Monday, September 5, 2011

# 27 ~ Memories of the Canadian National Exhibition, Then and Now

Well, it's that time of the year again.  The Labour Day weekend is just about over, the back-to-school sales have been going on for a while, and all my facebook friends who have kids have exultant status updates.  Believe it or not, there was a humidex advisory for Friday, but on a few nights the temperature has dipped down a bit.  And the sure sign that another summer is drawing to a close is that the Canadian National Exhibition is drawing to a close on Monday, for another year.  The jet engines will not only be rattling the windows in downtown condominiums ~ they will also be heralding the last long weekend of summer.

The grounds of the CNE represent more than 250 years of European history in the Toronto area.  This year, I was invited to give ghost tours of the grounds, and did them over a two week period.  I was infected all over again with a fascination with the area's history, and hopefully, passed the bug on to a few individuals who were interested in more than the cheap thrills of the midway rides.  My recollection of CNE history may be somewhat influenced by content from the ghost tours, but I hope that's okay.

The oldest bit of history on the CNE grounds stands near the southwest corner of the grounds.  It's a quiet stretch of the Ex's property, away from the midway and the discount shopping stalls, with only the occasional strands of music from the Bandshell drifting over to dispel the quiet.  Here stands a monument to Fort Rouille, the old French colonial garrison that survived for almost a decade before being destroyed by its own garrison, who torched it when they heard the outcome of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, lest their small outpost fall into the hands of the British.

Orders to construct the fort were given by the Marquis de la Jonquiere, the contemporary governor of New France.  It was meant to cash in on the aboriginal trade in the area, and was positioned on the route towards the Humber River, the old Toronto portage route, and the cradle of history in the Toronto area.  The designation of "Fort" might make it sound grand; in reality, it was a very small walled outpost, holding only a few main buildings, including a barracks, a storage area, an officers building and a blacksmith.  The fort was named for Antoine Louis Rouille, the French Marine and Colonies Minister.  Remnants of the fort remained after it met with destruction in 1759, but as the CNE developed they were plowed and sodded over.  Recent excavations have shown bodies to rest in the area about 200 feet north of the old walls of the fort.  It would seem that they are the bodies of those who perished at the fort, expiring during the muggy heat of the summer, or during the long, harsh winters.

THEN : A map showing the placement of British trading posts (in red) and French trading posts (in blue) about 1750.  The location of Fort Rouille seems cut off and rather lonely, in comparison to other French trading posts.

THEN : The southwestern grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition are shown in this drawing of Fort Rouille.

THEN : French officers stationed at Fort Rouille meet and barter with local aboriginals.

THEN : The grounds of old Fort Rouille in 1925.

NOW : The monument to Fort Rouille today, on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition.

The old fort's next door neighbour is Scadding Cabin.  Built in 1794, it is often put forward as the oldest surviving building in Toronto.  It was built by soldiers of the Queen's York Rangers, for John Scadding, the clerk and aide-de-camp of John Graves Simcoe.  Simcoe, of course, was the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada (now Ontario), and the founder of what would become the City of Toronto.  The cabin is two-storeys, with living quarters on the first floor, and storage up on the second floor.  The low ceilings would have helped to hold in heat, but no doubt proved a vexation for Simcoe when he dropped past for meetings.  According to legend, he stood at a height of about six feet.

Scadding Cabin was originally built on the eastern banks of the Don River, near present day Queen Street.  It was sold to William Smith in 1818, and Smith's son, another William, donated it to the York Pioneers in 1879.  They had it taken apart, log by log, and reassembled on the grounds of what was then known as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition.  The oldest surviving home in Toronto has had timbers replaced over the years, and has been remounted on a stone foundation.  It is still operated by the York Pioneers, who open it most commonly during the Exhibition.

THEN : A painting of Scadding Cabin, by Elizabeth Simcoe, circa 1794.  Elizabeth Simcoe left behind hundreds of watercolour paintings and diary entries, though she remained in Upper Canada with her husband for only three years.  It is through her that we know so much of Toronto's earliest recorded natural history.

THEN : A ceremony to mark the opening of the CNE in 1907, with Scadding Cabin in the background.

THEN : J. A. Northey, President of the CNE Association, with members of the York Pioneers in historical garb, outside Scadding Cabin in the 1950s.

NOW : Scadding Cabin today.

In 1840, another martial complex was built on the site of the CNE grounds.  The Royal Engineers of the British Army constructed "New Fort York", more commonly known as the Stanley Barracks.  Today, the only surviving part of this fort is the Officers Mess, but originally other related buildings were situated nearby, including five smaller buildings for housing troops and equipment, as well as a stockade and a parade grounds.  The complex housed military personnel from the British and then Canadian military right up until the end of the Second World War.  After that war, they fell into disuse and were mostly demolished in 1953.  The remaining Officers' Mess has been used for various purposes over the last half century, including Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the Maritime Museum.  During one of the darker periods of our history, prisoners of German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish descent were held captive in the Stanley Barracks.  It was during the First World War, and these inmates became suspect because of concerns over their national or ethnic backgrounds.

THEN : Detainees of German origin at the Stanley Barracks in 1914.

THEN : A midway game mocking the German Kaiser at the Canadian National Exhibition, circa 1915.

NOW : All that remains of the Stanley Barracks, or "New Fort York" today.

Between 1906 and 1907, the Horticultural Building was constructed on the grounds of the CNE.  It replaced the Crystal Palace, which had been destroyed by fire in 1906.  The Crystal Palace had been inspired by the building of the same name, which was constructed in London's Hyde Park in 1851.  London's Crystal Palace was the home of the Great Exhibition, which showed off industrial innovations, commercial products and cultural treasures from around the globe, and which showcased London as the centre of a vast, advanced British Empire.  The brainchild of Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition was a great success, and soon cities all over the world wanted their own Crystal Palace.  Toronto's first Crystal Palace was built on the northwest corner of King and Shaw streets in 1858.  There it remained for twenty years, until it was taken down and reassembled on the site of today's Horticultural Building, near the Dufferin Gates.  It survived there from 1878 to 1906, when it was destroyed by fire and replaced the following year by the Horticultural Building.  The old Crystal Palace was an anchor for the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, which grew for a quarter of a century, until the name was changed in 1904.  The old Industrial Exhibition passed away, and the new name, the "Canadian National Exhibition" came into being.  It's been "the Ex" ever since, and in many ways the old Crystal Palace was the Ex's birthplace.

THEN : Toronto's first Crystal Palace, King and Shaw streets, 1867.
THEN : An old lithograph from about 1900 showing the Crystal Palace on the grounds of the Exhibition.

THEN : The Crystal Palace in 1906, just before it was consumed by fire.

THEN : A newspaper drawing of the fire that destroyed Toronto's Crystal Palace.
THEN : The Horticultural Building, shown here in 1914, was constructed on the site of the old Crystal Palace after fire destroyed that building in 1906. 

THEN : The Horticultural Building in 1920.

THEN : An early colour photograph of the Horticultural Building.

THEN : An early colour photograph of the Horticultural Building.

THEN : An awards ceremony at the Horticultural Building in 1950.

NOW : The Horticultural Building today.

The Horticultural Building was constructed on the site of the old Crystal Palace.  As is obvious by the name, the Horticultural Building has, of course, mostly been used for horticultural or agricultural purposes.  However, a darker element of the building's history relates to the fact that it was used as a makeshift morgue in the aftermath of the burning of the S.S. Noronic in Toronto's harbour, in September of 1949.  Launched in 1913, the Noronic provided passenger and package freight service across the Great Lakes.  At 362 feet (110 metres) in length, and a height of five decks, she could hold a maximum capacity of 600 passengers and 200 crew.  Considered a luxurious and beautifully designed shipped, she was nicknamed the "Queen of the Lakes". 

THEN : The S.S. Noronic in Toronto's harbour during an earlier visit from 1930.

The Noronic left Detroit on September 14th, 1949, for a week long pleasure cruise of Lake Ontario.  In addition to 171 crew members on board, there were 524 passengers, most of whom were Americans.  Captain William Taylor was at the helm.  The Noronic docked at a pier in Toronto on the evening of September 16th, 1949.  At about 2:30 a.m., a passenger noticed the smell of smoke coming from a locked linen closet.  He alerted a bellboy, who alerted a steward, and they unlocked the linen closet to investigate.  Once the door was open, the fire exploded into the hallway, and spread in minutes.  The oiled, polished wood of the walls made ideal fuel for the flames.  Some crew tried to fight the fire with extinguishers, but they were soon pushed back by advancing flames.  To their horror, crew members found that the fire hoses were out of order.  The ship's alarm whistles began to blast out a warning at 2:38 a.m., to warn the rest of the crew and passengers of the fire.  Only eight minutes had passed since the fire was first reported, but already more than half the ship was on fire.

THEN : The S.S. Noronic burns in Toronto's harbour in the early hours of September 17th, 1949.

Within minutes, the first rescuers were on the scene.  The first fire truck arrived at the pier at 2:41 a.m., and it was soon joined by several other fire trucks, rescue squads and a fire boat, as well as crews of police and ambulance drivers.  Emergency crews started smashing portholes so that passengers could climb out of cabin windows.  Passengers also started escaping by climbing down ropes.  The only point of exit off the ship was the lower deck, Deck E, as it was the only one with access to the pier.  However, the passengers were all quartered on the other four decks.   Within about a quarter of an hour, these four passenger decks were all in flames, and there was a great, crushing panic to escape through the few remaining exit points off the burning Noronic.  Survivors and witnesses described passengers jumping through flames to escape, of passengers falling to their death on the pier, or of being trampled to death by other terrified, reckless passengers.  Many passengers weren't able to exit their cabins; they were burnt alive or died of smoke inhalation, either awake and aware, or more mercifully, in their sleep.  Some witnesses claimed that the screams of those trapped on board drowned out even the shrill sounds of the alarms and whistles.  When the first rescue ladder was extended up to the ship, so many passengers tried to board it that it snapped in two, dropping escaping passengers into the cold, oily waters of the Toronto harbour.

Finally, the fire was extinguished by about 5:00 a.m.  Glass had melted out of almost every window, and the twisted metal hull was allowed to cool for about two hours before firefighters began to recover bodies.  They reported grim findings.  Charred skeletons embraced each other in the hallways, while other passengers lay dead in their bunks.  An investigation was launched by the government, and the results painted the crew in a bad light.  Most of those who died expired as a result of suffocation or burning.  Some were trampled or died from their plunge off the burning upper decks on to the pier.  Only one person died of drowning.  The crew were labeled as inept cowards; there weren't enough of them on board at the time of the fire, most of them fled as soon as they heard of the fire, and none of them attempted to waken or evacuate passengers.  There were 524 passengers aboard when the fire struck.  The exact death toll has never been discovered, but somewhere between 118 and 139 souls were lost in the fire.  All of them were passengers; the entire crew escaped with their lives.  Over the days and weeks to follow, the dead were taken off the burnt skeleton of the ship, and kept in the Horticultural Building.  Certainly, the use of the building to house the Noronic dead is the most tragic period in the history of the CNE, which has long served as Toronto's end-of-summer playground.

THEN : The burnt wreckage of the S.S. Noronic, with the Bank of Commerce tower in the background.

THEN : The wreckage of the S.S. Noronic, with the Royal York Hotel in the background.

THEN : On board the burnt out ship.

THEN : Workers clear out the debris of the burnt out S.S. Noronic.

The main western gates of the grounds, known as the Princes' Gates were opened on August 31st, 1927.  Executed in the Beaux-Arts style of architecture, they were built to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Canadian Confederation.  The designation as the Princes' Gates was a result of their being officially unveiled by two Royal brothers, Edward, the Prince of Wales and George, the Duke of Kent.  Less than a decade later, Edward ~ who was considered one of the most eligible bachelors across the globe ~ would stun the world by giving up the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American.  Seventy-five years later we have Colin Firth's award winning performance in "The King's Speech", but at the time, those in certain social circles felt uncomfortable sitting next to a divorced person at a society dinner.  His younger brother, George, was killed in August of 1942, when the airplane on which he was a passenger crashed into a hill in Scotland.  The plane was making its way to Iceland, and then on to the Dominion of Newfoundland, which was still seven years away from joining Canadian Confederation.

THEN : The Prince of Wales at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1927.

THEN : The Princes' Gates in 1927, the year they were unveiled and opened.

THEN : The Princes' Gates in 1929.

NOW : The Princes' Gates these days.
The gates are often mistakenly referred to as the "Princess Gates".  Perhaps visitors are confused by the large figure that stands atop the gates.  She's known as the "Goddess of Winged Victory", and she towers over the entrance holding up a single maple leaf.  On either side, she is flanked by allegorical figures representing progress, commerce, industry, science, agriculture and the nine provinces that made up Canada at the time.  The original "princess" was removed and replaced between 1986 and 1987.  Her age was starting to show, and there was concern that she might topple down and impale some luckless visitor to the Exhibition.  The replica that has stood in the place of the original for the last quarter of a century is made of glass-reinforced polymer plastic.  Designers have promised that this replacement is good to stand the test of time for a century, so visitors can walk beneath her in confidence for another seventy-five years.

NOW : The Goddess of Winged Victory.

The Horse Palace was constructed in 1931, and has been a favourite destination ever since.  When it opened, it was considered the best equestrian facility in Canada, and is regarded as one of Toronto's leading examples of Art-Deco architecture.  Since it opened eighty-years ago, the Horse Palace has taken on an increasing significance to the Toronto Police Mounted Unit.  For eighty years, they have kept a mounted unit stationed in the Horse Palace when the Ex is running.  Since 1968, at least one Mounted Unit has been in residence at the Horse Palace year round.  In the 1990s, the stables underwent a major renovation, so that in 2000 all of the Mounted Units in the Toronto Police Service could come together under one roof.

THEN : Horses on parade during the Police Games, 1939, with the old stables and related buildings in the background.

THEN : Demolished stables are in the foreground of this photograph of the CNE grounds from the 1930s.

NOW : The very Art-Deco cornerstone of the Horse Palace.

NOW : Horse Palace exterior.

NOW : Horse Palace interior.

The Art-Deco styled Bandshell has played host to a number of entertainers since it was built on the CNE grounds in 1936.  Big name acts from every decade ever since have appeared on the stage of the Bandshell, including Louis Armstrong, Guy Lombardo, Joni Mitchell, Bob Newhart and the Guess Who.  More recently, in 2003, the Bandshell earned an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records, when Elmo, of Sesame Street fame, appeared for "Kid's Day" and led the audience in the largest recorded performance of the hokey-pokey.

THEN : This was the "old bandstand", shown here in 1936, the year it was replaced by the current structure.

THEN : The front of the Bandshell in 1936.

THEN : The back of the Bandshell in 1936.

NOW : The Bandshell today.

The Bandshell, by the way, is not to be confused with the old Grandstand (Exhibition Stadium).   There were several incarnations of the Grandstand, as it burned down and was rebuilt a number of times.  Eventually, it was demolished, and the BMO field stands more or less where it once did.  The seats might have had poor sight lines, and the sound wasn't the greatest, but some of the best acts over the years played the Grandstand, including Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Three Stooges, Michael Jackson ... and Glen Campbell, who was the only performer in that set to reappear at the 2011 CNE. 

Other landmarks on the grounds of the Exhibition have come on gone over the years.  The rides of the Midway, of course, come and go over year ~ except for a few that were built to be permanent, but have since been dismantled, leaving behind only the memories of former thrills.  Remember the Alpine Way?  It was a set of cable calls that were strung across the Exhibition grounds from one end to the other.  There were four rows of blue, green and red cars, each of which carried up to four passengers. The Alpine Way came down fifteen years ago now, in 1996, and the cars were eventually placed into storage.  Many Torontonians were sad to see it go, including Sam Sniderman, of "Sam the Record Man" fame.  Such was his lamentation that he bought the sign for the ride and donated it to the CNE archives.  I'll never forget my last ride on it, not too long before it was taken down.  I was riding it with a friend of mine, and we stopped about halfway across the grounds, at nearly the highest point.  The car came to a halt, and a voice crackled to life over the intercom, informing us that there was a delay due to some kind of problem in loading up one of the cars.  We couldn't have been stuck up there for more than fifteen minutes, but it seemed like an eternity, as our car creaked and swung back and forth in the breeze.  I was happy to plant my feet back on the firm concrete of the grounds.  I never did get my courage back, and the Alpine Way was dismantled before I had the chance for one more final ride.

THEN : The gondolas of the Alpine Way.  Even the Dominion logo is now a fading memory.
THEN : The Alpine Way in the mid 1970s.  The Flyer roller coaster can be seen on the right.  Also visible is the Bulova clock tower, a favourite rendezvous point for Ex-goers until it was demolished.
THEN : The Midway in the 1970s.  The Flyer, that great white roller coaster to the left of the photograph, was a favourite attraction.  It was greatly lamented after being demolished in the 1990s.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to attend the CNE at the right time will remember the "the Flyer".  It was a whitewashed wooden roller coaster, constructed by Conklin in 1953.  It remained intact throughout the year, and was a permanent fixture until its demolition in the 1990s.  The amusement park rides of the CNE are often compared to those at Canada's Wonderland.  Especially for those of us who remember the "big" rides, like the Flyer, there is no comparison.  The operators of the rides at Canada's Wonderland all look like neatly turned out, uniform clad, engineering students, who flick a switch and watch carefully, timing your ride to the second.  This is in contrast to the ride operators at the Ex.  Biker jackets and torn jeans seemed to make up their uniforms in the old days; they'd flick the switch to power on the machines, the sparks would fly out of the control panel, and they'd turn to share a smoke and chat with their friends for about twenty minutes.  I remember riding the Flyer, and look back fondly at the bits of wood that flew off it as we rode ~ that was a real thrill ~ the definite chance that the whole ride may come crashing down around you before your ride was over.  When we were younger, it seems like we took our lives in our hands just getting on those things, and it made it all the more exciting.

Another season has come and gone for the CNE.  Some Torontonians are annual visitors, while some visit only occasionally.  Most have memories of "the Ex", though.  Even for those who haven't visited in years, remembering it will often bring a gleam to the eye, before they launch into their fondest memories of the grounds, even if their last visit was decades ago.  I've been tentatively invited back, and may be doing more ghost tours of the grounds as early as later this month.  However, for me, one of my greatest memories of the Ex will be from this year, when for two weeks I had the chance to become a "carny", and pitch the grounds of the CNE to the hundreds of visitors who came on the CNE ghost tours over those two memorable weeks.


I've already starting taking reservations for my own ghost tours.  They run all year, but starting on Thanksgiving Weekend, I will be doing them nightly.  The Haunted Streets of Downtown Toronto tour runs every night at 7:00 p.m., and the Ghosts of the University of Toronto runs every night at 10:00 p.m.  All tours are only $10 per person.

For more information, visit :

The CNE Through the Years : An Historical Photo Album

THEN : Fireworks at the CNE, 1905.

THEN : Union tents at the CNE, Labour Day, 1907.

THEN : The CNE grounds in 1908.

THEN : High fashion at the CNE in 1911.
THEN : CNE Midway freak show, 1912.

THEN : The Duke of Connaught, Governor General of Canada, opens the CNE in 1912.

THEN : CNE Midway attraction, 1913.

THEN : CNE Midway attraction, 1913.
THEN : Live bee demonstration at the CNE, 1914.

THEN : High wire daredevils over the CNE, 1914.

THEN : Something called "auto polo" at the CNE Grandstand, sometime between 1914 and 1920.
THEN : Armoured cars boost war morale at the CNE in 1915.

THEN : Crowds on the Midway in 1920.

THEN : Women apply for waitress's jobs at the CNE in 1920.  The job paid $1.25 per day.

THEN : The CNE air show in 1920.

THEN : Trick cyclists at the Grandstand in 1920.
THEN : An aeroplane takes on a car in this race at the Grandstand in 1920.

THEN : Warriors Day Parade, 1922.

THEN : Crowds at the CNE in 1928.

THEN : Crowds at the CNE in 1928.

THEN : Accidents happen!  A collision during an auto show at the CNE in 1930.

THEN : Toronto Transit Commission at the CNE in 1931.

THEN : Toronto Transit Commission display at the CNE in 1931.

THEN : The Toronto Coach terminal opened as the Gray Coach Terminal on Bay Street near Dundas in 1931.  That year, this model was shown at the transit display at the CNE.

THEN : This statue of Ned Hanlan, originally unveiled in 1926, is shown here in 1933.  It stood outside the old Manufacturers Building, on the grounds of the CNE, until 1972, when it was moved to the Marine Museum at the Stanley Barracks.  Finally, in 2003, it was moved to its current location by the ferry docks at Hanlan's Point.

THEN : Enjoying a dance at the CNE in 1936.
THEN : The Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant of 1936.
THEN : The Winners Circle at the 1937 Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant, held in the Grandstand.
THEN : Toronto Transit Commission Display, 1936.
THEN : Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant, 1936.
THEN : Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant, 1936.
THEN : Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant, 1936.
THEN : Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant, 1937.
THEN : Canadian actor Lorne Greene giving a radio advertisement for Alka-Seltzer at the CNE in the 1950s.

THEN : Crowds gather round the Food Building in the 1950s.

THEN : Kids meet a cowboy, 1950s.

THEN : Cowgirl and kids, 1950s.
THEN : Dog pulling a cart, 1950s.
THEN : The RCMP Musical Ride in the 1950s.
THEN : The RCMP Musical Ride in the 1950s.
THEN : The RCMP Musical Ride in the 1950s.
THEN : The RCMP Musical Ride in the 1950s.
THEN : The RCMP Musical Ride in the 1950s.
THEN : Guests at the CNE get a glimpse of the new TTC subway cars.  Toronto's original subway line opened on March 30, 1954, after five years of work.  The original line ran from Union Station as far north as Eglinton Station.
THEN : Visitors to the CNE take in the cars of Canada's first subway line in 1954.
THEN : In 1955, the finishing touches are put on a sculpture of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement.  Baden-Powell had died in 1941.
THEN : Baden-Powell's wife looks on at the butter sculpture of her husband, in the company of a few Boy Scouts.  The couple caused a sensation when they married; he was more than 20 years her senior.  The couple had one son and two daughters.  There is no evidence to suggest that his statue was later deep fried and sold in the Food Building.
THEN : Lester B. Pearson helps to open the CNE in 1956.
THEN : The Queen Elizabeth Building in 1957, the year that it opened.  It is used year round for various exhibits and festivals.
THEN : An amphibious car at the CNE in 1962.
THEN : An amphibious car takes a spin around the harbour in 1962.
THEN : An amphibious car emerges from the waters of Lake Ontario in 1962.

THEN : The CNE Midway in 1974.

THEN : The CNE Midway in the late 1970s.
THEN : The CNE Midway in 2010.