Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Bloody Burlington Races & The War for Lake Ontario

They appeared out of the darkness, looming above the waves. Ten warships sailing across Lake Ontario, far out in the water south of Toronto. They were first spotted at dawn, as the black September night gave way to the light of day, wooden hulls carving through the waves, sails stretching high into the early morning sky. From each of the ships flew the red, white and blue: fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. The American fleet. This was 1813. Toronto was in the middle of a war zone. And it was going to be a bloody day.

The War of 1812 had been going on for more than a year now. With the might of the British Empire distracted by Napoleon, the American conquest of the Canadian colonies was supposed to be quick and easy. Former President Thomas Jefferson promised that it would be "a mere matter of marching." But the British, Canadian colonists and their First Nations allies resisted the invasion at every turn. It wasn't quick or easy at all.

Back then, Toronto was still just the muddy little frontier town of York. But as the tiny new capital of Upper Canada, our city was caught up in an arms race that might decide the fate of the entire war. The Great Lakes were the most pivotal battleground. Controlling the water meant that you could move your troops and supplies wherever you wanted to — while keeping the enemy from doing the same. Both sides rushed to build the most powerful fleets possible. Some of the biggest warships in the world were being built in the shipyards on either side of Lake Ontario. They had crews of hundreds of men; they bristled with dozens of guns. They turned our lake into the scene of countless horrors. They say that when warships met in battle, the results were so gory that some crews spread sand across their decks in order to keep them from getting too slippery. Others painted them red so all the blood would blend in.

HMS Sir Isaac Brock
Just a few months earlier, shipbuilders in Toronto had been hard at work near the foot of Bay Street hammering together the HMS Sir Isaac Brock (named after the British general who died fighting the Americans at Niagara). She was going to be the second biggest ship on Lake Ontario, giving the British control of the water. But there were spies in Toronto — the Americans knew all about the construction. In April, just before the Brock was ready to set sail, the Americans invaded Toronto, hoping to steal the new ship. They won the battle, but the retreating troops burned the Brock before the invading army could get to her.

Still, the advantage on the Great Lakes was swinging dramatically toward the Americans. In early September, they won a stunning victory on Lake Erie. They captured the entire British fleet on that lake, giving them complete control of it. Now, they just needed Lake Ontario: "the key to the Great Lakes." If they won it, they would be able to pull off their grand plan: ship troops up the St. Lawrence River and besiege Montreal. 

So now, the Americans were sailing back toward Toronto. This time, they weren't coming to capture just one ship; they wanted the entire British fleet.

The man in charge was Commodore Isaac Chauncey. He was from Connecticut, but he first made a name for himself fighting pirates off the coast of Tripoli. Back in April, he'd been in charge of the American ships invading Toronto. Now, he was commanding his fleet from the deck of a brand new flagship: the USS General Pike (named after the American general who'd been blown up at Fort York during the invasion). The Pike sailed at the head of a squadron of ten ships — some towed behind the others for extra firepower. The Americans had bigger guns with longer range than their British counterparts. But their ships were also slower and harder to maneuver.

The British squadron was smaller: just six ships. They were commanded by Commodore Sir James Yeo, an Englishman who had been welcomed to Upper Canada as a hero — one of the rising stars of the most powerful navy on Earth. He sailed aboard his own brand new flagship, the HMS General Wolfe (named after yet another dead general: the guy who had died fighting the French on the Plains of Abraham). She was the sister ship of the burned Brock, built in Kingston at the very same time.

Sir James Lucas Yeo
As dawn broke over Lake Ontario that morning, the Wolfe and the rest of the British fleet were just to the west of Toronto — not far from Port Credit. They spotted the Americans in the distance; they were still about a dozen kilometers away.

The battle got off to a slow start. With all that distance between the two squadrons, Commodore Yeo and his men had enough time to sail over to the harbour at Toronto, sending a small boat ashore with an update. Meanwhile, the Americans patiently stalked their prey: they sailed up to a spot south of the islands (just a sandy peninsula back then) and waited. It wasn't until mid-morning that Yeo turned his squadron around and left Toronto, sailing south out into the middle of the water. The Americans followed, chasing the British into the heart of the lake, the wind in their sails. As the sun rose high into the sky, they were steadily making up ground. It wouldn't be long now. Both fleets shifted into single file lines: battle formation. 

It was Yeo and the British who made the first move. A little after noon, the Wolfe suddenly swung around, heading back toward the Americans, trying to slip by the Pike and open fire on the middle of the enemy line.

Commodore Chauncey and the Americans countered. The Pike began to turn too, trying to cut the Wolfe off, drawing closer and closer and closer... until there were only a few hundred meters between them. But as the great bulk of the American flagship slowly swung around, her formidable bank of guns was still facing in the wrong direction. She was exposed.

The Wolfe opened fire. The British guns roared smoke and iron, cannonballs whizzing through the air between the two ships, smashing into the Pike. One British volley after another tore into her. But slowwwwwwly, the Pike swung around. Now, the might of her firepower was finally facing in the right direction: at the Wolfe. Fourteen American cannons burst to life, a wall of white smoke and fire. Back and forth, the two great flagships thundered. Wood burst into splinters. Sails were ripped and torn. Blood spilled onto the decks. On board the Pike, a mast snapped, toppling into the sails below.

And then: catastrophe for the British. One of the masts on the Wolfe came crashing down, pulling a second mast, sails, rigging and weights down with it — they tumbled onto the deck and then over the side into the water. Without them, the Wolfe was in serious trouble. "It was," writes the historian Robert Malcomson in his book, Lords of the Lake, "the danger Yeo had sought to avoid all summer... disaster."

At that moment, it seemed as if everything was lost. The Pike was closing in, the American sailors were reloading their guns, the end was drawing near. "In the battle for control of Lake Ontario," Malcomson writes, "this instant may have been the most pivotal." The Americans were about to win the battle — and with it, the entire lake. The whole war might follow.

The Royal George (in an earlier battle)
It was the Royal George who saved the day. She was the second ship in the British line — and she had finally turned around too. She rushed into danger, sailing right into the line of fire, putting herself between the Americans and the wounded Wolfe and then slamming on the brakes. She opened fire. Again and again and again, she roared, sending a hail of iron death flying into the Pike, buying enough time for the rest of the fleet to join the fight. Ships on both sides sent volley after volley sailing into the air, smashing into wood and skin and bone. All was smoke and chaos.

Meanwhile, on board the Wolfe, the British crew rushed to recover. They dumped their dead overboard, carried the wounded below deck, cut away at the tangle of debris. And they did it all quickly. Less than fifteen minutes after her masts had tumbled into the water, the Wolfe was ready to go.

But the danger wasn't over yet. Without her full compliment of sails, she was still very vulnerable. The fate of Lake Ontario still hung in the balance. So Commodore Yeo turned the Wolfe around, let the wind fill what was left of her tattered sails, and then raced west as fast as she could go. The rest of the British fleet turned and followed. They headed straight for the end of the lake, toward Burlington Bay, toward safety.

It was a decisive moment for Commodore Chauncey and the Americans. Two of the British ships were momentarily exposed — they could be captured. The Master Commandant of the Pike — a guy called Arthur Sinclair, great-grandfather of the writer Upton Sinclair — begged the Commodore to forget about the Wolfe and take the other ships instead. Capturing even one or two of the British vessels would be a major victory. But Chauncey had a bigger prize in mind. Immortality was within his grasp; he could taste it. This was the day he was going to defeat the entire British fleet on Lake Ontario. He wasn't going to be distracted by a smaller prize. "All or none!" he declared, ordering his fleet to sail west, to chase down the British squadron and defeat them.

The race was on. 

For the next hour and a half, all sixteen ships sailed west as fast they could, speeding across twenty-five kilometers out in the water south of Oakville. As the afternoon wore on, a storm began to gather. The sky darkened. The waves got bigger. The wind picked up, blowing in hard from the east, filling the sails of the ships, pushing them ever-faster as they raced toward the western end of the lake.

From shore — not just along the Canadian beaches, but also far over on the American side — people strained to follow the movements of the distant ships as they jockeyed for position. Some joked that it was like watching a yacht race. And so the battle got its name: The Burlington Races.

USS General Pike
The Wolfe was in rough shape, but she was still fast. And so was the rest of the British fleet. The Americans struggled to keep up. It was only the Pike who managed to stay close enough to keep the British within range of her guns. They echoed out across the lake, blasting away at the British vessels. But the Pike was badly wounded, too. Her masts were damaged. Sails were torn. Rigging was cut to pieces. Some of her guns were so damaged they were completely useless. And she was leaking. The hull had been hit beneath the waves; there was water coming in below deck. The Americans scrambled to pump it out as fast as it was coming in.

"This," Master Commandant Sinclair later remembered, "was the most trying time I ever had in my life."

And then, suddenly, the most deadly moment of the entire battle: one of the big guns near the front of the Pike exploded. The deck was torn apart in an instant. Iron shards flew in all directions, slicing through wood, sails and flesh. The deadly debris was flung all the way back to the stern of the ship. More than twenty American sailors were killed or wounded in the blast.

Still, the Pike sailed on, chasing the British fleet, cannons roaring. But try as they might, the Americans weren't catching up. And they were running out of time. There wasn't much lake left. They were getting closer and closer to Burlington Bay, closer to shore, closer to safety for the British ships.

There are two different stories about what happened next.

The most recent evidence seems to suggest that Commodore Yeo picked a spot to make a stand. He had the British fleet drop anchor near shore — just to the east of Burlington Bay (which we call Hamilton Harbour today). Bunched together with their backs protected by the land, they presented a daunting target. Their cannons were ready. And on shore, there were even more friendly guns nearby.

With the British in such a strong defensive position and the Pike already badly damaged — maybe even in danger of sinking — Commodore Chauncey realized that it was all over. If he fought on, he risked beaching his ships in enemy territory. He'd missed his chance. The American fleet turned and sailed away into the storm.  

HMS Wolfe at Burlington Bay (Peter Rindlisbacher)
But that's not the story we've been told for most of the last two hundred years. In the most famous version of the tale, Commodore Yeo and the British fleet kept sailing straight for Burlington Bay. It was a daring move. The waters at the mouth of the harbour were shallow; the Wolfe would be in danger of running aground, stranded and helpless as the Americans swooped in. But at the very last moment, riding the crest of the storm surge, the Wolfe swept dramatically into the bay and into safety. The Americans had no choice but to turn away. The moment has been immortalized in paintings and textbooks, even on the historical plaque overlooking the bay — until it was updated just a couple of years ago.

Either way, the British fleet had survived.

That night, anchored safely inside the harbour, the tired sailors got to work. In the cold, wind and rain, they rushed to repair the Wolfe and the other battered ships as quickly as possible. The injured men were treated for their wounds. The dead — those who hadn't already been tossed overboard — were sewn up inside their hammocks and buried at sea. The work continued all through the next day and into the following night. One man climbing the mast of the Wolfe lost his footing and tumbled to his death. And still the crews worked: it would be another two days before the fleet was ready to return to the lake.

Of course, there were more terrible, bloody days to come. Thousands of people died on both sides of the war. Others returned home wounded, many deeply scarred by the things they had seen and done. Just a week after the Burlington Races, Tecumseh — the famed leader of the First Nations confederacy — was killed in battle against the Americans. That same day, Commodore Chauncey and his American fleet captured five British ships far on the other side of Lake Ontario. They burned another.

But winter was coming. The sailing season was soon over. The British fleet had survived another year and the Americans still didn't control Lake Ontario. Their invasion up the St. Lawrence River ended in a big defeat. And the very next summer, shipbuilders in Kingston built a new warship that changed everything. It took more than five thousand oak trees, two hundred men and nearly ten months to make the HMS St. Lawrence. She was by far the biggest thing that had ever sailed on the Great Lakes. She boasted more than a hundred guns. Had a crew of seven hundred. She was bigger even than the flagship Admiral Nelson had used to beat Napoleon's navy at Trafalgar. The St. Lawrence was so big and so powerful that she never had to fire a single shot. The Americans just immediately gave up trying. Commodore Chauncey and his fleet were stuck at home for the rest of the war.

It didn't last much longer. On Christmas Eve of 1814, a peace treaty was signed. The War of 1812 was over. The American invasion of Canada had failed.


Lots of the information in this post comes from the late Robert Malcomson's Lords of Lake. You can find it in the Toronto Public Library here. Or buy it here. He wrote more about the Burlington Races on the War of 1812 website here.

The main image of the battle comes via the Toronto Public Library here, which I turned into a collage with this map of York in the summer of 1813 from the Archives of Ontario. The library also has the image of the Brock here. The Royal George I found via the 4GWAR blog here (which apparently also originally found it thanks to the Toronto Public Library). The images of Sir James Yeo and the Pike come via Wikipedia here and here. And Peter Rindlisbacher's crazy-great painting of the Wolfe sweeping into Burlington Bay comes via Eighteentwelve.ca here. Rindlisbacher has a whole book of paintings of the war, which you can buy here

You can read the first-hand reports made by Commodores Yeo and Chaucey in The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, Volume II. You can find it in the Toronto Public Library here. Or buy it here. And I got a little bit more info from The Naval War of 1812 by Robert Gardiner, which you can find in the library here or buy here.

Robert J. Williamson details the battle as we now understand it in this very detailed and informative PDF. William R. Wilson shares more about the HMS Sir Isaac Brock and the naval battles of the Great Lakes on the Historical Narratives of Early Canada site here. Eighteentwelve.ca shares more about the ships of the War of 1812 here. And the war on the lakes here.

The Museums of Burlington share story of the Burlington Races and other Burlington connections to the War of 1812 in this PDF — which also has some great diagrams (reproduced from Lords of the Lake) that might help you make sense of the battle.

Wikipedia has more about Yeo here, Chauncey here, Sinclair here, the Wolfe here, the Pike here, the Brock here, the Royal George here, and the St. Lawrence here. The invaluable Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online has more on Yeo here, too.

The Burlington Gazette covers the story behind the updating of the historical plaque here.

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Tour of Toronto's Skyline in the Summer of 1930

The summer of 1930. It was the beginning of a difficult decade for Toronto, along with much of the rest of the world. The Great Depression had just begun. But before the stock market crashed, the boom of the 1920s had fueled construction projects all over the city. Toronto was full of elegant new landmarks — many of them still familiar to Torontonians today: Union Station, The Royal York Hotel, Maple Leaf Gardens, The Palais Royale, The Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, The Princes' Gates... And on one July day, a photographer climbed to the top of a building on the north-east corner of University & Dundas, pointed a camera south, and took this photo of our city's new skyline. It's full of interesting details, so I thought I'd give a brief "tour" of some of the buildings you can see.

But first, you’ll want to open the full version of the image so you can see the whole thing, which you can do by clicking it here:

01 The Maclean Building
By 1930, the Maclean family's publishing empire was already more than four decades old. It had all started back in the 1880s with a trade journal called The Canadian Grocer. Before long, they'd added Maclean's, Chatelaine and The Financial Post among other titles. They were the biggest publishing empire in the British Empire. And that meant they could afford to buy an entire block of land in downtown Toronto. On the north-east corner of University & Dundas, they built a whole complex to house their offices and printing presses. In 1930, the latest addition had just opened: the new Maclean Building soared a whole nine storeys into the air, making it the tallest building in the neighbourhood. That's when a photographer climbed up onto the roof and snapped this photo of Toronto's skyline.

Today, the building is still there. It's on the north side of Dundas, just to the east of the intersection. On the corner itself, you'll find a TD on the ground floor of the newer Maclean-Hunter Building; it was built in the early 1960s.

02 Eaton's
Of course, the Macleans weren't the only Toronto family to build a wildly successful business. At about the same time the first edition of The Canadian Grocer was hot off the presses, Timothy Eaton was moving his famous department store to the corner of Yonge & Queen. Over the next few decades, as Eaton's became a Canadian institution, the company bought up whole blocks of the surrounding neighbourhood. By the time this photo of the skyline was taken, they owned pretty much everything between Yonge, Bay, Queen & Dundas. In 1930, their complex sprawled over more than 60 acres: there was the main store, an annex store, factories, warehouses and mail order facilities. Today, that same huge chunk of land is home to the Eaton Centre.

03 The Ward
Today, this is where you'll find Nathan Phillips Square. But in 1930, the same spot was home to Toronto's most notorious slum. What is now an open expanse of concrete was a warren of hovels back then, where slumlords crammed people into tiny, poorly-insulated shacks. The Ward had been home to one new wave of immigrants after another — stretching all the way back to the mid-1800s — and by the time this photo of the skyline was taken, it had become Toronto's first Chinatown. These were hard days for those new Canadians: anti-Asian racism was rampant; the federal government had recently banned all immigration from China. The Great Depression would make things even worse.

By the summer of 1930, the days of The Ward were already numbered. Developers had begun to buy up parts of the neighbourhood to build office towers and hotels. Finally, in the late-1950s, the City expropriated the land, forced all the residents out, and demolished the buildings to make way for our new City Hall. Chinatown was driven west along Dundas to Spadina, where it is today.

04 Old City Hall
Back in 1930, Old City Hall was still known as just plain old City Hall. And Toronto's mayor was a newspaper reporter by the name of Bert Wemp. Just a few months earlier, he won the election by running against a plan to improve the downtown core. Huge swathes would have been rebuilt. There would have been grand boulevards slicing through the city centre, a majestic new square where Nathan Phillips Square is now, and a huge traffic circle near Union Station along with new Art Deco skyscrapers and public buildings. But after the stock market crashed, the public mood changed. And people in the suburbs had always felt the plan — which hoped to improve traffic congestion — did too much for downtown and too little for them. Wemp was elected. And in a referendum, the proposal was rejected by fewer than two thousand votes.

The Old City Hall building itself had already been around for thirty years by this point. It was designed by E.J. Lennox (the same architect responsible for Casa Loma, the King Edward Hotel and the west wing of Queen's Park). Until the Royal York Hotel was built in the very late 1920s, nothing in Toronto reached higher than the tip of this clock tower.

05 The Bank of Commerce Building
The Royal York didn't spend long as the tallest building in Toronto, though. In the summer of 1930, the title belonged to this new skyscraper. In fact, it was the tallest building in the entire British Empire. Today, we call it Commerce Court North, but back then it was called the Bank of Commerce Building. It was brand new — it opened the very same year the photo of the skyline was taken — and it was designed by the architectural firm of Darling & Pearson (who also built many of Toronto's other landmarks: like the original ROM, the AGO, and 1 King West). On the 32nd floor, it had the most spectacular observation deck in the city, decorated with four enormous, bearded heads. It would remain the tallest building in Toronto for the next three decades, until Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built the sleek black modernist towers of the Toronto-Dominion Centre in 1967.

06 The Royal York Hotel
In 1930, the Royal York was brand new, too, just a year old. Back then, it was the biggest hotel in the British Empire. It had ten elevators, the biggest pipe organ in the country, a shower and a bath and a radio in every single one of its 1000+ rooms, and a telephone system so extensive they needed three dozen operators to run it. In fact, the Royal York is so fancy that nearly a hundred years later, the Queen still stays there when she comes to town.

07 The Armouries
Once upon a time, this was one of the most impressive buildings in all of Toronto — in all of Canada even. The Armouries were built in the late 1800s as a training ground for the militia. It was the biggest building of its kind on the continent. It looked like a huge, squat castle, complete with turrets and flags. Inside, you'd find a rifle range, drill halls and even a bowling alley. This is where Torontonians lined up to volunteer for the Boer War, the World Wars and the Korean War. They were trained here, too. But in the early 1960s — about the same time The Ward was being leveled to make way for our new City Hall — the Armouries were demolished to make room for the new provincial courts that still stand on this same spot today.

08 The Goel Tzedec Synagogue
In 1930, The Ward was best known as Toronto's Chinatown. But thirty years earlier, it was most notably Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who called the neighbourhood home. It was back then — in the very early 1900s — that the local congregation opened this beautiful new synagogue on University Avenue (just a block to the north of the Armouries). Inspired by the design of England's Westminster Cathedral, this synagogue became the spiritual centre of Toronto's Jewish community. It stood on this spot for fifty years before it was demolished. By then, the community had moved west: the Goel Tzedec congregation merged with the worshipers of the Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue on McCaul and opened the brand new Beth Tzedec Synagogue on Bathurst Street between St. Clair & Eglinton.

09 The Canada Life Building
Today, the Canada Life Building — topped by its familiar weather beacon — is one of our best-loved landmarks. But in the summer of 1930, it was still being built. The Beaux-Arts skyscraper would serve as the headquarters for Canada's biggest and oldest insurance company: Canada Life. (They still own the building, though they were recently swallowed up by Great-West Life.) It was supposed to be just the first in a whole complex of buildings along University Avenue, but the Great Depression forced them to cancel those plans. 

The helpful weather beacon (lights run up or down according to the changing temperature, flash red or white for rain or snow, steady red for clouds and green for clear skies) was added in the 1950s.

10 The Chestnut Trees of University Avenue
Today, University Avenue is a canyon of concrete, pavement and glass. But less than a hundred years ago, it was a majestic tree-lined boulevard. In the early 1800s, five hundred horse chestnut trees were planted along either side of the road and a grassy promenade was built down what is now the centre of the street. It became one of Toronto's grandest avenues. Even Charles Dickens was impressed when he came to town in the 1840s.

11 St. George The Martyr
Over here, in the west, you can see the towering spire of one of Toronto's oldest churches. St. George The Martyr had been built at the edge of what's now the Grange Park all the way back in the 1840s. The population was booming; Toronto's very first church — the Anglicans' St. James — just wasn't big enough anymore. When St. George was built, it became one of the most easily recognizable landmarks in the city. The spire stretched a hundred and fifty feet into the air. It could be seen all the way from the lake. Ships used it to navigate. But sadly, the church suffered a terrible fire in 1955. Most of the building — including the slender spire — was destroyed. Today, only the brick tower that supported the spire is left standing. And a new church, with new gardens, has been built on the same spot. 


I've got another tour of Toronto in the 1930s here.

The photo the skyline comes via Wikimedia Commons here.

You can see an aerial view looking north toward the Maclean Building thanks to Chuckman's postcard blog here. There's more about the history of the Maclean-Hunter company on Encyclopedia.com here. Kaitlin Wainwright shares a story about the man behind John Maclean's own impressive home here. And the City's own "Heritage Property Research and Evaluation Report" about the Maclean Building is in a PDF here. The photo of the building comes via Chris Bateman's blogTO article about a proposed condo development on the site.

Wikipedia has stuff on the Eaton's Annex here. And an image of the entire complex here. And a history of Eaton's here.

Chris Bateman has a brief history of The Ward over on blogTO here. And he lists "10 lost Toronto buildings we wish we could bring back" here.

Jamie Bradburn writes about Mayor Bert Wemp — who led quite a fascinating life — for Torontoist here. Wikipedia gives a much briefer rundown here. And a very quick overview of the 1930 municipal election here.

The Toronto Historical Associated has a bit more about the Armouries here. And so does Heritage Toronto here.

Kevin Plummer writes about one of the cantors of the Goel Tzedec Synagogue in an edition of Torontoist's Historicist column here. Wikipedia has a "History of the Jews in Toronto" here.

I wrote about the chestnut trees of University Avenue here.

You'll find a neat photo of John Street and St. George The Martyr in 1909 on Google Books here. And an even older painting of it — as part of a history of the nearby St. Patrick's Market on Queen Street — thanks to Doug Taylor here. The church's own website shares a history of itself here. The full photo of the church after the fire is on the Toronto Public Library website here. blogTO calls it one of the best make-out spots in Toronto.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Dream 16 "The Bombing of Toronto" (Billy Bishop, 1941)

Billy Bishop dreamed that the first few people to spot them that night saw little more than dark splotches on the horizon. But soon they were clear to everyone: mammoth zeppelins floating in across the lake, soaring above the islands toward the sleeping city. As their shadows reached the shoreline, it began. Deep concussive thuds. Flashes of red and silver and green. Railway lines snapped in half. Buildings of stone and brick crumbled into the streets. Air raid sirens wailed.

With the blimps came small planes with four wings, crude wooden dragonflies buzzing along King Street, up Yonge, down Bay. Bullets sprayed across storefronts and streetcars. Fires raged. None other than the Red Baron himself shot up past Union Station, darted between the smouldering boulders of the collapsed Stock Exchange, and fixed his sights on City Hall.

By then, Billy Bishop had already scrambled into his cockpit and lifted his plane into the air. He might be an old man now, but he’d have one last chance to save the day. 


Billy Bishop was one of the most famous fighters pilots of the First World World. He shot down 72 German planes, more than nearly any other pilot in the world. The Canadian government forced him to retire before the end of the war, worried about what would happen to morale if he died. Bishop would be treated as a celebrity for the rest of his life, making public appearances on behalf of the military even during WWII.

You can true stories about Billy Bishop here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Marcel Duchamp & John Cage Play Musical Chess

On a cold winter's night in 1968, a phone rang in an apartment on Spadina Road. The man who answered it was Lowell Cross, an American student at the University of Toronto. He'd come north to write his thesis on the history of electronic music, studying under Marshall McLuhan among others. Soon, he would become known as "the inventor of the laser light show," but he was already experimenting with new technologies — combining electronic music with electronic visuals. One of his multimedia projects had just been featured at Expo '67 in Montreal. He was gaining quite a reputation. That's why his phone was ringing. John Cage was calling.

Cage was the world's most notoriously experimental composer. Cross was a big fan — in fact, Cage featured prominently in his thesis. Now, the composer was calling to ask Cross for help: he needed someone to build a musical chessboard.

At first, Cross said no. He was just too busy; he had a thesis to write. But then Cage said two words that changed his mind:

"Marcel Duchamp."

Duchamp was one of the most famous and controversial artists of... well... ever. When he painted Nude Descending A Staircase (No. 2) as a young man in Paris, even the jury of a cubist exhibition his own brothers were helping to curate refused to show it. ("A nude never descends the stairs," they told him, "a nude reclines.") When the painting finally did appear in public, it was part of one of the most scandalous exhibitions ever: the Armory Show in New York City, which introduced America to modern art for the very first time. There were works by Picasso, Matisse, Manet and C├ęzanne. But Duchamp's Nude was the biggest attraction. Thousands of people showed up to get angry at it. The New York Times called it "an explosion in a shingle factory."

But lots of other people loved it. The Armory Show inspired New York City's first modern art scene. And before long, Duchamp was a part of it himself: when the First World War broke out, he fled the military patriotism sweeping France in favour of the United States, which was still neutral in those early days of the war.

In New York, Duchamp continued his attack on the old, conservative, academy-based art world. When one exhibition promised to display any artwork submitted to them, Duchamp sent them a urinal and called it Fountain. They refused to show it, but it was too late. Just the idea of it — the questions it raised about the definition of art and the artist and the gallery system — was a massive, giant, game-changing idea. A recent survey of five hundred art professionals found the urinal to be the most influential artwork of the twentieth century.

Duchamp wouldn't be in New York for long, though. When the U.S. joined the war, he moved on to another neutral country, heading south to Argentina. He'd spend the next few years living in Buenos Aires. And while he was there, something happened that would change his life forever:

Marcel Duchamp became obsessed with chess.

When he got back to Paris after the war, they say he wasn't even really a practicing artist anymore. Instead, he became an officially-recognized chess master. He wrote columns about the game. He played it so much his frustrated wife once glued his pieces to the board. Duchamp was only about 30, but for the rest of his entire life, until he died at the age of 81, chess would be his overwhelming passion. Not art.

"I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists," he announced.

John Cage, by comparison, kinda sucked at chess. But he was pretty good at composing experimental music. He came of age in the generation that followed Duchamp's — and he was deeply influenced by the French artist. "The effect for me of Duchamp's work," Cage once wrote, "was to so change my way of seeing that I became in my way a Duchamp unto myself."

There was, Cage said, "One way to study music: study Duchamp."

And so, inspired by the rebel artist, the young composer set about breaking down the walls of melody, tonality, scale and structure. He opened his music up to chance, using the I Ching and random luck to make decisions about what notes to place where. Duchamp used found objects; Cage used found sounds. His most famous piece, 4'33", was nothing more than four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a pianist not playing the piano, giving the audience a chance to listen to the ambient noise around them instead. When the piece premiered in 1952, even a crowd filled with fans of the avant-garde streamed out of the exits before it was over, muttering angrily. Forty years had passed since Duchamp's Nude, but not all that much had changed.

By then, Cage and Duchamp had already met. They'd been introduced by mutual friends and even worked together: Cage composed music for a film Duchamp helped make. But it wasn't until the 1960s that they became friends. As Duchamp grew older, his health began to fail him; Cage realized his time was running out. And so, he came up with an idea to turn his greatest influence into one of his closest friends:

He would ask Duchamp to teach him chess.

The plan worked. At least once a once week for the rest of his life, one of the most revolutionary artists of the twentieth century sat down at a chessboard across from one of the century's most revolutionary composers. And he beat him every single time. "Don't you ever play to win?" Duchamp complained, frustrated by his own dominance. But Cage was just happy to be hanging out with one of his heroes. Besides, the composer had an even bigger victory in mind.

Everyone assumed Duchamp was done with art forever — no one, not even Cage, realized he was secretly working on a piece to be revealed after his death. So Cage found a way to lure him into one final public appearance as an artist. He would turn their usual chess game into a work of art itself.

That's why he called Lowell Cross. Cage needed a chessboard that could turn the moves of the chess pieces into music. It would require the kind of innovative, interdisciplinary design that Cross was known for. Cage already knew about Cross' work; in fact, they'd already met — they'd both contributed to a recent event in New York City billed as the musical equivalent of the Armory Show. Cross was the perfect person to build the chessboard. And as busy as he was, there was no way he could say no to Cage and Duchamp.

Still, there wasn't much time. The big game was only a few weeks away. It would happen in Toronto. Ryerson was about to host something called the Sightsoundsystems Festival — a celebration of art and technology — and the showdown between Cage and Duchamp would be the headlining event, held on the opening night. They would call it Reunion, since the spectacle would bring together a whole team of groundbreaking composers who had worked together before. Cross scrambled to finish the board in time; it wasn't done until the night before the match.

The following afternoon, a wintry Tuesday, March 5, Marcel Duchamp arrived in Toronto. As he checked into his hotel (the Windsor Arms near Bay & Bloor), he was worried. He told a friend he had no clue why he was in Canada. Cage hadn't told him anything, just that they were going to do something at Ryerson that night.

Reunion (photo by Shigeko Kubota)
What he found when he arrived was a surreal scene. Two of the greatest artists of the twentieth century took their seats in the middle of the stage at the Ryerson Theatre, bathed in bright light and the gaze of the audience. Photographers circled around them, shutters snapping; a movie camera whirred. The stage was a mess of gadgets. There were wires everywhere; a tangle of them plugged right into side of the chessboard. A pair of TV screens was set up on either side of the stage. The Toronto Star called it "a cross between an electronic factory and a movie set."

Duchamp was an old man now; he was 80. "A grave, quiet figure in a dark blue suit," the Globe and Mail called him; "his skin had the transparent quality sometimes seen in those who are at once very old and very well preserved." In fact, he only had a few months left to live. But he still played with a quiet confidence in the midst of the electronic chaos, calmly smoking a cigar and drinking wine while he studied the board, his wife Teeny sitting at his elbow with a cigarette. Across from him, his younger opponent anxiously puffed away at the cigarette holder clutched between his fingers. "Cage looked nervous," the Star said, "like a man who knows he's going to lose."

They were, said the Globe, "like figures in a Beckett play, locked in some meaningless game. The audience, staring silently and sullenly at what was placed before it, was itself a character; and its role was as meaningless as the others. It was total non-communication, all around."

It was Duchamp who made the first move. And as the players began to play, so did the music. Cross had rigged each square in the board with a photoresistor — so that every time a chess piece moved to a new square, it blocked the light and sent a signal through the wires.

Those wires were hooked up to an elaborate sound system. There was a series of speakers spread out across the theatre, along with a team of experimental composers armed with strange instruments they'd either made or modified themselves. "Tuners, amplifiers and all manner of electronic gadgetry," according to the Star. As the composers coaxed bizarre noises out of their instruments, the moves on the chessboard decided which sounds were heard and which speakers played them. They were echoed on the TV screens, too, which flickered with scrambled, oscillating images. One of Cross' prerecorded compositions was also added to the mix.

As the game progressed and the positions of the pieces became more complex, so too did the music. The room filled with "screeches, buzzes, twitters and rasps." The peak of the racket didn't last for very long, though. Before the match had started, Duchamp had given Cage a handicap — removing one of his own white knights — but it didn't make much difference. One by one, Cage's black pieces were being removed from the board. And as the pieces disappeared, the music grew simpler in response.

Reunion (photo by Shigeko Kubota)
It was all over pretty quickly. Duchamp took less than half an hour to beat Cage. They didn't even have time to finish their bottle of wine.

A second game followed; this time Cage faced off against Teeny Duchamp. They were much more evenly matched, locked in battle for hours, their stalemate stretching long into the night. The audience gradually grew tired and bored; people trickled out into the cold. After a few hours, there were fewer than ten of them left. Even Duchamp dozed off. By one in the morning, the old artist had had enough. They agreed to call it a night.

Out in the audience someone shouted: "Encore!"

The reviews the next morning weren't much kinder than the initial reviews of Duchamp's Nude or Cage's 4'33". The Star called Reunion "infinitely boring... Among great cultural events of the decade, this wasn't one of the exciting ones..." The Globe agreed: "a case of the blind leading the blind."

But the reviews, of course, weren't the point. The artists had done what they set out to do, what they had both been doing since the very beginning of their careers: breaking down the walls between life and art. It was Lowell Cross who put it best. Reunion, he said, was "a public celebration of Cage's delight in living everyday life as an art form."

Duchamp passed away a few months later. Cage followed him a couple of decades after that. But the memory of their strange chess match lives on. Nearly half a century after the two icons of the avant-garde took to the stage at Ryerson, artists are still performing their work. A version of Reunion's musical chess match was part of the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2013. A year before that, a Chilean artist mounted his own version at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago. Another version was performed in Oslo that same year. And in 2010, during Toronto's Nuit Blanche, Reunion returned to the very same stage where Duchamp and Cage had battled with queens and knights and bishops — and squeals and buzzes and rasps — all those years ago.


The most invaluable source in all of this was Lowell Cross' own account of Reunion. You can read it in a PDF via JohnCage.org here.

You can also read the Star's reviews (if you have a Toronto Public Library card, I think?) here. And the Globe's here. The Globe's preview is here. And they have a scathing review of another event from the festival here. There's an ad for the festival here.

But William Littler — famous for his balanced reviews — did actually kind of get the point of the event in his review for his Star:

"There really are no objective value judgments to apply... [Cage] sees no valid distinction between art and life, between sounds suitable for making music and the sounds around us... From breaking the barriers between his art and life, the artist moves to the associated task of breaking the barriers between the various art forms... Reunion is a total affirmation, an environment which offers us sights and sounds which claim to be no more than they are... last night at Ryerson, one man's opinion was literally as good as another's."

There are more great photos of the chess match here and here.

I found lots of information about the chess match here and here and here and here and here and in French here. The CBC has a timeline of Cage's Canadian connections here.

Read more about 4'33" here and here. Or about Duchamp's Nude here. And the Armory Show here.

There's a brief biography of Lowell Cross here. And he's got lots of information on his own website, with the time of Reunion covered here.