What the CNE used to look like
The 2011 CNE gets underway in one week. So what better time to devote a historic photo post to the annual late summer tradition? With origins that date back to the late 19th century, The Ex has long been a Toronto fixture. Prior to 1879, the fair had traveled throughout the province, but eventually settled where the crowds were after local stakeholders campaigned to make it a permanent city attraction.
It's almost startling to see just how well attended the CNE was back in the early 20th century. One imagines that half the city congregated at the fairgrounds, which remain located north of Lake Shore Blvd. and west of Strachan Ave. Back then, the grandstand (later Exhibition Stadium) was a huge draw, featuring horse and motorcycle races, elephant shows, and a dangerous-looking sport called auto polo (which is just what it sounds like).
There were also magnificent and scary high diving displays, some of which saw the performer set on fire prior to his plunge. After the stadium was expanded to accommodate pro sports teams — both the Blue Jays and the Argos called it home prior to the building of the SkyDome — this element of the CNE faded away. Exhibition Stadium was finally demolished in 1999, and as of 2006 BMO field occupies its former site.
Although its basic configuration has remained the same for many years, the midway was also a very different place. Operated by Conklin between 1937 and 2004, freak shows were a major attraction until the late 1970s, and even I can remember from my early visits a certain seediness that seemed to permeate the area.
As Rick McGinnis wrote for us a while ago, "[The Ex], like so many of Toronto's landmarks, seems to constantly inspire us to agonizing reevaluation in an apparently endless cycle. In spite of its longevity, and the million and a half visitors who pay for admission every year, the annual disassembling of the midway inevitably inspires a flurry of brow-furrowing worries about the fair's fate and future that have the general character of a fit of guilt after a binge."
There's a rich history here, but one often wonders if and how it will survive in the years to come. The event has already been considerably sanitized, in many cases is for the better, but now lacks a certain excitement level that used to be standard. Here are photos of the Ex in all its glory.
Grandstand ticket lineups:
Horse show at the grandstand:
Crystal Palace (lost to fire):
Ruins of the grandstand after fire (1906):
Crowds at the Manufacturers Building:
CNE fountain and crowds:
Winner of Toronto baby contest:
Midway game featuring Kaiser Wilhelm (1914-15):
Soldier training camp (1915):
Eastern Entrance (1916):
Midway crowds (wow):
Ferris wheels at night:
CNE grounds (1925):
The Midway (1928):
A giant flagpole (take note, Giorgio Mammoliti):
Miss Toronto Contest (1951)
High diver at the Aquarama:
Midway at night:
Shell Oil Tower:
Aerial of the midway: