The 50th Anniversary of the Storm of the Century.
October 15th, 2004 marks the 50th anniversary of the natural disaster which forever changed the way we think about the valley corridors in Toronto and and surrounding area. In the many oral and written personal histories created in this area during the past few decades, few neglect to recall where they were when Hazel hit.
In Thornhill many were left without heat or power, some had their basements flooded, and a few even had to be pulled from the swollen waters of the Don River. Yet compared to other areas such as Woodbridge and Etobicoke, the residents of the Thornhill area were lucky.
The following article written by Elizabeth Sumner in October, 1954, tells of the experiences of many local residents.
"By ten p.m. every approach to the village was cut off. Motorists and commuters trying to reach their homes, north, east, south and west of Thornhill, were stranded as bridge after bridge went out, power failed, and the waters rose.
Hundreds of people spent the night in cars on the main street or sought shelter with friends. Thornhill's one public telephone booth had a queue that stretched halfway through the village. Other lines formed at the taxi stands where one driver spent thirty hours on duty. The restaurant1 stayed open until four a.m.; the service stations worked the clock around and every able-bodied person in the village was out helping and most of them stayed out all night.
At 8:30 p.m. the concrete bridge over the Don at John St. caved in like so much cardboard carrying three cars and their occupants into the raging flood. All the people were rescued.
At 9:10 a.m. the bridge over the Don at Yonge St. went down and with it the power line. A few minutes later in the tumult and the darkness a car coming south containing three men plunged over the gap and into the river. The men fought free of the car and clung to trees and bushed until help arrived. Aroused by the sound of the crash and the screams of the men, the inhabitants of nearby houses rushed to the river. A rope was thrown to the men and a human chain was formed. After an hour of struggle the victims were brought ashore and taken to the nearest house where they were dried out and given fresh clothing. All during the the rescue the broken power line swung crazily in the gale and where it touched the water great sparks shot up to light the scene. Next morning the car was discovered 500 yards downstream.
In the business section of the village confusion reigned. Frank Tucker2 was one of the citizens helping to re-route traffic. Frantic motorists beat on the closed doors of Russ Elgie's Hardware store3. He came down and opened up to be besieged with demands for flashlights, batteries and rope.
Jack Yeats, manager of the Thorn-View Restaurant says he never experienced anything like in his life and hopes never to again. The restaurant was jammed, the stream of people endless. The cars were in lines on the parking strip outside and those who couldn't find room to eat in the restaurant carried the food out to their cars. And there they remained for the night. At 4 a.m. the restaurant ran out of food and was forced to close. At 6 a.m., after two hours fighting water in the cellar and cleaning up the debris, the stranded and the homeless were once again at his doors pleading for coffee.
Ken Fox, owner of the Village Taxi, went out on a call at midnight. At the corner of No. 7 Highway and Bayview, the car was swept off the road by the force of the water and ended upside-down in the torrent-filled ditch. He managed to climb out a window and make his way to the Gibson Farm. When he recovered, he returned to Thornhill - on foot.
An old man, who said he was walking to Woodbridge where he lived, was dragged unconscious from a flooded ditch by Pete Zinkan4 of Colborne Street. Pete was doing duty with a tow truck on No. 7 west.
Don Inne's Garage at the corner of Elgin and Yonge hauled in 35 cars off Yonge St., stalled in water which which rose over the wheels.
Jane MacLaren, the Librarian of the Thornhill Public Library, arrived at 7 p.m. and opened up as usual. From then until 8 p.m. she had one lone customer. Unable to return home because of the bridge washed out on John St., she spent the night in the village5.
And so it went. The Bank manager and another Village Trustee set up the barricades on Yonge St. Residents helped each other pump out cellars and remove fallen trees. Scarcely anyone slept until dawn came.
In spite of the nightmare quality of the incidents and the terrors of that night, all the people this correspondent interviewed have ended their stories in the same way - "We are lucky - we are fortunate. We have been inconvenienced. Flooded cellars and lack of heat and light are as nothing in comparison with destruction of a dwelling, the ruin of hopes. We have had no loss of life, no serious damage to our homes. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to those areas where whole streets and communities have been swept away and where the death toll is still mounting."6 We are fortunate indeed."
1. The restaurant referred to was located in the MacNeil Anstey Block, which had been built four years previously, following the fire that destroyed the Thornhill Hotel in 1950. In 2004, the location is occupied by Falcon Audio Electronics Inc.
2. Frank Tucker was one of the Trustees of the Police Village of Thornhill, which existed from 1931 to 1971. Three trustees were elected annually.
3. This Hardware store stood just north of Colborne St. on the east side of Yonge St. The building was demolished in 1971.
4. The Zinkans lived at 25 Colborne St.
5. Jane MacLaren lived on a farm at German Mills. She had been appointed as the first Librarian of the Thornhill Library in 1952.
6. Italics added.
After the storm was over, transportation was returned to some order with the construction of Bailey Bridges which were quickly assembled to span the gaps where concrete bridges had been washed out.
50 years later, there are still many in Thornhill who remember the night of October 15th, 1954. And it is perhaps a fitting reminder, that on the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Hazel - it rained.