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The Great Toronto Snowstorm of 1944

Posted by Agatha Barc / December 15, 2010

Toronto, snowstorm, December 11-12 1944Last weekend, I dreaded the threat of the snowstorm hovering around Toronto and area, which thankfully the city ended up dodging, seemingly in exchange for this week's ghastly temperatures. For the past 10 years of living in Toronto, I've witnessed what have seemed to be pretty horrifying winter weather conditions (though I did miss the infamous storm of 1999). But thankfully, nothing in my experience has rivaled the snow storm that besieged the city on December 11, 1944.

Toronto, snowstorm, December 11-12 1944In A Toronto Album 2: More Glimpses of the City That Was, Mike Filey explains that, as was the case with Hurricane Hazel, the weather forecast for that day was utterly inaccurate and nowhere near what the city was eventually confronted with. Between four and 12 inches were projected for December 11, which wasn't even close to the amount of snow that engulfed the streets.

Toronto, snowstorm, December 11-12 1944With most traffic coming to standstill, the delivery of coal and milk quickly became a problem. Residents were instructed to provide snow-free access to their coal chutes. Otherwise, they would not receive their order. In the case of milk, the customers were forced to visit a nearby fire hall or other temporary location in order to pick it up -- not so easy considering the state of the streets.

Toronto, snowstorm, December 11-12 1944The snow quickly reached two feet when it started falling, and the drifts were much higher. Gill Murray, in his memoir The Invisible War: The Untold Secret Story of Number One Canadian Special Wireless Group: Royal Canadian Signal Corps, 1944-1946, from which the title of this post is taken, writes that while he was visiting his friends, one of them living at Knox College on St. George Street, they woke up to four feet of snow on their doorstep, which he describes as an "amount unheard-of in Toronto."

Toronto, snowstorm, December 11-12 1944In total, during the two days of the storm, over twenty-two inches of snow fell and twenty-one people died -- thirteen of them of exertion, as they shoveled snow that surrounded their homes. Schools and businesses remained closed for days, including the ammunition factory. The huge drifts trapped people in their homes, and the strong winds eliminated all visibility. On Queen Street, the wind and snow were powerful enough to knock down a streetcar, trapping passengers inside and killing one of them. Unlike the big storms of today, Toronto was completely paralyzed by the event.

Toronto, snowstorm, December 11-12 1944Images from the City of Toronto Archives.

Discussion

39 Comments

alan / December 15, 2010 at 09:50 am
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great story and photos...thanks...
Leah / December 15, 2010 at 10:10 am
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Toronto's winters are far from horrifying. I'm originally from the East Coast, and the storms Toronto gets maybe once a year, they get four or five or six times a year. Toronto is treacherous compared to Vancouver, I suppose...
Leah / December 15, 2010 at 10:11 am
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Oops, I should add though: these are awesome photos.
claire / December 15, 2010 at 10:22 am
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awesome, thanks!
Matt / December 15, 2010 at 10:24 am
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And I'm from Alberta, so the above pics are just a shade worse-looking to me than Edmonton in January. Or even April.

Still, I was walking home last night after our mini-storm thinking about how it would have paralyzed Vancouver.

What I'm saying is, bring on the snow. Toronto looks great in it.



tracy / December 15, 2010 at 10:30 am
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Fantastic story of Toronto's past - keep these coming! My mom lived through both the storm of '44 (working for "Roger's Radio" as it was known in those days) and the storm of '99. I think the storm of '99 was nothing compared to what they had back in '44 - phone lines went out, some people were literally trapped in their homes, etc. It would be great to include the voices of some of those who lived through this time in your posting. Maybe next time?
Emma / December 15, 2010 at 10:50 am
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I cannot imagine SHOVELING out a city!
No wonder people died of exertion!

Also, that shot of Eaton's College is so awesome!
Currently that corner is a Timmy's!
Shannon / December 15, 2010 at 01:13 pm
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I love these articles keep them coming.
David / December 15, 2010 at 03:53 pm
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Hey, you guys should put the addresses somewhere in the descriptions of the pictures.
chris / December 15, 2010 at 03:57 pm
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This was London on, last week. 100cm+
The Shakes / December 15, 2010 at 05:04 pm
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Great article and pics. I remember in '99, streetcars weren't running, and i had to walk to work. In the pictures above it looks like the streetcars back then were tougher than the ones today. From the thrid picture, it also looks like one thing remains the same from 1944, streetcars still travel in packs.
Lloyd Alter / December 15, 2010 at 05:10 pm
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My dad was working for an auto parts company and skiied into the office at 4 am knowing that there was going to be a crush. He saw the younger brother of the owner taking all the cash from the sales and putting it in his pocket instead of the till, so he went to the owner (my mother's uncle, this is all a family business) and told him, was thanked and promptly fired.

Best thing that ever happened to him.
e / December 15, 2010 at 06:15 pm
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What a beautiful city.
Shawn / December 15, 2010 at 07:04 pm
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IMO not a real snow storm unless the army comes to town.



On a serious note, nice Photos. Its amazing how the Queens Park photo looks like it was taken recently, just in black and white.
And also amazing is how unrecognizable Eatons on College (now College Park) is.
wogster / December 16, 2010 at 08:42 am
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The problem for Toronto is that many streets have been redesigned for maximum traffic flow, so a street that is a chain wide (~66') designed for 2 lanes and sidewalks along the sides, is now 4 lanes of traffic and the sidewalks get whatever is left over, so there is no place to put snow. Much of this is because other then a couple of years (1999 and 2008) there hasn't been much snow in the city. Mind you I think this winter is setting records in many places, such as Barrie and London...
eozberk / December 16, 2010 at 09:20 am
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Toronto's weather is far from horrifying. I was horrified it only snowed for 3 hours last year, thankfully I was in Washington DC for BOTH of their record snowfalls (over a metre twice in one winter!). Otherwise good article and nice archival photos. Although in bad taste, I laughed that no one today would die from exertion shoveling, though they might die waiting for someone to do it for them.
iSkyscraper / December 16, 2010 at 09:41 am
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The fact that the only thing moving in these photos are the streetcars should be a nice counterpoint to raise with the "Toronto can't have LRT because it snows here" crowd.
NN / December 16, 2010 at 10:31 am
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Torontonians should get their heads out of their arses. THIS is what a real Canadian winter looks like - at minimum!

Julie Kinnear / December 17, 2010 at 12:01 pm
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Wow, can you imagine so much snow in the streets now? Awesome pictures, thanks a lot for posting this. I wish I lived then, I absolutely love new snow in the city, before it turns black from the ashes or starts melting. And you got a great point about streetcars iSkyscraper.
Agatha replying to a comment from Shawn / December 18, 2010 at 12:58 am
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I'm not from Toronto - I have only lived here for ten years. Compared to winters back home, to me this season here is horrifying.
Matt / December 19, 2010 at 08:58 am
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Great photos!

On a sidenote, The photo with Eaton's in it isn't quite Yonge and College. What's now College park was built long before 1944. Check out this photo and see what Yonge and College looked like in 1930:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Exterior_of_Eaton%E2%80%99s_College_Street_Store_-_Toronto_-_ca_1930.jpg
Ruth Orr / February 2, 2011 at 09:29 am
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Hi I am seventy five so I did live through that one and thats why I searched for any mention of it.
The pics are great. The only pics I have are in my head.We lived around Dufferin and Eglington .My brother went up to the main st. to get milk and bread from a horse drawn waggon.
We children piled up snow in the back yard and tunneled into it to make a igloo.
My husbands dad worked at Eatons and walked to work down Queen st. from Greenwood. by the time he got there it was nearly time to go home.
That was a great day for a nine year old.
Ron Denham / February 3, 2011 at 10:46 am
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My older sister Marion was a Wren (R.C.N.V.R.)stationed on the East coast and with a couple of other ''Jennie Wrens'' decided to hitchhike home to Toronto for Christmas....needless to say they were a little late in returning (A.W.O.L.) and were duly punished....a different world then ....3 young women hitchhiking ....and arriving at thier destination safely!
ralph harriott / January 19, 2012 at 02:57 pm
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I was 13 years old, when that storm hit.I lived in Simcoe, Ontario.There was gas station across from our home, and the owner lived one block away.I can remember him walking to open up the station in the morning. The snow was up to his waste.He had the old tall gas pumps that you had to pump by hand, and did not need hydro . He was the only place in town that you could get gas, If you could get to it.
CATHY / February 10, 2012 at 02:07 pm
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My sister was born on December 10th, 1944 at St Joe's on the Queensway.According to our mother she was lucky to make it to the hospital and once there was in the safest place possible.
William Grant / February 14, 2012 at 07:20 pm
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I was in training in the infantry stationed in Orillia.I was given leave for Christmas and got to Toronto by train on the early morning the next day.Nothing was moving,cars trucks streetcars were sitting abandoned.I was 18 and in perfect physical shape so I jogged to Main and Danforth.Wish I could do that now.
Kirk Mowat / December 9, 2012 at 09:47 am
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It is storms like this of the past that I ponder what toronto residents of today would think if it happened now in this day & age , maybe they would not grumble so much when 1 or 2 inches fall on their streets. These are truly wonderfull pictures of a bygone time Thankyou.
Meg Simpson / February 7, 2013 at 08:25 pm
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What beautiful photos! Thank you for posting these!
Being only a year old at that time, I don't remember this storm, but everyone talked about it for years! My mom told me that the next day, she bundled me onto a sled, and headed off to the fire department to pick up milk. Two elderly ladies passing, stopped, glared at her and said, 'Imagine! Taking a baby out in THIS weather!' (I was fine - poor mom was the one navigating the snow drifts!)
marylin deVerteuil / February 8, 2013 at 02:30 am
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What great photos. I was only 6 years old at the time, but remember this day. My brother was only 3 years and kept getting his legs stuck
in the deep snow.....it was my uncle who told my mother not to send me to school as it was very cold on top of the deep snow. My father was helping in the war in Europe so it was up to her to shovel the snow and stoke the furnace with coal, as was the case in many homes at that time.
Alberto Respezzo replying to a comment from Leah / February 8, 2013 at 01:13 pm
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And our winters are really bad compared to Honolulu.
John Conroy / February 8, 2013 at 04:55 pm
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One important point about the great storm of December 1944 is that Canada was in a state of total war at the time with all the associated shortages, restrictions and rationing. Somehow we managed the situation for vital services and supplies thanks to our resourcefulness. On looking back to the event, I was an 8-year old living in the Beach district of east Toronto attending Kew Beach School - we had at least 2 days away from school - however the local movie theatre on Queen Street East opened for special matinee performances in mid-week to help keep us busy.
linda hill / February 16, 2013 at 10:53 am
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Thanks so much for sharing these photo's...they truely are amazing...John you are so right about Toronto/the world being at war...for those of you interested theres a new T.V show called BOMB GIRLS it is set in the 1940's and the program shows exactly what it was like in those days and times...the show is set in Toronto, check it out...Baby Boomers like myself find it all so interesting....Again thanks for sharing...
Elaine Salo / August 30, 2013 at 07:17 pm
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I am writing a little journal for family. I was in grade one and remember being sent to school in a snow storm. The school was closed, so back home I went. Thank you for this research.
Carolyne Amos Westlake / December 21, 2013 at 07:11 pm
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I was born during this storm. The reason I was born at home with a midwife. My mother couldn't get to the hospital. Thanks for the great pictures.
John Alexander / January 28, 2014 at 09:48 pm
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I remember that a bulldozer was used to open up the street I lived on at that time (Wilkie Ave. near Kingston Rd. & Midland Ave. in Scarborough).I was pretty busy shovelling a path from the road to our house so my mother could get home from her job at GECO where she worked at making fuses for bombs destined for the war effort. I was 11 years old at that time in 1944.
Elizabeth / February 5, 2014 at 08:53 pm
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How amazing, to read stories from all of these people who lived through this! And also, a huge amount of snow in a big city is different from alot of snow in a small town!
Daniel MacQuarrie / February 5, 2014 at 10:20 pm
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Wow, I actually thought that this winter 2014 was the worst ever. At least in my memory. We had a 6 foot roof ice dam that I have never seen before, pic here: http://www.tophousesforsaleintoronto.com/#!Roof-Ice-Dams-a-Cautionary-Tale/cllt/C184F829-736F-4AFA-ACA6-E06CC80B2CBE

It even knocked off our chimney!
Elizabeth B / February 5, 2014 at 10:24 pm
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I was a kid in 1944, and remember the great storm. The biggest memory I have (apart from the amount of snow on our street)is walking with my mother several blocks to the Leaside Fire Station, which was the only place we could get milk.
Dorothy MacMenamin / March 16, 2014 at 01:42 pm
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I was 13 years old and lived in the East end of Toronto. We couldn't find the Axe in the yard in order to chop wood for our Cook stove and Quebec heater.I had to take a toboggan down to Main and Danforth(Dominion Coal) to get a bag of coal, also to get milk and bread at the Dawes Road Bus stop. Dominion Coal wouldn't deliver less than 1/4 ton of coal and we couldn't afford that much, so I had to go down for a bag at a time for $1.00 It was the worst storm I can remember. I am now 83 and this winter does not compare to 1944. Everything seems worse when you are a child. Thanks to all for sharing.

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