Thursday, September 30, 2010

Photo: Waterfront Construction in 1964

 Harbourfront in 1964

I can't find much information about this photo, but I like it, so I'm posting it anyway. Apparently this is the beginning of construction on a building along the waterfront in 1964, though I'm not sure what building it is. (I'm thinking there's a chance it's the ugly apartments at the foot of Bay Street. In any case, it's definitely right near there.) The shot was taken by Harold Whyte, who has other neat images of Toronto in the '60s here (where you can also buy the rights to use them in magazines or whatever, which you should totally do). Oh, and that building dominating the skyline in the background? I'm thinking that's the Bank of Commerce Building, which I already wrote a post about, right over here.

Friday, September 24, 2010

College and Spadina in 1902

College and Spadina in 1902


Yeesh. I keep trying to just quickly post these photos without spending much time on them, but every time I do, I accidentally discover a crapload of interesting history related to them and end up getting dragged into more research. Here, for instance, are some workers doing some construction on Spadina Avenue in 1902. The photo is looking north from College toward that old U of T building in the distance (which is still there today in the middle of the roundabout). So I figured I should probably do a  quick check to see what the building is called and make sure there was nothing I should tell you about it. Mistake.

It's called 1 Spadina Crescent and it was built in 1875 as Knox College, a Presbyterian theology school, which soon became part of U of T. When the college moved out at the beginning of the First World War, the building became the Spadina Military Hopsital, where injured soldiers were treated. And, as it turns out, a young Amelia Earhart worked there as a nurses aide—which is the first I've heard about her living in Toronto and is a story which is clearly going to need its own post someday soon.

Then the building continued on as a military hospital until the 1940s, when it was turned into a medical research laboratory. It soon became one of Canada's main hubs for the development of new drugs, including vitally important contributions to Jonas Salk's polio vaccine. I get the feeling there's a whole post in that story, too. 

Then, in the '70s, the lab moved and the university turned 1 Spadina Crescent into an academic building. That sounds boring and you'd think it would be the end of all the interesting stories. Except that a professor was murdered there in 2001; the crime is unsolved and his ghost is said to haunt the building. And then, last year, someone searching for his ghost fell from the roof and died. Oh, and as if that weren't enough, it's also home to the Ontario division of the Eye Bank of Canada, which is exactly what it sounds like: the place they keep dead people's eyes until they're transplanted.

Seriously. All I wanted to do was post a  pretty picture.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Worst Disaster In The History Of The City

The SS Noronic burns

Back in the late-1800 and early-1900s, the Great Lakes were filled with luxury liners. The decadent cruise ships carried hundreds of passengers from both sides of the border, transporting them across the lakes in style. They were, for nearly a century, a major industry and a popular way to take a vacation. According to one historian, “At one time there were more people asleep on boats on the Great Lakes than on any ocean in the world.”

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

Of course as fancy as it all was, taking a cruise was also darned risky in those days. Ships sank; they capsized or collided with each other. Many, like one of the Noronic's sister ships, the Hamonic, burst into flame. Even the Noronic's own maiden voyage had almost been a disaster. The ship was scheduled to set sail for the first time in November of 1913, just as the biggest storm in the history of the Great Lakes struck. For three straight days, it lashed the region with hurricane-force winds, 15 meter-high waves and torrents of rain and snow. More than 250 people died and so many ships were destroyed that there's an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to listing them. The Noronic, though, was lucky. She stayed in port and avoided the storm.

That was the beginning of 36 years' worth of safe sailing, right up until September of 1949 when she left Detroit for a week-long cruise to the Thousand Islands. It was that trip that brought the Noronic to Toronto on a cool Friday night, docked at Pier 9—at the foot of Yonge Street—while her passengers and crew streamed ashore to enjoy the city.

Sadly, by 2:30 am, when the fire started, most of them were back on board, asleep in bed. The smoke was first spotted by a passenger who tracked the source back to a locked linen closet. And by the time he alerted one of the ship's stewards, it was already too late. When they opened the door, the fire spread. And when they tried to put it out with a fire hose, the hose didn't work. Neither did any of the others. Even worse, the ship's hallways were lined with gorgeous wood paneling, which, for decades, had been carefully polished with lemon oil. It was the perfect fuel for the fire. Meanwhile, stairwells acted like chimneys, funneling oxygen to the flames. They spread. Fast. Eight minutes later, when the ship's whistle jammed while issuing a distress signal and let loose with one piercing, endless shriek, half the ship was already on fire. Within minutes, the rest of the Noronic would be in flames too. Survivors later said the whole thing went up like the head of a match.

On board, there was chaos and panic. The safety equipment didn't work. There weren't enough emergency exits. Only a few crew members were on duty and most of them had fled the ship immediately, leaving the sleeping passengers behind. People were burned alive in their beds. They were suffocated in their rooms. They rushed along the decks and hallways in flames. A few were trampled to death. The most desperate started jumping from the ship, the lucky ones hitting the water, where rescuers—police and firemen and passers-by—were pulling people from the lake. One drowned. Some hit the pier and were killed. And when the first ladder was finally hoisted up against the ship, passengers pushed forward so eagerly that it snapped, tossing people into the water. As Wikipedia puts it, "The screams of the dying were said to overpower even the sounds of whistles and sirens." It was one of the most horrifying scenes Toronto has ever witnessed.

The blaze finally died out around five in the morning and two hours later the Noronic had cooled off enough for people to start reclaiming bodies. They were everywhere: skeletons found embracing in the hallways, others still in bed, some turned entirely to ash by a heat so intense it could incinerate bone. At first the dead were pulled from the wreckage and piled up on the pier, but eventually the Horticultural Building at the Ex was turned into a makeshift morgue. For weeks, authorities struggled to identify the bodies. It was next to impossible. No one even knew how many people had been on the ship. Some were guests from Toronto visiting friends on board. Others, taking romantic cruises with people who weren't their husbands or wives, had registered under false names. And lots of the bodies were so badly burnt that entirely new techniques of x-ray identification had to be developed. Eventually, the final death toll was pegged at 119 lives. It's the most people ever killed by a disaster in Toronto's history.

In the wake of the fire, it didn't take long for the safety laws to be overhauled. And that, in turn, meant the end of luxury liners on the Great Lakes. It was just too expensive to run them if they weren't allowed to burst into flames every once in a while.

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There are lots of amazing photos of the Noronic. There are shots of what the interior looked liked before the fire here and here. Here's the dining room before and after. And a bunch from the Cleveland Plain Dealer: of firemen fighting the fire here and here, the charred wreckage here and a diver searching for bodies in the ship's lower decks here. Also, the Horticultural Building's temporary morgue is here. There are neat photos of that big 1913 storm, too: a big wave in Detroit here, a streetcar snowed under in Cleveland here, more snowy Cleveland here and here, and bodies washing up in Goderich here. You can read more about the Noronic disaster in a couple of interesting articles from the Walkerville Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And there's a ten minute CBC Radio segment in their archives, looking back on the disaster from 1977. There's a memorial to the victims in Mount Pleasant Cemetery and a plaque erected near where it happened, which is now right by the spot where the island ferry docks. You can also see the ship's whistle on display at the Marine Museum on the waterfront near Ontario Place.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Video: Sidewalk Surfers, 1965



In 1965, there was—as the woman with the hysterical hairdo in this video puts it—"a new terror loose in the streets of the city": early skateboarders. According to Wikipedia, sidewalk surfing (also known as "skurfing", because who doesn't like adding extra k's to things?) started in the late '40s or early '50s in California when actual surfers got bored. And while it didn't really take off until the '70s, there was a spike in popularity during the mid-'60s. Skateboarders got their own magazine, their own Life cover story ("Skateboard Mania—and Menace"), their own Toronto police crackdown and this awesome CBC report by an oh-my-god-he's-so-young Lloyd Robertson. You're going to want to click here to watch the full video, because he actually gives it a try—and when did you ever think you were going to get to see Lloyd Robertson riding a skateboard?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Painting: Toronto When It Was Ten Days Old

Toronto Harbour, 1793
When John Graves Simcoe (the Lieutenant Governor who founded Toronto) sailed into our harbour in 1793, he brought his family with him. And it's a good thing he did: his wife, Elizabeth, kept track of her experiences by writing a diary and painting watercolours, both of which you come across over and over and over again whenever you start looking into the first few years of Toronto's history.

Here, because I think it's neat, is one of those paintings. According to the book I'm reading at the moment, it shows the shoreline just ten days after Simcoe's men had started construction on Toronto's very first buildings: the military installations at Fort York. You can see their camp and the beginnings of the fort right there near the middle of the painting, all white and tiny and at the water's edge. Back then, Fort York was at the spot where Garrison Creek met the lake, surrounded by the lush, ancient forest which had stood there for about 7,000 years. Now, of course, the creek has been buried and a lot of the lake has been filled in with land, so these days you'll find those same buildings on the west side of Bathurst between Front and Lakeshore Drive, surrounded by the constant roar of the railway tracks and the Gardiner Expressway.

In the painting you can also see the masts of the ships that had brought the men there, but I don't really have anything interesting to say about them at the moment.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Oscar Wilde's First Gay Lover

Robbie Ross
Robbie Ross was born into one of the most powerful families in Toronto. His father was a lawyer, a senator and, for a while, the President of the Grand Trunk Railroad. His mother was the daughter of Robert Baldwin, one of the most important figures in all of Canadian history—the co-architect of responsible government, the foundation of our federal system. But Ross didn't get to live in Canada very long. Before he was two years old, his father had died and the family had moved to England.

There, Robbie Ross would soon become one of Britain's most scandalous and controversial figures. He was gay and he didn't hide it, a fact that didn't go over very well in Victorian England, where they were busy passing bigoted laws against such things. The harassment started early—he was bullied in school—and would continue throughout his life: he would be threatened with jail time, dragged into court, demonized in the press and eventually forced to leave the country altogether. During the First World War, an MP even wrote a pair of articles—one of them called "The Cult of the Clitoris", if you can believe it—accusing Ross of being part of a conspiracy of 47,000 treacherous "perverts" helping the Germans to "exterminat[e] the manhood of Britain" by turning Britons gay.

It didn't help, of course, that Ross happened to be sleeping with the most famous gay man in the entire British Empire.

Or the most famous bisexual man, anyway. Oscar Wilde was a husband and  a father when when he first met the 17 year-old Ross. And it seems that up to that point, the writer really had been attracted to his wife. But she was pregnant with their second child in 1886, and as she underwent the whole growing-another-person-inside-your-own-person thing, Wilde got seriously turned off. Disgusted even. And there was the young, attractive Ross, "determined to seduce Wilde" according to at least one biographer and already experienced from his time in boarding school. The two hooked up. Ross moved in. And the pair would remain close for the rest of their lives.

The Canadian stood by Wilde even when things started to go sour. And they did so pretty quickly once the author began an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas led Wilde into the seedy Victorian underground of gay prostitutes and brothels. And it was Douglas' screwed up relationship with his crazyass homophobic bully of a father (the oh-so-ironically-titled Marquess of Queensbury), which eventually landed Wilde in jail. When Queensbury left Wilde a poorly-spelled calling card denouncing him as a "somdomite", Wilde sued Queensbury for libel. But when it turned out there was plenty of evidence against him, he was forced to drop the case. In the aftermath,  Ross begged Wilde to flee, but the author ignored him, was arrested, tried and eventually convicted of sodomy and gross indecency.

When Wilde got out after two long, miserable years in prison, Ross was waiting for him with a house in France. And though Wilde would forgive Douglas for his role and see him on and off over the next few years, it was Ross who was with him when he died. And it was Ross who took care of his affairs after his death, securing his legacy by buying back the rights to his works—which the author had been forced to sell during his trial—and stamping out the fake porn which was being published under his name.

For his part, Douglas went off the rails. When he wasn't accusing Winston Churchill of playing a role in an imaginary Jewish plot to assassinate the Secretary of War, he was denouncing homosexuality, attacking Ross, testifying against him in court and declaring that Oscar Wilde was "the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years".

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As a touching postscript, Robbie Ross' ashes are now at rest inside Oscar Wilde's tomb. And this story isn't the only connection Toronto has to Wilde. He came to town in 1882 as part of a year-long tour of North America that helped cement his growing fame. He lectured at the Grand Opera House  on Adelaide and the old pavilion at Allan Gardens, hated all the ads painted on our buildings, loved University College at U of T, and made fun of our yellow bricks. blogTO has got more about that visit in an article over here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Robert De Niro Does A Shitload Of Coke And Gets Laid In The Bathroom

Robert De Niro
Okay, so things were getting a little sketchy for Martin Scorsese in the late '70s and very early '80s. He'd already released Mean Streets and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver—all hits—but followed them up with the giant bomb that was New York, New York. And he didn't take the failure very well. He spiraled into a vicious depression, a state of mind that wasn't helped by his already insanely high levels of cocaine use—like so high (excuse the pun), that when he ran out of blow at Cannes once, he chartered a plane to have more flown in from Paris. Another time, he over-dosed so badly that he arrived at the hospital with blood pouring from his eyes. His family fell apart. His career was a mess. His whole life was on the skids.

But then his friends stepped in to save him. First it was Robert De Niro, at his bedside in the hospital convincing him to kick coke and make Raging Bull. Scorsese threw himself into the film as if it was going to be the last movie he ever made—and he came out the other side with a masterpiece. Then, in the wake of that triumph, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel arranged a tribute to Scorsese's films at the 1982 edition of the Festival of Festivals—the fledgling Toronto event which  would soon be renamed the Toronto International Film Festival.

It was a big deal. The festival was only a few years old, but it was already attracting the biggest names in the business. Two years earlier they'd held a similar tribute to honour Jean-Luc Godard and it had been a smashing success; Scorsese's would be no different. He was hailed as an artist and surrounded by the friends who'd come to support him—including De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Robert Duvall. Scorsese still credits the tribute as a turning point in his recovery.

But really, that whole story is just a way for me to get to tell you the bit you've been waiting for since you saw the title of this piece: To celebrate their director's new, sober success, De Niro and Keitel hit the town. According to Toronto Life, they ended up at an after-hours club "snort[ing] more coke than Tony Montana on a tear." High and horny, Robert De Niro got a film festival staffer to guard the bathroom door. Then he and "a new female friend" slipped inside to fuck.

Awesome.

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It was the Toronto Life article on the festival's most memorable moments that tipped me of to this, which you can read here. Oh and as a weird bonus, I should mention that at the same festival exactly 19 years later, Harvey Keitel would meet and fall in love with his second wife. On September 11, 2001. Which just so happens to be where I was that day, too, stumbling out of a morning screen at the Uptown Theatre to discover the world had gone all crazy.

Photo: Washing Cars In The Humber In 1922

Humber River, 1922

This 1922 photo of the Humber was apparently taken near where Dundas crosses the river. People, from what I can gather, have driven their cars—which would have just recently started to become really popular—into the river so they can wash them.  The other people are the swimmers who used to be able to enjoy the river before  folks started doing things like, um, driving their cars into it and it got too dirty to use.

Washing your car in a river seems like kind of a weird practice to me, but if I've learned anything in my research so far, it's that people used to do weird things. And neither Google nor the Toronto Archives website nor the book I first found the photo in seem to be able to give me much more information than that.  It's not the only photo of such a thing, though—I'll post another one below, from 1927—so I guess people were doing it for at least a few years. 

Not only does the whole thing make for some great images, but the photos also tipped me off to the existence of John Boyd, the fellow who took then. His real job was working for the Grand Trunk Railway, but he was also an amateur photographer who traveled around Ontario in the late-1800s and early-1900s. A lot of his shots are fantastic. I'll definitely be posting more of his Toronto stuff later, but you can see some of my favourite non-Toronto photos here (hunters with their kill in Haliburton in 1887) and here (a tug of war in 1910) and here (an engineer with his train in 1910).

Humber River, 1927

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Map: Toronto in 1876

Toronto in 1876

This is hands down one of the coolest maps of Toronto ever made. A fellow by the name of P.A. Gross drew it in 1876 after having walked around the city block by block, sketching every single building, road, laneway and alley between Fort York and the Don River, from the lake right up to the Davenport escarpment. The detail is mind-blowingly incredible, so you're not going to want to just look at the small image above, you're going to want to see the fully zoomable version over here. It's amazing. 

And then, because you'll wonder how in the world such a thing was made, you'll want to head over here to read a Torontoist article all about it. And maybe even download the full-size image yourself, which you can do over here.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Hell's Handmaiden Gets Hitched

Billy Bishop and Margaret Burden, 1917
As a teenager growing up in Owen Sound, Billy Bishop was pretty popular with the ladies. His little sister's friends would beg her to convince him to go out with them — and he'd agree... every time his sister was willing to pay him $5. One of those friends was a pretty girl from Toronto, Margaret Burden. She was the granddaughter of super-rich department store guy Timothy Eaton and her family didn't approve of the middle-class Bishop, but that didn't stop him. He fell in love at first sight and went home that night to tell his parents that he had met the girl he was going to marry.

But before he had a chance to work up to a proposal, he found himself fighting the First World War. And things quite literally didn't get off to a flying start. He was stationed in England with a cavalry unit, miserable on the ground in the rain and the mud. After a few weeks of it, he requested a transfer to the Royal Air Force; the average life expectancy for a rookie pilot was only 11 days, but as Bishop put it: "I'll bet you don't get any mud or horseshit on you up there. If you die, at least it would be a clean death."

As it turned out, he wasn't even a very good pilot. In fact, he sucked. On his first mission, he narrowly avoided getting shot down and was separated from the rest of his squadron. His commanders decided they were going to send him back to flight school just as soon as they could find a replacement.

But he was an incredible shot. In his first real battle, he downed a German ace who had destroyed 12 Allied planes. And even though he lost an engine in the process — crashing into no man's land and scrambling back across the line — the very next day, Bishop went back up and shot down another one. Before long, he was heading out alone on his own unofficial runs, and in just over a week, he had claimed his fifth victory, earning him the title of "ace" and getting the nose of his plane painted blue in celebration. Over the next few months, he would shoot down dozens more, face off against Germany's famous Red Baron, win the Victoria Cross, and find himself holding the record for downing more enemy planes than any other pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.

By the time he headed home on leave in the fall of 1917, he was an international celebrity, one of the most famous pilots in the world. In October, at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church on St. Clair just east of Spadina, he and Margaret finally got married in front of a huge crowd of family, friends and fans.

Of course, the story is much more romantic if you skip over a few details. Like the mistress Bishop kept in France. Or just how much the war had messed him up. "You have no idea how bloodthirsty I've become," he wrote in a letter to the love of his life, "and how much pleasure I get in killing Huns." After one battle, he apparently tried to bring back a German corpse as a trophy. His enemies started calling him "Hell's Handmaiden" and "The Blue Nosed Devil"; one fighter squadron put a bounty on his head.

But back home, he was a hero. And as he kept racking up victories, the Canadian government started to worry about what would happen to the country's morale if he were ever killed. So they pulled him out of action and ordered him back to England. Bishop was seriously pissed off. On his last day, he ran one final solo mission, downing five more planes in 15 minutes. It gave him a total of 72, making him the third most successful ace of the First World War — just eight victories behind the Red Baron himself.