Late this morning, I hopped on my bike and rode across Dupont to the Summerhill LCBO, in the former North Toronto Railway Station, so I could watch the contents of a hundred-year-old time capsule be revealed.
In 1915, Toronto was still shifting and growing. Like the country around it, the city hadn’t yet found its form or centre. Reclamation efforts had not yet expanded the city’s waterfront, and the city was much smaller in every direction.
In North Toronto, a suburb then, but only two subway stops from Yonge and Bloor now, CP Railways laid the cornerstone for the North Toronto Railway Station, serving as a rail hub for small rural communities. And under that first foundational cornerstone, they carved a pocket for a time capsule, to be opened 100 years later.
And it is grand.
Tyndall limestone is a soft colour that glows in certain light. It’s rich in fossils and sometimes they come to the surface. You can feel history in each stone.
Twelve years after the station opened, Union Station opened downtown. Then the Great Depression hit and travel sharply declined, especially to the smaller communities served by the North Toronto Railway Station. It only took a few years in this new climate for trains to stop coming here at all.
The station fell into disrepair. It was used, but not maintained. Broken out and boarded up, the glory of the space was shrouded. The clocks lost their faces, allowing pigeons to take up residence in the clock tower, filling it with feces as hard as concrete.
The formerly grand and glittering building was disappearing grungily into the cityscape. The area around it was degraded as well, featuring acres of toxic waste at the edge of one of Toronto’s nicest neighbourhoods.
And a few years ago, a developer with a vision named Paul Oberman (no relation to my uncle of the same name) bought the property and, in partnership with their tenant, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), set off on a massive restoration project, bringing the history of the place back into the forefront of every visitor’s experience.
And in the process of restoration, Oberman and the LCBO staff heard a legend of a buried time capsule. One member of the staff, Summerhill manager Reg Garner, latched onto the idea, reminding everybody of the approach of the 100th anniversary, not allowing the search to fade.
The trouble, though, was that nobody was sure where the time capsule was actually buried. There was confusion over which cornerstone was “the” cornerstone. Many experts were engaged. Metal detectors were used to find the copper-boxed time capsule. Stone masons looked at how to remove a massive stone without affecting the integrity of the entire building. Finally, a photo was unearthed of the cornerstone-laying ceremony, allowing the team to be certain on which corner to focus their effort. Now the historic restoration team managing the project could get to work.
I spoke with one of the masons. This job was singular in his career. Usually, if he’s in the field (and he usually isn’t), removing stone is demolition, not Jenga. Usually, he carves stone, but this unusual job came to his new employer and all hands were on deck. The job required brute strength, as they were jackhammering and sawing through metal with handsaws, and it required delicate finesse, as everything needs to go back where it came from, looking perfect.
Paul Oberman has since died, and his wife Eve Lewis now runs the company that owns the building. Her easy manner and clear passion for the project spilled over into the unveiling. She bubbled over the podium as she stepped on and off, introducing the other speakers, who included an LCBO VP and City Councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam. Wong-Tam spoke of how important heritage preservation is in a city like ours where it’s not always been a priority. This day was clearly deeply meaningful to Lewis, and she made it very clear how much it would have meant to Oberman to have been a part of this moment that is very clearly part of his legacy to the city.
And this is how we live on. When our name is spoken, when we are remembered by the ones we love and who love us, when our life’s work is picked up and continued. We live on. And so, Oberman lives on in name and memory and in how he influenced the evolution of this place.
Because I live with cancer, I think a lot about legacy, about what it means to me and what I’ll leave behind. I can’t help but be especially reflective at the opening of a centenary time capsule. As each item is revealed, I think about the people, largely nameless now, who chose these items to send into the future, and why.
Burying a time capsule is an optimistic act. The very act of gathering together a cache of items and sending them into the future, counting on future generations not only to be able to find the capsule, but to be interested in the contents, is an act of hope. Arctic explorers used to bury caches in case they didn’t make it, letting the next explorers know where they’d been (especially if they were first), how winter had passed, and how they’d survived as long as they did. Last year, a Revolutionary-era time capsule was found at the Massachusetts State House dating to 1795 and credited to Samuel Adams and Paul Revere.
But not all time capsule hold so much significance to historians. And the contents often tell more about the individuals who pack each capsule than they do about society at large.
When I was in elementary school in the 80s, I think everybody was burying time capsules. We buried one at my elementary school, and we were all invited to write a letter to the future about how we lived and what we imagined the future would be like. I think I put in a drawing that borrowed heavily from The Jetsons. Can you imagine kids in this era of Snapchat and iProducts burying an earnest little time capsule? We may be done burying them, at least for now, but we’re not done finding them and digging them up.
This capsule was packed by railroad staff at the peak of their industry’s importance in Canada, and the contents reflect that.
First, there was a copy of each of the six (glory days indeed) newspapers that served Toronto in 1915. Every one’s headline related to The Great War. “Russians Defeat Teutons,” and “Zeppelin Airships Kill 20 and Injure 86.”
Then there was a whole bevy of annual reports, including the Chief Constable’s, the City of Toronto’s Receipts and Disbursements, CP Railway Co’s, and the Assessment Commissioner’s, valuing the entire city of Toronto around $2 million. Total.
A small, bound, red leather book’s cover reads: Municipal Handbook, City of Toronto, 1915. Likely some civility between those covers that’s missing today in city council.
Some good person with excellent handwriting took an index card and stuck one of each 1915 Canadian postage stamp. Another envelope, simply labeled “North Toronto” in the same hand, contained one of each Canadian coin of the era, including the $5 gold coin. Incidentally, the gold coin is the only one that isn’t tarnished, since the others are all silver.
A 1915 map showed a much smaller city, shorelines higher, suburbs tighter. I found myself zeroing in on my block, looking to see my street, where my house would have been fifteen years old. The city was starting to take its shape.
But the real treasure, the pieces that made us all gasp with wonder, were the original linen blueprints from the North Toronto Railway Station. Until today, I didn’t know why blueprints are so named. I had no idea that they were sheets of linen, painted blue, and engineers would scratch away their plans, painting extra colours on top to more completely illustrate their points.
In 1915, this is how grand stations were designed: scratched out of paint on big sheets of heavy fabric, then rendered in stone so old you can see the fossils.
So what is legacy? I think it’s the things we keep safe for the future. Our most precious ideas, the memories we’ve poured into objects, the hope that spills out when we try to carry it in too small a vessel, like our bodies, for instance.
And who are we leaving it for? The desire not to be forgotten is inherently selfish, but I don’t think legacy necessarily is. At its best, our legacy will cause joy to spill over, into the streets. Today, the murmuring crowd was enthralled by the delight of discovery.
And before they put back the cornerstone, a new time capsule will be packed and placed underneath. This time, it will be packed by the current tenants of the building, the LCBO, so it will include Henry of Pelham wine and Dillon’s craft gin, both from Ontario. And in 100 years, when we’re all gone, a new generation will gather round to see what we packaged up and saved for them to discover.
And time, so fluid, but usually only flowing one way, will eddy around their feet, tumbling on itself in joy.