Remembering Boblo

Originally published on Torontoist on November 27, 2012.


The band from Boblo. Photo by Abhishek Chandra.

***1/2 out of *****

A suggestion while watching Boblo: buy a can of Faygo soda from the theatre’s concession stand, preferably a tooth-rotting flavour like Redpop or Rock & Rye. Keep it handy for swaying when the band plays the nostalgia-laden jingle used in 1970s Faygo TV ads shot on the large Bob-Lo Island ferry boats, which made daily runs along the Detroit River from the Motor City to the island amusement park.

Faygo may be sticky sweet, but Boblo isn’t. Billed as “A Rock-n-Roll Concert, A Final Transmission,” Kitchenband’s live theatrical performance reflects on the fleeting nature of memory within the context of a former theme park. Like radio waves floating across the universe, memories of Bob-Lo Island may be drifting away, but—even 20 years after the last screams from the midway echoed across the water to Amherstburg, Ontario—they continue to surface.

Boblo was an amusement park that operated From 1898 to 1993 on Bois Blanc Island, a small piece of land situated between Amherstberg and Michigan, a little south of Detroit. (Before providing a summer day’s getaway for generations of families in the Detroit-Windsor region, the island saw action during the Rebellions of 1837-1838, and as one of the final stops along the Underground Railway.) Over the years it boasted the typical array of roller coasters, bumper cars, midway games, and fast-food stands, along with attractions like a dance pavilion, an observation tower, and its iconic steam ferries. Since the park’s demise, part of the island has been developed into a private residential community.

The park’s fadeout is well reflected by Boblo‘s ghostly feel. Spectral figures sway in the background behind the plastic wrap circling the stage, while certain touches, like old-fashioned microphones, add to the out-of-time feeling. These elements echo the current state of the island, where the ruins of 19th-century blockhouses and park structures remain. Ghostly memories will also stir among those, like co-creators Erin Brandenburg and Andrew Penner, who visited the park during its century of operation or who, like me, were among the generations of Amherstburg teenagers who worked at the park every summer. I can vouch for the uniforms being as bad as described.

Anchoring Boblo is its music, which mixes originals by Penner and songs, like the Faygo ad, associated with the park during its century of existence. Ranging from melancholy string-heavy songs related to tragic events in the island’s history to energetic dance tunes the audience tapped its toes to, the diverse nature of the score combines with the multimedia stage effects to simulate something like the experience of riding a roller coaster. The acting creates a similar impression, with Sophia Walker demonstrating a chameleon-like versatility, going from a girl mapping out her experiences on the island to a slightly sinister carny whose light-swinging suggests a spinning wheel from which no one will win a prize.

Like any swooping ride, Boblo dips between its peaks. The multimedia nature of the show leads to serious sensory overload, like going on a ride after eating too much. Some background choreography and special effects could have been reduced to allow more focus on the foreground action. The use of crackly radio voices alternately adds to the dream-like atmosphere and grates when the dialogue borders on unintelligible.

A production about a bygone era is appropriate for The Theatre Centre’s final presentation in its home at the Great Hall. Following Boblo, the organization is moving into a “pop-up” location a few doors west, then into its first permanent home at 1115 Queen Street West.


This may have been the only time I worked my hometown into a Torontoist piece (though articles about Ann Arbor and Detroit came close).

A month after writing this review, I visited Boblo Island for the first time since the park closed down two decades earlier. Here are some pictures from that trip – for the full set, check out this Flickr album.


One of the first sites when you come off the current ferry is this monument. The following plaque was placed on it in 1948:




A second plaque notes the monument was “erected as a tribute to the sailors of the Great Lakes.”


Opened in 1913, the Dance Pavilion was commissioned by Henry Ford and designed by architect Albert Kahn, whose work shaped the look of Detroit during the automotive boom era.


Snow covering the former bumper car area. As of December 2012, one could still see traces of this ride, along with the antique cars track and mini golf course.


The base of the observation tower.


A ghost of the antique car ride track.


One of the surviving blockhouses built in 1839 following the Mackenzie rebellions. On the day I visited, restoration work was underway, and I was given a mini-tour.


The blockhouses and this lighthouse form the Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse and Blockhouse National Historic Site of Canada.


The old ferry dock. The left side serviced the giant steam ferries from Detroit until the end of the 1991 season. For the amusement park’s last two seasons, visitors had to arrive from Amherstburg or Gibraltar, Michigan (one of Detroit’s far southern suburbs).

Revisiting the Past Lives of St. Lawrence Market

Originally published on Torontoist on September 18, 2015.


Part of the foundation pier from the 1831 St. Lawrence Market.

In the November 5, 1803 edition of the Upper Canada Gazette, a notice from Lieutenant-Governor Peter Hunter addressed an irritant for the early inhabitants of York: “no place or day having been set apart or appointed for exposing publicly for Sale, Cattle, Sheep, Poultry, and other Provisions, Goods and Merchandise, brought by Merchants, Farmers, and others, for the necessary supply of the said Town of York.”

The solution: starting that day, a public open market would operate every Saturday at the northwest corner of present-day Front and Jarvis. Nearly 30 years later, in 1831, the first permanent brick building opened on the site, a structure which ringed an open courtyard. Elements of that incarnation of north St. Lawrence Market, along with its successors, have been uncovered through archaeological work carried out as part of the preparations for the fifth market building to stand on the site.


Model of the 1831 St. Lawrence Market, looking south from King Street, prepared by Ryerson students for the “Meeting Places: Toronto’s City Halls” exhibit at the Market Gallery in 1985.

Beyond its role as a trading centre, the north end of the 1831 marketplace housed Toronto’s first city council chambers after the city’s incorporation in 1834. But the complex had its problems, especially for butchers: the height of the gallery exposed their meat to the sun; damp and poorly ventilated cellars also provided lousy storage. Space was so tight that farmers were turned away, forcing them to sell to grocers, causing a loss of civic revenue. Part of the balcony collapsed in July 1834 during a tax riot. The solution was the construction of a new south market building, which politicians and produce vendors moved into in 1845.


St. Lawrence Market. North Market (1850-1904), Front Street East, north side, between Market & Jarvis Streets, showing east side, before alterations of 1898. Toronto Public Library.

The original north market complex was destroyed during the Great Fire of 1849, and was replaced within two years in a project that also created St. Lawrence Hall. That structure met its end in 1904, replaced by one designed to match recent renovations to the south market. For 50 years a canopy above Front Street linked the two markets, as the north side settled into its role as a Saturday-only farmers market. Construction was a bureaucratic nightmare, from cost overruns to the firing of the architects; as a Star editorial put it, “the city’s interests were being looked after by too many men, so that among them all nobody gave the work the determined attention it deserved.”


Bricks from the 1904 incarnation of the market.

When the next version of the north market was completed in 1968, some tenants were happy to see the demise of the poorly aging 1904 building. “Gone was the dirt and dust,” the Telegram observed. “Gone was the roof which sometimes leaked. The cold and the gloom, the shabby walls and uneven floors had departed. Instead there is brightness under-floor heating and colour everywhere. The farmers have never had it so good.” Opening reviews were mixed, with architectural critics giving the space thumbs down for being too mundane.

Dirt and dust is what you’ll find in the 1968 building as it awaits its end. Its placement atop a thin concrete pad made finding its earlier incarnations easier for archaeologists. Based on the three trenches made in the floor, you don’t have to dig deep to find the foundation piers from the 1831 complex. “Nobody had popped the lid to have a look at the what the preservation was like under the site,” archaeologist Dr. Peter Popkin noted during a media tour of the site on Wednesday.


Part of the 1851 sewer system.

Popkin and Golder Associates Ltd. conducted the current stage of the archaeological assessment over the past few weeks, and found elements of all pre-1968 structures within the trenches. Besides the original foundation piers, other uncovered features include the 1851 sewer system, and bricks, concrete foundations, and a box drain from 1904. Evidence points toward the existence of the cellars which irritated butchers during the 1830s. While items like animal bones and ceramics have been found, their volume is less than would be discovered at a residential site. The holes in the ground also show evidence of “robber trenches” where fill was dumped during each construction project, especially from 1904.


Showing the different surfaces over time – the darker area is believed to be the outdoor courtyard surface of the 1831 market.

One interesting find was the discolouration of levels of dirt, especially in the second trench. The darker stained soil was the original surface of the 1831 interior courtyard. While paving stones were contemplated, according to Popkin, visitors reported it was covered with gravel. The evidence points to a sandy material with plenty of pebbles sitting atop a clay capping.


At the media tour, Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) referred to the discoveries not as “surprises,” but as “prizes” which will help tell the story of the city from their respective eras. Up to 18 months of historical assessment work was built into the timeline for the new market structure, leaving plenty of time for further investigation and a mitigation study. It is expected that some of the material found will be displayed in the new building. It shall be seen how the discoveries affect plans for a 250-space underground parking lot.


City of Toronto coat of arms, installed 1968.

As it awaits the wrecking ball, the 1968 building feels like an archaeological relic. The tour provided one of the last opportunities to survey it, to notice touches easily overlooked on a busy Saturday morning like the old City coat of arms mounted above the stage. The waterlogged floor of the space which housed the snack bar. A floor painting honouring BuskerFest. The banner inviting visitors to check out the temporary farmers market to the south. Time will tell if this incarnation of the north market will be the least mourned.

Additional material from the September 19, 1904 edition of the Toronto Star and the February 1, 1969 edition of the Telegram.



St. Lawrence Market, north market (1850-1904), Front St. E., north side, between Market & Jarvis Sts.; interior, main corridor, looking north, before alterations of 1898. Toronto Public Library.

The construction of the 1904 incarnation of the north market was anything but a smooth process. Mind you, if you changed the few specific details, the following Star editorial could apply to many projects which go off the rails.

star 1904-09-19 editorial on slm

Toronto Star, September 19, 1904.

A few weeks later, the Globe offered further details on what was going wrong.

globe 1904-10-04 two weeks to finish

The Globe, October 4, 1904.


Looking north along Jarvis Street. The canopy connecting both sides of the market, installed with the new 1904 north market building, is visible. Photo taken October 26, 1904. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 376, File 4, Item 93.

From the 1904 incarnation, we move on to pictures I took of the now-demolished 1968 version of the north market.


This plaque was installed to mark the official opening of the north side in February 1969. This was among the last ceremonial markers to mention Toronto’s Board of Control, which met for the last time later than year. Elected by the city at large, it was replaced by an executive committee chosen from incoming councillors. The 1969 incarnation included one former mayor (Lamport), one future interim mayor (Beavis), one unsuccessful candidate in that year’s mayoral race (Campbell), and one who never ran for mayor (Marks).


The neighbouring plaque honoured the establishment of St. Lawrence Market in 1803.


The shell of the snack bar looked a little worse for wear. I’ll admit that I never ate there (the temptations of Buster’s, Uno Mustachio, and Yianni’s filled my tummy on Saturday trips), but it’s nice to see that a positive, legit-looking review was left on Yelp.


Upon closer inspection, wading boots may have been required to explore the snack bar’s remains.


On the main floor, a painted tribute to Buskerfest remains, reflecting the event’s previous connection to the St. Lawrence neighbourhood.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Lost Ox

Originally published on Torontoist on December 3, 2014.


The Mirror, December 21, 1838.

We suspect George Baker didn’t have the merriest Christmas in 1838. A lost steer would have affected his ability to sell holiday roasts from his market stall. While it’s possible an ox gone astray might have been found among the cattle still allowed to roam the streets of Toronto at that time, it’s likely poor George was never reunited with that particular source of income.

Notices about lost livestock and other misplaced items were a fixture of 19th-century newspapers. “In the large family of classified advertising, the lost and found advertisement stands out for its sincerity,” observes Sara Bader in her book on early classifieds, Strange Red Cow. “Born out of the simple desire to reclaim or restore property, it is typically a genuine plea to the public that … still resonates. Indeed, everyone can relate to the empty feeling of having lost something—a set of house keys, a dearly loved pet that strayed too far, or an irreplaceable family locket—and we all know the surge of relief that accompanies the safe return of an important belonging.”

These ads often hinted at the problems growing North American cities faced as animals and humans tried to coexist. As late as 1853, pedestrians south of 42nd Street in New York City were injured by cattle drives. In Toronto, tensions grew in the early 19th century over free-roaming animals, which led to horrifying incidents of people mutilating cattle that wandered onto their private property.


Illustration of St. Lawrence Market north complex (1831-1849) by Charles Comfort, Toronto’s 100 Years by Jesse Edgar Middleton (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934)

John Mussop (or Mossopp) owned a farm located near the Black Bull Tavern on present-day Queen Street West. By 1840, Mussop’s property was on the edge of a zone stretching south of Queen between Peter and Berkeley streets where free-range cattle grazing had been outlawed [PDF]. The no-graze area was the result of one of a series of bylaws implemented between 1834 and 1876 that cleared city streets of animal farming—though one could argue that wild beasts roam the zone to this day, when the bars let out.

Perhaps the ox tried to avoid his fate as the day’s prime cut at St. Lawrence Market. At the time the ad was placed, the market was housed in a large red-brick building with an open courtyard. Built between 1831 and 1833 in the block bounded by King, Jarvis, Front, and Market streets, the structure also served as Toronto’s city hall for a decade. The complex was poorly designed for butchering: too much sun filtered into the stalls, and the cellars were too poorly ventilated for meat storage. But despite its problems, the butchers stayed even as poultry and produce vendors (along with city council) moved into the first version of the current south market building in 1845. The complex was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1849 and replaced by St. Lawrence Hall and new north market shops.

Additional material from Strange Red Cow by Sara Bader (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2005); and “Living and Working with Domestic Animals in Nineteenth-Century Toronto” by Sean Kheraj, from Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region, L. Anders Sandberg, Stephen Bocking, Colin Coates, and Ken Cruikshank, editors (Hamilton: L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History, 2013).

Toronto Is Born

Originally published on Torontoist on March 6, 2014. Note that the title refers to the incorporation and naming of the city, not when it was settled.


Map of Toronto, 1834, drawn by Alpheus Todd, who was 13 years old when he sketched the city’s layout. Toronto Public Library.

Flipping through the pages of the March 6, 1834, edition of the Advocate newspaper gives you few hints a momentous occasion would occur that day. The first two pages feature details of debates in Lower Canada over improving colonial governance—not until the fourth column of page three, after pieces on political reform gatherings and odes to leather tanners, do you encounter a story about the provincial legislation [PDF] that created the City of Toronto on that day 180 years ago.

By the dawn of 1834, York was growing fast. Its population had quadrupled in six years, going from around 2,200 residents in 1828 to 9,200. Such growth, unfortunately, magnified the flaws of the existing governance structure: the Town of York was part of the larger Home District, which by 1834 consisted of portions of present-day Durham, Peel, and York Regions. The district was governed by an appointed committee of part-time magistrates known as the Courts of Quarter Sessions of the Peace. Becoming a magistrate was a reflection of one’s social status, which meant the ranks were dominated by the Family Compact and its allies.

As York grew, the magistrates found they couldn’t keep up with its infrastructure demands. Unable to raise tax rates above absurdly low levels, they borrowed money to build courthouses, jails, and markets. Police funding was scant, and volunteers were recruited to provide fire service. Inadequate attempts to build a sewer system contributed to several outbreaks of cholera during the 1830s.

York needed help.


A sense of what the sharp-dressed Torontonian may have looked like in 1834. Illustration by C.W. Jefferys, Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934 (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934).

By 1830, provincial attorney-general Henry John Boulton had proposed that York be incorporated as a city with an elected municipal government possessing increased powers of taxation. The usual unproductive partisan bickering between Reformers and Tories delayed the process until a committee drafted a bill in 1833. The bill’s preamble contained a significant change to York’s identity:

And whereas the name of York is common to so many towns and places that it is desirable for avoiding inconvenience and confusion to designate the capital of the Province by a name which will better distinguish it, and none appears more eligible than that by which the site of the present town was known before the name York was assigned to it.

Renaming York as Toronto angered some provincial legislators. During a March 1, 1834 debate in the assembly, detractors like William Jarvis claimed the change would cause confusion. John Willison felt it disrespected the memory of the most recent Duke of York, and pointed out that neither the state nor the city of New York had changed its name. Proponents of Toronto pointed out the name’s aboriginal origins and its meaning, which was then believed to be “meeting place,” and so was well suited to the seat of provincial government. Some legislators, such as William Berczy, felt Toronto rolled off the tongue better than York (“the sound is in every respect better”).

The new city was split into five wards, each of which elected two aldermen and two councilmen. The difference between the two positions was that aldermen possessed more personal property, and could sit on a new city court. The mayor would be chosen by city council from the aldermanic pool. General voting rights were given to male property holders.


Illustration of William Lyon Mackenzie by Charles Comfort. Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934 (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934).

The local Reformer press attacked the new bill. Among its harshest critics was the ever-volatile William Lyon Mackenzie, who saw it as a Tory scheme to raise taxes and restrict who sat on city council. “We oppose it because on a careful consideration of its bearings,” Mackenzie wrote 180 years ago today in the Advocate. “We are convinced that it will be injurious to the peace and prosperity of our fellow townsmen.” The Canadian Correspondent observed that “one would scarcely imagine that things could be so disposed of on the continent of North America … that a man’s poverty should be decisive of his despicability, whilst rascality with a few paltry pounds [the currency of the time] may exercise the municipal franchise and be installed LORD MAYOR.”


Anti-Mackenzie election broadside, 1834. Toronto Public Library.

When it was clear incorporation was going to come to pass, Mackenzie adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. Along with other prominent Reformers, Mackenzie ran for city council when the first municipal election was held on March 27, 1834, and he was among the 12 Reformers who gained the majority of seats. This victory may have seemed like sweet revenge against the Tories to Mackenzie, who had spent the previous year repeatedly being escorted out of the provincial assembly whenever he tried to take his seat. Historian Jesse Edgar Middleton summed up the mood of the electorate:

These voters were not a miscellaneous lot. They were all householders, mostly heads of families, and might be counted as the solid citizens of the community. For the time being they were red-hot because, obviously Mackenzie had been bilked of his constitutional rights. They knew him to be an able man. He had given proof a hundred times of his knowledge of public finance, parliamentary practice, and constitutional law. He had courage to no end. He was sincere, he was incorruptible. While he was inclined to allow his criticism to trail off into coarse abuse, the people remembered that the provocation had been great, and made allowances.


Toronto’s first year was rocky—another cholera epidemic, deadly political riots, Mackenzie alienating people galore—but it was because of the framework established during that time that Toronto grew into the city we celebrate today.

Addition material from Toronto to 1918: An Illustrated History by J.M.S. Careless (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 1984); The City of York 1815-1834, edited by Edith G. Firth (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966); The Story of Toronto by G.P. deT. Glazebrook (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971); The Firebrand by William Kilbourn (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1956); Toronto’s 100 Years 1834-1934 by Jesse Edgar Middleton (Toronto: City of Toronto, 1934); Toronto of Old by Henry Scadding, edited by Frederick H. Armstrong (Toronto: Dundurn, 1987); the March 6, 1834 edition of the Advocate; and the February 8, 1834 edition of the Canadian Correspondent.

The Black Bull of Yore

Originally published on Torontoist on April 23, 2011. Additional images have been included.


Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto (first series) (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894).

Patio denizens and motorcycle enthusiasts may be relieved to hear news reports that fire damage at the venerable Black Bull was largely confined to the upper apartments and that the bar will reopen today. Had the three-alarm fire spread, Toronto would have lost what is debatably its oldest watering hole: drinks and hospitality were first served at the Black Bull in, depending on the source, 1833 (a year before York became Toronto) or 1838 (a year after William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion).

Based on a portrait of the bar in Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto, even in its early days the Black Bull attracted a parking lot full of hogs…of the animal variety.

York was a hospitable place in the old days, for the places of entertainment in every section of town were very much more numerous, when compared to the population, than they are now. Up to a recent period, when it was succeeded by a brick building, bearing the same name, however there stood at the north-east corner of Queen and Soho streets the antique-looking inn, shown in the illustration, with a swinging sign and wooden water trough and pump in front. This was the Black Bull Hotel, a favourite stopping place for farmers on their way to town from the west and north-west.


The Globe, July 14, 1858.

The property was originally purchased by Peter Russell, for whom nearby Peter Street was named, in 1798 and was initially used for farming. Other illustrious families whose names remain on downtown streets (Baldwin, Willcocks) were owners of the property at Soho and Queen West over the first half of the 19th century. According to Robertson, the first landlord of the Black Bull Hotel was a Mr. Mosson. Between 1886 and 1889, the building was bricked and expanded.

Being a bar, it’s inevitable the Black Bull would eventually land in the police blotter. In a court case reported in the December 7, 1895 edition of the Globe, proprietor Richard Allcock and bartender Charles Bates were sued by carriage builder William Potter for $200. The plaintiff went to the Black Bull for a drink with a friend that September, but “while there a number of others congregated and had a drink at his expense.” When Bates demanded payment, Potter refused and a fight ensued. As Bates threw Potter out of the bar, the bartender struck Potter with such force that he lay unconscious for a week and was bedridden for a further five. The defendants denied the charges.

According to a 1903 classified ad, the Black Bull offered anyone looking for a place to stay a “large comfortable room, en suite or otherwise, for rent, with or without board.” That the ad didn’t use “quiet” as an adjective may have been due to incidents such as one that occurred on March 10, 1904. Four rowdy young men caused a ruckus in their room that night, during which they ignored the bartender’s attempt to quiet them down. When proprietor William Seager went up to the room, the men pounced and broke his leg. Two months later, when the incident went to court, Seager hobbled his way to the stand on crutches. His attackers received sentences ranging from 60 days to six months.

Corner of Soho St. and Queen St., looking north-east

Clifton House, 1972. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 2032, Series 841, File 48, Item 26.

For much of the 20th century, the premises operated as the Clifton House, a name it shared with an east end home for boys where beer was the only drink available in its beverage room. Articles published after the name reverted back to the Black Bull in 1977 indicated that it was “pretty rough” during its Clifton days. All we were able to ascertain about the Clifton was that it was among the 68 venues licensed to sell beer in Toronto in 1934. By the early 1980s, when the bar was owned by retired football players Bobby Taylor and Jimmy Hughes, the Star reported that “the only reminder of its past are the colourful residents who patronize the pub, along with Ontario College of Art students and a full range of athletic types.”

Additional material from Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto by John Ross Robertson (first series) (Toronto: J. Ross Robertson, 1894); the December 7, 1895 edition of theGlobe; and the December 23, 1903, May 26, 1904, November 1, 1934, and November 18, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.