Balmy Beach Club

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on April 23, 2013.

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Photo taken April 2013.

When prominent jurist and one-time Mayor of Toronto Sir Adam Wilson partitioned his property along Lake Ontario in January 1876, he set aside a portion for use as a public “promenade and recreation grounds.” Within a few years, the community of Balmy Beach grew around Wilson’s lands, which sat amid the growing amusement parks and cottages that spurred the development of The Beach.

In 1903, the commissioners overseeing the parkland Wilson set aside were approached by the Beach Success Club, an all-male debating society that was branching out into athletic activities. The club applied to build a members-only clubhouse and lawn-bowling green at the foot of Beech Avenue. When the plan appeared bound for approval in August 1903, the Star reported that “this new move has made more people look towards Balmy Beach” as a place to purchase property.

Ladies' paddling team, Balmy Beach Club. - [ca. 1920]

Ladies’ paddling team, Balmy Beach Club, circa 1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 215.

Opened in August 1905, the Balmy Beach Canoe Club’s first clubhouse included a grand second floor porch from which members gazed out into the lake. It became a gathering spot for the area’s finest athletes, who competed in sports ranging from rugby to squash. A fierce canoeing rivalry developed with Kew Beach. The skills of its members were exhibited by the six medals canoeist Roy Nurse won during the 1924 Summer Olympics and its football squad’s Grey Cup victories in 1925 and 1930.

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The Telegram, February 8, 1936. 

Around 7:30 p.m. on February 7, 1936 members playing their weekly bridge game noticed smoke seeping from the ground floor. Their first thought was to save the numerous trophies the club had collected—the John W. Black Trophy for junior fours in canoeing was given the highest priority. Its survival seems to have been placed higher than that of caretaker James Coombe. According to the Globe, “nobody thought to warn the Coombe family upstairs of their peril, and it was only when smoke came belching up the staircase that the Coombes, with the exception of Bert, aged 25, became aware of the fire and rushed downstairs.” Bert was cut off by the blaze and had to escape via the roof and a balcony. The Coombes family lost all of their belongings, while the club lost most of its trophies and over 100 boats.

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Balmy Beach Club, June 1953. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, R-5451.

A replacement clubhouse opened the following year. Among its attractions was a dance floor that played host to big bands led by locals like future media and sports mogul Jack Kent Cooke. A unique two-step dance popularized at the club, “the Balmy,” became popular across the city. An addition built in the late 1940s offered fireproofed protection for the club’s canoes.

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The Telegram, March 4, 1963. Click on image for larger version.

This proved a wise move, as fire struck again on March 3, 1963. As the last stragglers from a fundraising dance departed during the early morning hours, they smelled smoke. The fire began in the storage room, swept through the first floor, destroyed many trophies, and gutted the second floor dance hall, meeting rooms, and snack bar. Unlike the earlier blaze, the building wasn’t entirely destroyed thanks to cement wall reinforcements added the previous year. “It does hurt a bit today,” long-time club member Ted Reeve reflected in his Telegram sports column the following day, “but it’ll be up again.”

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Globe and Mail, November 25, 1967.

And it was. The club rejected a private promoter’s plan to turn the space into a country club featuring a curling rink, tennis courts, and bowling alleys. “We don’t want a restrictive atmosphere,” club president John Sillers told the Globe and Mail. “Our primary aim is to get young people who will participate in wholesome recreation—not just people who just want to sit and look at the lake.” City Council agreed to underwrite two mortgages to rebuild the club, which reopened in 1965. A wall of plaques commemorating achievements recognized by the lost trophies was unveiled by Reeve during a 1967 ceremony attended by at least one original club member.

Today, the clubhouse provides spaces for members to stay fit and relax over a beer. A mural facing the boardwalk gives strollers a glimpse into its many athletic accomplishments.

Sources: The Beach by Glen Cochrane and Jean Cochrane (Toronto: ECW, 2009), the February 8, 1936 edition of the Globe, the March 4, 1963, June 10, 1963, and November 25, 1967 editions of the Globe and Mail, the August 15, 1903, February 8, 1936, and March 4, 1963 editions of the Toronto Star, the February 8, 1936 and March 4, 1963 editions of the Telegram, and the July 2003 edition of Toronto Life.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Star, August 15, 1903.

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The Telegram, February 8, 1936. Click on image for larger version.

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The Telegram, March 4, 1963.

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Wall along the beach, August 1, 2020.

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Club entrance, August 1, 2020.

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Lawn bowling area, August 1, 2020.

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Lawn bowling area, August 1, 2020. 

Canada, Day One

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on June 28, 2008. Note that the first paragraph from the original story might make some readers feel a little melancholy in the midst of the COVID pandemic restrictions on public gatherings.

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Canada Day weekend is upon us, with the nation’s birthday serving as the perfect excuse to celebrate the start of summer. Fireworks, public meals, outdoor concerts—Torontonians will be out in force for these events over the next few days, much as they were on the day our nation gained status as a dominion.

From 6 a.m. onwards, the smell of roast ox filled the area at the foot of Church Street (now the St. Lawrence Market Green P lot). The roast went on all day, with the meat distributed to the city’s poor. A few blocks north on Church at Adelaide Street, those wishing to deliver a religious blessing on the new nation attended a service sponsored by the Evangelical Alliance at the Mechanics’ Institute (an ancestor of the Toronto Public Library).

Over at The Globe, editor George Brown spent all night working on a lengthy essay on the history of the new country. Copies of the paper were quickly snapped up once it rolled off the press at 7 a.m. Brown’s editorial raised an issue that still affects Canada, western grievances (even if the “west” in this case is Ontario).

So far as the people of Upper Canada are concerned, the inauguration of the new constitution may well be heartily rejoiced over as the brightest day in their calendar. The Constitution of 1867 will be famous in the historic annals of Upper Canada, not only because it brought two flourishing Maritime States into alliance with the Canadas, and opened up new markets for our products, but because it relieved the inhabitants of Western Canada from a system of injustice and demoralization under which they had suffered for a long number of years.

As for what ills might plague the new nation, one reading between the lines might detect a swipe at Brown’s political rivals/former coalition partners in the run-up to Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conservative party:

The only danger that threatens us is, lest the same men who have so long misgoverned us, should continue to govern us still, and the same reckless prodigality exhibited in past years should be continued in the future; but this we do not fear. We firmly believe that from this day, Canada embarks on a new and happier career, and a time of great prosperity is before us.

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Mechanics’ Institute, William Notman, 1868. Wikimedia Commons.

As the day went on, the city filled with revelers. Steamships from Hamilton and St. Catharines were packed with tourists coming for the celebrations, while trains brought in those from surrounding towns and villages. Many assembled at parade grounds west of Spadina Avenue around 10:30 a.m. to catch three hours of military reviews which, according to the next day’s edition of The Leader, were a popular spectator activity.

It would seem as if the citizens of Toronto and the residents of the surrounding country would never become tired of witnessing reviews of the troops. It is only necessary to announce that a review is to be held to secure the attendance of thousands of spectators, from the babe in swaddling clothes to the hoary-headed and infirm old man.

The paper went on to provide detailed of each regiment’s drill, complimenting each on their regalia and discipline. Sunny skies and a cool breeze off the lake made for a comfortable afternoon for the spectators. The soldiers were rewarded for their three-hour show with free ale paid for by contracting magnate Casimir Gzowski.
If military activities weren’t one’s taste, there was a fundraising picnic to aid the construction of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, completed three years later (and now known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on St. Patrick Street). A crowd of around 3,000 attended.

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As night fell, light displays decorated city buildings. The central post office on Toronto Street (later the headquarters of Argus Corporation, where Conrad Black was videotaped removing documents in 2005) featured gaslights arranged to spell “VR” (in honour of Queen Victoria) and “Dominion of Canada.” Most of the night’s activities took place in Queen’s Park, whose decorations The Leader described as “a most enchanting appearance in consequence of the large number of Chinese lanterns that were suspended from the trees and in front of the private residences on the east side of the park.” Fireworks were provided by a Rochester, New York firm and divided into 14 themed segments, including the city motto of “Industry, Integrity, Intelligence”, exotic locales like Tripoli and a rousing finale of “God Save the Queen”, all accompanied by two military bands.

Surrounding villages saw their share of celebrations, the most prominent being Yorkville’s. A flag-draped arch was erected at Yonge and Bloor, bearing the words “Dominion of Canada Our Home.” A fireworks display was held on a common west of Scollard Street, where the likely fireworks in 2008 would be a bite into a hot pepper at Whole Foods.

Sources: the July 1, 1867 edition of the Globe and the July 2, 1867 edition of the Leader.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

I would include the entirety of George Brown’s editorial, except that surviving scans are missing chunks of its final paragraph.

Since my access to other Toronto newspapers of this era is limited, let’s take a look at some of the happenings (and poetry) marking the birth of the dominion in the new province of Ontario…

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Newmarket Era, June 28, 1867.

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Coverage of Windsor celebrations, Detroit Free Press, July 2, 1867.

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Coverage of Goderich celebrations, Huron Signal, July 4, 1867.

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Ottawa Citizen, July 5, 1867.

Other highlights from Ottawa: the ceremony to install governor-general Lord Monck; a military display at noon; a fireman’s picnic; and an assortment of athletic competitions. Many buildings were illuminated that night, and the day ended with a giant bonfire and fireworks.

“The orderly state of the city during the whole day, despite the great influx of strangers and the general excitement going on, must be a subject of congratulation to all parties, and we hope that all things connected with the Dominion will be conducted by the people with the same good feeling and promote as much happiness as did its inaugural celebration on Monday last.”

A few editorial observations on the new dominion from south of the border…

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New York Herald, July 2, 1867.

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New York Times, July 2, 1867.

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New York Tribune, July 2, 1867.

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Niagara Falls Gazette, July 3, 1867.

A Look at Toronto’s Cycling Heyday

Originally published as a gallery post on Torontoist on May 27, 2013 to mark the beginning of that year’s Toronto Bike Month. As of this posting, 2020’s edition has been postponed until September due to COVID-19.

A cyclist during the height of the bicycle craze of the 1890s would have scoffed at the notion of a Toronto Bike Month. At the time, no special observance was necessary. Everybody was picking up two-wheeled vehicles in models designed for comfort, fashion, and style. They were speedier than a horse carriage, roomier than a crammed streetcar, and offered independent mobility. Outside of the winter months, bicycles were poised to rule the city’s streets for years to come.

The introduction of equal-sized wheels and inflatable rubber tires during the late 1880s produced safer bicycles, sparking a boom in sales. At the height of the fad, trendy riding clothes were available, spectators lined streets and tracks to watch competitive races, and relationships were cemented on leisurely rides. Yet within a few years of the 20th century’s arrival, the bike’s popularity began to fade as the next big thing began to take over: the automobile.

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Mail and Empire, February 9, 1895.

A sampling of top-end models offered by one of the city’s largest bicycle retailers. A second ad in the same newspaper noted that “our Mr. Hyslop has given up all his other business connections with the intention of pushing the bicycle trade to its utmost extent…If energy, push, and live business ideas count for anything, we shall have it.”

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The Globe, April 4, 1901.

Department stores sold their own lines of bicycles. In this ad, Eaton’s explains why they could sell a bike for far less than the average $50-$150 range. Given Eaton’s legendary generosity in terms in accepting returns with few questions asked, we imagine a few wheels made their way back to the store when riders needed an upgrade.

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The Globe, April 18, 1898.

It’s a fact: stopping for a rest by the roadside while out for a ride will immediately turn your clothing to tatters and cause stubble to sprout from your face!

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The Globe, April 2, 1887.

Shockingly, the paper was not swamped with letters from angry bicycle repairmen for being portrayed as greedy businessmen preying on cyclists who chose their vehicles poorly.

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The Empire, January 21, 1895.

During this era, competitive cycling was used as a sales pitch. L.D. Robertson, T.B. McCarthy, and R. Hensel were the top three finishers during the inaugural edition of the Dunlop Trophy Race on September 29, 1894. Participants rode a 20 mile course which included several loops of Woodbine Racetrack (then located at Queen and Woodbine), a journey out and back along Kingston Road, and a final loop of the horse track. The Globe observed that while Woodbine was is in good shape, Kingston Road was “pretty dusty and rutty.” It was also observed that race officials were too cheap to publicize the competition, resulting in only 1,000 spectators at Woodbine. The race moved to Ottawa in 1926, a year which proved to be its final ride.

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The Globe, April 1, 1897.

Teach a few lessons, promote cycling as a competitive sport, and hope the lure of an “academy” sells a few more Cleveland brand cycles. Brilliant marketing, n’est pas?

471 Church Street was the venerable Granite Club’s second location, having moved there from St. Mary Street in 1880. The site hosted athletic and social activities for the local upper crust until the mid-1920s.

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The Globe, April 8, 1908.

Have fun working through the logic of this ad. Would a transit pass plan be the modern equivalent of the hold-up man taking away your hard-earned cash?

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The Globe, April 14, 1897.

The bike courier market was well catered to.

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Mail and Empire, May 3, 1898.

Agricultural machinery giant Massey-Harris was among the manufacturers who jumped into the bicycle business. Instead of using country farmers to sell their bikes, M-H presented images of urbane gentlemen of all ages and sizes.

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The Globe, April 30, 1897.

Bicycle advertising wasn’t immune from the depiction of Victorian women as delicate flowers.

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Mail and Empire, April 2, 1898.

Since 1898, all bicycle repairs have been made bare-handed, without the assistance of tools.

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Mail and Empire, May 7, 1898.

We’ll test you on your Red Bird part knowledge later on.

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Mail and Empire, May 14, 1898.

Bicycles offer a less claustrophobic (unless caught in a tight squeeze with other vehicles), more independent alternative to crowded streetcars. Downside: you can’t read the latest catalogue while riding your bike.

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Mail and Empire, May 21, 1898.

This man is laughing at the fools herding onto the streetcar. Or least we think he’s laughing—hard to tell beneath the beard, not to mention the fine Victorian skill of repressing external displays of emotion.

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The News, April 2, 1903.

Unlike the Pullman railway car, the Hygienic Cushion Frame did include space for sleeping, or a porter to tend to any belongings you brought on your ride.

By this point Massey-Harris’s bicycle division had merged with several other manufacturers to create the Canada Cycle and Motor Company (CCM). The new company settled in Weston prior to World War I, establishing the town as the region’s bicycle production hub.

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The News, April 2, 1898.

It might not be Daisy giving her answer do on a bicycle built for two, but perhaps this is how couples too clumsy to balance a tandem rode together.

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Toronto Star, June 4, 1898.

A ride wasn’t complete with a fine new bicycle suit.

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Mail and Empire, May 25, 1895.

Modern Tweed Ride participants may want to seek antique Rigby suits in case of rain.

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The World, May 20, 1895

Next time you have a tummy ache, hop on your bicycle!

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The World, February 17, 1900.

Then as now, there was a stampede for repairs and tune-ups before spring cycling season.

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The News, May 10, 1902.

A sign of things to come—Hyslop began selling a motorized contraption called an “Olds Mobile.” Bicycle companies soon fought for ad space with car manufacturers, a battle the two-wheeled vehicles eventually lost.

Commemorating the Battle of York

Originally published on Torontoist on April 29, 2013. Not all photos from the original post have been used.

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In a documentary about the Battle of York that aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas last week, Sandra Shaul, project manager of the City’s War of 1812 bicentennial commemorations, noted she was “intrigued as to why the City of Toronto would want to commemorate a battle that we so badly lost.” She reflected that it might be our city’s nature to celebrate losers (“look at our sports teams”).

But even if the American invaders won on April 27, 1813, thousands of Torontonians turned out exactly 200 years later to show their respect for the British military units and First Nations warriors who took to the battlefield to defend what is now our home.

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Many of Saturday’s commemorations honoured the role the First Nations played in the battle. From the symbolic fruit samples distributed during a sunrise ceremony to a round dance at Fort York that closed the ceremonies, the native warriors who served as York’s first line of defence were saluted by their descendants. “We’ve waited for a long time for this moment,” observed Mississaugas of the New Credit Chief Bryan LaForme. “We will no longer be a footnote in Canadian history.” LaForme reflected that if it hadn’t been for the overall efforts of natives during the war, we would be “another star on the Red, White, and Blue.”

The military salutes began with the receipt of new colours by the Royal Canadian Regiment from its colonel-in-chief, Prince Philip. One of the largest military parades in Toronto history followed, with an estimated 1,700 members of the Canadian Forces marching from Queen’s Park to Fort York. (Military demonstrations and processions were once a staple of Toronto life—they figured in holiday celebrations during the Victorian era, and were used to send off deployments of troops during World War I.)

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While the parade wound through the core, over 500 people followed the path of the Battle of York during a two-hour walk from the Palais Royale to the fort. Heritage Toronto unveiled a new commemorative plaque at the American landing site, one of five stops where historians described the main stages of the battle.

Holding up a “Brown Bess” standard-issue British musket, Richard Feltoe used the backdrop of the Fort Rouillé monument to describe military equipment and techniques used during the battle. He explained how troops on both sides lined up in rows to fire volleys at each other, creating dense clouds of smoke. Bright uniforms and high hats allowed opponents to see each other amidst the fog of musket fire, ensuring continued carnage.

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At the site of the Western Battery near the Princes’ Gates, Ken Purvis talked about the antique equipment used by the British during the battle. The oldest artillery gun, which is displayed at Fort York, dated back to Oliver Cromwell and the English republic of the 1650s. (For perspective, imagine American Civil War equipment deployed in modern conflict.) Purvis also performed, on fife, the tune the advancing American forces played as they approached Fort York: “Yankee Doodle,” a song the British later used to taunt them while parading prisoners in Montreal.

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Also mentioned on the walk was the last letter American Brigadier General Zebulon Pike wrote to his wife Clarissa. Written the night before the invasion, Pike hinted that the battle might cause his demise: “I shall dedicate these last moments to you, my love, and tomorrow throw all other ideas but my country to the wind.” When Fort York’s grand ammunition magazine exploded, a boulder crushed Pike’s spine. It was reported that the dying Pike was presented with a captured British flag, which he used as a pillow. One source reported that upon receiving the flag, Pike whispered, “I die contented.”

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At Fort York, the public mingled with period re-enactors and modern military. Visitors perused displays of objects ranging from wampum belts to pre-painless-dentistry surgical instruments. The ceremonies included the unveiling of three plaques to be placed in a new visitor centre, scheduled to open next year: two were refurbishments of fading bronze plaques installed shortly after the fort converted to a museum in 1934, and the third was a new marker honouring the First Nations.

Additional material from Capital in Flames by Robert Malcolmson (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008).

Natives and the War of 1812

Originally published on Torontoist on April 15, 2013.

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Three of the last surviving Six Nations members who fought in the War of 1812, photographed in Brantford in 1882. Left to right: John “Smoke” Johnson, John Tutela, and Young Warner. Library and Archives Canada, C-085127, via Wikimedia Commons.

While no one agrees on who won the War of 1812, there tends to be consensus among experts regarding the loser: aboriginals on both sides of the border. Any power they held during the conflict was lost soon after, as they were shunted onto reserves or forced to move further west. Yet the complexities of the natives’ war experience left positive and negative consequences which linger into the present.

Recent celebrations surrounding the war, alongside a shift toward exploring the conflict from all perspectives, have created an opportunity for descendents of the Six Nations to discuss their ancestors’ roles and relate them to present concerns. Issues surrounding jurisdiction, land rights, and treaty matters remain unresolved two centuries later. Meanwhile, movements like Idle No More are tackling the war’s legacies. As Six Nations historian Rick Hill observes, “The conversation of congratulations just isn’t enough.”

Hill chairs the Six Nations Legacy Consortium. It’s a group, formed in anticipation of the war celebrations, that is dedicated to ensuring his community’s historical perspectives enter the public discourse.

Prior to the War of 1812, the American Revolution had scattered the Six Nations. Some members lived in upstate New York, while others had accepted a British offer to move west to a tract of land along the Grand River. In 1812, as war loomed once again, appeals to Six Nations members to support either of the main combatants led to calls for neutrality. This was followed by inter-tribal warfare as natives lined up behind the Americans or British, depending on who they felt would best look after their long-term interests or crush them the least. In Hill’s case, his paternal Mohawk ancestors from Grand River battled his maternal Tuscarora ancestors from New York. When the war ended, the Six Nations used what Hill calls “old cultural protocols” to broker peace among themselves. Hill finds it significant that there have been no internal wars since that time.

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Portrait of Major John Norton as Mohawk Chief Teyoninhokarawen, circa 1805, by Mather Brown. Yale Center for British Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to natives involved in the war, the public usually thinks of Tecumseh, whose Shawnee nation had uneasy relations with the Six Nations. In a lecture this Wednesday night on the role of the Six Nations in the conflict, Hill will spotlight lesser-known figures. “One of the problems with history,” Hill observes, is “it focuses on just a few individuals. There were countless other people who didn’t participate in the war, but were then part of the making of peace.” In an appearance on the Agenda last year, Hill noted that it’s easy to herald a fallen leader like Tecumseh, less so the nameless people who fought hard and worked to create a peace settlement which allowed their nation to survive. While some Six Nations figures like John Norton and John “Smoke” Johnson gained attention through their leadership skills, others are known only through oral histories or surviving council records from the early 19th century.

In the Battle of York, which celebrates its bicentenary next week, the Six Nations didn’t play a direct role. Three hundred warriors were ready to participate, but were held at bay by the British. When they heard the grand ammunition magazine explode, they assumed the Americans would hit Burlington Bay next and prepared themselves for a strike that didn’t happen. During the actual battle, an advance group of approximately 50 Chippawa, Mississauga, and Ojibwa warriors commanded by Major James Givins was sent to meet the first wave of American invaders west of Fort York. The warriors were outnumbered, which led to, as historian Robert Malcolmson put it, “a murderous game of hide and seek among the trees, and as the minutes went by, the warriors’ resolve slackened and then dissolved.” Up to eight warriors were killed. The only name recorded among the fatalities was Yellowhead, who is said to have been buried along Yonge Street. The rest joined the mass of nameless native casualties during the conflict.

Sources: The Iroquois in War of 1812 by Carl Benn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998) and Capital in Flames by Robert Malcolmson (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008).

Remembering the Aftermath of the War of 1812

Originally published on Torontoist on April 9, 2013.

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The Death of Brock at Queenston Heights, painted by C.W. Jefferys, circa 1908. Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario.

With all the hoopla over the bicentenary of the War of 1812, it’s easy to concentrate on the battles, the heroes who filled generations of school textbooks, and the idea that the conflict was an important part of establishing our national identity. The complexities of the war and its legacies aren’t as romantic or attention-grabbing, but they invite interesting questions about our notions of who we are and how we remember critical events in our history.

Perceptions of 1812: Identity, Diversity, Memory, the current exhibit at the Archives of Ontario‘s exhibit space on the York University campus, uses the archives’ holdings to provide a broader picture of the war and its enduring impact. The items and panels on display cover topics ranging from personal wartime correspondence to the role auto-based tourism played in preserving crumbling forts.

How many items related to the War of 1812 does the Archives have among its 100,000 metres of textual records? It’s hard to guess. “Although some documents are directly related to the conflict,” notes David Tyler of the Archives’ information department, “most of our related material documents life in Upper Canada at that time, providing the necessary context for studying the war. We also hold many items related to Ontario’s attempts to memorialize and commemorate the war over the past 200 years.” Tyler has noticed a significant increase in requests about the war over the past year, mostly from people living in areas affected by the conflict in southwestern Ontario and around the U.S. border. Many of these requests are followups to the Archives’ main online exhibit about the war. Tyler recommends that anyone looking for a general introduction to the Archives’ war-related holdings consult an online research guide, available in PDF format.

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Perceptions of 1812, at the Archives of Ontario. Image courtesy of the Archives of Ontario.

For Perceptions of 1812‘s curator, Ross Fair, the diversity of the material in the Archives made it easy to avoid duplicating existing online exhibits. Because most of the military records are held elsewhere, Fair had no choice but to focus on political and social issues that arose in the war’s aftermath.

Among the war’s effects was a noticeable change in the nature of the political divisions of the time, from national borders to the ideological boundary between the high Tories who formed the Family Compact and the Reformers who paved the path to responsible government. Another issue was “aliens,” migrants from the United States whom the colonial elites regarded suspiciously. Attempts to block the rights of those who migrated during or after the war raged until 1828, when those who arrived before 1820 were given full rights as British citizens, while those who arrived after could swear an oath of allegiance after seven years of residency. In other words, postwar Canada was far from perfect. “We celebrate the heroes who stood and defended this war,” Fair noted in a recent Heritage Toronto lecture, “but I suspect most of us wouldn’t want to live in the society that they envisioned Upper Canada to be.”

In an interview with Torontoist, Fair observed that the Archives has great photos of efforts to restore the remains of several War of 1812 forts, during the 1930s. The images on display show the shocking extent of the decay at these sites. Kingston’s Fort Henry, in particular, had practically disintegrated into rubble. The forts were restored, in part, because of their intrinsic historical value, but also because they were tourist attractions. Their roles as destinations for motorists—and as make-work projects during the Great Depression—shouldn’t be underplayed.

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Laura Secord, by Mildred Peel, 1904. Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario.

Romanticized illustrations of the war also played a role in keeping its memory alive. The work of C.W. Jefferys, in textbook illustrations and books like the three-volume The Picture Gallery of Canadian History, in some cases, gave faces to historical figures whose actual images were never recorded—like Laura Secord, now legendary for her brave trek through the woods. Perceptions of 1812 contrasts Jefferys’ depiction of the future candy-store icon with a portrait of an older Secord displayed for years in Queen’s Park—a portrait that x-rays later revealed had been painted over a depiction of Ontario Premier George Ross.

We asked Fair and Tyler which items in the exhibit were their favourites. Tyler chose a 1912 picture from celebrations at the Brock Monument, commemorating the centennial of the Battle of Queenston Heights. Among the depicted dignitaries is Dr. Alexander Fraser, the first Archivist of Ontario, whose kilt stands out from the rest of the crowd. Fair chose two items: a letter Isaac Brock wrote after the British victory at Detroit, which conveys the sense of the joy he experienced, and maps made by surveyor David Thompson to define the postwar border.

The Battle of York

Originally published on Torontoist on March 20, 2013.

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8th (King’s) Regiment of Foot cross-belt plate. City of Toronto Museum Services, 11FY10A2.54. The grenadier company of the 8th (King’s) regiment was the first British regular unit to oppose the American landing. This plate was excavated at Fort York and has a large dent in the left margin. This damage may stem from either the accidental explosion in the Western Battery or the intentional destruction of the Grand Magazine.

Next month brings with it a key point in Toronto’s commemoration of the War of 1812: April 27 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York. Though British forces and local militias failed to repel the invading American forces, their efforts didn’t lack for explosive fury.

It happened on April 26, 1813: British sentries posted at the Scarborough Bluffs spotted a fleet of American vessels approaching from the southeast. Using signal guns and various objects strung on a flagpole, they warned the citizens and soldiers of York that an invasion was imminent. By the next morning, the Battle of York was underway.

Tensions between Great Britain and the United States simmered before war was officially declared on June 18, 1812. The conflict was the result of a number of different things: British attempts to press-gang seamen on American ships, trade restrictions enforced by the British as part of the Napoleonic Wars, an American desire to expand north and west, and British support of natives who stood in the way of American expansion.

As 1813 dawned, American Major-General Henry Dearborn wanted to attack York, which was seen as easy pickings. He figured that capturing the under-construction warship HMS Sir Isaac Brock, which was docked there, would help tilt the naval balance of power on Lake Ontario in favour of the Americans. Dearborn thought he could then conquer Niagara, which would have allowed him to concentrate his forces on taking Kingston and Montreal. After some hesitation, the Americans adopted Dearborn’s plan in the hopes that quick victory at York could swing an upcoming New York State election in favour of the pro-war Democratic-Republican party.

A fleet of 14 vessels set sail for York from Sackets Harbour, New York on April 25, 1813. Once military officials in York had sighted the fleet, they began planning their defense. Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe intended to use a plan similar to one employed in Niagara the previous November: no opposition until the enemy was in firing range, retreat if things went badly, destroy any ammunition, provisions, or anything else that could aid the opposition. He ordered a group of First Nations warriors coordinated by Major James Givins to meet the landing party, and a troop of soldiers led by Aeneas Shaw to stand guard at Lot Street (present-day Queen Street) by Garrison Creek. Grenadiers were sent to the ruins of Fort Rouillé (present-day Exhibition Place), while Sheaffe waited for the militia to show up at Fort York.

Around 7 a.m. on April 27, waves of American troops rowed to shore. They had been blown slightly off course, so they landed near the present-day intersection of Lakeshore Boulevard and Dowling Avenue. The First Nations warriors were pushed back into the woods, and the Americans made their way to Fort Rouillé, where they ran into some of Sheaffe’s forces. Steady firing on land and from schooners anchored in the lake lasted until 8 a.m., when the British retreated. Around 10 a.m. a mobile gunpowder magazine was accidentally set off at the Western Battery (near the present-day Princes’ Gates), which knocked over a gun and killed or wounded 30 troops. All the while, American forces led by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike inched toward Fort York.

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Bird’s-eye view looking northeast from approximately foot of Parkside Drive, showing arrival of American fleet prior to capture of York, April 27, 1813. Painted by Owen Staples, circa 1914. Toronto Public Library. According to historian Robert Malcolmson, Staples’ painting “distorts distance, proportion and the number of vessels in Chauncey’s squadron, but still presents a striking impression of the flow of the battle on land and lake.”

By 1 p.m., Sheaffe’s troops had withdrawn to Elmsley House at King and Graves (now Simcoe) Streets. Many of the militia had thrown in the towel. Back at the fort, Pike’s forces were within 400 yards of the grand ammunition magazine. The remaining British forces ignited the magazine, producing a fireball that blasted bits of ammunition, rocks, and timber out to a disance of 500 yards. The explosion created a boom that was audible at forts 28 miles away along the Niagara River. An estimated 39 American troops were killed, 224 wounded. Among the casualties was Pike, who depending on the source, either died after being struck by a rock in the forehead, or after suffering a crushed spine.

While Sheaffe marched his remaining regular troops to Kingston, a team consisting of Lieutenant-Colonel William Chewett, Major William Allan, and Reverend John Strachan negotiated capitulation terms with the Americans. The invaders were not amused when they noticed smoke rising from York’s dockyards, where Sheaffe had ordered the torching of HMS Sir Isaac Brock to prevent it from falling into American hands. Just after 11 a.m. on April 28, 1813, the surrender was ratified.

That evening, the Americans—and even some locals—began looting York. Dearborn showed little interest in controlling the occupying forces. Homes were cleared of items ranging from clothes to cutlery. Jails were emptied. The pillaging climaxed with the burning of the Parliament Buildings during the early hours of April 30, 1813. The Americans intended to depart on May 2, but strong winds kept the fleet at York until it could set off for Niagara on May 8.

As for the attack’s political ramifications, news of the victory may have helped pro-war incumbent Daniel Tompkins win the New York State gubernatorial race. Sheaffe was soon relieved of his duties. The British got revenge for the burning of York and other settlements when they set Washington D.C. ablaze in August 1814. The war ended when the United States ratified the Treaty of Ghent in February 1815, which restored the prewar boundary between the Americans and British North America. Who actually won the war will be an eternal debate.

Consulted materials include Historic Fort York 1793-1993 by Carl Benn (Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History, 1993) and Capital in Flames by Robert Malcolmson (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008).

The Oldest Known Photos of Toronto

Originally published as a gallery post on Torontoist on February 25, 2013.

For the earliest known photographs of Toronto, we have a sales pitch to thank.

Following the union of Upper and Lower Canada as the United Province of Canada in 1841, Canada’s new parliament drifted from city to city. Kingston, Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto all hosted the wandering colonial government. On April 14, 1856, the legislature voted 64 to 54 in favour of ending its recent practice of alternating parliamentary sessions between Toronto and Quebec City. The job of determining a permanent capital was handed to Queen Victoria, who examined presentations from those two cities, along with presentations on behalf of Kingston, Montreal, and Ottawa.

While Toronto’s pitch failed to sway the queen (she named Ottawa the capital in 1857), it preserved a record of what the growing city looked like. The photographic and civil engineering firm of Armstrong, Beere and Hime was hired to provide a set of 25 photos for Victoria’s consideration, which were forgotten until an archivist found them by chance in 1979 while researching images of the British Columbia gold rush at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library in London, England. The photos were exhibited at the Market Gallery in 1984, and a set of copies were presented to the City archives as a gift for the city’s 150th birthday.

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King Street East, south-side, looking west, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 1.

At the left of this row of buildings is the Golden Lion, which rivalled Eaton’s and Simpson’s as one of Toronto’s major department stores during the late 19th century. Officially known as Robert Walker and Sons, the store earned its lasting name when a golden lion statue was placed above its entrance soon after moving to the location shown here in 1847.

Renovated in 1867 and expanded in 1892, the store appeared to have a healthy future. But when no one in the Walker was left to carry on the business, it closed in 1898. Some observers, such as the Hamilton Herald, were dubious about the site’s future when the store was demolished in 1901: “In Toronto they are pulling down the old Golden Lion to make room for a new White Elephant in the form of a palace.”

The replacement? The still-operating King Edward Hotel.

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King Street East, south-side between Yonge and Church streets, looking east, 1856.
City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 2.

Among the businesses seen in this view is the British Colonist, one of Toronto’s first enduring newspapers. Launched in 1838, it was originally backed by supporters of the Church of Scotland. Considered “a staunch but not rabid Conservative paper” by the book Early Toronto Newspapers 1793-1867, it graduated from semi-weekly to daily publishing in 1851. The paper was sold to rival Conservative paper the Leader in 1860.

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Bank of British North America, north-east corner of Wellington and Yonge streets, 1856.
City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 3.

Opened in 1846, the limestone Bank of British North America was designed by John Howard, whose personal property later became High Park. Howard also designed the adjoining warehouses, which were initially occupied by a grocer. The building was rebuilt into its present form in the mid-1870s. The site later housed branches of the Bank of Montreal and CIBC, then a variety of tenants before the Irish Embassy pub settled in.

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The Exchange, Wellington Street, north side east of Yonge Street, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 4.

Modelled on a similar exchange across the Atlantic in London, the Toronto Exchange was established in 1854 for speculation traders specializing in produce. One-time Toronto postmaster Charles Berczy donated land he owned at the present-day northwest corner of Wellington Street and Leader Lane to the organization. Opened in 1855, it was renovated in 1877 and renamed the Imperial Bank Chambers when that financial institution moved in. Damaged by fire during the 1930s, it was demolished during World War II.

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Second United Presbyterian Church under construction, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 7.

Established in 1851, the Second United Presbyterian congregation renamed itself Cooke’s Presbyterian Church in 1856 in honour of Irish minister Henry Cooke. After holding services at several downtown locations, including St. Lawrence Hall, the congregation moved into its permanent home at Queen and Mutual streets in 1858. A Romanesque-style replacement was built in 1891 and became one of the city’s most popular churches—during the 1920s, you had to get there early to grab one of its 2,250 seats. When the church closed in 1982, its congregation had dwindled to 150. Despite a last-minute heritage designation, the church was demolished in 1984. Though there were hints of future office/residential development, the site became a parking lot.

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Normal School building, Gould Street, north side east of Yonge Street, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 8.

Founded in 1850 by Egerton Ryerson, the Normal School served as training institution for teachers who would populate the province’s emerging public school system. Its home in St. James Square was opened in 1852 and expanded a few years later to include the Model School, where boys’ grammar classes were held. Among its amenities was a museum of natural history and fine arts which evolved into the Royal Ontario Museum.

The Normal School was moved out in 1941 to make room for an RCAF training centre. After World War II, the site was used to prepare veterans to return to civilian life via a school which evolved into Ryerson University. Demolished to make way for the present Ryerson quadrangle in 1962, only a portion of the central façade remains today.

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Osgoode Hall, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 9.

Built between 1829 and 1846, Osgoode Hall served as the headquarters of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Shortly after this picture was taken, the central section was reconstructed by the architectural firm of Cumberland and Storm.

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Parliament Buildings, Front Street West, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 10.

The third set of parliament buildings erected in Toronto, three separate blocks were built on the north side of Front Street between John and Simcoe streets between 1829 and 1832. Architect John Howard was brought in to finish off the interiors. The complex was used intermittently during the United Province of Canada era (1841 to 1867), when legislators also sat in Kingston, Montreal, and Quebec City. When this picture was taken, work had begun to fill in the spaces between the blocks for offices in case Toronto became the permanent capital. Post-Confederation, the buildings served as the home of Ontario’s government until the present Ontario Legislative Building in Queen’s Park opened in 1893. The Grand Trunk Railway purchased the site and demolished the buildings a decade later. The site currently houses the Canadian Broadcast Centre.

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Trinity College, Queen Street West, north side, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 11.

When the University of Toronto declared itself a secular institution in 1850, Bishop John Strachan felt an institute of higher learning with ties to the Church of England was still required. He established Trinity College and hired architect Kivas Tully to design a Gothic-styled school, the first section of which opened in 1852.

Trinity joined U of T in 1904 and moved to the main campus in 1925. The buildings it left behind in what became Trinity-Bellwoods Park were briefly used as an athletic centre, then demolished in the mid-1950s. The only remaining portions are part of the gate at the park’s entrance and the former St. Hilda’s College building on Shaw Street, now John Gibson House.

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Rossin House Hotel, southeast corner of King and York streets, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 12.

Introduction to an article on the opening of the Rossin House, the Globe, May 5, 1857:

The want of proper hotel accommodation has long been a standing reproach to Toronto, and the boasted enterprise and energy of our citizens has often been called into question by visitors from other places. No longer, however, will this be needed, for by the completion of the Rossin House, ample accommodation can be afforded for as large a number of guests as are likely to visit the city at any one time, and, as far as the house is concerned, satisfaction will be given to the most fastidious.

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Toronto from the top of Rossin House Hotel, looking northwest, 1856. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 14.

This image formed part of one of three panoramas of the city shot from the top of the Rossin House, which were meant to impress Queen Victoria with how much the city had grown.

As for the Rossin House, though a fire in November 1862 gutted its interior, fire safety measures included by architect William Kauffman left the walls intact and resulted in only one fatality. Rebuilt by 1867, it remained one of Toronto’s most fashionable hotels until the King Edward opened in 1903. Later known as the Prince George Hotel, the building was demolished in 1969.

Sources: Lost Toronto by William Dendy (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993), Early Toronto Newspapers 1793–1867, Edith G. Firth, editor (Toronto: Baxter Publishing, 1961), Choosing Canada’s Capital by David B. Knight (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1991), the May 5, 1857 edition of the Globe, the March 22, 1984 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the April 12, 1901 and May 22, 1982 editions of the Toronto Star.

149 College Street

This installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid was originally published on October 16, 2012.

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149 College during its time as Central Tech, after 1900. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 247.

“Amid sounds of revelry and acclaim, amid the seductive calm of soft music, and the inspiring charm of many voices, amid cloud-like strata of fragrant fumes and infectious laughter from countless merry smokers, a temple of muscle and grace was appropriately dedicated to the youths who adorn the terminal years of the 19th century. The glamour of flashing lights and rich furnishings, harmoniously designed, burst dazzlingly upon the army of elated members and prospective members who pressed eagerly through the massive stone portals to assist in the house-warming.” So observed the Toronto Daily Mail during the opening-night festivities at the Toronto Athletic Club on January 22, 1894.

Though demonstrations of athletic prowess and the Richardsonian Romanesque building designed by architect E.J. Lennox (later responsible for Old City Hall and Casa Loma) were praised by the press, the evening wasn’t perfect. A performance by the Toronto Lacrosse Club Minstrels was so inappropriate that the Toronto Star believed “it was to the credit of the athletic club that they were roundly hissed.”

Despite the initial burst of excitement over facilities like gymnasiums, billiard rooms, and one of the city’s first indoor swimming pools, the Toronto Athletic Club quickly ran into financial problems. It didn’t help that club founder (and former Toronto mayor) John Beverley Robinson, who had turned over property he had lived on since 1850 to provide it with a home, died two years after its grand opening. The city’s other social clubs provided little support. When the mortgage was foreclosed on in October 1899, 149 College St. witnessed the first of many tenant changes.

In July 1900, city council purchased the building to provide a new home for the Toronto Technical School. The deal had been tied up for a month due to accusations by alderman Daniel Lamb of “undue influence” placed on his fellow councillors by those who still had a financial stake in the property. Though an inquiry found no proof of wrongdoing, Lamb refused to apologize for his actions. Among the renovations that the school—which evolved into Central Tech—made was to fill the basement pool with concrete and use it for art classes.

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149 College as Stewart Building, October 20, 1957. Photo by James Salmon. Toronto Public Library, S 1-3861A.

Following the school’s move to its current site at Harbord and Borden in 1915, 149 College St. served as a military headquarters. Another HQ moved in with the onset of the Great Depression: the Toronto Police. The force considered the site, which was renamed the Stewart Building soon after they moved there in 1931, a temporary home while waiting for a new civic building to be built along Queen Street west of Osgoode Hall. A planned seven-year stay stretched out to nearly three decades.

When the newly amalgamated Metropolitan Toronto Police moved their offices to another temporary site in 1960, they retained the building as the home of 52 Division. This was also seen as an interim solution—excess office space and limited parking spots for vehicles made police officials eager to find a new home for the precinct. While the force’s preferred site at the northeast corner of Dundas and Beverley would have wiped out several heritage-designated homes, a committee led by alderman William Kilbourn suggested in late 1973 that the building could be renovated to meet the police’s needs. Though Kilbourn hoped that a presentation by architect Jack Diamond would persuade the police to stay, Metro Council rejected the idea in favour of 52 Division’s current home at Dundas and Simcoe.

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Toronto Star, September 29, 1979.

149 College St. was sold to the Ontario College of Art. Instead of cutting a ribbon during the opening ceremony in September 1979, Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Pauline McGibbon made the final brush stroke on a watercolour of the building. The police returned to the site several times to investigate complaints about offensive art and an incident involving students carrying guns that turned out to be replicas for a class project. After the college departed during the late 1990s, the building was used as a French-language school (Collège des Grands Lacs) before the Rotman School of Management’s executive-education centre moved in. The business school commissioned 149 College’s umpteenth set of renovations which, according to architect Tania Bortolotto’s website, was intended “to rejuvenate the derelict interiors into a refined atmosphere expressing the client’s branding aims.” In a way, that goal brought the building back to the refinement the Toronto Athletic Club offered over a century earlier.

Sources: the January 23, 1894 edition of the Toronto Daily Mail, the January 23, 1894, June 19, 1900, and September 29, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star, and the July 31, 1931 edition of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Toronto Daily Mail, January 23, 1894.

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Evening News, January 23, 1894.

In a January 10, 1900 editorial on physical fitness facilities in the city, the Globe hoped the Toronto Athletic Club would make a comeback. “The Toronto Athletic Club on College Street was in every respect a praiseworthy institution. Not only did it fill all the requirements as a resort for young men, but it was admirably arranged and splendidly equipped,” the paper observed, also noting that was “constructed on too ambitious a scale to be a permanent success.”

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Toronto Star, September 17, 1901.

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The Globe, July 30, 1931.

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The Telegram, July 31, 1931.

Bonus Features: 19th-century NIMBYism and the Typhus Epidemic in Ontario

Before diving into this post, please read the related TVO article.

The coverage of the court case in the October 6, 1847 edition of the British Whig against Kingston city officials for allowing the emigrant sheds to obstruct traffic is dense, so here are some highlights.

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First off, the paper’s opinion, which praises the efforts of the city officials, and references the recent death of Toronto bishop Michael Power.

The indictment contained four counts: obstruction of Emily Street by erecting a building upoin it; the “erection of privies, near that street and near King Street, and also near the waters of the harbour, to the nuisance of all persons in the street, or dwelling in the adjacent houses, and whereby the waters which were generally used by the neighbourhood became unfit for use;” erecting emigrant sheds near King Street, filling them with the sick and dead to the nuisance of all; and that the sheds were built by unknown people and emigrants and assembled on site.

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A sampling of complaints, including the NIMBY I quoted in the article (a John P. Bower, Esq.).

The defence attacked several of the complainants, while holding up the noble aims of the city officials offering assistance to the emigrants. For example:

The Baron de Rottenburg, who bears no love to Emigrants, had to board the west windows of his house to keep away an imaginary infection; and, more serious than this, the amiable Baroness had to make liberal use of lavender water, and was put to the unendurable trouble of placing scent bottles to her fastidious nostrils. To be sure, the great inconvenience which the noble Baron and Baroness have sustained, is of more consequence and greater weight, than if thousands of these pooe Irish Emigrants should die for want, with hunger, and disease.

Kind of reminds you of arguments surrounding relaunching the economy versus preventing potential deaths, doesn’t it?

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The verdict. Note that while the defendants were judged guilty, the jury appreciated their conduct.

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From the July 17, 1847 edition of the Bytown Packet (which evolved into the Ottawa Citizen), advice on how to prevent catching infectious fevers like typhus.

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An editorial eulogizing Dr. George Grasett, from the July 20, 1847 edition of the British Colonist.

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Portions of Michael Power’s obituary from the October 5, 1847 edition of the British Colonist.

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Power’s death was noted on the other side of the Atlantic, in pieces such as this roundup of the typhus situation from the October 30, 1847 edition of the Times.