THE WAY WE WERE: A bridge to fair

As a kid growing up in a much quieter Toronto, the approach of the annual Canadian National Exhibition prompted two emotions.

The first was anticipation (remember the free food samples, playing with the adding machines and do-it-yourself paper school book covers) and the second was a sense of impending anxiety since what followed each fair was a return to school.

Now I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy my stint in public school — first a few years at Palmerston near Honest Ed’s place at Bathurst and Bloor Sts., then a few more at John Fisher further afield in north Toronto — but I was pretty sure back then making popcorn at Pat Tobin’s Alhambra Theatre or playing ball hockey on the little side street we lived on was a much better use of my time. Oh, except for some pleasant discussions with Miss Staples (who had a little blue Austin car and came back to John Fisher one fall with a new name, Mrs. Thompson, because, as I found out later, she got married) and a towering Mr. Garton. Both were, as I recall, neat teachers without first names.

For this youngster, and admitted streetcar buff (I even made my own streetcars out of Dinky Toys, match sticks, string and Plasticine, a modeling medium consisting of calcium salts, petroleum jelly and aliphatic acids …Yikes! Who knew?), the best way to get to the CNE was to ride the Bathurst streetcar into the Eastern Entrance just north of the Princes’ Gates — a structure that was renamed from its original Diamond Jubilee of Confederation Gate title to one that honoured Edward, the Prince of Wales, and his brother Prince George, the Duke of Kent, who accompanied him on his 1927 visit to Canada.

The trip high over the railway tracks south of Front St. with the image of the rides and buildings off to the west flashing through the steel girders of the old Bathurst St. bridge was always a thrill.

Years later I traversed that same bridge on my way to my job as the CNE’s new Special Projects and Centennial Manager (thanks Dave Garrick). My first year in that position I saw the Spanish Pavilion (aka the 1907 Transportation Building) burn to the ground as well as the TTC go out on strike. We all thought CNE attendance would plummet, but it didn’t. People loved the EX and got there any way they could.

The next year city officials announced that work on rebuilding the old Bathurst St. bridge would “derail” the most important way people got to the 20-day fair. The city didn’t go ahead with the project and the attendance soared.

The announcement of plans to rebuild that old bridge seemed to come up almost every year and frequently it happened just a few months before the CNE announced its own list of attractions and Grandstand and Bandshell programs. Every year staff shuddered. If the bridge project really came to pass what effect would that massive project have on the fair’s attendance?

This year there’s an interesting twist to the Bathurst bridge versus CNE situation. Although both the bridge rehabilitation and TTC track replacement will see Bathurst St. from Front St. to Fort York Blvd. closed for eight months, there will be no CNE to be interrupted.

The fair’s cancellation is sad to be true, but at least that old bridge didn’t win out.

Today’s Bathurst St. bridge was built in 1903 and was originally located just north of the mouth of the Humber River where it was used by trains of the Grand Trunk Railway. The arrival of heavier rail equipment prompted the bridge’s obsolescence and the structure was sold to the City of Toronto in 1916. It was dismantled and moved — girders and beams and all — to the foot of Bathurst St. where it was laid out on a southwesterly angle. This allowed the Bathurst streetcar to be extended south of Front St. where it would then skirt the north side of Fort York (actually it was hoped to have it run right through the fort itself where it would could be considered a “tourist attraction”) thereby giving passengers access to and from the CNE Grounds. In 1931 the south end of the bridge was placed on rollers and “towed” into its present north-south alignment by a railway steam engine. This rare photo shows a Grand Trunk train crossing the 1903 bridge over the Humber River before it was dismantled in 1916 and re-assembled over the rail corridor at the foot of Bathurst St. The bridge, which took its present alignment in 1931, will be closed for eight months starting Monday. Archive photo / Toronto Sun

Following the re-alignment of the bridge in 1931, TTC crews are seen here installing the new streetcar tracks running south to Fleet St. before curving west to the CNE grounds. Maple Leaf baseball stadium (thus the name of nearby Stadium Rd.) can be seen in the distance. That gas station is still there, though modernized, and the massive Loblaws warehouse is on the left. Archive photo / TTC Archives


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