Sunday 31 August 2014

The Future at the Fair

Since 1879, a series of innovations have debuted at the Canadian National Exhibition, first called the Canadian Industrial Exhibition.  In 1883, an electric railway invention was on display at the fair.  In 1888, Thomas Edison's phonograph was demonstrated.  In 1890, the first wireless telephone was exhibited.  An early radio appeared in 1922.  The medium of television first appeared in 1939, displayed first at the New York World's Fair followed by the CNE.

Electronic television set with New York World's Fair on the screen circa 1939 courtesy

The first arcade game, called Bertie the Brain and measuring 4 metres high, was first played at the fair in 1950.  Plastics and synthetics debuted in the 1940's and 1950's.  In 1992, virtual reality was first demonstrated at the Ex.

Many of the new inventions were put on display in a magnificent building called the Electrical Engineering Building which was erected in 1928.  The structure had eight "Statues of Industry" perched on its roof. Everything from radios and refrigerators to cars and clocks to stoves and stereos could be found within its walls.  Sadly, the Electrical Engineering Building was torn down in 1972.  At least one of the statues, however, was preserved in the National Trade Centre's Heritage Court.

Saturday 30 August 2014

S.S. Noronic Disaster

"When the sun set over the harbour Saturday evening, the five million dollar luxury liner was a hulking wreck of twisted metal." (

Horticultural building courtesy

Today we know it as the horticultural building at the Canadian National Exhibition.  Fair goers admire the roses, gladiolas and daisies as they walk up and down its aisles.  However, back in September of 1949, it housed not flowers, but dead bodies, serving as a temporary morgue for the victims of the S. S. Noronic fire.

On September 16, 1949, the S.S. Noronic sailed into the Toronto port, a cruise ship full of about 600 passengers, mainly Americans.  On a seven day cruise, the ship had departed Cleveland, Ohio a few days before and intended on stopping in Detroit the following day.  

The dining room on the Noronic's sister ship the S. S. Hamonic, which also suffered a fire in 1945.  While no one died, the Hamonic was scrapped following the blaze.  Photo courtesy

Early the next morning, plans changed.  Passenger Don Church spotted smoke billowing from a linen closet. Fetching a bellboy who unlocked the closet, the two of them tried to battle the blaze but to no avail.  Church ran back to his cabin to alert his wife and children and exited the ship.  Within eight minutes, half of the Noronic's decks were on fire.  

A police cruiser arrived at the scene.  One of the officers stripped out of his uniform and dove into the frigid oily water to rescue the passengers.  One of the first people on the scene, Donald Williamson, was a Goodyear employee who had just gotten off work.  Grabbing a raft, he rowed it alongside the ship to collect escaped passengers.  Only three minutes after the alarm was sounded the first fire truck arrived at Queen's Quay.  The ship was already completely engulfed in flames.

The scene was pandemonium on board the Noronic.  Crew members failed to wake the sleeping passengers.  The fire hoses did not work.  The only exits were located on E deck.  A ladder was raised to B deck; passengers swarmed the ladder which snapped in two.  Crew members smashed portholes to get passengers out.  Passengers screamed louder than the fire sirens.  Some, their bodies already ablaze, jumped overboard, plunging to their deaths on the dock.  A few lucky ones managed to shimmy down a rope over the side of the ship.

The firefighters worked feverishly until 5 am when the fire was finally extinguished.  The Noronic, once dubbed "The Queen of the Lakes" was a smoldering black shell.  Once inside, rescuers discovered a macabre scene:  embracing skeletons in the corridors and charred bodies still in their beds.  Only one had died from drowning; all the others had burnt or suffocated.  

Frantic family members were desperate to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.  The official passenger list had gone up in flames.  Fortunately a duplicate was located.  Newspapers kept a list of the Noronic's "Survivors & Injured", "Known Dead" and "Unable to Locate".  Identifying the bodies, however, was not easy as most were burnt beyond recognition.  Some were identified by their rings or watches.

With the death toll reaching at least 118, the survivors families demanded answers.  The House of Commons ordered an inquiry.  The public reacted with outrage when it was revealed that all of the victims were passengers; none of the crew had perished.  Although it was reported that Captain Taylor was one of the last to leave the ship, and although he carried an unconscious woman off the ship, his licence was revoked for one year.  The inquiry ruled that a unextinguished cigarette in the linen closet caused the fire.

Friday 29 August 2014

15000 American Troops Roll Down the Champs Elysees

"Why do you wish us to hide the emotion which seizes us all, men and women, who are here, at home, in Paris which stood up to liberate itself and that succeeded in doing this with its own hands.  No!  We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion.  These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives.  Paris!  Paris outraged!  Paris broken!  Paris martyred!  Paris liberated!" (General DeGaulle)

American soldier studies the Eiffel Tower, with the tricolour flag flying on top, courtesy 

It had been over three years since Parisians fled the city...three years since they heard the approach of the German tanks...three years since their Maginot Line, seemingly indestructible, had been breached.  But on August 29, 1944, Parisians watched from the sidewalks as 15,000 American troops, accompanied by French forces. marched down the Champs Elysees.  

On August 25, Charles DeGaulle's victory speech at the Hotel de Ville had roused the crowd.  The following day saw a victory parade march down the Champs Elysees.  Three days later, a second parade was organized.  Tanks rolled under the Arc de Triomphe.  The tricolour flag was front and centre once again. Thousands of spectators, standing under the leafy trees that lined the boulevard, cheered.  "Vive DeGaulle!  "Vive la France!"  

For France, the battle was over.  But for much of Europe, the Second World War would rage on for months.    

Thursday 28 August 2014

Enemy Aliens Housed at CNE

The Canadian National Exhibition is the site of an historic building.  In recent years, it was home of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Toronto Maritime Museum (1958-1998).  But during the First World War, it housed dozens of "enemy aliens" of German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish descent.

Built on the shores of Lake Ontario in 1840 in response to the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, the New Fort York consisted of six limestone buildings.  It served as housing and a training ground for British and later Canadian troops, including the RCMP.  In 1893, the fort was renamed the Stanley Barracks after the governor Lord Stanley, sharing its name with the hockey trophy.  

Canadian troops circa 1918 courtesy

The First World War broke out in August of 1914.  By the following October, individuals of German, Austrian or Turkish background were being rounded up in Canada.  The reasons for incarceration were inconsistent.  "A German caught loitering in a suspicious manner" was brought in for questioning.  Rudolf Burnek followed "a wagon full of bricks" to Toronto Island and was apprehended.  One group of men was apprehended in Niagara Falls attempting to escape to the United States which was neutral at the time.  Another group, consisting of 120 Turks from Brantford, was turned away due at the Toronto fort due to lack of space.  In total 8759 internees would be held in Canada.


Internees courtesy

According to the Toronto Globe & Mail, the Stanley Barracks operators treated the internees well.  Each was given a cot, clothing and three blankets.  They were permitted only one family visit per month.  A 1914 article stated that the internees were given good food like "meat, milk, bread, pies, cake, cheese and butter." They bathed or showered regularly.  However, a Toronto Star article reported that a group at Stanley Barracks looked like they had gone "three weeks without tubbing' and needed to be hosed down. Apparently one individual lay face down on his cot and refused to get up, suffering from "melancholia".

By October of 1916, the internees at Stanley Barracks were either released or transferred to a work camp in Kapuskasing.  In 1953, all of the original New Fort York buildings were demolished except the Officers' Mess.  After serving as a Maritime Museum and Hockey Hall of Fame, it now sits vacant.  Some say that the building is haunted with the spirits of the internees.

Officers Mess courtesy

Wednesday 27 August 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

He La.  Two syllables.  To the average person, they mean nothing.  But to the average scientist they mean something.  And to Deborah Lacks, they meant everything.  These two syllables changed history.

He La is the world's first immortal cells.  Over the past six decades, scientists have studied them to research everything from cancer to polio to infertility.  They have travelled across the country, around the world, even to the moon.  He La spawned a multimillion dollar industry.  He La is big.  Yet its beginnings were small.

Henrietta & David Lacks courtesy

He La stands for a real person, Henrietta Lacks.  A Black American woman, she was born and raised in the 1920's in Clover, Virginia.  Still a teenager, she married her first cousin.  The couple had five children.

Henrietta's husband, however, was a philanderer, infecting his wife with both gonorrhea and syphillis (and likely HPV, the human papilloma virus, an unidentified condition in the 1950's).  Offered treatment at the local hospital, she turned it down, likely because she couldn't afford it.

After the birth of her youngest child, Henrietta said she had a "knot" inside her.  Her husband took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland where she was diagnosed with a tumor on her cervix. Henrietta underwent an operation where the surgeon removed part of her cervix, and stored some of her cancer cells.  Doctors treated her with radiation, but the cancer continued to spread.  At the tender age of 31, Henrietta Lacks passed away, leaving five young children motherless.

Unknown to her husband or children, doctors at Johns Hopkins started experimenting with her cancer cells. While previous cells had only survived for a short time, Henrietta's cells continued to regenerate.  It became apparent that her cells were immortal.  While the original doctor who took her cells seemed content to use them for research alone, other recipients of the cells started to use them for profit.

As the cells continued to multiply, their identity was kept top secret.  At one point, someone mistakenly claimed that He La stood for Helen Lane, a mistake that many mistook for the truth.  Others suggested that He La stood for Helga Larsen.  Will the real He La please stand up?

He La cells courtesy

Finally, in the early 1970's, when the original scientist to work with He La, George Guy, passed away, his colleagues published an article about the cells and revealed their true origin, Henrietta Lacks.  The following decade, an Illinois high school science student, Rebecca Skloot, first heard about He La.  Her teacher planted a seed which would grow like the cells and eventually lead to a book, The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks.  

Ms. Skloot poured over documents, surfed the Internet and made connections to find out as much as she could about He La.  Then on day she hit the jackpot -- she tracked down Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter.  While Deborah was dubious that Rebecca might want to profit from her mother's cells, she slowly came to the realization that she simply wanted to get to the bottom of her mother's story.  Deborah, a young child when her mother died, shared the same desire.  The two women bonded over the issue, forging an almost decade long friendship.

Today, He La cells continue to grow.  If measured on a scale, scientists estimate their weight to be 50 million metric tons.  Rebecca Skloot's book is a #1 New York Times Bestseller and has been translated into 25 languages.  Oprah Winfrey is producing a movie about He La.  Two syllables that changed history.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

God's Perfect Timing

"Stress makes you believe that everything has to happen right now.  Faith reassures you that everything will happen in God's timing." (Unknown)

Thank you to my friend Julie for posting this truth on Facebook.  I needed to be reminded.  It's so easy to want everything in our timing.  But God's timing is perfect.

Sixteen years ago we completed our home study and were waiting for a baby to adopt.  Everybody had a horror story to tell us:  "We waited ten years on a waiting list and still didn't get a baby."  "I haven't seen a healthy baby adopted in my medical practice in 25 years."  The stories went on and on.  However, we held on to a couple of positive adoption stories and, seven months later, we had a bouncing baby boy.  

It was the same situation when Rob entered the PhD program at Western.  "Only half of PhD students ever complete the program."  "Why is Rob wasting his time getting his doctorate?  He'll just end up working at McDonald's."  Times were tough.  We had a little baby.   Deadlines loomed.  Rob was writing and re-writing his thesis, a document the size of our phone book.   Today as I write this Rob's Doctor of Philosophy degree hangs on the wall just above me.  Rob was one of two students to complete the program in a class of five. He is the best paid McDonald's employee I've ever met!  

Now I am at a crossroads in my life.  I would love to go back to school and get my Masters, an item that has always been on my bucket list.  But how can we afford the tuition when we have two children in private schools?  This is where my faith comes into play.  God knows.  He is the one that put the desire in my heart. And He will provide the means.

"Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!" (Psalm 27:14)

Monday 25 August 2014

Preserving Point Pelee

Entrance to Point Pelee National Park circa 1950's courtesy

Birds, butterflies, flora and fauna are all part of Point Pelee's National Park, the southernmost point of continental Canada.  However, in the 1950's and 1960's, the Point looked quite different.  By 1968, three hundred cottages peppered the peninsula.  A record 785,000 visitors congregated in the park.  Automobiles were parked bumper to bumper at East Point Beach.  The human invasion was felt by the local wildlife; ten different species of amphibians and reptiles disappeared.

The overcrowded parking lot at East Point Beach circa 1966 courtesy

Park officials knew that drastic measures were required to restore Point Pelee to its original glory.  In the 1970's, the government starting buying up private land.  Apple orchards, fisheries and cottages were purchased, giving the park an additional 125 hectares.

The DeLaurier Homestead is one of the few buildings that has been preserved courtesy

In the 1980's, a major road was removed.  Park housing and beach facilities at the tip and East Point Beach were also taken out, restoring the natural shoreline.

In the 1990's, the main road to the Point was removed.  The administration and maintenance buildings were relocated outside the park.  Tulips and daffodils planted by cottagers were also taken out.  By 1993, flying squirrels were reintroduced to the area.

Flying squirrel courtesy

In 2000, only one cottage was left at Point Pelee.  The number of yearly visitors had been reduced to 350,000. People still visit the tip, but on foot or by shuttle rather than by car.  Fifty percent of the dry habitat had been restored.  Four hundred buildings had been removed, including six fisheries.  Twenty kilometres of roads had been dug up.

Fall seagull migration at the tip courtesy

Today, reptiles and amphibians abound in Point Pelee.  The peninsula is the home of Canada's only lizard, the five lined skink.  Hickory, hackberry and sassafras trees flourish in its Carolinian forest.  The point is a breeding ground for 100 species of birds.  Hundreds of birds use the park as a major migration route. Monarch butterflies use the Point as a staging ground.  The white tailed deer's population has outgrown the capacity of the park.  Point Pelee is back.

Sunday 24 August 2014

H. J. Heinz: The Last Drop of Ketchup

"Before the Great Depression, before colour photos or the world wars, there was the H.J. Heinz Company in Leamington."  

FILES/The Windsor Star

Heinz Factory circa 1920's courtesy

In June of 2014, the last drop of ketchup was squeezed into a bottle at the H. J. Heinz Company that closed its doors putting 1000 people out of work and leaving a huge hole in the community.  Heinz, located in Leamington, Ontario on the shores of Lake Erie, was the town's largest taxpayer and water user.  The Leamington company, the second largest Heinz company in the world, served as the official sponsor for Tomato Fest each summer.

File/The Windsor Star

Cartloads of tomatoes arrive at the Heinz Factory courtesy

When we visited Leamington four years ago, we saw trucks laden with tomatoes on their way to and from the factory with the signature smokestack located on Erie Ave.  However, when we visited this summer, we didn't see any tomato trucks.  In years past, Heinz bought 225,000 tons of tomatoes at $95 a ton from 43 Ontario farmers.  Workers would fill the trademark plastic (originally glass) bottles with the label "57 varieties" with the world famous ketchup each day.


Heinz assembly line circa 2009 courtesy

Heinz not only made ketchup but also tomato juice, tomato soup, tomato juice, baby food and baked beans.  During the First World War, the Leamington plant mailed hundreds of cans of beans to the Canadian soldiers stationed overseas. One young officer was so appreciative that he wrote a thank you note on the back of a Heinz label.

The smoke does not plume from the smokestack on Erie Ave. anymore.  But we have the memories.  Local historian Scott Holland has written an account in his book A Century in the Making:  The History of Heinz in Canada 1909 - 2009.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Keeping up with the Jonasson's

We live in a world where we are obsessed with keeping up with others.  We want the best house or the best car or the best job or the best marks.  We're always looking over our shoulder to make sure we are one step ahead of our neighbour or friend or colleague or sibling.  Life is one big competition.  It is so hard to see what we have rather than what we don't have, to be content in the here and now.

Rob had a friend in university who claimed that he never worked very hard at school.  He questioned Rob, a straight A student, as to why he was trying so hard.  Rob finally said to himself, "Why am I trying so hard?" So, in third year, he didn't put in a full effort.  For the first time since arriving at McMaster, he slipped off the Dean's Honour List.  Rob's Mom warned him about his friend, saying that he was jealous of Rob and that secretly he was trying hard to earn better marks than him.  The following semester, Rob pulled up his socks; once again, his name appeared on the Dean's Honour List.  His friend, realizing that he couldn't compete, dropped out of the Honours program.

Rob's Mom was a wise woman.  We have to be wary in life of "friends" who want to bring us down.  We need to watch out for people who are so competitive, that they are constantly criticizing others to elevate themselves.  Friends should rejoice with us in our successes, not just wallow with us in our failures.

Friday 22 August 2014

The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto!

thornton blackburn toronto cab W.H. Coverdale

Taxi cab similar to that of Thornton Blackburn courtesy

Long before the orange and green taxi cabs raced down the streets of Toronto, a red and yellow box cab, pulled by a horse, rolled along the city's dusty roads. Toronto's first cab company, its operator was Thornton Blackburn, an escaped slave from Kentucky.

In the 1830's, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn worked as slaves in Louisville, Kentucky.  The couple managed to escape via the Underground Railroad and settled in Detroit.  However, slave catchers pursued the Blackburn's and tracked them down.  In 1833, they were recaptured and jailed.  Lucie arranged to trade clothes and identities with Mrs. George French, managing to escape across the Detroit River to freedom in Amherstburg, Upper Canada.

Drawing courtesy

However, Lucie's husband remained in the Detroit prison, shackled and bound.  ON the night before he was to be deported back to Kentucky, a group of 400 blacks protested and stormed the jail, setting Thornton free.  A two-day race riot ensued, the first of its kind in Detroit, during which the sheriff was shot and killed. A posse pursued Thornton's horse and cart, but when they reached it, it was empty.

Thornton had escaped through the woods outside of Detroit to a boat at the mouth of the Rouge River.  The boat transported him across the Detroit River to freedom in Essex County, Upper Canada, one of an estimated 30,000 black slaves to do so.  There, Thornton was jailed briefly but released when the Lieutenant Governor refused to extradite him back to the United States.

John Colborne.jpg

Sir John Colborne, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.

Thornton, reunited with Lucie in 1834, settled in Toronto.  He sent away to Montreal for the blueprint for a taxi cab.  He built the red and yellow vehicle to be pulled by a horse.  Soon, his taxi business was thriving. He also established the Little Trinity Church, Toronto's oldest church.

He became a staunch abolitionist and helped others settled in the community of Toronto as well as Buxton. Later in the 1830's, he made a daring return to Kentucky to help his mother escape and join him in his adopted country.  In 1851, Thornton along with many other blacks, attended the North American Convention for Colored Freemen held at St Lawrence Hall in Toronto.


St. Lawrence Hall, the site of many abolitionist speeches, including one by Frederick Douglass, courtesy

Thorton Blackburn died in 1890, leaving a substantial estate of $18,000.  His wife, Lucie, passed away five years later.  In 2002, a plaque honouring the Thornton's was erected at the site of their excavated house, on the corner of Eastern Ave. and Sackville Street in Toronto.

Note:  For more information, read The Underground Railroad:  Next Stop, Toronto (Adrienne Shadd).

Thursday 21 August 2014

Historic Toronto

                                 Toronto on the Water, The Exhibit returns to Queen's Quay Terminal

Sunnyside Amusement Park courtesy

Sunnyside Beach circa 1924 courtesy

S.S. Cayuga entering Toronto Harbour courtesy

Lawn bowling

A Toronto street car courtesy

Wellington Street East courtesy

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Toronto's Tall Ship

Tall ship Kajama courtesy

Today my family and I took the GO train from Aldershot station to Toronto.  We walked down to Queen's Quay where we bought juicy hotdogs from a stand and munched on them while ducks splashed in the water below us.  Then we boarded the tall ship Kajama for a cruise on Lake Ontario.  As our boat made its way out of the harbour, we feasted our eyes on the Toronto, the CN tower identifying the skyline instantly.

Despite thunderstorms in the forecast, the sun actually came out and a gentle breeze wafted across Lake Ontario.  It was picture perfect.  A toddler pitter-pattered up and down the deck, his parents chasing after him.  Thomas and Jacqueline made their way to the front of the ship where they were treated to a magnificent view of the lake.  As we passed the Toronto Island Airport, named Billy Bishop Airport after the World War I flying ace, Rob focused his attention on a plane that was taking off.  

Toronto Island Airport courtesy

Our tall ship sailed past Ontario Place, now abandonned.  Memories of a sunny day a few years ago flashed through my mind when our kids played at the splash pad, the CN tower in the background.  I'm glad we took our kids there while we had the chance.  Then I spotted an old stone building with a large green domed roof.  The man beside me said that it's part of the CNE.  It reminds me a bit of London's Crystal Palace.

Ontario Government Building at CNE circa 1926 courtesy

We went a bit further out into the lake; I closed my eyes and simply listened to the the lapping of the waves. As we drew closer to Mississauga's skyline, it was time for the tall ship to turn around.  Slowly we made our way back to the harbour, back to the hustle and bustle of the city.

Note:  If you are interested in the Toronto Waterfront, a free exhibit is on display now until Labour Day at Queen's Quay Terminal called "Toronto on the Water".

Tuesday 19 August 2014

The Book that Made This Great War

"So this is the little lady who wrote the book which made this great war." (Abraham Lincoln, 1862)

Onkel Toms Hutte.  La Cabana del Tio Tom.  Baracca dello zio Tom.  Onkel Toms Stuga.  Tamas batya kunyhoja.  Uncle Tom's Cabin.  One book -- millions of copies -- over 60 translations.  The second-best selling book of the 19th Century.

How did one book make such an imprint on America's conscience?  Banned in the southern states, one bookseller in Mobile, Alabama was forced to leave town after selling the novel.  Its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, received hate mail, including an envelop with a slave's severed ear, in reaction to her anti-slavery tome. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe "put a face, a mind, a soul" to the American blacks, and in so doing, polarized the North against the South in the slavery debate of the mid-1800's.  Union General James Baird Weaver joined the abolitionist movement after reading the book.  Uncle Tom's Cabin became a topic for conversation in religious sermons in the North.  Evangelists, especially Quakers and Methodists, helped champion the abolitionist cause.

Uncle Tom's Cabin made an impact abroad as well.  Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister to Britain during the Civil War, claimed that the book "exercised...a more immediate considerable and dramatic world influence than any other book every printed."  In fact, when Harriet Beecher Stowe travelled to England in 1853, she was greeted by a group of women with a 26-volume petition signed by 500,000 British women advocating the abolition of slavery in the United States.  

For the next decade, Uncle Tom's Cabin would be translated into dozens of languages and influence readers around the world.  On the night of January 1, 1863, Harriet Beecher Stowe attended an abolitionist concert in Boston, Massachusetts.  Several well known authors were in the audience including Emerson, Longfellow and Whittier.  The crowd, three thousand strong, chanted Stowe's name as she waved from the balcony.  As the curtains closed on the orchestra in Boston, President Lincoln, with the stroke of a pen, signed the Emancipation Proclamation in Washington D.C.

Abraham Lincoln & Harriet Beecher Stowe courtesy

Note:  For more information about Uncle Tom's Cabin read my post at

Monday 18 August 2014

The Underground Railroad

"I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger." (Harriet Tubman)

It had conductors, passengers, stations and stockholders.  It had departures and arrivals.  During its 20 year peak, it carried 30,000 people to freedom.  By 1850, approximately 100,000 slaves had escaped on its routes.  It was the Underground Railroad.

In 1804, black and white abolitionists in the United States joined together to form a series of meeting points, transportation, safe houses and personal assistance for escaped black slaves.  Religious groups who supported the abolitionist movement included the Quakers, Congregationalists, Wesleyans, Reformed Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists.  

Harriet Tubman courtesy

Conductors, who led groups of escapees to freedom, consisted of free blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves and Native Americans.  Famous conductors included Harriet Tubman, who made 18 trips and saved 1000 people, and William Still, who harboured as many as 60 slaves a month in his Philadelphia home and Frederick Douglass, the finest abolitionist orator of his time.  

Escaped slaves would travel by night between stations, which were located 10 to 20 miles apart.  Stations could be barns, caves, hollowed out riverbanks, houses or hide outs under church floors.  They usually travelled on foot or by wagon, but also travelled by boat or train.  The routes they followed were indirect in order to confuse their pursuers.  Wanted ads were often placed in local newspapers advertising the escape of slaves and a reward for their return.  Federal marshalls and bounty hunters or slave catchers sometimes pursued escaped slaves as far as the Canadian border.  

Wanted ad courtesy

For the Underground Railroad to have been so successful, it had to be an organized operation.  Accounts exist stating that escaped slaves would look for quilts hung on fences of safe houses.  These quilts would have 10 patterns, each indicating a particular action for the slaves to take.  A children's book called The Patchwork Quilt describes this practice.  Others say that slaves were taught spiritual hymns with coded messages telling them how to find their way along the Underground Railroad.  One song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd" describes how they followed a constellation shaped like a drinking gourd.  

For some slaves, their destination was the Ohio River, code name River Jordan, since it marked the border between the slave states and free states.  However, for others, their destination was Detroit, code name Midnight, and the Canadian border.  Once in Canada, the majority of the escaped slaves settled in a triangular area bordered by Windsor, Toronto and Niagara Falls.  Lieutenant General Simcoe had started the process of outlawing slavery in Upper Canada in 1793 by prohibiting the transportation of slaves into the province. However, smaller groups settled in Africville, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Vancouver Island.   The law officially banned any form of slavery in Canada in 1833, thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.

Map courtesy

Note:  For more information, read The Underground Railway Records (William Still); The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglass); Harriet Tubman:  The Road to Freedom (Harriet Tubman). 

Sunday 17 August 2014

American Lotus Lily Pad


The sky was a clear blue, the wind off Lake Erie having blown away the lingering clouds.  We scanned the horizon and admired the line of poplar trees which bordered the marsh at Point Pelee.  One by one, our party of 12 climbed into a large silver canoe.  We slowly paddled the boat through the acres of reeds and cattails. Tourists strolled on the nearby boardwalk, their cameras poised.  Endless lily pads floated on the water, a turtle perched on one of them. All of a sudden, a muskrat swam in front of the canoe.  Jacqueline got a quick glimpse of the creature.  We continued to paddle further into the marsh.  Seaweed, which grew in a thick layer just below the surface, caught on our paddles.  A couple of kayaks paddled past us.  A light breeze blew as we entered a clearing.  We feasted our eyes on the piece de resistance:  a giant American lotus lily pad.  It was a patchwork of lily pads, all covered with large yellow flowers, most of which were open to the sun.  Above some of the flowers hovered blue birds with long needle-like beaks. Our guide explained that the American lotus had just arrived seven years before, likely brought to the marsh by a flock of birds.  She warned us that if we lingered too long, we might be dive bombed by the birds.  We disentangled the canoe from the lily pads and turned around, heading back to the shore.  Our guide asked us if we had been bitten by any mosquitoes, but we said "No".  She pointed out that the dragonflies feasted on the mosquitoes.  What a treat!  As we approached the boardwalk, our guide pointed out a home built by the local beaver.  He even chewed down an old sign to use as building material.  We paddled past the beaver dam and headed for shore.  We "parallel parked" at the dock and carefully climbed out.  It was the perfect ending to the perfect trip.