City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, SS 100, Item 457
The above photo illustrates the sight that greeted Torontonians on the morning of December 13th 1944, following the snowstorm of the previous day. The following passage is from the book “Arse Over Teakettle.” My personal memories of the eventful day were the basis for this particular section of the book.
On that fateful Tuesday morning, my brother Ken and I were blissfully unaware of the severity of the storm that had descended throughout the hours of darkness. When Ken awakened, he shouted to me, “Tom, get your skinny bum over here! Look out the window. Look down at the driveway.”
I sleepily stumbled over to the window. I was amazed at the enormity of the snowdrifts. Quickly we dressed and rushed downstairs to the warmth of the kitchen, where our mom was preparing hot oatmeal. As we arrived, we heard on the radio that they had closed the schools. We cheered. My mom shook her head and rolled her eyes in mock rebuke.
My dad had departed before daybreak for the shipyards, and my mother was concerned that he would be unable to reach his destination near the lake and arrive back home safely. She told us, “There will be no morning milk delivery, as Mr. Averies will be unlikely to navigate the streets.” Sitting at the table, she warned us, “Go easy on the milk on your hot cereal. After breakfast, I’ll shovel the driveway so we can exit from the back door to the street. It’s important in case we have an emergency. Both doorways must be clear.” The verandah had protected the front door from the worst assault of the storm.
After breakfast, I accompanied her outside. Bundled snugly in my snowsuit, thick scarf, and red wool mitts, I had my first up-front confrontation with the threatening winter world. It was a terrifying sight, but also exciting. From my position close to the ground, the six-foot drifts were like mile-high glaciers. I noticed that the five-foot fence and the gate across the driveway had vanished from sight, but the green tips of the two narrow centreboards protruded above the drifts like small Christmas trees in a winter wonderland. As my mother shovelled, I remained inside the narrow pathway, the snowbanks on either side enclosing me. I was unable to view anything beyond the walls of my confinement. Everything surrounding me was hidden, the clouds of drifting snow above me obscuring the sky.
It was almost four o’clock before my dad arrived home. I heard him enter the back door. My mom was greatly relieved, as she had heard reports of people being injured after slipping and falling.
My dad said, “It took me four hours to travel to the shipyards, and when I got there, there were insufficient men to form a work shift. I remained on site about a half-hour, but when no more workers arrived, I left for home. It was a hell of a journey.”
My mom frowned at his language.
“The path you shovelled is so narrow,” he teased, “that only slender people can visit the house until I widen it.”
“Hefty friends can visit some other week.”
Despite the difficulties my dad had experienced, he remained in an upbeat mood. He told my mom that at work they had joked about the problems created by the snow. One man had said, “I’ve heard that in Timmins, in Northern Ontario, every year the storms are far worse than the ones here in Toronto.”
Another replied with a grin, “Timmins? The only things that come out of Timmins are hockey players and hookers.”
“Keep quiet, you fool. My wife comes from Timmins.”
“Really? What team does she play for?”
My dad said that everyone laughed. I wasn’t sure what the joke was, as I didn’t understand the meaning of the word hooker. However, my mother was chuckling.
Later when we sat around the kitchen table at suppertime listening to the radio, we heard the mayor report the latest news concerning the storm. “Torontonians are coping magnificently. A sailor on duty at HMCS York skied from St. Clair and Yonge to his job at the lakefront. Another man rode a horse to his workplace on Gerrard Street. On Indian Road, several people snowshoed to the Bloor streetcar stop. Be ingenious! The war effort must not be allowed to falter.”
My mother teased my dad, “I can’t imagine you on horseback, snowshoes, or skis.”
“If you can shovel the long driveway beside the house, perhaps you can clear a path for me to reach work.”
“You’re the one who is good at ‘shovelling it.’”
Again, my brother and I were not certain of the hidden meaning, but we grinned anyway.
At 6:00 p.m., the radio provided details of the happenings downtown: “During the afternoon, matinees at the theatres were well attended, as many of the workers who had journeyed downtown earlier in the day were unable to return home. They spent the time viewing a film while they waited for the streets to be cleared and streetcars to operate again. Restaurants were similarly crammed, people nursing a cup of coffee for an hour or more as they waited. People crowded inside restaurants near streetcar stops and drank coffee while peering out the window to see if a streetcar was approaching.”
A neighbour told my dad that in a coffee shop, he had heard a woman say, “I’ve consumed so much coffee that I’m afraid to leave the restaurant.” She added with a chuckle, “If my bladder breaks after I go outside, I’ll create a yellow skating rink.”
A customer told a bareheaded woman who had entered the restaurant with snow piled on her head that her “soft-wool hat” was very attractive. She bent over, allowing her dripping “cap” to fall to the floor, and grinned as drops of water ran down her forehead.
Another man said, “Toronto is famous for its twelfth of July orange walks, but twelfth of December snow walks are less common. And unlike last year’s Glorious Twelfth, today I had no spirit-laced holy water to drink as anti-freeze.”
Some people had booked hotel rooms for the night, and desk clerks reported that empty rooms were scarce. Because trains and buses were not running, out-of-town guests had remained in the hotels. Extra cots had been placed in rooms as well as in banquet halls. Many workers gave up and bedded down in their offices.
Mayor Fred Conboy addressed the city on the radio again at 7:00 p.m. He declared: “Most major streetcar routes are in operation. I encourage citizens of Toronto to restrict bread and milk consumption, as they are in short supply. The blocked highways have permitted only 3 per cent of the normal supply of milk to reach the city. By tomorrow morning, the city will attempt to deliver emergency food to fire halls and police stations, as well as to as many corner stores as possible. Wagons will try to reach main intersections and distribute food if they are able to get through the drifts.
“I plead for able-bodied men between ages sixteen and sixty to lend a hand to clear the roads and sidewalks. The city needs you.”
In the evening, we listened again to the eight o’clock news “We are sad to announce that some people have died as a direct result of the storm. In Toronto, there are nine, one man having succumbed to a heart attack while shovelling, and eight others struggling through snowdrifts. In Hamilton, two have perished, as well as one in Bradford. In Richmond Hill there was one, and another in Campbellford. Some of them had been buried in the snow for several hours before they were found.
It is feared that we will discover more bodies when the drifts are cleared. Hundreds of buried automobiles stranded throughout the city and the surrounding highways might contain more bodies. Another concern is that if a building catches fire, it will be difficult for firefighters to travel to the scene.”
An appeal was broadcast for able-bodied men to help with the clearing of the snow. During the following days, fifteen hundred people responded—an amazing number of men, considering that so many were overseas on military service. The cost to the city was almost thirteen thousand dollars per day. They estimated that it would require at least two more days to dig out the city. The newscasts ended with the announcement that the schools would be closed on Wednesday and possibly on Thursday as well.
Our bedtime was extended, as there was no school the following morning. We listened to The Burns and Allen Show at 9:00 p.m. on WKBW. We were still laughing at their jokes as we climbed the stairs to our second-floor bedroom. After my brother and I were snug in our beds, we commented on the day’s events, yawning as we talked.
It had been a great adventure. The worries of milk and bread supplies belonged to our parents. We had the day free of school. Lauder Avenue had been transformed into an exciting, glacial playground. Our dad had arrived home safely, and our mother had coped with shovelling the driveway and preparing meals. We knew nothing of the dangers beyond our bedroom walls. As I pulled the bedcovers tightly around me, I felt secure and warm.
Early the following morning before my dad departed for work, he shovelled the driveway path again, as overnight the wind had filled it with snow. Later, after breakfast, we went outside and again confronted the frozen landscape. We stood at the top of the sloping driveway, surveying the scene, the sun reflecting magically from the sculpted snowdrifts. I noticed that the awning of the store next door had collapsed under the weight of the snow. I guess Mr. Marlton had forgotten to retract it the day before. Pigeons perched on the dividing wall were huddled against the cold as if not knowing where to search for food. Five or six sparrows were noisily foraging on a clump of bushes in search of shrivelled berries that had long since been harvested. They were the only sounds on a street that was hushed, the winter scene breathless and still.
The silence was broken when Jimmy called out from across the street, and I shouted back. Other children’s voices soon joined in, as more snowsuit-encased faces popped from tunnel-like paths or pushed above drifts.
The words “School’s closed!” were accompanied by cheers. Surely these are two of the most blessed words in the English Language.
Down the street, teenagers were leaping from verandah roofs into drifts that within seconds encased them up to their necks. Their whoops and hollers were magnified in the frosty air. I thought that the kids on the street were the only ones who seemed to appreciate the potential for fun. I was wrong.
Jimmy’s mom slipped on the top step of the verandah. She slid to the bottom of the steps, landed on her rump, and cussed loudly. My mom tried to stifle her laughter, but I noticed.
Soon, women were shouting to each other as they swept their verandahs, laughing and teasing as they worked. I wondered if there was a secret joke that they shared. Men assisted each other shovelling, as some had more snow to clear.
One man told a neighbour, “60 per cent of employees in banks are women, on this day; most of those working on the banks are men.” They both smiled at the silly remark.
A woman down the street told a friend, “I went to bed last night with my bedroom window opened wide. I was awakened during the night by my chattering teeth and discovered that the room was covered with the white stuff. The wind had blown it over my bed quilt, covered the floor, and even plastered a layer against the wallpaper on the far side of the room. My husband and I had to scoop up the snow and carry it to the bathtub. We could not open the window to toss it outside.”
She laughed as she told the story. “It was a good thing Harry had on his long johns in bed, or this morning I would be married to a Popsicle,” she added with a grin. I also laughed at this remark, thinking it very funny.
In the decades ahead, I was to discover that adversity often produced this light-hearted attitude among Torontonians, especially when the weather was foul. I have witnessed the phenomenon many times at bus stops and street corners. A few years ago, I was waiting for the Jane bus at the Jane Subway Station. Snow was piled high, and the buses were late. A man stood near the lineup handing out religious pamphlets and inquiring if people were saying their prayers. He asked an elderly woman, “Did you say your prayers this morning?”
She replied with mock piety, rolling her eyes toward heaven, “I’ve been praying for the past hour for a bloody bus to appear.”
Another woman crossed herself as she added, “My old butt is tired and cold. I’ve been praying for a seat on the damn bus.”
“Amen,” said a man at the end of the line who had overheard them.
Everyone joined in the laughter.
For previous posts about the great snowstorm of 1944: https://tayloronhistory.com/2011/11/16/the-worst-snowstorm-to-ever-hit-toronto-post-1
To view other posts about Toronto’s past and its architectural gems:
The Waverly Hotel at Spadina and College
The Bellevue Fire Station on College Street
The Postal Delivery Building, now a part of the Air Canada Centre (ACC)
The Art Deco bus terminal at Bay and Dundas Streets.
Photos of the surroundings of the CN Tower and and the St. Lawrence Market in 1977
The old Dominion Bank Building at King and Yonge Street
The Canada Life Building on University and Queen Street West.
Campbell House at the corner of Queen Street West and University Avenue
A study of Osgoode Hall
Toronto’s first City Hall, now a part of the St. Lawrence Market
Toronto’s Draper Street, a time-tunnel into the 19th century
The Black Bull Tavern at Queen and Soho Streets, established in 1822
History of the 1867 fence around Osgoode Hall on Queen Street West at York Street
Gathering around the radio as a child in the 1940s
The opening of the University Theatre on Bloor Street, west of Bay St.
122 persons perish in the Noronic Disaster on Toronto’s waterfront in 1949
Historic Victoria Memorial Square where Toronto’s first cemetery was located, now hidden amid the Entertainment District
Visiting one of Toronto’s best preserved 19th-century streets-Willcocks Avenue
The 1930s Water Maintenance Building on Brant Street, north of St. Andrew’s Park
Toronto’s architectural gems-photos of the Old City from a book published by the city in 1912
Toronto’s architectural gems in 1912
Toronto’s architectural gems – the bank on the northeast corner of Queen West and Spadina
Photos of the surroundings of the CN Tower and and the St. Lawrence Market in 1977
The St. Lawrence Hall on King Street
Toronto’s streetcars through the past decades
History of Trinity Bellwoods Park
A history of Toronto’s famous ferry boats to the Toronto Islands
Toronto’s Old City Hall at Bay and Queen Streets
The Reading Building, a warehouse loft on Spadina Avenue
The Darling Building on Spadina Avenue
The amazing Fashion Building on Spadina Avenue
Toronto’s architectural gems – the Tower Building at Spadina and Adelaide Street
The Balfour Building at 119 Spadina Avenue
The Robertson Building at 215 Spadina that houses the Dark Horse Espresso Bar
An architectural gem – Grossman’s Tavern at Spadina and Cecil Streets
History of the house that contains the Paul Magder Fur Shop at 202 Spadina
An important historic building that disappeared from the northeast corner of Spadina and College
Historic bank building on northeast corner of Spadina and Queen West
History of the Backpackers’ Hotel at King and Spadina
Hamburger corner – Spadina and Queen Streets
Lord Lansdowne Public School on Spadina Crescent
The Victory Burlesque Theatre at Dundas and Spadina
The Dragon City Mall on the southwest corner of Dundas and Spadina
Buildings on the west side of Spadina a short distance north of Queen Street.
History of the site of the Mcdonalds on northwest corner of Queen and Spadina
A former mansion at 235 Spadina that is now almost hidden from view.
Military hero of the War of 1812 lived near corner of Spadina and Queen West.