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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The very first ride at the CNE

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It all started back in the mid-1800s, as a relatively small provincial fair. The earliest version of the CNE was held in a field behind Upper Canada College, which in those days was on King Street (on the northwest corner of Simcoe, across from where Roy Thompson Hall is now). It started as a very agricultural affair. They had cows and sheep and horses and blankets and knitting and needlework. The cheese was very popular. So was the wax fruit. The day ended with a big dinner at the Lieutenant Governor’s residence across the street. The city’s bigwigs were all there; they declared it a success.

For the next few decades, the fair toured around the province, moving from one city to another each year: Toronto, Kingston, London, Hamilton… And as it grew, Toronto started putting up permanent buildings to house it. A Crystal Palace was the first to go up. Land was set aside for the fair, too: part of the old Garrison military reserve around Fort York. A century and a half later, the Ex is still held on the very same ground.

It wasn’t until 1879, though, that they decided to have the fair in Toronto every year. It would now be called the Canadian National Exhibition. The CNE was officially born. By then, the fair was huge. There were 23 permanent buildings on the site. Thousands of exhibits. It drew more than 100,000 visitors that first year.

No one, it seems, is quite sure exactly when the CNE’s first ride opened. It might have been that same year, or, at the very least, soon after. It was a tiny little Ferris Wheel. Just 15 feet high. It had four buckets; they could hold two people each. And the whole thing had to be powered by hand. It was such an early prototype that people didn’t even call them Ferris Wheels yet. That didn’t happen until about a year after the photo below was taken, when George Ferris Jr. unveiled his enormous creation at the Chicago World’s Fair. Tens of thousands of pounds of iron and steel. Enough room for more than two thousand people. All powered by steam engines. The world of amusement park rides had changed forever. And the Ex didn’t waste any time following suit. The very next year, Toronto’s fair boasted “Ferris Wheels, Carousals, Swings and other amusements for young and old.” Soon, there would be an entire midway.



Photo: The CNE’s old Dufferin Gates (via Chuckman’s postcard blog)

A version of this post originally appeared on the The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. You can find more sources, links and related stories there.


One comment

  1. The Ex was on part of the old Garrison military reserve. Only the Stanley Barracks remain. During World War II, Exhibition Place was used by the military. I wonder with the new hotel they’re building on the grounds, could the hotel be used as military barracks again?