The CNE: Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. Much More than the Midway.


A little tad—let’s call him Louis—counts the hours until the CNE, the Canadian National Exhibition opens in mid- August of 1956. Called the “Industrial Exhibition of Toronto” when it opened in 1879, in Louis’ day, the CNE was a “must see” for every kid in Toronto and its sprawling suburbs.

Young Louis is setting his 9-year-old sights on the food, the rides and the midway, but in years to come he’ll take an interest in the buildings that make up the mega-acre site along Toronto’s waterfront.

He’ll learn that around the turn of the century, Toronto’s city fathers had hired George W. Guinlock, one of the province’s premier architects to design a series of 15 buildings to showcase Ontario’s accomplishments during the duration of the Exhibition.

Inside these classically-designed structures, the best, and the most modern of Canadian commerce, arts, science, agriculture, horticulture and industry promised to  “wow” visitors over the CNE’s two-week duration.

Between 1902 and 1912, Guinlock’s buildings would rise over the massive 350-acre site of the Industrial Exhibition’s grounds, close by the Lake Ontario waterfront.

In 1912, the “Fair” took a new name, The Canadian National Exhibition” and Guinlock’s buildings became the showcases among the showcase of the CNE itself.


By 1956, when Louis and Marjorie Silcox arrive for their day at “the Fair,” several of Guinlock’s marvels, designed in the elegant Beaux-Arts architectural style have been demolished–the victims of “urban renewal.” Some have burned to the ground.

But little Louis doesn’t care much about history. He’s itching to hit the midway. Too young still for the Flyer and the Wild Mouse, he might talk Mom into letting him try the Tilt-a-Whirl or the Whiz-bang.

Marjorie has her priorities too. They’ll be sure to stop in at the Honey Dew booth. It’s the only time her taste buds will be satisfied by the orange-honey beverage.

The bus lets them off at the gates of the Fair and the pair head for the Horticulture Building. Marjorie’s a gardener and is anxious to see the glorious displays mounted by Toronto’s various horticultural clubs.

Guinlock’s building itself is a beauty to behold. Laid out in the shape of an E, a magnificent glass dome allows sunshine at the intersection of the building’s three wings.

The Horticulture Building has a history too. Between 1942 and 1946, it was claimed by the Canadian Armed Forces as their Quartermaster’s Store.

In 1949, Guinlock’s Horticulture Building served temporarily as a morgue for over 100 casualties of the sinking of the liner Noronic in Toronto Harbour.


Enough of flowers, next stop is the Food Building where Louis edges up to the front of the mouth-watering displays of food and the latest kitchen gadgets coming on the market. If he’s lucky, he might get chosen for a free sample– a donut, hot from the new-fangled fryer. Egg choppers are the latest time-saving tool and the young lad at the front of the crowd might get to sample some tasty egg salad too.

It’s time for the pair to move on. Marjorie stops to admire the CNE Administrative Building, the oldest of Guinlock’s CNE structures. While she’s not familiar with the architectural style—Beaux-Arts, she does admire the intricate ornamentation on the face. Colour has been incorporated into the Ontario crest design of Guinlock’s 1905 building.

The pair is finally on the midway and Marjorie fishes a quarter out of her change purse. Louis has his eye on The Flyer. It’s a monster of a ride—a noisy wooden coaster that, from the sound of the screams coming from the riders is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

He’ll have to be content with the tamer Tilt-a-Whirl. This whirling dervish still offers a shake-up to a lad’s innards.  


For a change of pace, the pair is heading to Guinlock’s Railway Building. Considered by many architecture buffs as the most beautiful and unique of his CNE structures, the Railway Building was designed as three octagonal domes connected to form a triangular inner space.

Inside, it showcased rail travel and achievements. As the popularity of rail travel waned in the 1960’s, the Railway building was reborn as the Hydro Building where advancements in energy development, then nuclear power were showcased.


Louis is anxious to get a seat for the afternoon Grandstand show. The entertainment will feature a pack of testosterone-fuelled Daredevils, jumping cars over each other, stunt driving and the usual automotive mayhem.

On the way to the Grandstand, Mom and son pass by the CNE Fire Hall and Police Station.  It’s the only one of the 15 Guinlock-designed buildings that veers from the ornate Beaux-Arts architectural style. Quirky in design, it features a clock tower and a copper pitched roof.

The building continues to serve today as Toronto Fire Department Number 90 Station. It’s occupied during the CNE by the Toronto Police Services too.


It’s been a packed day and both Louis and Marjorie are ready to call it a day. Mom has promised her son a final treat before the bus ride home. It’s a tough choice between the caramel corn and a Shopsy’s hot dog, but the beef wins.

Heading back to the Dufferin Gates where they’ll wait for the Clarkson bus, they pass by the Government Building. “What in there, Mom?” Louis asks. “I have no idea—government stuff I guess,” she answers. She’s thinking on that Honey Dew drink, wishing it was available at her corner Red and White. “I guess that’s why nobody’s lined up to get in,” Marjorie adds.

The CNE’s Government Building does much more business in 2018. It’s the home of the popular Medieval Times Theatre Company. Jousting and armour are more fun than blueprints and documents any day.







I lead a professional life that necessitates frequent trips to Toronto. But I’ve recently sworn off road travel—even if Louis is driving. Intimidating tractor-trailers barreling down on us, consistent traffic backups and mayhem have convinced me that the only (if expensive) option for my piece of mind is train travel.

And from my home in south central Ontario, all train trips lead to Union Station. On a recent journey to “the Big Smoke” I took the time, for once, to look around, up and down and all around the Station.  This “old “lady” dazzled me.

So come along for a visit to National Historic Site, Union Station– the one- time centre of the Canadian transportation universe. We’ll cover a bit of its storied history, as well as its regal and elegant “face.”

You’ll be glad you came! 


Today’s Union Station is actually the third incarnation of Canada’s largest train station. Begun in 1914—mid-way through “The Great War,” it was complete in 1920, two years after the War ended.

The main station was not officially opened to the public until 1927. Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales  used a pair of gold scissors to cut the ribbon. Among other dignitaries at the event was the Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon MacKenzie King. Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom dropped by too. This was one BIG DEAL!

The seven-year interlude between the end of construction and the official opening saw new train tracks being laid and the original builder, the Grand Trunk Railway going bankrupt. It was reborn as the Canadian National Railway (CNR).

So by the beginning of the Great Depression, train stations as far west as Oakville were now connected to Kingston and Belleville in eastern Ontario. Union Station was the hub of the Canadian transportation universe.

The Subway Comes to Toronto

The next step in modernity came with the opening of the Toronto Transit Commission (subway) in 1954. Union Station was to be the southern terminus to the great underground people mover.

The fortunes of Union Station suffered a blow during the early 1970’s when competition from airports and improved highways caused multi-million dollar losses to Canada’s two major railways, the CPR and CNR. 

As a result, passenger service was reduced to the bare bones and both railways looked for ways to stave off bankruptcy. The solution came when a significant portion of railway property was sold to the City of Toronto for the construction of the Gardiner Expressway.

In a move to increase traffic round Union Station, CN began an ambitious project to build a state of the art communication centre –today’s CN Tower. With the rapid expansion of GO Transit, which saw traffic at Union Station rivalling that of Toronto airport, the grand “old lady” was saved from the wrecker’s ball.


With no agenda to follow, no appointment to meet, I’m free to wander Union Station at a leisurely pace. And what a vision she is. “The best word, I think, to describe it is ‘monumental,’” I offer to Louis. He agrees.

Taking up the entire block between Bay and Front Streets of Canada’s largest city, Union Station’s size is not the only evidence of “monumental.” The shoe fits too when considering architectural style, materials and artistic statement.

The Grand Beaux-Arts

Few architectural styles are more grandiose and opulent than the Beaux-Arts. Named for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France, it had its birth after the French Revolution of the late 1800’s.

Beaux-Arts influence was felt more heavily in the United States than in Canada. The San Francisco Opera house is one of Beaux-Arts’ most luminous examples.

Taking its inspiration from classical Greek and Roman architecture as well as the Italian Renaissance, buildings of the Beaux-Arts style stressed symmetry and grandeur.

The heavy use of balustrades and pilasters lend classical elegance to Beaux-Arts buildings like Union Station. Its colonnaded Front Street “porch” features 22 Roman Tuscan columns made from limestone. Each measures 40 feet (12 m) high and weighs 75 tons.

Beaux-Arts windows are invariably massive and arched, letting the maximum light inside. And reminiscent of a Roman palazzo, its peaked, hipped roofs create the illusion of flatness.

Union’s Grand Interior

Union Station’s front entranceway opens onto the “Great Hall,” the building’s expansive ticket lobby– 250 feet (76 m) long and 88 feet (27 m) high at its highest point. Its vaulted ceiling is two-stories.

Each end of the Great Hall shows off four-story tall windows, based on the model of the Roman baths.

The Interior Touches

The Beaux-Arts staircase is always a grand one. The image of Scarlett O’Hara making her appearance at the Wilkes party of Gone with the Wind flashes immediately past my eyes.

Interior decorations match the grandeur of the exterior with a generous helping of statuary, sculpture, mural work and mosaics.

Only the finest of materials have been used to create Union’s testament to longevity and permanency. They include bronze, limestone, marble, porcelain tiles, and translucent glass.

Below the cornice (where the wall meets the ceiling) of the “Great Hall” are carved the names of many Canadian railway destinations, from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans. Sault Ste. Marie is mis-spelled.

Before modernization came to Union, the cavernous building was fuelled by coal which produced 150,000 kg/330,000 pounds of steam per hour.

Union Today

Over the years, Union Station has filled several non-transportation needs. Until 2000 the CN Railway police maintained a shooting range there. The film industry has added revenue as well. Union has appeared in various films and television series, often representing settings in other cities.

In 1975, Union Station was designated as a National Historic Site. In 1999, it was inducted into the North American Railway Hall of Fame as being a significant building in the railway history.

Today Union Station remains Canada’s busiest public transportation structure, handling an average of 200,000 passengers each day, 65 million passengers annually.




Fort York: “Peas Porridge Hot; Peas Porridge Cold; Peas Porridge in the Pot…

Soldiers Quarters
Soldiers Quarters–Getting to Know Your Bunkmate
Two Universes Meet
Two Universes Meet

Officers' ApartmentOfficer’s Apartment

Swank Officers' QuartersSwank Officers’ Quarters

The Mighty" Brown Bess" MusketThe Mighty “Brown Bess” Musket

Oven in City's Oldest KitchenOven in City’s Oldest Kitchen

“I wonder how many people driving into downtown Toronto even know that this other universe exists,” I suggest to Louis. “Can you even see it from the Gardiner Expressway?”

He answers, ‘no;’ that high cement barriers on each side keep the driver’s eyes on the road, not on the cannons and stone palisades below.

Indeed Fort York is moons away from the pell-mell and hubbub of the present day city of Toronto that surrounds it.

A recent stop on our National Historic Site adventure took us to “the place where Toronto began.” Built by busy-bee Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe in 1793, Fort York’s chief purpose was to protect Canada from American invasion. And an honourable job on that task she did! 

So travel back in time with me to the early years of the 19th century. No battles fought or strategies uncovered on this trip. We’ll be training our sights on the human factor, on the average soldier at Fort York, Upper Canada.


There’s no better place to begin our voyage of discovery than with a visit to the soldiers’ barracks. Today, only two remain, but in its prime, Fort York housed between 600 and 700 soldiers.

Most were poor and uneducated British men who had signed up for service in the Colonies on home soil. “Limited Service” was 7 years; “Further Service,” lasted another 7 years and “Unlimited Service constituted anything past 14 years.”

While few today would commit to such terms, at the time, there was no end of takers.

A Bed…and Breakfast

A bed for the night and three meals a day was an attractive option—even in the wilds of British North America.

Beds were of the “bunk” style and soldiers slept two to a bed. Mattresses were straw-filled–perfect to harbour insects and mould. Bedding included two coarse linen sheets, a woolen blanket, a knotted bed rug, a pillow and bolster. 

The bolster propped up the soldier’s body up while he was sleeping. “It was particularly helpful from a respiratory perspective in an era when pneumonia killed regularly,” says Kevin Hebib, Fort York’s Program Development Officer.

Upon rising, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, soldiers rolled all bedding, then tied it with straps. Not done yet. The slats of the bed were now stacked, so that a sleepy soldier couldn’t sneak off for a few zzzzzzzzssssssss, during the day.

Keeping Busy and Out of Trouble

Soldiers could expect to attend to military duties—marching, on parade and artillery practice–for a minimum of 6 hours a day. And if some poor bloke messed up, 6 hours became 7.

Artillery practice, using the most fearsome weapon the day—the “Brown Bess” Musket was on the daily agenda too. One of the longest military firearms in history, “Brown Bess” measured a prodigious 58 inches (150 cm), and weighed 10 pounds. She was designed for speed in firing over accuracy. A well-trained soldier could fire as many as three shots per minute. A minimum of one in six shots routinely misfired.

 And when marching and shooting was done for the day? A rest and hot bath? Soldiers built and graded roads, repaired the fort and polished military hardware.


Beginning in 1811, and with some luck of the draw, soldiers could bring their family along.  Before leaving England, men could enter their names into a lottery. Six names per 100 men were pulled. By 1813, that ratio had increased to 12 out of 100 soldiers.  

At Fort York, women earned their keep (on half rations) cleaning, as seamstresses or laundresses. Soldiers’ wives were not allowed to cook for the men. The men handled this chore themselves, either in the garrison or in the field.

There were no separate quarters for married soldiers. Women  shared the bed—three feet wide—with their husbands. Children slept on the floor.

 Curtains might be allowed for marital privacy but when infectious disease was rampant (frequently) the curtains came down.

Kids Underfoot

Fort Commanders determined if schools operated on any military barracks in British North America. Even then education was directed at “implanting in the Children’s minds early Habits of Morality, Obedience, and Industry and to give them that portion of Learning, which may qualify them for Non-Commissioned Officers.” (Circular Memo from Horse-Guards)  

If girls were offered any education, it was to learn hand-work and needle-work and other “womanly skills.” 

At age 12, soldier’s sons could begin training for military duties. Most started off as lowly drummer-boys, but with hard work and conscientiousness, they could move up the military ladder—to the rank of Sergeant at the highest. Officers invariably came from the ranks of the British upper class.

And what happened to family if a married soldier was killed in battle? Kevin Hebib has the answer. “In that event, the widow had a fairly short period to re-marry within the unit or be put out. Less than week, in most cases.” Hebib adds that the woman “needed to be of good character” before such an arrangement was sanctioned.

What’s Cooking?

And what might a hungry soldier practicing his marching, musket and maneuvering skills expect on the table to fill his tummy? Nothing, unless they cooked it themselves. Soldiers were divided into mess groups and rustled up their grub in the field or in the garrison.

Breakfasts consisted of porridge and split peas. “Peas porridge hot; peas porridge cold; peas porridge in the pot nine days old.” But expect no breakfast until all beds were made and quarters were tidied.

Lunch was stew or mutton; supper was a light one–ale and bread. Spruce beer was the brew of choice. Its high Vitamin C content fought against scurvy.

An Officer’s Life

The complement of Fort York officers depended on the number of rank and file soldiers. One officer was assigned to a company of 100 enlisted men.

And while an officer’s life was not luxurious, it was one of relative comfort. Each man inhabited a comfortable two room apartment. Officers’ wives and families were not welcome.

Food was a step up too. A staff of 8 to 12 cooks, most living outside the Fort, and serving staff catered to Fort York’s officers.  Meals were prepared in the kitchen, located in the basement of the Officer’s Quarters. It is the oldest surviving kitchen in Toronto.

As officers needed to pay for their own meals, the more money that changed hands, the better, and more varied was their diet. Heavy on meat, Fort York officers could expect to dine on salmon, “green goose,” chicken, even oysters. 

 21st Century Night-time Mischief

Given the blood spilled in defense of York—160 Fort York soldiers killed; hundreds wounded or taken as prisoners of war– it’s to no one’s surprise that Fort York is known as a hotbed of paranormal activities. In fact, the grounds and buildings are reputed to carry the distinction of being the most haunted place in Toronto.

Stories abound with spirit sightings both on the grounds and inside the Fort’s buildings. One of the most fanciful come from an employee.     

“I was closing up the Fort after an event and saw a light was on and people were moving around in the dining area. I doubled back to see what was happening. I heard what sounded like people talking, plates rattling. People were having a dinner party. But when I got to the place where the noise was coming from, the light had disappeared and the room was empty.”

Doors slamming and soldiers who disappear leaving no footprints have been reported as well.


The City of Toronto purchased Fort York in 1909. The last soldiers left in 1930. Between 1932 and 1934, the Fort was restored and opened as Canada’s first National Historic site.

Today Fort York runs as a museum and houses the largest collection of War of 1812-14 memorabilia in the world.