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The top 5 Toronto urban myths

Posted by Chris Bateman / April 30, 2014

toronto fort yorkDid you ever hear the one about the guy who fell out a window at TD Centre? Or what about the tale of whale bone under Queen's Quay? Toronto is a hot bed of urban myths, some that are amazingly true, some that contain a tenuous strand of truth, some that are creative but, sadly, utter nonsense (I mean, come on, underground aliens?)

Here's a quick run through five (plus one) of the city's best and most absurd tall tales, starting with one story that's been the preserve of drinkers in Toronto's oldest pub for decades.

THE BOOZE TUNNEL TO THE WHEAT SHEAF TAVERN

toronto fort york tunnelIf there's a common thread that connects urban legends from across the planet, it's secret tunnels. Apart from the passage that supposedly connects the flatiron building on Wellington Street with the King Edward Hotel, which I dealt with here, the other famous Toronto subterranean passageway was supposedly built by thirsty soldiers between Fort York and the Wheat Sheaf Tavern at King and Bathurst.

For it to be true, the soldiers would have to have built a tunnel more than 500 metres long without attracting the attention of their superiors. Engineering challenges aside, soldiers at the fort were given a daily beer ration, so it's difficult to imagine the men finding the motivation for such a massive undertaking in libations alone.

That said, a tunnel was discovered at Fort York in Nov. 1904, but not in the direction of the Wheat Sheaf. The shaft, 5 by 2 feet wide and expertly constructed, extended for 15 feet beneath the fort and appeared to be pointed at the blockhouse. After being disturbed, the mysterious diggers failed to return while the site was under discreet observation. At the end of the tunnel was a candle, a blank piece of paper, two bottles, and a shovel inscribed with the initials M.C.M.

Theories abounded for the enterprising dig: a search for treasure left during the American occupation of the city, the tail end of an unfinished escape tunnel from Central Prison, an attempt to access the ammunition storehouse, or a place for "tough men" to hid liquor and carouse at night. None were ever proven and the tunnel was filled in.

THE UFO BASE AT GERRARD AND CHURCH

Spurious reports of weird magnetic disturbances under Gerrard and Church can only mean one thing - aliens, of course. The story generally goes that denizens of some off-world race are hiding beneath the city, presumably hatching nefarious plans, playing with magnets, or launching space ships through the waters of Lake Ontario. It's never explained why the aliens chose to live under a major metropolis and not somewhere more secluded.

As Torontoist writer Patrick Metzger points out, the intersection isn't particularly dangerous for motorists, as is generally supposed by base truthers. The entrance to the nether world is supposedly between two apartment buildings on Parliament Street via the sewer system (talk about inconvenient.) "The Indians near Toronto have legends of these tunnels," according to a writer who uses the pseudonym Commander X. Take that, evidence.

THE TD CENTRE WINDOW JUMPER

toronto td centreThis is my all-time favourite Toronto urban myth because, astonishingly, it's true. At about 5:30 p.m. on July 9, 1993, Garry Hoy, a senior partner at law firm of Holden, Day, Wilson, was performing a bizarre act he had become famous for: running against the glass window of the company's 24th floor office to show off its tensile strength to visitors.

Unfortunately for Hoy, who specialized in security law and mining, the glass took his weight but the frame didn't. The pane popped out of its mounting, sending the hapless lawyer falling to his death in front of a group of horrified co-workers. It was his second attempt to show off the same window that day. "He was one of the brighter lights at the firm, just a super nice guy, a very generous fellow," said Michael Crawford from the company. The death was treated as "death by misadventure" by police.

THE GHOST OF OLD FINCH AVENUE

The Old Finch Avenue ghost stories are widespread as they are varied. The general thread that connects them is the story of a young girl haunting the area near where the road or rail tracks cross the Rouge River. Sometimes she's lurking in a nearby churchyard, sometimes she's haunting the parapet of the bridge; sometimes she has been murdered, sometimes she killed herself on her birthday.

A quick search of the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail archives didn't shed any light on the origins of the tale. There's no evidence anyone matching the girl's description died in the area under poetic circumstances, so draw your own conclusions.

WHALE BONES UNDER QUEEN'S QUAY

When the TTC was excavating the trench for the underground streetcar tunnel from Union Station to Queen's Quay, backhoe operator Jose Resendes found something weird. It was a section of whale vertebrae, lodged in the mass of dirt and waste the city south of Front Street is built on.

It was tempting to link the mysterious bone with Piper's Zoo (I know - I did it on this site) but it seems the truth is, sadly, less exciting. It's true, Harry Piper did keep a semi-frozen whale carcass at his strange zoo on the corner of Front and York streets, but it seems its bones weren't the ones dug up in 1987. Carbon dating and pollen analysis by ROM palaeontologist Kevin Seymour dated the bone, a piece of orca spine, to the 1840s, long before Piper set up shop. How it got there is still, happily, a mystery.

THE CHERRY BEACH EXPRESS

Having grown up outside of Toronto, the Cherry Beach Express is a tale I was told while putting this list together. It goes like this: Toronto cops, if they needed to do a little off-the-radar "persuasion," would take prisoners in cuffs to Cherry Beach and rough them up, using a phone book to dull the blows from their truncheons.

It's hard to reconcile Cherry Beach's reputation as Toronto's make out point with the idea of bloodthirsty cops meting out vigilante justice. Band Pukka Orchestra wrote a song commemorating the myth called Cherry Beach Express. "That's why I'm riding on the Cherry Beach Express / my ribs are broken/ and my face is in a mess / and I made all my statements under duress."

There may be some truth to the controversial rumour, however. Thomas Kerr, a homeless man, was awarded a settlement in 2003 after he claimed cops had beaten him at the Port Lands location in 1996. In 2007, Craig Bromell, the former head of the Toronto police union and one of the eight men accused of the beating, said the story was "just bullshit." He was exonerated.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Images: The City of Toronto, Hannah Jor/blogTO Flickr pool.

Discussion

34 Comments

iSkyscraper / April 30, 2014 at 10:24 am
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What about the "gold at Royal Bank Plaza" urban myth?

The way I heard it years ago, the bank bought gold for tinting the windows in their new HQ. (This part is true, the windows do have real gold in them.) But then, at the end of construction, they had some surplus. Due to the historic runup in gold prices during construction (~$120 in 1976 rising to over $600 per oz after completion of the second tower in 1980) they were able to sell the surplus and recoup much of the cost. That's probably the myth part, but it's a cute story.

also / April 30, 2014 at 10:36 am
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Or the recent one about how the private sector would pay for subways?
cobyrne / April 30, 2014 at 10:44 am
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TTT (Time To Transit): 2 comments
Guest / April 30, 2014 at 10:56 am
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I recall hearing a story about a streetcar many decades ago careening down bathurst street, from st clair possibly, and crashing into the wheatsheaf tavern at king. A little far fetched but Ford could use this rumour as more proof to ban streetcars.

TTF: 3 comments?
CosmicMike / April 30, 2014 at 11:04 am
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the UFO base is true
the Harper government has actively suppressed this information for years now
the hatch opens if your DNA matches their or else there is no way in
every tuesday night is Ladies Night, 3 dollar high balls
Al / April 30, 2014 at 11:07 am
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What about the urban myth that the UN named Toronto the most diverse city in the world?
Dave / April 30, 2014 at 11:10 am
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Or that our mayor saved the taxpayers billions of dollars?
Erm replying to a comment from CosmicMike / April 30, 2014 at 11:11 am
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I thought the UFO base was in Lake Ontario...
steve / April 30, 2014 at 11:29 am
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I thought the term was urban legend. When did it change?
Marge Gunderson / April 30, 2014 at 11:30 am
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If the lawyer who fell out of the TD building was one of the "brighter lights", what does that say about his colleagues
PissyJoe / April 30, 2014 at 11:32 am
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What about the Portlands? there is a huge myth that's been growing for decades now, around the notion that it will be eventually redeveloped

the truth is that there are two things that will survive a potential global nuclear holocaust - cockroaches, and the current state of the portlands
Michael Greason replying to a comment from Guest / April 30, 2014 at 11:34 am
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The story about the streetcar rolling down Bathurst is true, though I do not believe it derailed. As I remember a car - possibly a Police Car, got in front of it and used the car brakes to stop it.
mike in parkdale / April 30, 2014 at 11:52 am
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The Cherry Beach Express was real. I can't say if the beatdowns happened, but I know someone who was told to "walk this one off" when he was left down there after a night out.
now roncesvalles, then regent park / April 30, 2014 at 11:54 am
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the cherry beach express was real. the key part was removing the guest's shoes so they would walk back barefoot.
Astin / April 30, 2014 at 12:06 pm
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If it's true, then it's not a myth.
Jane N Finch / April 30, 2014 at 12:08 pm
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How about the myth that Mike Harris is to blame for every supposed shortfall in any city/school board/transit/prov govt etc budget? The man has been out of office for over 15 years but he is the pinata that the lefties just can't resist poking. It can't be due to the Lieberals who have been in office for years...no we must blame Mike Harris because that fits the mantra.

Discuss.
Bri / April 30, 2014 at 12:21 pm
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There is the myth of the haunted theatre/Chapters/condo at Runnymede and Bloor.
Nerves / April 30, 2014 at 12:46 pm
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As a former tour guide, I've used each of these on occasion. Thanks for the bit of nostalgia.
Liberty Villain / April 30, 2014 at 12:56 pm
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The Keg Mansion...?
deezee replying to a comment from iSkyscraper / April 30, 2014 at 01:05 pm
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Yes I was told this by a bank employee of RBC offering a tour. Not only did they make the money back on construction but turned a profit as well.
Chrsitina / April 30, 2014 at 01:13 pm
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what about the myth that robart's library is sinking due to them not accounting for the weight of the books?
moosey / April 30, 2014 at 02:03 pm
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The Cherry beach myth is totally true man, I know buddies that tell me all the time how cops used to do that back in the day, heck they still do it now to Y.O, I think its a good way to teach them a lesson.
Mike Harris / April 30, 2014 at 02:22 pm
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The myth that I helped this city in any way, shape or form?
Turks replying to a comment from iSkyscraper / April 30, 2014 at 02:28 pm
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The RBC story is obviously an urban legend. Even at the current price of $1300/oz, there's only $3.25 Million worth of gold on them thar windows. If they managed to build a 41 story tower coated in gold for less than $3.25M, then...well...I'd say that's even more of an accomplishment than recouping their production costs because of a material overrun. And anyway...why would a bank sell gold? They'd put it in their vault with the rest of their gold :P
moonshake / April 30, 2014 at 03:11 pm
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The myth that right-wingers have anything better to do with their time than defend the indefensible on any and all media.
iSkyscraper replying to a comment from iSkyscraper / April 30, 2014 at 04:18 pm
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I meant recoup much of the cost of the premium for the gold in the windows (about $70 per window according to wikipedia), obviously not the overall construction. But yes, has to be a legend because banks don't buy gold windows, contractors do. And their subcontractors' subs' factories handle the actual gold and would not buy more they needed, then suddenly turn into commodity traders at the end of the job.

Good one about the sinking Robarts! I've heard that one too. It's possible people stopped telling that one once they got used to Robarts being so ugly and as the rest of the campus improved around it. Many hated libraries have the same silly myth.

http://www.snopes.com/college/halls/sinking.asp

(And for the record, engineers and architects are quite clear on the increased loading of a library stack.)
rich / April 30, 2014 at 05:12 pm
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I worked at the wheatsheaf for over 10 years, while they was renovating the basement I saw what seemed to be a arch way that was bricked up. Dunno if it had anything to do with the tunnel, but I liked the idea of a secret passage.
worked across the street replying to a comment from Martino / April 30, 2014 at 05:42 pm
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Yeah I too remember when Garry died. He was a sweet man and he deserved better than to die like that. It was really horrible.
stopitman replying to a comment from iSkyscraper / April 30, 2014 at 05:42 pm
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The library sinking thing is an urban legend on a whole whack of university campuses. I've heard it at Waterloo, Laurier, Toronto, and Ottawa. At Waterloo the legend was that the main library was built by an engineer from UofT who didn't take into account the weight of the books. None of them are actually true and the origin of the legend comes from a university in the States
David Crombie / April 30, 2014 at 05:52 pm
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It's a myth that Shirley or Dave ever posted on blogto.
sezme / April 30, 2014 at 06:14 pm
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Seems a bit disrespectful to call the Garry Hoy one your all-time favourite, considering it didn't happen all that long ago, and it was really unfortunate.

On a semi-unrelated note, the town where my mother lives has a "haunted" tour, and one story they tell is about a horrible murder from the 1950s. Some tourists my mother met told her about it, but my mother remembered it quite clearly and knew the murderer who was around her own age, and suffered from schizophrenia. Just goes to show that what's entertainment for some can be a little traumatic for others.

BTW thanks for the Pukka Orchestra video embed. I still have that album. It's great.
Sam / April 30, 2014 at 08:02 pm
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Actually the Cherry beach operation was a standard practice back in the mid to early 70's before the bill of rights and freedoms was established the police got away will a lot. Individuals usually with records were basically open season and tossed in the lake after a punch out. There were a couple well known veterin police detectives by the name of Dick & Clark who were notorious for beating prisoners and threatening people. In the day there was no civilian police services board to complain to. You could complain at the then 52 division on Jarvis to the desk sergeant and be told to get lost. Dick and Clark were hard nosed and if you came across their path and you had any kind of record you were fair game for an ass kicking. These kind of burned out cops were protected by the department.
Ben / August 17, 2014 at 10:59 pm
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The Lady In Red that haunts Bay Station and the Ghost of Old Mill station. Lots of people I work with at TTC swear to have seen them. They are both popular Urban Legends within TTC.
Glenn Hendry replying to a comment from mike in parkdale / August 28, 2014 at 09:52 pm
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I know t least three people who were beaten by cops at Cherry Beach. It was mostly reserved for young punks to scare them or serious ne'er do wells who didn't have good lawyers. 80s

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