Thursday, November 25, 2010

Photo: Rush Hour in 1941


That's a gridlocked Yonge Street at rush hour in 1941, looking north toward the intersection with College. (That white building on the left is College Park back when it was still an Eaton's.) I found it here, on the city's website, presented as an example of the kind of congestion that was suffocating the downtown core before we finally built our first subway line.

That same webpage has some neat drawings of what they thought King and Eglinton Stations might look like, plus this photo taken further down Yonge Street on Christmas Eve in 1935, looking north from Louisa Street (one of the four roads that disappeared when they built the Eaton's Centre on top of them)

 Yonge Street, Christmas Eve 1935

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Killing John Belushi

Dan Aykroyd at John Belushi's Funeral
Cathy Smith's story starts with a blowjob. She was just a sixteen year-old from Hamilton when she met Levon Helm in 1963; he was the drummer for an up-and-coming band soon be known as The Band. It was through him that she got involved in the quickly growing music scene in Toronto, becoming a well-known groupie and occasional back-up singer. Rick Danko, The Band's bassist, called her "the most beautiful girl in Toronto". But he might have been biased; when The Band were up on drug charges, it was young Cathy Smith who gave the cop a blowjob, told him she was fourteen and blackmailed him so he wouldn't show up to court. He didn't; the group got off pretty much scot-free.

There are other stories too. Like, say, the time they were all partying at the Seahorse Motel on Lake Shore. She was in the middle of having sex with Danko when she told him she wasn't on the pill and he lost interest. But just then Helm wandered by, more than willing to pick up where his bassist left off. Six weeks later, Smith discovered she was pregnant. Richard Manuel, the keyboardist, offered to marry her but she turned him down. Instead, she'd end up dating Gordon Lightfoot—a notoriously fucked up relationship. He drank a lot. There were drugs. When he thought one of his opening bands was flirting with her, he had them fired. When he got mad at her, he broke her cheekbone.

It seems like it wasn't until the '70s, though, that Smith really got into heroin and dealing. When Keith Richards and Ron Wood took a break from the Rolling Stones to come to Toronto and form their brief side project, The New Barbarians, she was their hook up. And when they headed back to Los Angeles, she followed. 

Now, in L.A., there's this hotel called the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, which is absolutely dripping with history. It's where Helmut Newton ran his car into a wall and died, where Led Zeppelin famously drove their motorcycles through the lobby, and where F. Scott Fitzgerald once had a heart attack. It was at the Marmont that a deranged Vivien Leigh covered the walls of her room with photos of her estranged husband, Laurence Olivier, and where Elizabeth Taylor nursed Montgomery Clift back to health after a car accident nearly killed him. It's the same place Jim Morrison fell from his window and almost died while he was trying to swing from a drainpipe, where Howard Hughes used binoculars to spy on girls at the pool from his room in the attic, where Marilyn Manson and Evan Rachel Wood met for the very first time, and where James Dean jumped in through a window to audition with Natalie Wood for Rebel Without A Cause. It's also where Sophia Coppola's new movie is set, where Britney Spears got blacklisted for smearing her dinner all over her face, and where Lindsay Lohan, Graham Parsons, Greta Garbo, Rock Hudson and Rock Hudson's first gay lover all lived at one time or another.

And one night in 1982, the Chateau Marmont is where Cathy Smith and John Belushi were having a party.

They'd met in  New York City years earlier, when The Band were musical guests on Saturday Night Live. And on this particular night, she was his source for speedballs, which is what they call it when you're insane enough to put heroin and coke in the same syringe and then shoot it into your vein. The vibe, it seems, was pretty sketchy that night. Robin Williams stopped by early on and did a few lines of coke, but was creeped out by Smith and left quickly. Later, it was Robert DeNiro who paid a visit, but he didn't stay long either. By the time the night was over, Smith had injected Belushi with speedballs eleven times. She helped him shower and put him to bed. He was breathing funny, but she left. In the morning, it was his personal trainer who found Belushi's discoloured corpse twisted up in the blankets.

At first, his death was ruled an accidental overdose; his own fault. But a couple of months later, from back home in Toronto, Cathy Smith gave an interview to the National Enquirer admitting that she was the one who bought the drugs and injected them into Belushi's arm. She was extradited back to the States, charged with first degree murder and spent more than a year in prison for manslaughter.

-----

There's another heartbreaking photo of Dan Aykroyd at Belushi's funeral here. Here is what Cathy Smith looked like around the time of her trial. And here's Gordon Lightfoot singing "Sundown", which he wrote about her.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Oldest Children's Parade In The World

Santa outside Eaton's, 1921
Christmas-crazed revelers (and sometimes their horses) have been pushing, pulling, dragging and driving weird shit on wheels through the streets of Toronto every year for nearly a century. And the earliest Santa Claus Parade actually goes back even further than that. In 1905, Santa arrived at Union Station by train and headed up to the Eaton's department store at Yonge and Queen with the Eaton's family. It would take a few years before they added floats and marching bands and got the idea for Santa to end the parade by climbing up a ladder from his float to hoist himself, stumbling and cursing, through an open window into Toyland, where, apparently, there was a stiff drink waiting. (That's what's about to happen in the photo above; you can see the 1918 version of the same thing here.)

The whole thing, of course, became crazy popular—a marketing coup for the Eaton's brand. For years, Eaton's made all the floats, expected every employee to help out on the day of the parade, and enjoyed the boost in sales that having Santa lead swarms of Christmas shoppers directly to your store will give you. There was a time when every Canadian child who sent a letter to Santa had it answered by Eaton's. Promotional films of the parade were given out free to schools and churches. It was shown live on TV not only here, but across Canada and the U.S. The Toronto parade was such a massive success that  it inspired Macy's to start their own New York version in 1924.

-----

The Archives of Ontario have an online exhibition of old photos of the parade here. Including this penguin from the 1931 edition, photographers filming the 1969 parade here, and the 1917 Santa making his way through the crowd on horseback here. There's a neat-looking Santa Claus from I'm-not-sure-which-year here. And there are a few more photos included in this Historicist column on Torontoist.

There's also a lot of old footage from over the years. The Archives of Ontario exhibit has some, and there's a YouTube archive here. There's film of 1928's parade here. And 1960, in four parts, starting here.

Finally, here are seven minutes of footage from the 1929 parade, including "Wiggly Waggly Pollywog", "Our Friend, The Tumbling Clown" and token racist entry, "The Crocodile With Moving Jaws And Flipping Tail Carried By Ten Little Zulus". Oh and, of course, Santa Claus riding another giant fish:

Friday, November 19, 2010

"The Best Known Woman Who Has Ever Lived"

Mary Pickford
In the days before University Avenue was extended south of Queen, there was a row of buildings where there's now the intersection at King Street. One of them was the Princess Theatre. Built in the late 1800s, the Princess was the first prestigious home for "legitimate" theatre in Toronto—and the only one until the Royal Alex opened down the street almost twenty years later. It brought all the biggest plays and most famous stars to the city. And in the year 1900, the Princess was showing a melodrama called The Silver King, which featured a small role for a young girl played by one Gladys Smith. It was the first time she had ever appeared on stage, but before too long, she'd be the most famous actress in the world.

She'd been born just a few years earlier and just a few blocks away, in a modest house on University, where Sick Kids is now. Her father died when she was four and her mother was talked into letting her children act as a way to bring in a little more money. She was hesitant—acting wasn't considered a respectable profession—but her daughter Gladys fell in love with it. She appeared in plays around Toronto before touring the States as a teenager and eventually landing in New York City on Broadway. It was there that a producer convinced her to change her name to Mary Pickford.

And it was there that her rise to fame really got started. She caught the attention of D.W. Griffith, a film director who would soon prove to be one of the most important men in the history of cinema. In a few years, he would make his "masterpiece", the unbelievably racist The Birth of A Nation, a silent epic about the founding of the KKK, whose members are portrayed as heroic figures battling a bunch of people in blackface. It was the highest grossing movie of all-time and such a landmark in the history of film technique that film schools still force students to sit through all three painful hours of it.

Griffith and Pickford made a powerful team. They produced 42 films together. In their first year. They helped prove that feature-length films could make money and though Pickford wasn't credited at first (no actors were back then), people were soon talking about the girl with the golden curls. As the popularity of film soared, and cinemas sprang up not only across the United States but the globe, her popularity  and power soared with it. Frustrated by the studios' stranglehold on the industry, she, Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks teamed up to form their own distribution company for independent films: United Artists. The very next year, Pickford would divorce her abusive, alcoholic husband. She and Fairbanks were in love. They got married and became Hollywood's first celebrity couple.

By then, Pickford was already one of the most famous people in the entire world—as far as actors go, they say only Chaplin rivaled her popularity. They called her "America's Sweetheart". One overzealous reporter even declared that she was "The best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history." Her honeymoon in Europe with her new husband caused riots when they were spotted in London and Paris. And when they returned home to the States, taking the train back across the country to Hollywood, huge crowds gathered to watch them go by. They say that after that, when foreign heads of state came to the White House, they also asked if they could visit the Pickfair estate in Beverly Hills, where Pickford and Fairbanks were playing host to dinner guests like Albert Einstein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Amelia Earhart, Noel Coward and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

But then came the talkies. Sound films left countless silent stars behind, as they couldn't, or wouldn't, adjust. And for Pickford, who believed that adding soundtracks to movies was "like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo", it was a disaster. It didn't help one bit that she picked that very same time to pull a Keri Russell—cutting her beloved blonde curls in favour of a short bob. It was front page news in the New York Times. Her popularity plummeted.

In 1933, with her films making less and less money, she retired from acting. And three years after that, she and Fairbanks were divorced. (He'd had an affair with an English actress with a thing for rich and famous men—her other husbands included a baron, an earl, a Georgian prince/race car driver and Clark Gable.) Pickford kept producing movies, remarried and adopted children. But she was a cold and distant mother, became an alcoholic and died in 1979.

-----

Despite all that "America's Sweetheart" business, Pickford was still a Canadian at heart. She called herself "a real Torontonian" and fought to regain her Canadian citizenship later in life—although it turned out she'd never lost it. You can hear her talking about her memories of growing up in the city (and her love of biking downtown—take that Ford!) in a radio interview she did with the CBC in 1959, here. "At least once a month I dream I'm back again in Toronto, up in Queen's Park, High Park, up north on Yonge Street..."

You can watch clips from some of her silent films here, on the PBS website. And some of my favourite photos of her are here (with a bear cub), here (with a kitten) and here (with her short hair).

You can read more about the Princess Theatre and the fire that destroyed it in one of Jamie Bradburn's Historicist columns for Torontoist, here. Or about the theatre's rivalry with the Royal Alex, here.

If you're interested, you can watch a particularly offensive six-minute clip of The Birth of A Nation, here. And if you're really masochistic, you can watch all three hours of racist bullshit, here.


Update: Silent Toronto just published a post about the reaction in Toronto to The Birth of A Nation here. (Hint, apparently the Star's headline read: “Colored people appear to be only opponents of the film”. Ugh.


This post is related to dream
04 The Silver King
Mary Pickford, 1900

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Video: Canada's First Subway Opens In 1954


The world's first subway—in London—had been running for about a hundred years before Toronto finally got ours. People had started suggesting one in the early days of the 1900s, but it took decades of lobbying, a rapidly growing population and fears that the downtown was going to be overwhelmed by cars before a referendum on the issue overwhelmingly passed in 1946. Three years later, construction started. It was, of course, a massive project: workmen spent the next six years ripping up Yonge Street pretty much all the way from Front to Eglinton. In 1954, it opened: an underground railroad that could take you from Union Station to Eglinton in just 20 minutes. To mark the occasion, the CBC produced this video, a seven-minute documentary about the new line. The sound is kind of crappy, but it's well worth  having to squint your ears a little.

The construction project also made for a lot of good photos. I'll post one of Front Street below (click to make it bigger), but there's another great one of Yonge Street near Queen here. You can also find some more, including a neat aerial shot of the trench, if you scroll down on  this article. There's a photo of the official opening ceremonies at Davisville Station here. And there's a YouTube video of one of those very first, very red subway trains rolling into Rosedale Station here.


Front Street outside Union Station, 1950

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Getting Blown To Pieces In The Muck Of Western Belgium

Canadian stretcher bearers
That's what it looked like just outside the town of Ypres, in western Belgium, in the spring of 1915. The Allies had pushed the Germans out of the town after the first few months of the First World War. And to get it back, the Germans were ready to use a new weapon that they only tried once before, unsuccessfully, against the Russians on the Eastern Front. So in late April, they hauled thousands of heavy cylinders toward the Allied lines and opened them, freeing the chlorine gas within. The yellow-gray clouds swept down upon ten thousand French troops, suffocating them, burning away at their eyes and lungs, driving them out of their trenches and into enemy fire. Coughing and frothing at the mouth, dying, panicked, the French fell back in disarray, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the Allied lines.

But the Germans, surprised at how well their plan had worked, were slow to take advantage of it. And that gave the Canadians the time they needed. Holding urine-soaked cloths over their mouths as feeble protection, they advanced, plugging the hole before the Germans could break through. But thousands died. And then day after day after day they lived in that bombed out hellscape, the skies turned red by the fires burning through the town and the surrounding farms, flashes of exploding artillery shells all around them, the ground shaking, dirt raining down from above, the constant hiss of bullets whizzing by overhead, and, occasionally, the chilling sight of those poisonous clouds silently wafting toward the Canadian lines.

It was after more than a week of this, on the second day of May, that a 22 year-old officer from Ottawa, Alexis Helmer, left his position with another solider to check on some Canadians further down the line. They'd made it only a few steps before a German artillery shell arced down out of the sky. It landed directly on Helmer, blowing him to pieces. The men gathered together whatever parts of him they could find, put them in sandbags and wrapped them with a blanket. That night, in the dark, they buried what was left of him in a small, makeshift cemetery nearby. The chaplain wasn't available, so one of Helmer's friends, John McCrae, performed the service.

McCrae was a surgeon and second in command of the brigade. He'd grown up in Guelph and moved to Toronto as a young man to attend U of T, which is where he learned medicine. While he was here, he joined and eventually commanded our most historied military regiment, the Queen's Own Rifles, was a member of the oldest college fraternity in Canada, Zeta Psi, and even published a couple of poems. He fought in South Africa during the Boer War and when the First World War broke out in 1914, he headed to Europe to fight. While he was at Ypres, he ran a first aid station, tasked with the gruesome chore of treating wounded men in a hole dug out of the bank of a canal, freshly dead bodies periodically rolling down on him from the battle above.

There's some disagreement about the details, but the most common story is that the day after he buried Helmer, McCrae took about twenty minutes to scribble down a few lines in his notebook. He sat on the back of an ambulance parked just outside his first aid station, looking out over the cemetery where he'd laid his friend to rest.  Each grave was marked with a wooden cross,  the ground blanketed with blood red poppies, and in the break between artillery barrages, he could hear birds singing overhead. They say that when he was done, McCrae tore the sheet out of his book and handed it to a solider who had been watching him write. He didn't say a word, just walked away and left the man to read what he'd written:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
 Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It would take only a few months for the poem to show up in a British magazine, but Canadians would be fighting in the mud and marsh around Ypres for the next three and a half years. They would eventually seize the village of Passchendaele, become, apparently, the first colonial force to push back a major European power on European soil, and die there along with hundreds of thousands of French, German and Commonwealth troops. The fighting in Flanders wouldn't end until the war did.

McCrae survived the battle, but not the war. He died of pneumonia in France. By then his poem was already one of the most famous in the world. And a few months later, just two days before the war finally ended, an American teacher read a copy of it in Ladies Home Journal. She was so touched that she immediately pledged to wear a poppy for the rest of her life—and set to work convincing community groups and veterans' organizations around the world to do the same, every year, and remember.

-----

The dates and exact locations can be a bit sketchy, but there's a seemingly endless supply of breathtaking photos from Ypres during WWI. You can see what John McCrae looked like here, and what the cemetery, Essex Farm, looked like just after the war here. There's a (very small, I'm afraid) photo of the German chlorine gas canisters here. Here's a photo of German troops advancing through the clouds of gas, with more troops doing the same here, and Frenchmen who've been killed by it here. There's an explosion from a German barrage here and an example of the kind of damage that could be done here.  You'll find a nice collection of photos of Ypres here, including some of the later battle, Passchendaele. There are lots of photos of that, the Third Battle of Ypres; like here and here and here and here and here. Amazingly, some of them are even in colour: Canadians here and here, and some of the most terrifying Germans you've ever seen here. Even just a quick Google image search will turn up dozens more; I could go on linking for hours.


Also amazing: You can read some of the letters McCrae wrote home to his mother. This site has a bunch of them, but here's an excerpt:

"[O]ne saw all the sights of war: wounded men limping or carried, ambulances, trains of supply, troops, army mules, and tragedies. I saw one bicycle orderly: a shell exploded and he seemed to pedal on for eight or ten revolutions and then collapsed in a heap -- dead. Straggling soldiers would be killed or wounded, horses also, until it got to be a nightmare. [...] Three farms in succession burned on our front -- colour in the otherwise dark. The flashes of shells over the front and rear in all directions. The city still burning and the procession still going on. I dressed a number of French wounded; one Turco prayed to Allah and Mohammed all the time I was dressing his wound. On the front field one can see the dead lying here and there, and in places where an assault has been they lie very thick on the front slopes of the German trenches."

Photo: Armistice Day in Toronto in 1918


Look up Armistice Day—November 11, 1918, the day the horrors of the First World War finally ended—on Wikipedia and the photo you'll find is this one, of ecstatic Torontonians celebrating at the intersection of King and Bay. It's far from the only one, though.  You can see crowds swarming Yonge Street at Queen here and again, just up the street outside the Elgin Theatre, here. A parade was organized, and you can see one of the floats photographed at the Gooderham & Worts distillery here. Eaton's department store closed for the day in celebration and remembrance, taking out a full page ad in the Globe, and, finally, you can see a family and friends enjoying the headline of the rival Toronto World newspaper here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Photo: Lake Shore Boulevard in 1925

Here's a pretty picture of a snowstorm on Lake Shore Boulevard in 1925. I didn't realize it when I found it, but this is yet another photo taken by John Boyd. (I've already posted a couple of his: the aerial shot of Maple Leaf Stadium last week and one before that of cars being washed in the Humber River.)  I also kind of find it interesting that according to the Wikipedia page where I stumbled across the photo, I'm not the only one who would have guessed Lake Shore was spelled Lakeshore. Apparently even the traffic signs along the road are confused and contradictory

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mr. Christie Makes Good Secret Chambers In Which To Imprison A Mistress

Christie Mansion
Okay, so here's the story of William Mellis Christie and his son, Robert. The elder Mr. Christie came to Toronto from Scotland when he was still a teenager and got a job at a bakery near Yonge and Davisville. He'd spend his nights baking and in the mornings he'd push a handcart down into the village of Yorkville to sell his goods. Things went well. Within a few years, he owned his own company. He partnered with his old boss and started winning awards for his cookies. From there, the business expanded quickly. In 1860, when he was 30 years old, Mr. Christie had a staff of five people baking by hand. By 1874, the steam-powered Christie, Brown and Company factory took up an entire city block between King and Adelaide (where George Brown College is now).  Less than twenty years after that, he employed two out of every three people in entire Canadian biscuit manufacturing industry.

When he died, in the year 1900, William Mellis Christie was one of the most famous businessmen in Toronto. He'd built a fortune. Lived in a mansion across from Queen's Park at the corner of Wellesley. Christie Street was named in his honour. As he was laid to rest in Mount Pleasant cemetery, his son, Robert, inherited it all: the money, the business and the Christie Mansion.

And that, if you believe the rumours, is when things got weird.

Robert, you see, had a mistress. And while he was living there with his family, he decided to have her move in as well. He kept her hidden in a secret chamber behind the wood paneling in the library. It was fully furnished, with a bed and a bathroom and a butler to bring her all of her meals so that she would never have to leave. She would just hang out in there, waiting for him to visit so they could have sex and carry on whatever twisted semblance of a romantic life you can when one of you is being held in the secret room of a Victorian mansion by your lunatic cookie baron lover, slowly going mad as he loses interest and you're left alone more and more often, hour after hour after hour, until you finally can't take it any more and you hang yourself from the rafters.

Her ghost, as you might expect, still walks the halls of the mansion some nights, scaring the crap out of the Jesuits who run the place—it's Regis College now, part of the University of Toronto.

-----

blogTo tipped me off to this story in an article they wrote last week, which you can find here. The photo comes from another site, which talks about a haunted U of T walking tour. It's here. And Regis College has a bunch of photos of the gorgeous interior of the mansion on their website here. Christie, Brown & Company were bought by Nabisco not long after Robert died. It was they who gave the brand the famous "Mr. Christie, you make good cookies" slogan and made it home to products like Oreos, Fudgee-Os and the unnecessarily punctuated Chips Ahoy!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Maple Leaf Stadium

Maple Leaf Stadium, 1958
This photo is looking north at the intersection of Bathurst and Fleet Street (nowadays Lake Shore Boulevard passes through too). Today, the eastern side of the intersection is pretty much the same: Rogers now owns that building on the south-east corner and the old abandoned Daily Bread Food Bank warehouse is still on the north-east. The west side, though, is completely different. On the northern corner, there's a condo tower these days and Douglas Coupland's tin solider monument commemorating the War of 1812. On the south side, where the gorgeous Maple Leaf Stadium once stood, there's now an Esso station and some co-op housing.

The stadium opened in 1926 as the home of Toronto's minor league baseball team, the Maple Leafs. (Before that, they played at Hanlan's Point Stadium on the island, where, as I wrote in an earlier post, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run.) It was built by the same architectural firm—Chapham, Oxley & Bishop—who designed some of the lakeshore's other icons: the Princes' Gates at the Ex, the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion and the Palais Royale. It had seating for 20,000 people, also played host to a few football games, and saw the home team win more than their fair share of championships—two of the Maple Leafs teams who called the stadium home are considered to be among the greatest minor league baseball rosters ever assembled. It was eventually demolished in the late '60s, when the team was sold and moved to Kentucky.


Maple Leaf Stadium, 1929













You can read more about Maple Leaf Stadium on Toronto Before here and Mop Up Duty here. blogTo has a bunch of photos of other old Toronto stadiums here.


Weird Coincidence Update: In the hour or so since I posted this, the news broke that Sparky Anderson, who played shortstop for some of those great old Maple Leafs teams, died today. It was actually the team's owner who suggested that Anderson, who wasn't an amazing shortstop, might have the leadership qualities necessary to be an excellent manager. And holy crap, was he ever. He'd go on to have a 25 year career as the skipper of the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers, winning three world championships, more total games than all but five other managers in the history of the sport, and a well-deserved spot in the Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

That Time An Irish Army Invaded Canada

The Battle of Lime Ridge
The guys in green are the Fenian Brotherhood. They're Irishmen, mostly Catholics I believe, who live in the United States. And thanks to the whole hundreds of years of oppression at British hands thing, they hate the crap out of the British. About twenty years earlier, the Fenian leaders were back home in Ireland fighting the failed Rebellion of 1848. But once they'd fled to the U.S., they lucked the fuck out: the end of the American Civil War meant that there were a whole bunch of unemployed guys – with military training and a crapload of guns – who didn't have much to do. Thousands of them signed up for the Fenian plan: they would raise an army and invade the Canadian colonies  —still run by the British in those days — as a way of pressuring the U.K. into giving up Ireland.

And so, in the spring of 1866, they gathered on the banks of the Niagara River and the invasion of Canada began. The American authorities, who knew all about it but were still pissed off at us over the War of 1812 and the lack of British support for the Union during the Civil War, waited 13 hours before they did anything to stop them. By then, more than a thousand Irishmen had crossed the river. They seized Fort Erie, set up defenses along a ridge not far outside town and waited for the Canadians to arrive.

Now, at this point it had been decades since there had been any kind of military conflict north of the border, so these fellows in red were pulled together at the last minute from all over Southern Ontario  — many of them coming from the intensely Protestant, Catholic-hating city of Toronto. They were mostly young and inexperienced volunteers — shopkeepers and students, store clerks and farmers. Some of them got to practice firing their weapons the day before. Most didn't. And before they knew it, it was almost dawn, and they were marching across the open fields toward the highly skilled Fenian defenders.

Yet somehow, things got off to a good start. As the Fenians opened fire, the Canadian lines held; some of the Irishmen were even forced back. But then something — no one has ever been sure exactly what — went wrong. The Canadians became confused, mistakenly thought a retreat had been ordered, and started to head in the opposite direction. The Fenians seized their opportunity and drove the rest of them off. They'd won the Battle of Lime Ridge.

But the Canadians had already done enough. Hundreds of Fenians had been deserting their army since day one and the unexpectedly strong (if  rather confused) resistance didn't help. As more of our troops poured into the area, the Irishmen panicked. They fled back across the river as quickly as they could: jumping onto logs and rafts or swimming for the other side. The Americans were there waiting for them on the far shore, ready to confiscate their weapons and send them back home.

The invasion proved to be one of the defining moments in the history of our country. That ragtag group of volunteers had been the first truly Canadian army (that is, without British commanders) to ever march into battle. The whole episode — the nationalist pride and the fear of the threat the Fenians posed — got people thinking all over the northern colonies. The very next year, they would band together, all the way from Ontario to Nova Scotia, and form their own brand new country: Canada was officially born.

-----

Over the next few years, there would be more Fenian raids; none of them amounted to much, though it was a Fenian sympathizer who was hanged for killing Thomas D'Arcy McGee in 1868, the only Canadian federal politician ever assassinated.

In 1870, the very first war memorial erected in our city was unveiled near Queen's Park. (You can find it just on the other side of the west arm of University Avenue, tucked into the edge of the University of Toronto.) It was dedicated to the memory of the U of T students who volunteered to fight and die at the Battle of Lime Ridge. The New York Times reported that 10,000 people attended the ceremony.



You can read some fascinating first-hand accounts of the battle here, on Google books, by soldiers and reporters who were there that day. Just go to the bottom of page 43 and start reading. And there's a photo of the Queen's Own Rifles, a company who fought in the battle, here.


Oh and I should also mention that the battle is also frequently called the Battle of Ridgeway or the Battle of Limestone Ridge. You know, just in case you're sitting around with your friends someday getting drunk while discussing the intricacies of mid-19th century Irish nationalist movements and the factors that contributed to Canadian Confederation and then they're all like, "Battle of Ridgeway this" and "Battle of Ridgeway that" and you're all like, "Damn you Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog! I  have no idea what they're talking about!"