Winter in the Beach over the years

With this great snow storm that inundated the city and the East End, several people asked me about activities during winter in the area. While I have written some articles on this subject, let us do one more.

The Beach, to some who may not know, is a series of small ponds, marshes and streams. The  largest body of water was Ashbridges Bay. The bay on the western side began near the Don River and went eastward to the present MacLean Avenue. On the north side the bay began near Queen Street, while on the south side was a strip of land near the present boardwalk – all of this a couple of hundred years ago.

This archival photo shows winter sports activites in Kew Gardens in 1914. PHOTO: Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 251
This archival photo shows winter sports activites in Kew Gardens in 1914. PHOTO: Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 251

During winter time when the water froze over, along with the small streams and ponds, skating, sleighing, tobagganing and all sorts of activities were in abundance. You must remember the Beach area wasn’t as it was today. There were many communities and areas where people enjoyed recreational sports. About 150 years ago, there weren’t as many people in the area and different organizations and communities competed against one another. For example, Scarborough played hockey or curling on the ice at Ashbridges Bay, against those living nearby. Ice fishing was another popular activity.

One of the more unusual sporting events was held on Ashbridges Bay (or at least it would be unusual nowadays). In the 1880s, people rode on horses on the ice on Ashbridges Bay; just like racing the horses on the old Woodbine racetrack during the summer, they would compete against one another, only in winter. The ice, of course, would have been very thick to hold the weight of the horses and people, or else they would get a cold bath. Many of these events included wagons or cutters. The competition in those days was very fierce and the horses, wagons and people had to be very hardy to compete.

One of the names of the umbrella groups that held theses competitions was called the Eastern Ice Trotting Association. The manager of the ice track was none other than George Leslie J.P., for whom the area known as Leslieville was named.

To clean off the snow from the ice track, a giant ice plow capable of clearing a 30-foot sweep of snow was used. It was called the Leslieville Plower, built by M. McLatchie.

There were other activities other than sports that happened in winter time, especially when the ice was very thick on Ashbridges Bay. One of these was a seasonal business which employed quite a number of men to work as ‘ice cutters’. In the days before air conditioning and electric refrigerators, many old-time Beachers will recall the ice box – this was an insulated cabinet which kept produce cold by having a block of ice in it. Dozens of men used to work on Ashbridges Bay hauling giant blocks of ice to restaurants, homes and businesses – especially the railroad. There would be a team of six to eight men on the bay with a 10-foot saw. They cut the ice into giant blocks by hand. Later they tried to use steam engines. These giant blocks of ice would again be cut into smaller sizes such as 100 or 50 lbs, and taken to be sold to the houses and stores. One of the largest buyers of the ice was the railroad at Main and Gerrard. They had a building over 1,000 feet long and 200 feet wide filled with hay and sawdust to keep the ice from melting. Most of the ice was pulled by horse and wagon.

In the old days, like today, one of the most popular sports was ice skating. There were quite a few rinks (natural rinks of course) in the area – over at Coxwell, north of Queen, was  a large pond named Small’s Pond, and during the winter hundreds of people converged on the pond to skate. Later the pond was filled in and a park and houses were built on top.

Many Beachers will remember Ames Pond on Lee Avenue, just north of Williamson Road, in the back of the school, where kids sneaked in to skate. In those days, the pond was about eight feet deep and on a few occasions the ice was very thin and people fell into the water. There were several children who died in these icy waters.

There was a large pond on the Massey estate north of the Danforth where people skated. It is now called Dentonia Park. The Grand Trunk Rail Road had its skating rink at Main and Gerrard where Ted Reeve Arena now stands. Hundreds of people skated there.

In Glen Stewart Park people skated 100 years ago, just as they do now, on all-natural rinks.

The late, great Ted Reeve, famous journalist and Beach sportsman, recalled in his memoirs, “lot of us lads in the early 1900s skated and played hockey on the frigid ice of Ashbridges Bay, and they produced some great hockey players and rivalries.”

Men were not the only hockey players – women also showed their talent in the Ladies Ice Hockey league.

There was intense rivalry in those days between Kew Beach and Balmy Beach in the inter-church league, and it didn’t matter the religion.

Many of our schools had hockey teams. High schools like Malvern, Danforth Tech, Monarch Park, and elementary schools such as St. John, Corpus Christi, Williamson Road, Norway and Kew Beach turned out players who showed the city what Beach hockey players were all about.

There were so many winter activities in those days – bobbing down Beech Avenue from Kingston Road to the lake (that’s sleigh riding to you). In the 1880s there was a sleigh ride party held at Blantyre Park, one of hundreds.

There were also snowshoe races. One notable snowshoe race between J. Donavan and Van Woodruff was held from Gooderham’s to the Woodbine racetrack in the 1880s – purse and stakes $40, a princely sum in those days.

There were many ice carnivals over the years – a particularly notable one was  held in 1924. Thousands of people participated in the Beaches Ice Carnival, featuring ice sculptures, costumes, the girls hockey team, Beaches Girls Choral Society, gigantic pyramids, dancing and judging of all of the events by the Beaches Grand Marshal, Hooley Smith (the Wayne Gretzky of the Beach), who was the centre of the World Hockey tournament in 1924.

Not to be outdone by all these winter shenanigans, we jump up to the Sesqui-Centennial Year, 1984 in Toronto, when we had one of the greatest ice carnivals the Beach had ever seen.

So it goes on today, skating, tobagganing – winter never really changes in the Beach.

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