Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Come To The Ex! Watch Us Slice Open A Pet!

The Ex had never been more popular than it was in 1962 and ’63. More than three million people walked through the gates during those years. The crowds set new attendance records for Canada’s biggest fair — less than half as many visit these days. Many of those flocking to the Exhibition Grounds were about to see one of the most bizarre exhibits the CNE has ever displayed.

It was called Vetescope. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association organized it. They wanted to show Canadians that vets were more than just “horse doctors” – that they were a vital part of modern society, using cutting edge technology to keep our animals healthy. They billed it as “the biggest public relations venture that organized veterinary medicine has undertaken on this continent.”

It was huge. The full exhibit sprawled over 9,000 square feet in the gorgeous Hydro Building (they call it the Music Building now) and cost $1 million to prepare. There were more than 250 vets on hand to answer questions from the public, manning 18 displays about their profession. There was information about “radiology, anatomy, embryology, histology, pathology, bacteriology and parsitology”. But that’s not all. They also featured some attention-grabbing displays about the modern innovations in veterinary science.

You could, for instance, learn about the role of animal medicine in space exploration. And as part of the Large Animal display, members of the public could meet “Maggie the magnetized cow”. It seems she was equipped with one of the latest breakthroughs in bovine science: a cow magnet. It rested in her gut, collecting all of the metallic odds and ends a cow accidentally consumes over the course of her lifetime, thus preventing troublesome “hardware disease”. It was a brand new development back in the early 1960s; today the use of cow magnets is commonplace.

But it wasn’t the space age exhibit or the magnetized cow that grabbed the biggest headlines. The organizers of Vetescope had put together an even more dramatic demonstration of their profession. They had veterinarians perform live surgeries in front of crowds of curious onlookers.

People loved it. Thousands upon thousands of Torontonians and tourists showed up to witness the surgeries. So many, in fact, they couldn’t all get close enough to see through the windows into the operating room. Those who were too far away to see inside watched on a closed circuit television system.

For some of them, it was all a bit too much. As the doctors made their incisions into the tiny, furry patients on the operating table, many of those who were watching grew dizzy and weak in the knees. In one day alone, at least a dozen people fainted. One man passed out twice. Another recovered only to walk straight into a tree. One American newspaper called the operations “too realistic,” reporting that an average of three audience members were fainting during every surgery. “More than 50 visitors have been carried or helped out, and a few have required hospital treatment.” The organizers, fearing for public safety, made sure there were “fainting assistants” on hand to help those who did keel over.

Despite the queasy combination of cotton candy, corn dogs, roller coasters and live surgery, Vetescope was, by all accounts, a smashing success. Nearly 400,000 people came to see it in the first year alone. “[T]he general reaction could almost be described as one of astonishment,” a supporter later recalled. “It became apparent even to a child that medical care of animals is on par with that of humans.” The veterinary masterminds behind the exhibit were lauded for their public relations success.

In fact, it was such a big hit they made sure to capture it on film:

A version of this post was originally published on August 23, 2010.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Coming Soon: The Toronto Book of the Dead

Things have been a bit quiet on the Dreams Project blog this year — but there's a pretty good reason for that: I spent most of 2016 working on my first book. It's available for pre-order now (from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite local bookseller). It hits shelves in September 2017.

The Toronto Book of the Dead will explore the history of the city through the stories of some of its most fascinating and illuminating deaths. There will be morbid tales of war and plague, of duels and executions, of suicides and séances. It will cover everything from ancient First Nations burial mounds to the grisly murder of Toronto’s first lighthouse keeper; from the rise and fall of the city’s greatest Victorian baseball star to the final days of the world’s most notorious anarchist.

Countless lives have been lived and lost as Toronto has grown from a muddy little frontier town into a booming metropolis of concrete and glass. The Toronto Book of the Dead will tell the story of our ever-changing city through the final moments of those who have called this place home.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Simcoe's Weird & Complicated Relationship With Slavery — A Tweetstorm

August 1 was both Simcoe Day and Emancipation Day in the City of Toronto. One is meant to remember the British soldier who founded our city; the other marks the day slavery was abolished across the entire British Empire. It's an interesting overlap: Simcoe was responsible for abolishing slavery in Toronto; he passed the first law to end the practice ever passed anywhere in the Empire. But his relationship to slavery wasn't anywhere near as clear-cut and simple as that might make it sound. And so, to mark this year's Simcoe and Emancipation Days, I thought I'd do some tweeting.

You'll find the Twitter essay embedded below. And if you can't see it for any reason, you can read it all on Storify here.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Some Stuff You Should See At Doors Open 2016

This weekend is Doors Open weekend in Toronto. More than a hundred and thirty buildings across the city will be opening their doors to the public over the next two days — including some of the most interesting, beautiful and historic buildings that Toronto has to offer. And since there's no way one person can manage to catch all of the cool stuff without a TARDIS or a DeLorean or a Time-Turner, I thought I'd share some of my own picks for this year's event.

I might be out and about myself this weekend and, if so, I'll be sharing my adventures on Twitter and on Instagram (@TODreamsProject). So you can follow me there!


Not only is the Cathedral Church of St. James one of the most spectacular buildings in Toronto, it's also one of the most important buildings in the entire history of Canada. The story of St. James stretches all the way back to a small wooden church built at what's now the corner of Church & King in the very early 1800s — and over the course of that century, it played a central role in the battle for democracy in Canada. This was the church most our city's leaders attended. The first preacher, John Strachan, was also our city's first Anglican bishop, arch-nemesis of William Lyon Mackenzie and a figurehead of the infamously anti-democratic Family Compact. He's still there today, buried under the chancel. (I wrote the full story for Torontoist a while back; you can check it out here.) To this day, it's still the heart of the Anglican faith in Canada. Even the Queen prays here when she's in town.

The doors to the church will be open from 10 to 5 on Saturday and 12:30 to 4 on Sunday afternoon.


Fort York is one of the jewels of Toronto. A National Historic Site hidden between the highways and the skyscrapers. The fort has been standing on this spot — the place where the modern city of Toronto started — for more than 200 years. Its story stretches back through one war after another, back through the bloody battle that raged here during the War of 1812, back all the way to the very first day the city of Toronto was founded. It was here, at what was then the mouth of the Garrison Creek, that the first British soldiers showed up to start chopping down trees and building the military base that would guard the mouth of our harbour. Meanwhile, Governor Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth lived in an elaborate tent overlooking the construction from the other side of the creek, exploring the beaches and the forests with their young children, their pet cat and a dog they called Jack Sharp.

The site will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday, with tours pretty much every hour.


Just like the much more famous R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant out in the east end (which will also be open this weekend), the High Level Water Pumping Station takes Toronto's water infrastructure and transforms it into something beautiful. And the old building also played a central role in one of the most delightful episodes in the history of our city. Back in the 1960s, the residents of the surrounding neighbourhood — Rathnelly — declared independence from the rest of Canada. As the story goes, they wrote a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, elected a Queen, issued their own passports, and sent an "air farce" of children holding a thousand helium balloons to surround the Pumping Station until their demands were met. To this day, the neighbourhood is known as the Republic of Rathnelly. They've even got their own custom street signs featuring a national crest.

The doors will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday.

Old City Hall has been keeping time above the intersection of Queen & Bay since the very end of the 1900s. It was built by one of Toronto's most important architects, E.J. Lennox, the same guy who did Casa Loma, the King Edward Hotel, and the west wing of Queen's Park. It's Old City Hall that he gets the most attention for, though. In large part because of his battles with city council. He went waaaaaaaaaaaay overbudget, spending six times as much as he was supposed to. They retaliated by saying he wasn't allowed to carve his name into the building, like he usually did, but he did anyway. And hid his face among the grotesques adorning the entrance. Inside, you'll also find one of the most wonderful stained-glass windows in Toronto.

The site will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday


Osgoode Hall has been on the corner of Queen & University, nearly as long as there has been a Queen & University. It was originally built in the 1830s, with lots of additions and subtractions since then (including that iconic, black, wrought-iron fence). The architect was William Warren Baldwin, a doctor and lawyer who was one of the most important pro-democracy figures in Toronto's early history. He's also the same guy who built the original Spadina House, and had Spadina Avenue carved out of the forest. Today, it's still home to the Law Society of Upper Canada and some of Ontario's highest courts.
Osgoode Hall is also where an escaped slave, Thornton Blackburn, got a job working as a waiter when he first came to Toronto. He used the money he earned there to launch the city's first horse-drawn cab company, which in turn gave him enough money to help other former slaves get on their feet after coming to Toronto through the Underground Railroad. (I wrote more about him here.)

The site will be open from 10 to 5 on both Saturday and Sunday.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Dream 22 "The Star Harvest" (William Peyton Hubbard, 1911)

The alderman dreamed of a night when the people of Toronto climbed up onto their rooftops, up to the highest branches of all the trees, up cathedral spires and skyscrapers. He joined them, too, high up the clock tower of City Hall. From there, you could reach the stars with a butterfly net. One swipe through the sky might bring down two or three at a time. They shone a soft, cold blue and were smooth to the touch, perfect and round. All over the city, they were collected in baskets and pillowcases and brought down to earth. They were taken to the sides of the roads, along sidewalks and ditches and lawns, where they were planted in the dirt by the light of the moon. By the time the sun rose, they had sprouted into tall, slender silver birches. They lined every street in graceful rows. And when night came again, those trees unfurled lush blue flowers. Inside each one was a brand new baby star. And all of Toronto glowed.


William Peyton Hubbard was Toronto's first Black alderman — and even served as acting mayor on some occasions. The son of a former slave, he got into politics after saving George Brown (Father of Confederation and owner of the Globe newspaper) from drowning in the Don River. In the early days of electricity, Hubbard was a champion of public ownership of power utilities, teaming up with Sir Adam Beck to bring public power to the city of Toronto and the province of Ontario. 

You can read more about Hubbard on Torontoist here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Toronto's Depression-Era Beauty Queen Baseball Star

Women have been playing baseball for as long as anyone can remember. And for much of that time, they've been playing despite the men who've tried to keep them off the field. In baseball's early days, women were told they were much too fragile to swing a bat or field a grounder. Even Al Spalding, founder of the National League, said that women were welcome to sit in the stands and cheer for the men — but that was it.

"Neither our wives, our sisters, our daughters, nor our sweethearts may play Base Ball on the field," he declared. "Base Ball is too strenuous for womankind, except as she may take part in the grandstands, with applause for the brilliant play, with waving kerchief to the hero of the three-bagger." As if playing shortstop were somehow more physically demanding than, oh, say, giving birth.

Luckily, many women ignored that poor, Victorian advice. And when you look through the oldest photographs in the Toronto Archives, you'll find plenty of women already there, playing baseball on diamonds all over our city. They were forming their own teams and their own leagues, drawing their own big crowds.

By the time the end of the 1930s rolled around, even Miss Toronto herself was getting in on the action.

In 1937, the winner of the annual beauty pageant was a teenage softball pitcher from the Beaches. Billie Hallam's grandmother convinced her to enter the competition. And so, on a hot Saturday afternoon in July, she raced down to the Exhibition Grounds in her swimsuit, where she would parade before a panel of judges and 20,000 spectators. When Hallam was announced as the winner, the Mayor of Toronto presented her with a sash. She was only 17 years old, but in heels, she was already taller than he was.

That night, as the new Miss Toronto, Hallam was due to appear at a celebratory banquet at the Royal York Hotel. But she had business to take care of first. She rushed straight home from the pageant to change her clothes. From there, a police escort rushed her through the streets to Kew Gardens, where her ball team was playing a big game. She cheered them on from the bench in her evening gown, and then raced back downtown to the banquet.

The next morning, she woke to find the press knocking on her door, eager to interview the city's newest beauty icon. One journalist asked a version of the same question men had been asking for years: should women really play sports? Hallam's answer was pretty much the exact opposite of what Spalding had said decades earlier. "[T]here is nothing like exercise and sport," she told the reporter, "to make a girl a real lady."

The next time she returned to the mound, a crowd of more than 10,000 people was there to see her pitch — the most ever for a game at Kew Gardens. At one point, she even did a photo shoot wearing her uniform. You can find those photos in the Archives, too.

Hallam was far from the last Toronto woman to make her mark in the baseball world. More than 10% of the players in the famous All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — the league from A League of Their Own — were actually Canadian. In real life, the star of the Rockford Peaches wasn't Geena Davis, it was Gladys Davis, an interior designer from Toronto. Today she's in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and part of a display in Cooperstown.

Decades later, when the Blue Jays brought Major League Baseball to town, The Toronto Star's Alice Gordon made history as the first woman to cover an MLB beat. And she did it in the face of misogynist discrimination from many men in the game, including some of the Jays' own players. When the team travelled to Texas, the Rangers banned all reporters from the clubhouse just so they wouldn't have to let her in.

We have, of course, come a long way since then. Today, there are countless women writing about the game. This season, Jessica Mendoza is breaking new ground as a broadcaster with ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. And on the field, players like Mo'ne Davis are making history, too. But we still have a long way to go. We were reminded of that just last week, when Blue Jays manager John Gibbons claimed that a new rule is making the sport less manly. "You know what, maybe we’ll come out wearing dresses tomorrow," he complained. "Maybe that’s what everyone’s looking for."

Well Gibby, Billie Hallam proved it nearly 80 years ago: you can sure as hell wear an evening gown and still be a damn fine ballplayer, too.


Kevin Plummer has a much more detailed post about Billie Hallam's crowning as Miss Toronto here. Lots of my info comes thanks to him. And from old articles from Toronto Star written by another one of our city's pioneering journalists, Alexandrine Gibb.

The full, misogynist Al Spalding quote can be found in the book "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line", which you can find on Google Books here. And I originally found part of it in another book, "Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball" which is also on Google Books here

The Rhino, in Parkdale, has a Miss Toronto mural overlooking the patio, as The Vintage Inn points out here.

Photo of Billie Hallam via the Toronto Archives. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why Do We Celebrate Toronto's Birthday On A Day That Isn't Actually Toronto's Birthday?!

On March 6, we celebrated Toronto's 182nd birthday — which is weird, because Toronto isn't 182 years old, and it wasn't founded in March. Our city was founded 203 years ago, in the heat of July. But along the way, we've switched from celebrating the day Toronto was actually founded to the day it was officially incorporated as a "city." The reasons have a lot to do with Victorian whitewashing and there are allll kind of implications. And since it's always driven me nuts, I figured that this year I would mark the occasion with a Twitter rant.

(If you can't see the embedded tweets below, you can read them all on Storify here.)

Monday, March 14, 2016

An Awesome Empire Day Float from 1927

It's Commonwealth Day today, which we used to call Empire Day back when there was still an empire. The holiday started here in Ontario in the late 1800s and then spread across the rest of the colonies. And it was actually the Trudeau government who suggested the current date: the second Monday of March.

Every year, they have a big multi-faith shindig at Westminster Abbey in London; all the best royals show up. Today, the Queen used it as a chance to ask all members of the Commonwealth to welcome those "who feel excluded from all walks of life" — a big change in tone from the oppressive old world-conquering, Catholic-hating, Anglican-or-bust days of the empire, which saw plenty of blood spilled in the streets of Toronto back in the time when we were known as the Belfast of North America.

The best part of Empire Day? The awesome archival photos of old-timey floats. Like the one above: the Britannia float from Toronto's Empire Day parade in 1927.


Photo via the Toronto Archives.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

For International Women's Day: Five Fascinating Stories from the History of Toronto

Today is International Women's Day, which we've been celebrating since 1910, back in the days when not only were Canadian women not allowed to vote, our country didn't even consider them to be persons. The event has its own fascinating history, which you can learn more about on Wikipedia here — while my friend Rebekah Hakkenberg shared her own thoughts about the occasion on this day six years ago, and shared some great photos from the history of feminism, too.

I thought I'd mark this year's Women's Day by searching through the archives of this blog, looking for the most interesting stories about women from history of Toronto. It's been a valuable experience — and an important reminder: that I need to always strive to a better job of telling stories that are about people who aren't the old white dudes who have dominated so much of the storytelling about the history of our city.

Below, you'll find five of my favourites. From Elizabeth Simcoe and the founding of our city, to the blood-soaked nurses who saved lives during the First World War, to the death of the notorious anarchist who they called "the most dangerous woman in the world."

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.... While Simcoe set to work planning his new capital, Elizabeth was charged with the task of bringing aristocratic British culture to this remote outpost tucked between the primordial Canadian forest and the vast waters of Lake Ontario. As the fledgling town began to take shape and the families of other government officials arrived, Elizabeth Simcoe was at the centre of social life in the new settlement... [continue reading this post] 

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]

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]

One Last Victory for the Most Dangerous Woman in the World
The Most Dangerous Woman in the World was playing a quiet game of cards. It was a snowy Toronto evening in the winter of 1940, that first terrible winter of the Second World War. She was staying with friends at their home on Vaughan Road, waiting for a meeting to begin. That's when she slumped over in her chair. It was a stroke. One of the greatest orators of the twentieth century couldn't speak a word. 

This wasn't the end most people would have expected for Emma Goldman. For decades now, she'd been the most notorious anarchist on earth. Her ideas made nations tremble: thoughts about freedom and free speech and free love; about feminism and marriage and birth control; about violence and pacifism and war. She'd been thrown out of the United States for those ideas, forced to flee Soviet Russia, driven out of Latvia, Sweden, Germany... [continue reading this post]

Frances Loring and her life-long partner, Florence Wyle, had come to Toronto in the early 1900s. They'd both been born in the United States and shared a studio in Greenwich Village. They were at home in that neighbourhood's bohemian atmosphere, getting to know their artist neighbours like Georgia O'Keeffe and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. But their parents didn't approve. One day in 1913, Loring's father shut down the studio and offered to move the pair to Toronto. He would be able to keep an eye on them here — and hoped our city's conservative values might rub off on them. Instead, it was the other way around... [continue reading this post]

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Dream 21 "Standard Time" (Sir Sandford Fleming, 1878)

Fleming dreamed the Institute loved his idea — wanted, in fact, to take his logic a few steps further and set the clocks back an entire 50 years. And so the City hired bricklayers to take apart all the new buildings: homes and churches and stores were turned into rubble and dust; their predecessors were rebuilt in their place. The sidewalks were pulled up by carpenters; Yonge and King and Queen Streets were returned to muddy glory. Fleming himself helped to disassemble his own railway, taking a great iron hammer to the rails. The debris was used to fill quarries back in; they were then covered with dirt and re-sodded. Trees were planted and roads were undone. Creeks were unburied and brooks let loose.

Once everything had been put back in its place, the young people hid themselves away. Most of them vanished into the ravines. Some disappeared into basements or backyard shacks. Others set off on ships to make a new life for themselves in the Old World.

As the last of the sails dipped below the lake’s blue horizon, a great cheer went up in the city. That night, the elderly would go dancing. Get drunk. Make out with strangers. Fall in love.


Sir Sandford Fleming was one of Canada's greatest inventors and engineers. He helped to plan our earliest railroads, designed our first postage stamp and co-founded the Royal Canadian Institute to promote Canadian science. In the 1870s, he proposed a new system for the world's time: a universal 24-hour clock divided into local time zones. It would become the standard for measuring time all over the world.

You can read more about Sir Sandford Fleming on Wikipedia here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Night Neil Young Was Conceived

It was the last winter of the Second World War. 1945. The first week of February. Far away in Europe, the Nazis were crumbling: the Soviets were closing in on Berlin; the Americans would soon be crossing the Rhine. The war would be over in just a few months. The Big Three — Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin — were already at Yalta, meeting to decide what the world would look like when the fighting was finally done.

Neil Young's dad was one of the people doing that fighting. Scott Young was a writer by trade: a young reporter who would eventually write dozens of books and even co-host Hockey Night in Canada for a while. He first went to Europe to cover the war for the Canadian Press. His dispatches were published in newspapers all over our country. But he soon joined the Royal Canadian Navy instead, serving as a communications officer in the invasion of southern France, among other places.

The war was taking a toll, though; Young was suffering from chronic fatigue and losing weight at an alarming rate. So he was sent back to Canada for tests. That meant he would get to make a brief visit home to Toronto, where he could spend a little time with his wife Rassy and their toddler, Bob.

When he got here, he found the city covered in snow. That winter was a terrible winter — one of the worst in the entire recorded history of Toronto. One infamous blizzard in December killed 21 people. And the temperature barely ever climbed above freezing, so the snow just kept piling up as the blizzards kept coming. By the time Young came home at the beginning of February, Toronto had already seen five feet of snow that winter.

361 Soudan Avenue
And there was yet another big storm coming. As the city braced itself for the blizzard, the Youngs spent the day visiting with friends who lived in a little house near Eglinton & Mount Pleasant. (361 Soudan Avenue; it's still there today.) It was far on the outskirts of the city back then; a long way from downtown in the days before the subway. And so, as the storm descended, they all decided it was best if the Youngs stayed put. They dragged a mattress downstairs and set it up on the dining room floor.

Scott Young wrote about that night in his memoir, Neil and Me. "I remember the street in Toronto, the wild February blizzard through which only the hardiest moved, on skis, sliding downtown through otherwise empty streets to otherwise empty offices."

The Youngs' love story wouldn't last forever. In the coming years, they would often fight; she drank, he had affairs. In the end, they divorced. But on that stormy winter night in 1945, they were happy. A young wife and her new husband home on leave from the war.

"We were just past our middle twenties," Young remembered, "and had been apart for most of the previous year... We were healthy young people, much in love, apart too much. It was a small house and when we made love that night we tried to be fairly quiet, and perhaps were."

Nine months later, the war was over; peace had finally come. Scott Young was back home again. When Rassy went into labour, a neighbour drove them down to the fancy new wing of the Toronto General Hospital. It was early in the morning of a warm November day when the baby came. They named him Neil Percival Young. He would grow up to become one of the greatest rock stars in the world.


Main image: the winter of 1944-45 via the Toronto Archives; other image: 361 Soudan by me, Adam Bunch.

You can find Scott Young's memoir, "Neil and Me", on Amazon here. Or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here. You can read more about Neil Young's early life in "Young Neil: The Sugar Mountain Years" by Sharry Wilson which is on Amazon here and in the Toronto Public Library here. I first heard about this night in a review of "Rock and Roll Toronto: From Alanis to Zeppelin" by Richard Crouse and John Goddard, which is on Amazon here and in the Toronto Public Library here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Scarborough's 700 Year-Old Burial Mound

This is an ancient, sacred place. It's a hill in Scarborough, about 700 years old, with nearly 500 people buried inside it. It's near Lawrence & Bellamy, a few storeys high, looking out over bungalows for miles in all directions. It was made sometime around the years 1250-1300 as a burial mound by the Wendat (who the Europeans called the Huron) during a Feast of the Dead. The Feasts were held every time a village moved to a new location — every 10-15 years or so, at the end of the winter. Those who had been buried during that time were dug up for the 10-day Feast before having their bones cleaned and then re-buried in a communal grave like this one. Today, we call it Tabor Hill and it's one of the most remarkable places in Toronto.


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

Monday, January 25, 2016

Toronto's Most Deadly Disaster: The Nightmare on the SS Noronic

It was late. The Noronic was quiet. The ship was docked at the foot of Yonge Street, gently rocking in the dark waves. Almost everyone on board was already fast asleep. It was two-thirty in the morning; most of those who had enjoyed a night out in the city had come back to their rooms and gone to bed. Hundreds of passengers were tucked beneath their sheets.

Don Church was still up, though, heading back to his room from the lounge. He worked as an appraiser for a fire insurance company, so he knew what it meant when he found a strange haze in one of the corridors. He followed it back to its source: smoke billowed out from under the closed door of a linen closet. The most deadly fire in Toronto's history was just getting started.

The Noronic had first set sail all the way back in 1913: in the glory days of Great Lakes cruise ships. In the late-1800s and early-1900s, the Great Lakes were filled with luxury liners. The ships carried hundreds of passengers from ports on both sides of the border, steaming across the lakes in style. It was a major industry for nearly a century. As a member of the Toronto Marine Historical Society put it: "At one time there were more people asleep on boats on the Great Lakes than on any ocean in the world."

The SS Noronic was one of the biggest and most decadent of them all. They called her "The Queen of the Lakes." She had a ballroom, a dining hall, a barber shop and a beauty salon, music rooms and writing rooms, a library, a playroom for children, even her own newspaper printed on board for the passengers.

But as fancy as it all was, taking a cruise was also very risky. The Noronic was christened just a year after the unsinkable Titanic sank. And even on the Great Lakes, where there weren't any icebergs lurking in the dark, there was still plenty of danger.

The SS Noronic in 1930ish
In fact, the Noronic's own maiden voyage had almost been a disaster. She was scheduled to set sail for the first time in November of 1913, just as the biggest storm in the history of the Great Lakes rolled into the region. For three straight days, it lashed the lakes with hurricane-force winds, waves fifteen meters high, and torrents of rain and snow. The Noronic was lucky: she stayed in port where it was safe. But more than two hundred and fifty people would die in the storm. So many ships were destroyed that there's an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to listing them.

Storms were far from the only danger. Ships capsized or collided with each other. They sank. Many — like one of the Noronic's own sister ships, the Hamonic — burst into flame. In the early days of the industry, there were essentially no meaningfully-enforced safety regulations at all. And even when the first new laws were introduced, there were loopholes for existing ships. The Noronic was shockingly unprepared for an emergency. But no one seemed to think that was a big deal: for 36 years, she sailed without incident.

Right up until 1949. That September, the Noronic left Detroit for a week-long trip to the Thousand Islands. The cruise brought her to Toronto on a cool Friday night, docked at Pier 9 (right near where the ferry terminal is today). Her passengers and crew streamed ashore to enjoy the city. And when they came back at the end of the night, all was quiet and calm. For a while.

By the time Don Church discovered the source of the smoke, it was already too late. And when he finally found a bellboy to help him, the bellboy didn't pull the fire alarm; instead, he got the keys to open the closet door. A hellish backdraft burst into the corridor. The flames spread quickly. When Church and the bellboy tried to use a fire hose, the hose didn't work. Neither did any of the others. Even worse, the ship's hallways were lined with wood paneling: for decades now, the wood had been carefully polished with lemon oil. It was the perfect fuel for the flames. Meanwhile, stairwells acted like chimneys, funneling oxygen to the blaze.

Eight minutes later, the ship's whistle jammed while issuing a distress signal and let loose with one endless, piercing shriek. By then, half the ship was already on fire. In a few more minutes, the rest of the Noronic was in flames, too. Survivors later said the whole thing went up like the head of a match.

Firefighters fighting the fire
On board, there was chaos and panic. The safety equipment didn't work. There weren't enough emergency exits. Only a few crew members were on duty and they had no training in case of an emergency like this one. Most of them fled the ship immediately, leaving the sleeping passengers behind. People were burned alive in their beds. They were suffocated in their rooms. They rushed along the decks and hallways in flames. A few were trampled to death. Some smashed through windows in their bid to escape, leaving blood pouring down their faces. The most desperate started to jump over the sides of the ship, the lucky ones hitting the water where rescuers — police, firemen and passers-by — were pulling people from the lake. One person drowned. Another hit the pier and died from the impact. Other jumpers didn't make it clear of the ship; they smashed into the decks below, making them slippery with their blood. When the first ladder was finally hoisted up against the burning ship, passengers pushed forward in such a rush that the ladder snapped, tossing people into the water. They say the screams of the victims were even louder than the whistles and sirens. It was one of the most horrifying scenes Toronto has ever witnessed.

At about five in the morning, just as the first light began to appear on the horizon, the blaze finally died out. Two hours after that, the Noronic had cooled off enough for people to begin the grizzly search though the wreckage. Bodies were everywhere: skeletons found embracing in the hallways, others still in bed, some turned entirely to ash by a heat so intense it could incinerate bone.

At first, the dead were pulled from the wreckage and piled up on the pier, but there were so many that eventually the Horticultural Building at the CNE was turned into a makeshift morgue. (Today, that same building is home to the Muzik nightclub.) For the next few weeks, the authorities struggled to identify the bodies. It was next to impossible. No one even knew how many people had been on board the ship. Some of them were unregistered: guests from Toronto visiting friends. Some had registered under fake names: taking a romantic cruise with someone who wasn't their spouse. Most of the passengers were American, so their families would have to make the grim journey north to see if they could identify any of the charred remains. Even then, many of the bodies were burnt so badly they were unrecognizable. Entirely new techniques of x-ray identification had to be developed. It was one of the very first times that dental records were ever used forensically. Eventually, the death toll was pegged at 119 lives. To this day, no one is entirely sure that number is quite right. But if it's anywhere close, it's the most people ever killed by a single disaster in the history of Toronto.

In the wake of the fire, Canada Steamship Lines paid more than $2 million to the victims and their families. And it didn't take long for safety laws to be overhauled. For the first time ever, all ships sailing on the Great Lakes would have to meet real, enforced safety regulations. But it wouldn't be cheap. It cost a lot to sail a big ship that wasn't a death trap; it was expensive to keep a luxury liner afloat if it wasn't allowed to burst into flames every once in a while. In the wake of the tragedy in Toronto, the industry collapsed. The golden age of cruising on the Great Lakes in style had come to a bloody end.



The Noronic (via blogTO)

The Noronic in Sault Ste-Marie, 1940 (via the Vancouver Archives)

Dining in style on the Noronic (via Torontoist)

On board the Noronic in 1941ish (via the Vancouver Archives)

The Noronic burns (via Cities In Time)

The Noronic burns (via the Toronto Star)

The Noronic burns (via the Toronto Archives)

The skyline watches over the wreckage (via the Toronto Archives)

The wreckage of the Noronic (via the Cleveland Plain-Dealer)

The Royal York, in the distance, took in survivors (via the Toronto Archives)

The wreckage of the Noronic (via the Toronto Archives)

The Noronic sank in the shallows (via Citizen Freak)

A diver searches the wreckage (via the Toronto Star)

The wreckage (via Wikipedia)

The wreckage (via the Toronto Archives)

A body gets pulled from the wreckage (via the Cleveland Plain-Dealer)

The makeshift morgue at the Horticultural Building (via the Toronto Star)


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
A version of this post was originally published on September 23, 2010. It has since been updated to be more awesome, with a bit more detail and some structural changes. 

There's a memorial to the victims in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and a plaque has been erected near where it happened. You can also see the ship's whistle on display at the Marine Museum on the waterfront near Ontario Place.

Ellis McGrath wrote a song about it, which you can stream here.  

The top image comes via Urban Toronto (thanks to this post by user Goldie). The second comes from via the Toronto Archives. And the third via the Toronto Star, which has an article about the fire by Valerie Hauch here.

The story of the Noronic has also been told by Chris Bateman on blogTo here, by Kevin Plummer on Torontoist here, and by Michael J. Varhola and Paul G. Hoffman in their book "Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures, Great Lakes: Legends and Lore, Pirate and More!" which you can find on Google Books here. The Maritime History of the Great Lakes shares a Toronto Daily Star article from the week of the fire here. The CBC Archives shared a radio clip about the fire here. The "What Went Wrong" blog discusses the issue of the (lack of) safety regulations in detail here. You can read more about the Noronic disaster in a couple of interesting articles from the Walkerville Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And Library and Archives Canada has a whole online exhibit about the SS Noronic fire here

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Dream 20 "Worts & The Well" (James Worts, 1834)

In the miller’s dream, his wife Elizabeth fell into the well. He was there when it happened. He heard the splash and rushed to save her: took a deep, deeeep breath and dove in. Shocked by the cold of the black water, he swam down and down and down into the murk further and further until he found her there at the distant bottom, sinking into the mud. Already, she was almost gone; only her pale face was still visible above the silt. Her eyes were wide with fear. He dug at the mud with his hands, frantic, but try as he might he couldn’t pull her out of it, could only keep it at bay, and soon his burning lungs forced him back to the surface for another gulp of air.

By the time he dove again, she was gone.


James Worts was born in England and moved to Toronto in the early 1800s to start a mill with his friend William Gooderhman. It would go on to become the famous Gooderham & Worts distillery — which produced the most whisky in the world and is now the historic Distillery District — but Worts didn't live to see it. He committed suicide by drowing himself in the mill's well in 1834 after his wife died giving birth.

Learn more about his true story here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.