950s and up-and-coming young stars. Little Richard. Chuck Berry. Alice Cooper. Jerry Lee Lewis. Bo Diddley. Chicago. The Doors. Gene Vincent. Junior Walker & The All-Stars. But tickets for the festival hadn't been selling well at all. People in 1969 weren't really all that interested in rock & roll from the '50s. They were into psychedelic rock now; Woodstock had happened less than a month earlier. So it seemed pretty convenient when the rumour started: that John Lennon was going to show up with Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton and The Plastic Ono Band in tow... [continue reading this post from March 3, 2014]

Toronto's Greatest Second Baseman Ever (Isn't Who You Think It Is)
When you ask Google who the greatest second baseman of all-time was, a few names pop up. Rogers Hornsby is a popular pick, a star for the St. Louis Cardinals back in the 1920s and '30s. Some people say it was the Dodgers' Jackie Robinson or the Reds' Joe Morgan or the great Eddie Collins who played for the A's and White Sox. Roberto Alomar's name comes up, too — the Blue Jays Hall of Famer is easily one of the best ever. But he's not the greatest second baseman to ever wear a Toronto uniform. That honour goes to the man who played second base for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1917... [continue reading this post from April 1, 2014]

An Apocalypse in the Beaches — William Kurelek's Nightmare Visions
He was, in a lot ways, something of a Canadian stereotype. He was born in a shack on the Prairies during the winter of 1927. He grew up working on his parents' farm, ploughing fields and tending cows. When he was older, he worked as a lumberjack in the towering forests of Qu├ębec and on the shores of Lake Superior. As a construction worker, he put curbs on the streets of Edmonton and built grain elevators in Thunder Bay. As a waiter, he served the rich and famous at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. And as a painter... Well, as a painter, he became one of the most successful artists in Canadian history, using scenes from his past to capture the spirit of the nation on canvasses that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. His work hangs on the walls of some of the most important art galleries in the world — and in kitchens all across our country. His paintings are praised as being quintessentially Canadian. Books of his work have titles like A Prairie Boy's Summer, Lumberjack, The Last of the Arctic and O Toronto. He's been hailed as "Canada's Norman Rockwell."

But William Kurelek had a dark side, too. So dark, in fact, that by the end of his life, he was convinced the world was about end in a blaze of Biblical fury. It's one the reasons his biographer, Patricia Morley, calls Kurelek's life "one of the strangest stories ever told... [continue reading this post from April 17, 2014]

Toronto's Secret Viking Heritage
The Vikings, of course, aren't exactly the first people who leap to mind when you think of Toronto's heritage. After all, we're a city founded by the British in territory previously claimed by the French on the ancestral lands of the First Nations. And while many people from Scandinavia have called Toronto home, immigration from the northern reaches of Europe has generally been dwarfed by immigration from other parts of the world.

But if you know where to look, the linguistic traces of a distant Viking past are all around you. You can find them in the names of our streets, our neighbourhoods, our libraries, our schools... In words we use every day. And for the most part, that's thanks to events that happened more than a thousand years ago many thousands of kilometers away. When the Vikings invaded the British Isles...  [continue reading this post from July 5, 2014]

How The Simcoes Fell In Love — And The Magical Hills Where It Happened
These are the Blackdown Hills. They're one of England's official "Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty," all rolling green hillsides and yellow fields and ancient trees lining roads so old they've worn deep groves into the ground. It's a land of magic and of myth: of pixies and fairies, of warrior ghosts and witchcraft, of Druids and Romans, of poachers and smugglers, of Iron Age hill forts, Bronze Age burial mounds and Stone Age earthworks. And this is where the founders of Toronto fell in love.

The story of the Simcoes starts with a man named Samuel Graves. He was an Admiral in the British navy; he spent much of the 1700s fighting. He was the Captain of a ship during the Seven Years' War and he was the head of the whole North American fleet during the early days of the American Revolution. That bit didn't go very well: he was ordered to control the entire east coast of the United States with only a couple dozen ships. Those orders have gone down in history as one of the most impossible tasks ever asked of a naval officer. Graves was doomed to fail. Eventually, he was replaced and he headed home to his country estate, where he'd live out the rest of his days in relative peace and quiet... [continue reading this post from July 28, 2014]

Mary Pickford's Nightmare Honeymoon
It was 1920. Mary Pickford was the most famous woman in the world. She'd been born in Toronto in the late 1800s: on University Avenue — where Sick Kids is now — and made her stage debut as a young girl at the prestigious Princess Theatre on King Street. Her early days here launched a career that took her all the way to Broadway and then to Hollywood where she became one the greatest silent film stars of all-time. She was at the height of her career in those early days of cinema when the movies were redefining what it meant to be famous. Her golden curls became a global icon. One columnist went so far as to call her "the most famous woman who has ever lived".

Now, Pickford had fallen in love with another one of the most famous movie stars ever: Douglas Fairbanks Jr. They were married in a small, private ceremony outside Los Angeles. Their honeymoon would take them to England and to Europe. And it would be unlike anything the world had ever seen... [continue reading this post from August 29, 2014]

William Lyon Mackenzie's Mission To London
It was 1832. William Lyon Mackenzie was fed up. He'd spent the last decade fighting for democratic reform in Upper Canada. He'd founded a pro-democracy newspaper. Written passionate editorials. Led protests. Organized committees. He'd even run for office and been elected to the provincial Assembly, where he gained a reputation as one of the most radical champions of the Reform cause. This was before he became the first Mayor of Toronto — and long before before his failed revolution — but he was already one of the most polarizing figures in the province. Still, no matter how famous he got, he was blocked at every turn.

Upper Canada was still pretty new back then. The province that would one day become Ontario was only a few decades old. It had been founded in the late 1700s as a safe haven for refugees from the American Revolution. During that bloody war, they'd seen for themselves the horrors committed in the name of democracy. And it was followed closely by the terror of the French Revolution. So, many of the early settlers in Upper Canada had a deep distrust of democratic ideas — what the first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, once called "the tyranny of democracy..." [continue reading this post from September 30, 2014]

The First (Almost) Canadian President
There’s a small town on the very western edge of England, not far from the River Severn, which marks the border with Wales. It’s called Thornbury. It’s a lovely place; the High Street is lined with flowers, filled with shoppers, and draped in bunting and flags. There’s a lot of history, too. Thornbury is where they found one of the biggest hoards of Roman coins ever discovered in Britain. There’s a church from the 1100s. And right next door to that is the 500 year-old Thornbury Castle, where King Henry VIII once stayed with Anne Boleyn after beheading the original owner for treason.

But Thornbury also has a connection to the history of Toronto. It’s the town where John Rolph was born. And for a few brief days during the winter of 1837, it looked like John Rolph might end up being the very first Canadian President... [continue reading this post from October 28, 2014]

Two Toronto Nurses & One of the Most Terrible Nights of the First World War
One dark night in the summer of 1918, the HMHS Llandovery Castle was steaming through the waters of the North Atlantic. She was far off the southern tip of Ireland, nearly two hundred kilometers from the nearest land. It was a calm night, with a light breeze and a clear sky. The ship had been built in Glasgow and was named after a castle in Wales, but now she was a Canadian vessel. Since the world had been plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever seen, the steamship had been turned into a floating hospital. She was returning from Halifax, where she had just dropped off hundreds of wounded Canadian soldiers. On board were the ship's crew and her medical personnel — including fourteen nurses. They were just a few of more than two thousand Canadian women who volunteered to serve overseas as "Nursing Sisters," healing wounds and saving lives and comforting those who couldn't be saved. As the ship sliced through the water, big red crosses shone out from either side of the hull, bright beacons in the dark. The trip was almost over. Soon, they'd be in Liverpool.

But then, without warning, the calm of the night was shattered by a terrible explosion... [continue reading this post from November 11, 2014]

The Day The Sun Turned Blue Above Toronto
The first sign of the apocalypse came on a Saturday night in the early autumn of 1950. It was a little after 9 o'clock. That's when a star was seen streaking across the sky above Toronto; some said it was as big as the moon. It was gone in an instant; it broke apart into three pieces and disappeared over the lake. Most people didn't even notice. But the meteor was just the beginning. The real show started the next day, when the sun turned blue.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Toronto — which is what all Sunday afternoons were like in Toronto back then. The stores were closed. People went to church. They hung out at home and spent time with their families. It was the first day after Daylight Saving Time, too, so people were enjoying the extra hour of rest. And since they were already expecting it to get dark early, some of them didn't even notice how early it really was. It was only the middle of the afternoon when a gloom fell over the city, like an eery, early dusk. Something had gone wrong with the sky... [continue reading this post from December 8, 2014]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dream 14 "The Great Fire" (Lucie Blackburn, 1849)

Lucie Blackburn dreamed that she saw the Devil on King Street. She was crossing the road and there he was, leaning up against the wall of Post’s Tavern, flickering in the lamplight, waiting. He wore a black suit and a short beard. His eyes were coal. She knew the instant she saw him that he had come for her.  He would take her back south, to Kentucky, to Hell.

He saw her too, and smiled. It was a horrifying grin. It grew until it split his face in half. His skin fell away like a snake's as he swelled up out of himself, horns, scales and putrid flesh, rising until he was taller even than the steeple of St. James, great leathery wings unfurling behind him with a gust of hot wind. All along King Street, buildings burst into flame. Fire and smoke poured from windows and doors. People screamed and ran.

She couldn't move. The mud in the street was deep; it had her by the ankles. She could do nothing but pray. And pray she did. Lucie Blackburn prayed hard for that angel who came sweeping down from the heavens above Toronto, all fury and wrath, eager to cast out Evil, and with war in its eyes.


Learn more about Lucie Blackburn and her escape from slavery here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Day The Sun Turned Blue Above Toronto

The first sign of the apocalypse came on a Saturday night in the early autumn of 1950. It was a little after 9 o'clock. That's when a star was seen streaking across the sky above Toronto; some said it was as big as the moon. It was gone in an instant; it broke apart into three pieces and disappeared over the lake. Most people didn't even notice. But the meteor was just the beginning. The real show started the next day, when the sun turned blue.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Toronto — which is what all Sunday afternoons were like in Toronto back then. The stores were closed. People went to church. They hung out at home and spent time with their families. It was the first day after Daylight Saving Time, too, so people were enjoying the extra hour of rest. And since they were already expecting it to get dark early, some of them didn't even notice how early it really was. It was only the middle of the afternoon when a gloom fell over the city, like an eery, early dusk. Something had gone wrong with the sky.

One of Toronto's most famous astronomers, Helen Sawyer Hogg, looked up. "[T]he western sky," she later wrote, "became a dark, terrifying mass of cloud and haze, as though a gigantic storm were approaching..."

As darkness descended, the animals began to behave in strange ways. Ducks went to sleep in the middle of the day. Dogs hid under their owners' beds. Cows started to moo, demanding to be milked. And all over the city, people turned on their lights. Electricity use surged. Power-lines failed. And when the power-lines failed, bank alarms were accidentally tripped. Police scrambled to respond to the false alarms. As they did, the heavens swirled above them.

"Toronto's sky was filled with weird wonder," the Globe and Mail reported. "A great saffron-colored cloud filled the sky. Around it rolled steel grey clouds, shot by blackness and rippled, as water is rippled by a sudden light wind. Far off to the north and east the cold white light of the horizon accentuated the darkness that hung over the city.

"It was beautiful with a strange and dreary beauty and filled with ominous portent..."

The sun was most ominous of all. For most of the day, it was hidden behind those dark, swirling, purple clouds. But in the few brief moments when it did shine out from between them, it was shining the wrong colour: a frightening blue-mauve. It cast no shadows. And it shone with no rays.

People. Freaked. Out. They didn't know what was happening. Some thought the sun was exploding. Others thought it was a flying saucer announcing the beginning of an alien invasion. Lots of people assumed it was a sign of a nuclear attack. This, after all, was at the very beginning of the Cold War. Stalin had just gotten the bomb. The Second World War had only ended a few short years earlier. And every day, the newspapers screamed with headlines about the war Canada was helping to fight against the Communists in Korea. Purple skies and a blue sun sounded an awful lot like the kind of thing people were expecting: the beginning of the Third World War.    

Police stations in Toronto were flooded with phone calls. People asked if an atomic bomb had been dropped on the city or somewhere else nearby. Others thought doomsday had come. One caller, according to the Toronto Daily Star, "said the end of the world was approaching and asked police to tell citizens to be prepared to meet their Maker." The newspaper reported that some people were praying in terror. A few even blamed the clocks: "Some said a supernatural power was angry with the world for tampering with daylight saving time..." Radio stations began to give hourly updates, asking people not to panic.

And the bad omens were far from over. As people woke up on Monday morning and went to work, the skies were still swirling with "yellows, browns, pinks and purples" and the sun was still shining blue. It continued all day. And then, that very same night, there was yet another sign of the apocalypse: a dark shadow swallowed up the harvest moon. It was a total lunar eclipse.

But of course, despite of all the ominous signs, the world didn't come to an end that week. There was a perfectly rational explanation for everything.

It all started nearly four months earlier and more than three thousand kilometers away, in the forests of British Columbia. No one seems to be entirely sure exactly what sparked it — some think it was an Imperial Oil crew lighting a small fire to drive away some bugs; others say it was a slash-and-burn logging blaze that got out of control. Either way, the conditions that summer were perfect for it. The forests were dry; there was a drought. And since there weren't any permanent settlements or major roads nearby, the authorities just let the fire burn. It swept across the border into northern Alberta, raging out of control. It lasted for months. By the the time it was all over, the Chinchaga River fire had destroyed millions of acres of forest. To this day, it's the biggest recorded forest fire in the entire modern history of the continent.

In late September, when the fire was about four months old, there was a big flare up — its biggest yet. And this time, the enormous cloud of smoke hanging over the blaze got caught up in a weather system that swept it east across the Prairies. It only took a few days to reach the Great Lakes. The strange purple cloud darkened the skies above Toronto. The smoke particles were just the right size: they scattered the red wavelengths in the light from the sun, so it looked blue-mauve instead of yellow-orange.

And it wasn't just Toronto. Reports flooded in from all over the Great Lakes. After that, the winds continued to carry the strange cloud east, right across the Maritimes and then out over the Atlantic. By the end of the day on Tuesday, the cloud had reached the other side of the ocean. The sun turned blue in the skies above the British Isles and Western Europe. In Denmark, it sparked a run on the banks before the cloud finally broke up.

In the end, it was the changing seasons that brought the great fire to an end. The rains and snows of late October doused the flames. The devastation left in its wake finally convinced the government to change the rules. Forest fires would now be fought more vigorously. The sun above Toronto hasn't been blue since.


Image: a postcard of Toronto in the 1950s (via Chuchman's postcard blog) plus lots of Photoshop.

You can read Helen Sawyer Hogg's column about Toronto's blue sun for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada here. It's a PDF. Her husband, Frank S. Hogg, was also an astronomer. He wrote about it here, which you can read if you've got a Toronto Public Library card. That card will also allow you to read the coverage from the Toronto Daily Star here and here, the Globe and Mail here, and the Associated Press here and here. The writer Pat Mastern remembers her own experiences outside of Toronto that day here.

You'll find the Wikipedia entry for the Chinchaga River fire here. The Edmonton Journal remembers it here. The Canadian Smoke Newsletter writes about it on Page 14 of this PDF. The Star put together a map of the cloud's path, which you can find here.

You can learn more about Helen Sawyer Hogg thanks to Torontoist's David Wencer here and Wikipedia here. Utrecht University has a whole big archive of her column's for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada here. And the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has an index of her columns for the Toronto Star here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

UK Tour Photos: Budleigh Salterton

1797. The city of Toronto was just four years old. We were still called York back then, still just a tiny little wooden town cut out of the forest on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. But the guy who had founded our town was already thousands of kilometers away. John Graves Simcoe — the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada — headed home to England with his family just a few years after they first pitched their fancy tent at the mouth of Garrison Creek.

They came home to their beautiful country estate in the rolling hills of Devon. But they also bought themselves a new place, somewhere to hang out during the summer months. It was just down the River Otter from their estate, in the seaside town that sits at the mouth of the river, surrounded by towering red cliffs. It's called Budleigh Salterton. Today, it's in the middle of a World Heritage Site. Those cliffs stretch west for more than 150 kilometers, the only place in the world where you'll find the entire history of the dinosaurs. They call it the Jurassic Coast.

The house in Budleigh Salterton where the Simcoes lived is still there today. It's undergone lots of renovations and additions over the years, but it's still called Simcoe House. There's even a plaque outside. So, on Day Ten of the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour, I headed to Budleigh Salterton, to leave dreams for the Simcoes there. I got to spend a night at the pub with all the friendly people who run the local Fairlynch Museum. And I took a big walk up into the heathland north of the town, up to the Iron Age hill fort where Simcoe trained men to fight Napoleon. And I followed the path along the top of those towering red cliffs, still eroding away just like they were in the days when the Simcoes called this place home.

I've already written a big post about the history of Budleigh Salterton here. And now you can check out my photos from the day I spent roaming the area on Facebook — whether or not you have an account — right here:

And, as always, you can follow me on Instagram at @todreamsproject.