When the last ice age carved its way through our part of the world, it dug especially deep into the limestone at the west end of Lake Simcoe and created Kempenfelt Bay as well as the sizeable hills on either side of it.
This geological upheaval left us with a cyclist’s nightmare and a sledder’s dream. These steep hills have been attracting winter sports enthusiasts since ever children lived in Barrie. Adults weren’t necessarily immune to the lure of a fast hill on a snowy day either.
The toboggan, as opposed to other types of sleds, is a craft created by the First Nations people of Canada. Its primary purpose was simply to convey people and supplies across the frozen landscape. The word itself, originally tobâkun, is believed to have come from the Algonquin Mi’kmaq language.
This traditional runner-less mode of winter transportation was simple in design. Lengths of wooden planks, usually birch, were connected with wooden crosspieces and lashed together with thin strips of deer hide. The front was bent upwards and to this a cord was attached.
By the late 1870s, the toboggan was becoming part of European settler Canadiana; an icon of the winter season. In 1879, Dunlop Street photographer, John Stephens, was excited to introduce his new “most beautifully affected” winter backgrounds. He offered portraits with sleigh riding, snowstorm, toboggan or skating backdrops.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that toboggans became somewhat more mainstream in the town of Barrie. They weren’t immediately popular, nor expected to catch on, as is shown in this small snippet from the Northern Advance in December of 1886.
“The toboggan will do for a fashionable diversion, but the average boy will take an old-fashioned Yankee sleigh for his Christmas present for preference.”
Yeah. That’s what they said about the bicycle and the horseless carriage.
The 1890s saw the toboggan rise to something of a status symbol. When moneyed and well-connected adults started hosting toboggan parties for their illustrious friends, the lowly wooden conveyance was suddenly elevated.
The Northern Advance shared a story in its March 12, 1892 edition that painted a vibrant word picture about a very well-attended winter soiree at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
“The guests gather, to the number of 700 or 800, in the hollow below the Hall where the slides are situated. Near at hand is the rink, lighted with torches, where those who did not want to take the plunge can enjoy themselves. Near the slides, a huge fire is built, from three to eight cords of wood being piled in the form of a pyramid. Those who want to attend the ‘at home’, but are afraid to go down the slides or not able to skate can keep close to the huge burning pile and watch the rest.”
For those who had perhaps never embarked on a toboggan ride, the writer described the experience.
“The truth is, when one plunges almost sheer down as if shot from a cannon, the sensation is that your heart and entire inner economy are coming up your throat, your eyes swim and your brain reels. The first experience is not ‘divine’, it is hideous. But the mad exhilaration soon enters your veins, and presently for you in all the world there is no outdoor sport like the toboggan.”
These privileged guests sported what the writer described as blanket suits, usually white and trimmed with blue. A long brightly coloured wool scarf was tied around the waist while a tasseled woolen toque completed the must-have look.
The boys and girls of Barrie didn’t have this requisite attire but they certainly had the hills and the enthusiasm to make use of them during those typically long and snowy winters.
The hills of Sunnidale Park, after it became a golf course in 1911, and the slope behind present day Hillcrest Public School were as popular a century ago as they are today.
Fortunately, both attractions were conveniently located near the former Royal Victoria Hospital site. Injured parties often arrived at its doors with fractured limbs, many times transported there by their pals on a toboggan which seems both ironic and fitting.
Mulcaster Street hill was another favourite spot for speed loving toboggan racers. As you can imagine, it was a dangerous place to slide with several intersections, a railway track and a cold deep lake at the terminus! It certainly kept the local constables busy during the winter months as they broke up numerous toboggan parties as they gathered near the jailhouse.