Chapter 11 of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

The Cayuga steamship, which sailed between Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake provides happy memories of the 1950s for author Keith Black. Inset photos: the Danforth train station seen from the Main Street bridge in January 1953 and a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible.

Below is Chapter 11 of 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://beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy.

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

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 11: ‘They were small and kind of goofy looking’

By KEITH BLACK

She was a beauty! And she was huge; 305 feet long with a main deck width of 51 feet. And she was fast; she could cruise at more than 21 miles per hour. Built at the foot of Bathurst Street in 1906 at a cost of $267,000 and designed to carry 1,850 passengers, she was the steamship Cayuga.

It is hard to imagine, but, when built, Cayuga joined Chippewa (308 feet), Corona (270 feet) and Chicora (221 feet), the fleet of the Niagara Navigation Company of Toronto that ran regularly scheduled voyages from piers at the foot of York Street to Port Dalhousie, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queenston, and to Lewiston, New York. There were six trips each way, every day from mid spring till late fall. By the Fifties, Cayuga was the sole survivor.

What a thrill it was to take the Cayuga on two occasions to large picnics at Niagara-on-the-Lake. I can’t recall who the organizers of these events were, but they were large affairs involving hundreds of children. Of course we all had a wonderful time participating in the usual activities, the 100-yard dash, the three-legged, the egg and spoon, and the potato sack races, the tug of war and all of the other contests and games. And then there were the hotdogs, the ice cream, the soda pop and the candy floss.

But the highlight for me was the time spent on board, experiencing the Cayuga. Although not opulent by trans-Atlantic standards, she seemed impressive to me with an abundance of gleaming oak and mahogany, elaborate lounges, a fancy dining room, polished brass fittings, and a seven-foot wide “grand” staircase. With four decks, wide aisles, long promenades and numerous cabins and anterooms, it was a joy to explore with my fellow junior voyageurs.

And there was the thrill of the open decks watching the bow wave and the wake and feeling the breeze as we stared out over the lake as the Cayuga raced on. There were even a couple of areas where we could peer through plate glass windows into the engine room and see the monster boilers and the throbbing machinery.

Fortunately for the older passengers and the crew, the fun, the sun, the excitement and the exercise exacted a toll; I seem to recall that the return trips were considerably more restrained (and quieter) than the outward bound ventures. For those of us who spent the majority of our days close to home (and that included most of us) an outing such as a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake was a big deal; it was approached with anticipation and left us with memories, pleasant memories, never to be forgotten.

By 1950 the Cayuga had become a money-loser and she lay dormant throughout the 1952 and 1953 sailing seasons. She was sold to a consortium of 1,300 small investors for $100,000 and was able to resume service in 1954.  I travelled on her in 1954 and 1955.

She never regained profitability and last sailed on Sept. 3, 1957 and was scrapped in 1960. During her years of service, she carried more than 15 million passengers. I am glad that I was among them.

Another much anticipated excursion was an annual trip to the Toronto islands. These were more private affairs involving two or three of mother’s friends and their kids.

The ferry, Thomas Rennie, was a much smaller (and slower) vessel than Cayuga but it had its own appeal. For one thing, our points of departure and arrival could be viewed simultaneously and our progress measured. And it was exciting to approach the wharf head-on and feel the engines roar and rumble through the deck boards as the crew coaxed her into place like the pilot of a plane managing a smooth landing.

The islands of the Fifties, particularly in the first half of the decade were a far different place than they are today. There was a rural small town look and feel about the place and the absence of automobiles made visitors think that the ferry had taken them back in time.

There were well over 600 residences on the islands and most of them resembled quaint cottages as opposed to houses. There was a “main drag”, Manitou Road, with shops, restaurants, an ice cream parlour, and hotels. There was a 700-seat movie theatre and a bowling alley.

Many of the sidewalks in the community of well-treed streets were made of wood planks which added to its charm and magnified the sense of times past.  It made me feel that I might come across Tom Sawyer. And, maybe if I was really lucky, Becky Thatcher.

There were beautiful beaches and parks, playgrounds and boardwalks and picturesque lagoons, all with a view of the skyline of the city with its two distinctive landmarks, the Royal York Hotel and the soaring 462-foot Bank of Commerce building on King Street, the tallest building in the British Commonwealth. Thousands of people flocked to the islands each summer day; another exciting and memorable event in the lives of the children of the Fifties.

While I am still somewhat on the subject of watercraft, there is one other boat that captured our attention in the latter part of the decade and deserves mentioning, even though she was only 31 feet long and 12 feet wide. What was so special? At one time she sped across the water in excess of 184 miles per hour.

Miss Supertest (in versions II and III) was a hydroplane designed and built in London, Ontario by Jim Thompson, president of Supertest Petroleum Corp.  She briefly held the world speed record and won the most prestigious race in the boating world three years in a row.

A friend and I went to see her; I know that she was displayed at the CNE of 1959, but I believe that we saw her at either the Boat Show or The Sportsmen’s Show earlier in that year.

What a beauty! She was all gleaming wood and massive engine with a tiny cockpit stuck just fore of a large tailfin. Miss Supertest has recently been taken out of storage and is again being displayed at various events around the province.

While the Cayuga was exciting, the Thomas Rennie fun, and Miss Supertest awesome, like most boys of that era, I was fascinated with airplanes.

A small balsa wood glider could be bought for 10 cents and for 25 cents I could buy the deluxe version which had wheels and a rubber band powered propeller. These provided hours of fun; my friends and I would conduct endless distance and duration contests with them. But what I really wanted was to see real aircraft up close.

On a couple of occasions our father drove my brother and I up to Malton Airport which was the forerunner to Pearson International. In those days we were able to find free parking quite close to the airport, walk for a few minutes then climb outside stairs at the terminal building to ascend to the roof observation area. The airport was set up to process as many as 400,000 passengers each year. In contrast, the current airport handles close to 50 million passengers annually.

Malton was almost run like a Mom & Pop operation; there was an unobstructed view of the landings and take-offs and when the aircraft approached the terminal we felt that we could almost touch them. It seemed that we were free to wander around at will, but posted signs encouraged us to stay off the parking apron, and the taxiway; they didn’t want any injuries. Security was non-existent.

Many of the planes that we saw were Vickers Viscounts, four-engine turboprop aircraft flown by Trans-Canada Airways which became Air Canada. They were 85 feet long, had a wingspan of 93 feet and could carry 75 passengers.

Occasionally we were treated to a Lockheed Super Constellation, a beautiful machine which was much larger at 116 feet in length with a 126 foot wingspan and could hold 106 passengers. We were amazed how big they were. We were really hoping to see a De Havilland Comet or a Boeing 707, the new jetliners, but we never did. Today’s Airbus A380 has measurements of 239 feet and 262 feet and can carry up to 853 folks plus a crew of 25.

While at the airport, from time to time our ears were assaulted by a loud incessant screaming coming from A.V. Roe’s nearby jet engine test facility; they were testing the propulsion units for their CF-105 aircraft, the ill-fated Avro Arrow. We never saw one of them either. Unfortunately, we never will.

Kids like trains too. Well, boys do, and once or twice a year a group of us would ride our bikes up Southwood Drive, up Main Street, past Gerrard Street to Canadian National’s Danforth train station. On the way, when we reached Kingston Road, we would pause to regard the large elaborate metal fountain, a working fountain, which stood on the southwest corner.  It looked like a piece of art, but actually it was one of the few remaining horse troughs in the city. I seem to remember a similar one outside of the liquor store at the corner of Queen and Woodbine.

When we got to the Danforth depot, the station master would give us a heads up about what was coming and when and would remind us that the trains were running on standard time, not daylight savings time.

And then we would wait. Freight trains regularly passed by being powered by massive steam engines belching smoke with blasts of hissing steam, and with drive wheels taller than us. For some reason we called those wheels “gruncheons”. The immense power of these machines was frightening; but we loved them.

Radio contact with the trains was non-existent so if the station master had a message to deliver, he would stand on the edge of the platform holding up a bamboo hoop to which the message was attached. As he roared by, the engineer would stick his hand out of the open window and catch the hoop in the crook of his arm. We liked that.

We liked seeing the modern streamlined diesel locomotives pulling a string of gleaming passenger cars as well.  They often stopped allowing us a chance to get a good look at them, but, although beautiful, they smelled like a truck and none of the magical workings were in view. They have lost their allure.

But how I would love to see one of the massive steam locomotives roaring down the rails with the smoke billowing and the “gruncheons” spinning and to hear the plaintive wail of the steam whistle.  As Bob Dylan said, “It takes a lot to laugh; it takes a train to cry”.

While boats and planes and trains were interesting, they were outside our usual realm. But not so cars. Most of us loved automobiles. We liked to look at them, we liked to read about them, we liked to compare them, we liked to talk about them, and, most of all, we liked to dream about the time when we would be able to drive one.

For boys who liked cars, it was a good time to be growing up. For one thing, there were a lot of cars to look at. The number of private passenger cars in Ontario increased from about 900,000 in 1950 to more than 1.6 million in 1959.

And there weren’t that many brands to confuse the issue; there were the “big three”, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, and American Motors which came about when Hudson and Nash merged in 1954, and Studebaker. There were also imported cars from France, Italy and England, but they were few in number plus we didn’t pay much attention to them; they were small and goofy looking.

Every year, each model would get a make-over adding to the excitement when the new ones were introduced in the fall. We would pore through magazines like Mechanix Illustrated studying the articles about them and reading Tom McCahill’s test drives and then we would argue over the relative merits of our favourites.  A couple of us attended the Auto Show each year and spent hours gazing at the shiny new models.

As the decade progressed the cars became longer, lower, wider, and more ostentatious with tons of chrome, just the way we liked them. This culminated in 1959 with the Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible which was just short of 19 feet long, weighed slightly more than 5,000 pounds., and had enormous tailfins. Even at age 12 I felt a little embarrassed by it. The cars were so big and in some cases the visibility so poor, that it was quite common to see them equipped with “curb finders”, little pieces of stiff wire that stuck out from the front fenders that made a noise as they scraped the curb when the car was being parked.

I always liked Fords; not because I really knew that much about cars, but because I liked the friends of my parents who lived down the hall and they always drove Fords. I respected them so I figured that they must have known what they were doing.

Meanwhile, our family had one of those goofy things. It was a red 1951 Morris Minor. It was tiny and the smallest pothole rattled our brains. When my dad signaled a turn, a little flipper popped out of the side of the car. It had 27.5 horsepower and the top speed was 64 miles per hour, but I’m not sure that we ever went that fast; it took about a day and a half to get up to that speed. It didn’t even have a radio. But, it did have leather seats.

The only small car that I liked back then was owned by a girl who lived in the apartment building across the street from and slightly west of ours. It was a tiny but neat looking yellow and white Nash Metropolitan convertible and she was young, pretty and blonde. I was always glad to see them; they made a nice combo.

To this day, whenever I attend an antique auto show, I spend most of my time checking out the cars of The Fifties; some of them really were things of beauty; works of art. But they weren’t very good cars. In fact, they were pretty bad. The overall quality was poor and with changes being made each year, nothing seemed to fit together well.

As the cars got bigger and the engines more powerful, the increased weight caused the fuel economy to plunge with many models getting 11 or 12 miles to the gallon; about 20 litres per 100 kilometres in today’s English. They required frequent servicing including changing the spark plugs, lubricating the fittings, topping up the battery and radiator and changing the oil. It’s no wonder that there were service stations on almost every corner.

And if you happened to get a “lemon”, which was not rare, a vehicle with a multitude of problems, you were stuck with it. The warranty?  Ninety days!

Neither the steering wheel nor the steel dashboard were padded, the windshield shattered into surgical shards, and as for seat belts, front lap-belts were a costly option which no one ordered and there were none available at all for the rear seat.  The passengers back there were expendable.

The handling of these vehicles was not particularly good and the drum style brakes struggled to stop these lumbering masses of steel.

Of course, none of this mattered to us. It didn’t seem to matter much to grown-ups either; the cars were roaring off of the lots of the dealers, many of whom should have been residing in correctional facilities.

When we kids saw a new model, one of the first things we checked out was the speedometer to see how fast it would go. It seemed that most of them were capable of 120 miles per hour. In reality, as an example, a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air was good for about 94 miles per hour tops.  When Ford introduced their two-seater roadster, the Thunderbird in 1955, we looked at the speedometer and got very excited; 150 miles per hour. In fact, it could do about 105 and, if it managed that, you wouldn’t want to be in it or anywhere near it.

But having said all of that, and speaking of the 1955 Thunderbird, I want one. The convertible, of course. Pale blue, please.

To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:

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

To read Chapter Five, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/11/chapter-five-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Six, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/18/chapter-six-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Seven, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/25/chapter-seven-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Eight, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/01/chapter-eight-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Nine, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/08/chapter-nine-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 10, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/15/chapter-10-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/


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