Chapter Five of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

TTC employees Margaret Watson and Elaine Henkel are shown in this 1954 photo at the Royal York Hotel with a cake replica of subway cars to celebrate the opening of Toronto's first subway. Photo: City of Toronto Archives.

Below is Chapter Five of former Beach resident Keith Black’s book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.

Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://www.beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy. For more information on the book, contact Black at kandjomemee@gmail.com

To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/

To read Chapter Two, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Three, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Four, please go to https://www.beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road. For more information on the book or to order a copy, please contact Black at kandjomemee@gmail.com

BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

CHAPTER FIVE: ‘We cautiously peered inside looking for skeletons’

By KEITH BLACK

My first bicycle was a used rusted hulk of a machine of indeterminate age and make. I loved it.

I think my mother bought it for three dollars when I was about eight or nine years old. One or two years later, thanks to money I had saved up from delivering newspapers, I was able to buy a brand new bike. What I really wanted was a Raleigh which was considered the Cadillac of bicycles, but it was beyond my financial reach. My second choice was a CCM (Canadian Cycle and Motor Co.) but it too was out of my range.

A friend of our family who lived in the same apartment building worked for Eaton’s, the department store, and she was able to get a bike for me with her employee discount applied. So I bought an Eatonia for $48. I had ordered red but when it arrived it was orange. I must confess that I was disappointed. But I grew to love that bike and it gave me a lot of joy. It had three speeds with Sturmey-Archer gears (at least I could say that a part of my bike was a Raleigh; Sturmey-Archer was owned by Raleigh) and caliper brakes fore and aft.

Virtually all of my friends had bicycles and we rode them everywhere: to the beach, to Kew Gardens, to playgrounds and to Glen Stewart Park. There were very few places where we wouldn’t take our bikes although I must admit that we did try to avoid riding on Queen Street as much as we could.

But it was very easy to avoid it; there are a considerable number of laneways running parallel to Queen behind the retail buildings, the longest one connecting Glen Manor Drive to Lee Avenue just south of Queen. Plus there are many residential fourplexes in the Beach and often their driveways interconnect and act as shortcuts from one street to another. We knew them all; we knew every square inch of the area.

Glen Stewart Park (the big ravine) was riddled with serpentine footpaths that scaled steep hills and plunged into valleys and we traversed these at breakneck speed, bouncing over rocks and exposed tree roots. Trail riding long before there were trail bikes on bicycles not meant for trail riding.   Sometimes we would hide our bicycles under bushes and conduct boat races down the tiny stream that meandered through the ravine, the boats being small pieces of tree branches. We were far removed from the bustle of Queen Street, the heat of the beach and the frenzied activity of schoolyards and playgrounds. It was like being hundreds of miles from the city.

The big ravine was the perfect place to play Cowboys and Indians. All of us wanted to be cowboys; none of us wanted to be Indians. The cowboys were the “good” guys; the Indians were the “bad” guys. We all had cowboy hats and some of us had western style (cowboy) shirts. And we had cap pistols; very realistic imitation guns which held a roll of caps which exploded when hit by the hammer. I remember at one time owning a great-looking rifle which also fired caps. For those who were assigned to be Indians in the game, some had bows that fired arrows tipped with suction cups.  They didn’t sling an arrow very far, but….

The only problem we had when playing was determining results. If you were struck with an arrow, it was hard to deny it but if someone “shot” you with a cap pistol, you could say “Ha!  You missed”.  “No I didn’t!”  “Yes you did!”  “No I didn’t!”  Unfortunately there were no umpires or referees.  But we still had a great time. We also cut individual caps off of the roll and when we stacked them four or five high, placed them on a rock and hit them with another rock they produced a very satisfactory result with the smell of burnt sulphur wafting through the air.

A game that had “bad” Indians and realistic imitation guns; another of the “Faults of the Fifties” again. The Faults of the Fifties are memories that are not good. I’ll talk more about this in a later chapter.

Sometimes, when we were feeling exceptionally adventurous, we would leave the confines of the Beach. On those occasions we (or, at least most of us) would tell our mothers where we were going and when we expected to return. I can’t recall ever being told no. She did often ask though, who I was going with; I guess some of my friends carried a little more gravitas than others. I may not have agreed then, but I do now.

It was a wild ribbon of forest 300 or 400 yards wide and about 10 kilometres long in a deep valley with a small river running through it which ultimately ran into the Don River. Other than a pattern of footpaths and a few “tamed” areas, Taylor’s Bush was exactly that: bush.

In 1961 the Don Valley Parkway was opened and it passes through a part of the area but the rest of it remains a series of parks (Taylor Creek Park, E.T. Seton Park, and the Lower Don Parklands) which retain a little of the original character but are generally much more refined with improved access and mobility.

But in the 50s it was bush and we periodically went exploring there. It was a day long venture because it was so expansive and there was so much to see and do. In fact, maybe there was too much to see and do; we always seemed to return from there feeling mildly disappointed. Perhaps that is the wrong word; unsettled might be a better adjective.

Like all children we unconsciously liked the feeling of boundaries. Taylor’s Bush seemed limitless. We were always happy to get back to the Beach. There’s no place like home. The big ravine was just fine.

On one occasion for some long forgotten reason it was decided that we would ride our bikes to the farmland outside of Toronto.  I think that four or five of us went and we followed a pre-planned route and took lunches in our ever present haversacks. Most of us owned haversacks, the heavy canvas backpacks used by soldiers during the war. There was a surplus of them, they were very cheap and they never wore out.

Ultimately, after a long period of pedalling (mostly uphill) we arrived at a rural setting near the intersection of Markham Road and Passmore Avenue just south of Steeles Avenue. And yes, it was farmland then and that is all that there was. There were fields and barns and cows and sheep.  Now what? We ate our lunches and then went home, a much easier downhill ride. Surely we weren’t the first explorers who ever suffered a pointless voyage of discovery. But we did learn the meaning of the word disillusionment.

We were very fortunate to live in the Beach; it had every conceivable amenity that children could possibly want. It had beaches and parks, schoolyards and playgrounds, bicycle paths and ballparks, and woods, ravines and streams. The only things that the Beach didn’t have were stretches of desolate shoreline, wild gorges and soaring cliffs.  But they were right next door!

The Scarborough Bluffs start where the Beach ends, at Fallingbrook Road and run along the shore of Lake Ontario for about 10 miles east to Highland Creek. A series of clay cliffs, they reach their tallest point near Midland Avenue where they tower about 300’ above the lake. At irregular intervals erosion has created rugged gullies that enable adventurous individuals to climb cautiously to the top (or back down). And we were adventurous!

A couple of times each summer, after having duly informed our mothers, we would don our haversacks and wander off for a visit to the Bluffs. Sometimes we would take the beach route, walking along the shore, passing through the waterworks property and then climbing down from the high breakwater to the beach below.

At one time there was a rickety ladder leaning up against the breakwater but it eventually rotted and was replaced by a tree trunk which we shinnied down.

At other times we rode our bikes to the end of Queen Street, chained them to a fence there then descended what were known as The 100 Steps. I never actually counted the steps to confirm the number but it was kind of a moot point; even in the Fifties the stairs were in bad condition with many of the treads missing. Apparently there were originally 138 steps which from the 1920s to the 40s led to the Fallingbrook Pavillion, a dancehall which had a reputation that was obviously less than stellar. It was informally known as The Bucket of Blood. The stairs are now closed. So is The Bucket of Blood.

After having reached the rugged shore east of the waterworks, we could walk for miles without ever seeing another person. The water level of Lake Ontario changed from month to month and from year to year; as a result the walk was never the same.

Sometimes we could walk along the shore for miles without encountering any impediments while at others we would have to scramble over old mud and rock slides or climb part way up hillsides to carry on. The constant erosion of the hills and cliffs brought down all manner of debris to the shore from large trees to parts of wooden fencing to garden chairs. There were even two or three rusted cars from the 1920s down there; they had probably been stolen and then pushed over the edge. Naturally we cautiously peered inside looking for skeletons. We were disappointed; there were none.

Every visit to the Bluffs would entail a climb to the top. As mentioned earlier, eroded gullies made this venture easier than it sounds but not that easy. Some routes were steeper than others while some were devoid of vegetation which denied us handholds. There were sections that consisted of dry powdered clay which had the same effect as snow causing us to slip and slide. And if you were behind other climbers, you were constantly being pummeled by dislodged rocks and boulders.

Just like real mountain climbers, once we had attained the summit, there was only one thing left to do; go back down which brought a different set of challenges. What great days we had at the Bluffs. They were days of exploration, excitement and discovery. And all of it was right there; right next door. It is now illegal to climb on the Bluffs, and the shoreline has been “cleaned” up.  Pity.

The year 1954 brought us another exciting excursion out of the Beach although I don’t think that I was allowed to participate until two or three years later. Five cents. What a bargain. Five cents.  For five cents we could get on a streetcar and, upon arriving at Yonge Street, we could transfer onto the modern new subway. We could ride for as long as we wished, up and down from Union Station to Eglinton Avenue. Of course we would get on either the first car or the last and stand at the front-facing (or rear-facing) door. It was just as good as any carnival ride and it cost five cents.  What a bargain!

By now you may be getting the impression that we spent all of our waking hours out of doors, walking, running, riding, skipping, sliding, and skating, never stopping, never sitting still and never being indoors. That’s not entirely true.

 


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