Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on May 31, 2008.
One of the most eyecatching murals on display in Toronto is the colourful piece that acts as a gateway to Croft Street near College and Bathurst. The Monty Pythonesque design may provoke chuckles but the story it relates is a serious one, as the work honours the street’s namesake, the only recorded fatality associated with the Great Toronto Fire of 1904.
On the evening of April 19, 1904, a nightwatchman noticed flames in an elevator shaft of the E&S Currie Building at 58-60 Wellington Street West. Unfortunately, most of its neighbouring buildings were made of highly flammable wood and designed in ways that fueled fires. The blaze quickly spread and cut a 12-hour path of destruction roughly bounded by Simcoe, Melinda, Yonge and the rail lines. Firefighters from as far as Buffalo assisted Toronto firefighters, with teams from London and Peterborough arriving too late to battle the flames. By 4:30 a.m., the fire was declared to be under control.
Front Street looking east from Bay Street, April 1904. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1408, Item 2.
Insurance companies and city inspectors quickly assessed the condition of the damaged buildings and prepared a list of properties deemed too unsafe to remain standing. Property owners received notices asking them to bring down their walls immediately or allow the city to demolish the structures. No objections were received.
Over the next few weeks, safecrackers were hired to rescue important documents from the ruins, followed by demolition teams equipped with dynamite. Among the men hired for the demolition was Parliament Street resident John Croft, a recent immigrant from England who had occasionally assisted dynamiters in coal mines in his native land. He was assigned to the W.J. Gage Building at 54-58 Front Street West. His team was not given a storage battery to set off the dynamite and had to resort to lighting long fuses then running for cover (an image associated with modern cartoon gags—a possible inspiration for the mural design?). This worked for the first two explosions that were set on May 4th. The third try proved unlucky for Croft.
The following morning, The Globe reported on the incident and Croft’s condition:
Croft, with two assistants, William Goudge and A. Ramsden, had set off 30 blasts yesterday morning and at 1 o’clock placed three charges under of portion of the W.J. Gage & Co. wall. Two were exploded safely, but the third fuse, set for a minute and a half, was slow. After waiting for some time, Croft went up the wall to investigate, and as he did the blast went off. The flesh on his right arm was torn to shreds, and he sustained a severe scalp wound and a broken rib. The sight of the left eye was destroyed.
Later that morning Croft died from the shock, leaving behind a wife and three children. He was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Four years later, the former Ulster Avenue was renamed in his honour. The mural was created a century later, followed by a plaque from Heritage Toronto.
Photos of Croft Street by Jamie Bradburn. Additional material from the May 5, 1904 edition of The Globe.
Croft Street mural and Heritage Toronto plaque, January 12, 2020.
The mural honouring John Croft on the street named after him was one of my favourites in the city. It was well illustrated, told its story well, and had a funny, bordering on Monty Python-esque sensibility to it. It deserved to be well taken care of.
Over the years, people have had other ideas.
It’s a problem which has also affected street art on the garages further north along Croft Street. Lovely artwork and creative grafitti are ruined by amateurs or those who don’t care about the work of others. One can argue its the cycle and nature of such things, but it feels like an insult to those who invested time in these projects.
Would it be worth commissioning artists to create a new spin on Croft’s story on this wall (as has happened with other murals in the city, such as the depiction of Leslieville at Queen and Jones), or would that fall into ruin quickly?
The Heritage Toronto plaque has also been poorly treated. Beyond the defacing of the photo, whoever recently sprayed over the plaque may have thought it was part of the wall. Perhaps they left their sunglasses at the scene of the crime.
The sad part?
The plaque was cleaned up a few weeks ago.
The Globe, May 5, 1904 (left) and May 6, 1904 (right).