The following information is from the novel “There Never Was a Better Time,” a story about two young immigrants arriving in Toronto in May of 1921. It is a heart-warming tale of two young men, Jack and Ernie, who find adventure and love in a vibrant city that is expanding rapidly. Readers receive an intimate glimpse into life during the 1920s in Toronto, one of the most exciting decades in the city’s history. The cover of the book contains a picture of Toronto’s old Union Station, located on Front Street.
Jack and Ernie arrived in Toronto at the old Union Station, built in 1884. Its imposing façade faced Front Street, between Simcoe and York Streets. At the rear of the building were rows of train tracks parallel to The Esplanade. In the years ahead, landfill would create the area to the south of The Esplanade, extending to today’s Lake Ontario shoreline.
The arrival area was topped by a cavernous hemispherical iron dome, enclosed on either end by expansive sheets of glass. A soaring sail of steel covered the tracks, and the curved pillars appeared insufficient to support the massive weight of the towering structure. Though it was impressive, Jack and Ernie did not truly appreciate the enormous interior—they were far too excited to pause and admire the ingenuity of the design. Their only thoughts were of having finally arrived. This was their new life.
Spring was in the air, a time every Canadian eagerly anticipated. The slightest hint of the new season produced an immediate change in both attire and attitude. Daily routines hastily altered to accommodate the long-awaited warm weather. Due to the late hour, the warmth of the day had spilled downward into the platform area of Union Station. Most people were dressed in spring coats, jackets, or brightly coloured sweaters. A few brave souls sported short-sleeved shirts.
In northern climes like Canada’s, to wear lightweight summer outfits in mid-May was a sign of either unadulterated bravery or sheer stupidity. Within days of a warm spell, temperatures invariably plunged, and the populace returned complainingly to their heavy coats. However, on this particular day in May, the cold was far from everyone’s collective memory, especially those of Jack and Ernie. Despite the warm weather, they wore their homespun wool underwear beneath their suits.
Crowds milled about on the platform, everyone seeking someone. In the train, the deafening hiss of the engine releasing its steam permeated the air. Jack and Ernie pushed forward to the front of the coach. A conductor in a navy-coloured uniform, wearing an official cap with a silver badge, confronted them. He blocked their progress and shouted for passengers not to descend from the train until the locomotive had arrived at a full stop. But Ernie refused to wait. Struggling past, he stepped down onto the platform and was almost swept from his feet by the momentum. Chuckling like a schoolboy, his blue eyes glowing with satisfaction, he exclaimed aloud, “Toronto, at last!”
By the time the train had jerked to a standstill, Ernie was walking along the platform. By now, Jack was stepping from the coach, shaking his head in mock disapproval at his brother’s impatience. Jack smiled in amusement. That’s Ernie, he thought. Always in hurry.
Jack gazed in amazement at the scene as they walked along the platform. It was a tumultuous cavalcade of colour and chaos. Excited voices mingled with the hissing steam. The tumult ascended skyward to the steel girders above and echoed back to the ground below. It was a scene such as the ancient gods of travel must surely have ordained, the incantations resembling a thousand exalted pagan prayers.
Excited children scampered everywhere, knocking against their elders, who in turn flared with annoyance and flashed expressions of extreme disapproval. One little miscreant met his match when a plump, prune-faced maiden aunt took the urchin in tow, forcing him to a reluctant standstill. She tightly ensnared him in her hairy arms and hugged the little darling, preventing him from any further motion. He was like an innocent fly caught in the web of an over-friendly spider.
The lad winced and scowled as he suffered numerous sloppy wet kisses from the old dear, who generously puckered her enormous lips, which seemed equal in size to the proverbial horse’s rear end. They could likely vacuum a city street with the intake from a single breath. Ignoring their offspring’s dilemma, his parents smiled approvingly and continued to chat while exchanging greetings with their arriving friends. They were secure in the knowledge that if their son could withstand the affection of his sweet and ancient auntie, he would likely survive any mishaps that the future might present.
Old bachelor uncles were less threatening. On such occasions, they usually remained stiff and formal, as if a warm smile might crack their wrinkled faces. They remained silent and observed the proceedings.
Adults conversed in animated voices, asking shamelessly timeworn questions: “How was the trip, my dear? Does Aunt Maud complain as much about her health? My! My! I sometimes think that she rather enjoys her ailments. Is old Uncle Bert still carrying on with the neighbours? Ha-Ha!”
“Has Cousin Matilda delivered her eleventh child yet? She certainly needs another mouth to feed, doesn’t she? She can’t seem to find the shut-off button.” Giggle! Giggle!
“How is dear old Uncle Nathaniel managing? I suppose he has everyone at each other’s throats. It’s a wonder that someone hasn’t slit his throat!”
“Any rumours about Althea’s prospects?” Wink! Wink! “After all, she’s almost thirty, you know. Time has certainly moved quicker than she has.”
“How’s Aunt Betty’s third husband? My, she wears out her men faster than the stitching on a cheap frock!”
The questions were as gossipy and well worn as the eternal desire within mankind to travel, only the names changing with the particular family or decade.
When the greetings, hugs, kisses, and lively conversations ended, most travellers grabbed their battered suitcases, while the wealthier of the land instructed their snobbish servants to retrieve their luggage. The haughty hired hands strutted as regally as their masters, their noses pointed in the air, as if descending to the realm of ordinary mortals was a sin against their nature.
The annoyance of their rich employers was similarly evident. They seemed to feel that the authorities should clear a path for them in deference to their superior position in society. However, the throngs trapped them, and they pushed forward along the platform at the same rate as everyone else. In unison, the crowd surged toward the stairs, which led to the concourse level above.
Elderly bachelor uncles walked sedately, as if proceeding more quickly might cause their bodies to explode from exertion. The spider-like maiden aunt, too rotund to maintain the pace, panted and puffed as she trailed behind her relatives, her short legs moving furiously with scissor-like motions beneath the folds of her long dress. The nephew whom she had previously trapped skipped gleefully ahead, maintaining a respectful distance as he continued to eye her suspiciously. Once entrapped, twice shy!
Jack and Ernie finally reached the stairs that led to the Grand Hall. Ascending the seemingly never-ending steps was surely the equal of climbing the stairway to heaven, perhaps beyond the comprehension of even the Biblical Jacob and his famous dream. Ernie grasped the leather straps of his luggage and climbed upward. Years later, he would claim that he counted every one of the one hundred and thirty-two steps. This figure is doubtful, but, because they have demolished the old station, one cannot verify the number today. However, it was indeed a long trek upward. In the ensuing years, the number of steps added drama when Ernie retold the tale of his auspicious arrival. Loving a good story, he considered a little exaggeration simply an enhancement of an obvious truth.
At the top of the steps, a covered passageway crossed over Station Street and led to a double set of swinging doors that opened to the Grand Hall. It was about the same size as that of today’s Union Station, but it was square-shaped, rather than rectangular. Its elegant splendour amazed Jack and Ernie as they gazed upward in awe at the vaulted ceiling with its intricate classical designs. Near the top of the soaring walls were small, circular windows that allowed daylight to penetrate, splashing ribbons of light and shadow across the dome. The hall’s magnificence resembled that of an ancient European cathedral. Throughout the Grand Hall was an abundance of brightly polished brass. Every hour throughout the day, employees laboured endlessly to remove smudges and fingerprints, no opportunity being ignored to remind travellers that they had arrived at a transportation temple of significance.
The train station also attempted to satisfy the more mundane needs of travellers with a souvenir shop, a newsstand, and a row of shoeshine chairs. Tickets were sold at an endless line of wickets adorned with brass grillwork. The huge benches of solid Canadian oak, over three inches thick and with elegantly carved backs, resembled church pews. They were without armrests, however, which allowed weary travellers to recline for naps while awaiting trains. The Travellers’ Aid Association maintained a booth attended by a kindly woman who graciously assisted single women or mothers with children. It was an era when women without husbands or other male companions automatically received help. Though the 1920s was a new age, not all attitudes from the past had disappeared.
To exit the station, one entered a hallway on the north side, about sixty feet in length, that led to another double set of doors surrounded by a carved archway of brown stone. Beyond these was a ramp that gently sloped down to Front Street. It felt as if Jack and Ernie had arrived at Elysium, the delights of heaven within reach.
Rear view of Old Union Station Front view of Old Union Station
Views of the arrival and departure areas of Toronto’s Old Union Station
Toronto’s Old Union Station (photos from City of Toronto Archives)