toronto’s mammoth sports centre: steam shovels at midnight

The House That Conn Built*: Carlton Street and Maple Leaf Gardens, looking northeast, circa 1934. *(with the help of several thousand actual contraction workers)

The House That Conn Built*: Carlton Street and Maple Leaf Gardens, looking northeast, circa 1934. *(with the help of several thousand actual construction workers)

A big day yesterday for Toronto’s grandest Loblaws, which marked the occasion with a recall of select varieties of PC® brand hummus, which may contain the toxin produced by Staphylococcus bacteria.

Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that the hummus emergency has anything to do with the anniversary of the start of construction of the famous building that has housed the supermarket at 60 Carlton since 2011, but that doesn’t matter: either way, it’s 84 years since work began on the house that Conn Smythe decided to build, mid-Depression, on the land that Timothy Eaton sold him.

Which is to say, of course, Maple Leaf Gardens.

smythe 1931The Leafs had outgrown their 8,000-seat rink on Mutual Street, is how it all began. Smythe, managing director, wanted to up capacity to at least 12,000, not to mention create a destination for Torontonians to go in evening dress, from a party or a dinner, a venue with (as he wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided autobiography) “everything new and clean, a place that people can be proud to take their wives or girl friends to.”

The first site the Leafs looked at was on the waterfront; another was at up at Spadina and College. The T. Eaton Company offered a parcel of land on Church just north of Carlton — not a hundred yards from where Smythe was born. But Smythe wanted to right on Carlton, near the streetcar lines, and so the deal was done, for $350,000.

“We knocked down all the old buildings,” Smythe writes in If You Can’t Beat ’Em in the Alley, with what might be glee, “starting with the tobacco store right on the corner.” People laughed when he hired a watchman to keep an eye on the levelled property — was he afraid someone was going to make off with the site? Anyway, he was a distinguished sentinel, a young Marlboro prospect named Buzz Boll who later turned into a scoring left-winger for the Leafs, Americans, and Bruins.

A local contractor, Thomson Brothers, got the job when they came in with the lowest bid: $989,297, not including the cost of steel. When it looked like the Leafs wouldn’t have the money to go ahead, Smythe and his assistant, Frank Selke, convinced the labour unions to allow their men to be paid partly in Gardens’ stock.

On Saturday, May 30, 1931, the day after the contract with the Thomsons was signed, The Toronto Daily Star heralded the imminent start of the race to finish the building by November 1: “steam shovels will commence excavating at midnight Sunday.” Some 20,000 yards of earth needed shifting initially, and it was estimated that it would five weeks before any structure began to rise. “The work will be continued by day and night shifts as long as is necessary,” The Star noted.

“I don’t know how you would build Maple Leaf Gardens today in five months,” Smythe wrote in the 1980s, “but partly it was accomplished because the men who built it believed in what they were doing. After all, they were going to be shareholders in it, weren’t they?”

Apparently, it didn’t all start quite as promptly as promised. Believing, I guess, what they’d read in the newspaper, nearly 1,000 men hoping to be hired showed up at midnight at the work site at Carlton and Church. The Daily Star was on the scene: “Despite assurances by motorcycle policemen that work would not be started, [the crowd] did not disperse until one o’clock in the morning.”

Some jostling ensued, The Star reported, and so it was that before a brick was laid, Maple Leaf Gardens got a christening that, for a famous hockey rink-to-be, only seems apposite: “two of the unemployed started a fist fight.”

Leafs Rebuild: A Toronto Transit Commission photograph showing work on streetcar tracks in late June of 1931 with the MLG construction site in the background.

Leafs Rebuild: A Toronto Transit Commission photograph showing work on streetcar tracks in late June of 1931 with the MLG construction site in the background.

 (Photos: City of Toronto Archives)

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