A woodcut print of the Leonids meteor shower in 1833 by Mr. Pickering, an editor who witnessed the scene near Niagara Falls, New York

Today and yesterday have hit the 25 degree mark in Toronto.  Kids are going to school in shorts, and I’ve got forsythias blooming, green things growing, and serviceberries and viburnum about to burst into bloom.  And it’s March in Toronto.

I have been inspired by our unusually hot spring to find out about other years in our history that have had strange weather or natural occurences.  Here are a few – I’m sure there are more:

1780 – May 19th to be specific, also known as “New England’s Dark Day”.  The day became so dark that it is reported that candles were needed from noon onward, and the moon appeared red later that night.  For a few days beforehand the sun had also appeared red and the sky yellow.  Soot was seen in rivers and rain puddles.  It was extensively recorded in the more heavily populated areas of the north-eastern United States, and the Maritime provinces.  Some Christians believed it was the Day of Judgement, and Seventh-day Adventists in particular felt that it corresponded to the end-times prophecy in the Bible.  It is now believed, based on research into tree ring scarring, to have been caused by a massive forest fire encompassing the area around Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario.  This fire sent smoke into the upper atmosphere.  The “dark day” would likely have occurred in southern Ontario as well, but being much more sparsely populated at the time there are fewer records of this event.

1816 – “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”, “The Year with No Summer”, or “Poverty Year”.  Again, an event that seemed to be more heavily reported in New England, but was also known to affect areas of Quebec and the Maritime provinces.  I have been keeping my eyes open for a reference to this weather event in Upper Canada, but so far haven’t found anything.  It is believed to have been caused by the combination of a period of low solar activity and the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year.  The average global temperature dropped and the cold temperatures were particularly noticed in the northern hemisphere, where snow and frost occurred into the summer months and crop failures caused food shortages.  Apparently 30 cm. of snow was recorded in Quebec City in early June of 1816 and lake and river ice were seen in July and August into areas as far south as Pennsylvania.

1833 – “The Year the Stars Fell”. Caused by a Leonids meteor shower that was particularly strong and occurred from November 10th to 12th 1833, one estimate claims there were over 200,000 meteors per hour over the portion of North America east of the Rockies.  The event was particularly noted in the oral histories and winter counts of some aboriginal communities and African-American and African-Canadian communities.




University of Missouri-Columbia (2008, June 6). Mystery Of Infamous ‘New England Dark Day’ Solved By Tree Rings. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 22, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080606145620.htm


Image credit:

Woodcut print by Mr. Pickering (an editor who witnessed the scene near Niagara Falls, New York, according to Mechanics Magazine), date unknown.  In the public domain.  Retrieved through Wikimedia Commons.





Here I am, back again after a bit of a hiatus though the winter and March Break holidays.  If you are a regular reader you may have noticed that my postings have been less frequent in the past few months, due to an intense family schedule through the winter and fall.  Hopefully I’ll be able to post more often into the spring and next fall.

Today’s post is about fictional work of short stories, tied together by a few main characters and set in the west Toronto neighbourhood of Roncesvalles (High Park/Parkdale).  It is called “Copernicus Avenue” by Andrew J. Borkowski, and falls into the more recent past than the time period I normally cover on this blog.  The stories focus on Polish immigrants to Toronto in the years shortly after World War II.  Although it is classified as fiction, according to the author, many of the events described in Poland during the war and the sense of the Polish community in Toronto were based in fact.

``Copernicus Avenue`` by Andrew J. Borkowski, published by Cormorant Books

This is a good read that contributes a lot to the more recent history of Canada’s largest city.




As Valentine’s Day approaches, I thought I would share something I came across in an edition of The Peterborough Review published in late 1868 in Ontario. 

I came across these photos of the Hazelton bank robbery and they really stood out to me.  I immediately wanted to know the back story.

After the bank robbery and gunfight in New Hazelton, BC on Apr. 7, 1914

Hazelton, British Columbia is northwest of Prince George and is actually closer to the border with Alaska.  On November 12, 1913, as it was closing for the night, the New Hazelton Union Bank (which held money for the large payroll of the Grand Truck Pacific Railway) was robbed of about $18,ooo by four armed men.  A cashier at the bank was shot in the face during the hold-up, but survived his wounds.  The police held a search the next day for the armed robbers, but came up empty handed.

"New Hazelton, BC, Two wounded bandits, bank robbery"

Several months later, on April 7, 1914, seven armed men held up the same bank during daytime business hours.  The bank manager was able to shout for help and the townspeople, apparently lead by the Reverend (and veterinarian) Donald “Doc” McLean, leapt into action.  The men grabbed their rifles and began shooting – the women in town brought ammunition up to the men when they ran out.  Between 200 and 500 rounds were fired in a “wild west” style gunfight.

When the seven armed robbers tried to run for the woods, two were killed, one was fatally wounded, and another three were wounded enough to make them easy to catch.  The seventh man, with the stolen money of about $1,400, escaped.  The police located the bandits’ hideout, which provided enough evidence to convict the three prisoners (who it turned out were Russian).  They each spent 20 years in jail and were then deported to Russia.  The escaped robber, Dzachot Bekuzaroff, was tracked down in Prince George nine years later, sent to prison, and then deported.  The townspeople demanded and received a greater police presence in Hazelton.

A great writeup of this event by Tammy Lipke can be found at BCNorth.ca, in the Hiway16 Magazine.  Even more of a play-by-play account can be found in the piece by Cecil Clark in Outlaws & Lawmakers of Western Canada, Vol. 1.

"The first to fall", New Hazelton bank robbery and shoot-out, Apr. 7, 1914


Lipke, Tammy, New Hazelton Bank Robbery, Highway16 Magazine, BCNorth.ca

Clark, Cecil, “Shout-out at New Hazelton”, Outlaws & Lawmakers of Western Canada, Vol. 1.  Published 1983 by Heritage House Publishing Ltd., Surrey, B.C.

Image Credits:

Top photo of wounded men after New Hazelton bank robbery on Apr. 7, 1914 - photographer unknown, in the public domain because its copyright has expired, available through BC Archives #B-01386

Two wounded men in cart after bank robbery, Apr. 7, 1914 – photographer unknown, in the public domain because its copyright has expired, available throuh BC Archives #B-01393

“The first to fall”, Apr. 7, 1914 – photographer unknown, in the public domain because its copyright has expired, available through BC Archives #B-01392



I came across some mentions of Benedict Arnold’s ties to Canada last summer – he lived in New Brunswick for a few years and was granted land just north of Toronto.  I was intrigued because I had never thought of him as anything other than an American historical figure – for that matter I had never spend much time on American history or thought of the American Revolution as a Canadian conflict as well.

The caption under this picture of Benedict Arnold reads: “Colonel Arnold. Who Commanded the Provincial Troops against Quebec, through the Wilderness of Canada, and was Wounded in Storming that City, under General Montgomery. London, Published as the Act directs, 26 March, 1776 by Thos. Hart.”

Benedict Arnold is best known as a traitor to the Americans during the American War of Independence (or more accurately a double traitor – after turning against the British with fellow would-be Americans, he later turned against the Americans to return to the British).

Born in 1741 in Connecticut, he began his military career in the same way that George Washington and many other future Americans did: serving in the British army during the Seven Years’ War against the French.  When not involved in that conflict, he trained as an apothecary and later had a business trading goods between the West Indies and New England.  He had three sons with his first wife, Margaret Mansfield, and four sons and a daughter with his second wife, Peggy Shippen.  He also had an illegitimate son, John Sage Arnold, whom he recognized in his will and supported during his lifetime.  Reportedly a vain person who liked the finer things in life, he was often in debt.

When the American War of Independence began in 1775, Arnold supported the revolutionaries and called up a local militia that he marched to Cambridge,  Massachusetts.  Arnold proposed an attack on Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain (then held by the British) and was given a commission of colonel and the authorization to carry out the attack. Arnold and Ethan Allen arrived at Fort Ticonderoga in the early morning on May 10th while the British were still asleep, and walked into the fort and received their surrender.  From this point, they were able to capture Crown Point and Fort George (in present-day New York state) and raid Fort St. John’s at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec.  Arnold preferred to be the person in charge of whichever location or operation he found himself at, and multiple disputes arose between him and other officials throughout his time in the American military.

Later in 1775, Benedict Arnold helped to convince Congress that the time was ripe for a two-pronged attack on Quebec City. George Washington ordered Arnold to lead the portion of the attack that was to travel overland through Maine.  This was a disastrous march late in the year during which time the weather did not cooperate, food and supplies ran low, and smallpox struck his men.  Major-General John Schuyler had led the other portion of the Americans via Lake Champlain to Montreal, which the Americans captured.  In December 1775, Benedict Arnold’s remaining men, and roughly 300 men who were not needed for garrison duty at Montreal, combined with about 200 Canadian volunteers for a force of 1,200 men, and set about attacking Quebec City. Quebec was defended by roughly 1,800 men. The attack on Quebec was not successful, and Arnold was injured in his leg, but he kept up a bombardment and blockade of Quebec City throughout the early months of 1776.  He was made Brigadier General in January 1776 in recognition of his service at Quebec, and in April he was transferred back to Montreal, still held by the Americans.

While the Americans had originally assumed that the Canadians would leap to support the revolutionary cause once they were “liberated”, it became clear by the spring of 1776 that most Canadians preferred the British.  In late May a force of Indians, Canadians and British captured a garrison west of Montreal at Les Cèdres.  When the British received reinforcements in the form of British and German regulars, it became obvious that the Americans would have to abandon their effort to capture Quebec.  In June the Americans fled south.

"A View of Quebec from Grant's Wharf" by George Heriot around 1776, this picture shows Quebec City after attack by the Americans in the Battle of Quebec (1775).

Benedict Arnold was then given the task of building and leading a navy from the south end of Lake Champlain in the second half of 1776 – the British had recaptured Fort St. John in addition to Montreal and now wished to recapture the lake.  In 1777 Arnold helped the Americans in the British attack at Danbury, he defused an attack at Stillwater by spreading rumours about the size of the American forces, and he led an assault during the Saratoga campaign in which he was again injured in his leg.  He was one of the more notable war heroes for the Americans during the revolution… until he switched sides.

On the flip side, Arnold had to fight charges of misconduct and using his military office for private gain.  Initially cleared of these charges, a court martial subsequently found evidence against him and he was reprimanded.  His decision to assist the British seems to have come after he felt unappreciated by the Americans, and after having been married to his second wife for several years, whose family was believed to have Loyalist ties.  By mid-1779 he began sending intelligence to Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander-in-chief via letters sent through his wife’s circle of friends with codes and invisible ink worked into the letters.  In 1780 he requested command of West Point, which was granted by George Washington.

Benedict Arnold was on the verge of passing the fort at West Point (along the Hudson River) over to the British in exchange for a commission as Brigadier General in the British Army and the sum of £20,000.  On September 22, 1780, Arnold met with Major John André, Clinton’s aide-de-camp, a personable and popular young man.  On the return from a meeting with Arnold, John André was stopped by three men who found letters he was carrying in his boot that revealed Benedict Arnold’s treachery.  Getting word of André’s capture, Arnold was able to escape to the British.  André on the other had was held prisoner and ultimately hung – he had been captured in civilian clothes and was proclaimed to be a British spy.  His capture and public execution have been much described.  He was widely known as a tragic hero in the years that followed.  George III built a monument in André’s honour at Westminster Abbey in London where his monument is among those of such notables as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Jane Austen, and many royals.  Several decades after his death, his remains were moved from the site of his execution at Tappan, New York to Westminster Abbey.

A self-portrait drawn by John André on the eve of his execution, 1780.


Benedict Arnold, meanwhile, received the commission of Brigadier General with the British and despite not successfully transferring West Point to the British, was granted £6,315 and a yearly pension of £360.  He humbly wrote to George Washington to ask that his wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold, and infant child, be permitted to either join him in New York (the city was still held by the British) or go to her father’s house in Philadelphia.  Washington allowed them to travel to Philadelphia.  In December of 1781 Arnold and his family moved to England where his military career essentially came to an end.

In 1785 Arnold returned to Canadato start a business in Saint John, New Brunswick (with a partner) that imported goods from the West Indies, and his wife later joined him there.  Not surprisingly, he was not well regarded by most Canadians and his years in New Brunswick were turbulent. He lived in a large 2 ½ story wood house with three dormers in the gambrel-style roof.  It was at the corner of King and Canterbury streets, and his main place of business was at the corner of Charlotte and
Broad.  In 1788, his business’s store was destroyed by fire under suspicious circumstances, and several lawsuits ensued.  Arnold and his wife returned to England around 1791 or 92, never to return to Canada.

Nevertheless, in 1797 Arnold asked for 50,000 acres in land grants in Upper Canada.  John Graves Simcoe wrote to advise against it, pointing out that Arnold was “a character extremely obnoxious to the original Loyalists of America”. In 1798 Arnold was granted 13,400 acres and exempted from the normal condition that he live on the land himself.  In fact, Arnold himself never set foot on this land, but wanted it to pass on to his children. These land grants were in the townships of Gwillimbury East and Gwillimbury North in Simcoe County, Ontario.

Arnold spent his final years in England trying to build trading businesses with the West Indies.  He died in debt in London in 1801 and his widow had to sell many of the family assets to stay afloat, but the land in Upper Canada was left to Arnold’s children. As late as the time of the Ontario County Atlases, produced between 1874 and 1881, many lots north-west of Mount Albert and south-east of Keswick were labelled “Arnold Estate”.  For those not familiar with these towns, this area is north of Toronto and south of Lake Simcoe.  The Arnold family also held property in the Augusta Township and Grenville County areas of eastern Ontario, and in New Brunswick.  As a result, many Benedict Arnold descendants live in Canada, including a descendant in Saskatchewan who has inherited his military coat.


The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project online 

Dictionary of Canadian Biography online

Historical Narratives of Early Canada website, “Benedict Arnold & his foil, John André”

Saint John  New Brunswick website, “Famous Folks – ‘The Greatest Rascal That Ever Was’”

Westminster Abbey website, “History – Famous people and the abbey”

Wilson, Barry. “Benedict Arnold: a traitor in our midst” McGill-Queen’s Press, 2001.



Image credits: 

Benedict Arnold – published March 26, 1776 by Thomas Hart. In the public domain because its copyright has expired. Through Wikimedia Commons from the Anne S. K. Brown Collection at Brown University. 

Self-portrait of John André on the eve of his execution – by John André, 1780.  Original held by Yale University.  In the public domain because its copyright has expired.  

“View of Quebec from Grant’s Wharf” – by George Heriot, circa 1776.  In the public domain because its copyright has expired.  Available through Library and Archives Canada under reproduction reference number C-012744 and MIKAN ID number 2896381