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Toronto Urban Legends: A High Park Imponderable

Is Grenadier Pond named for British grenadiers who drowned there during the War of 1812? Or is there a more likely explanation?

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/44782411@N05/"}tcmrubberneck{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

The only thing murkier than the supposedly bottomless depths of High Park’s Grenadier Pond is the origin of the pond’s name. From drowned foot soldiers to pranksters frightening the bejesus out of the city, stories concerning the pond’s moniker abound.

Further muddying the waters, we outline a filet-o-fishy explanation of our own.

The 35-acre pond is a one-of-a-kind geological feature in Toronto. Wave action on Lake Ontario combined with sediments that washed down Wendigo Creek accumulated over the ages at the creek’s mouth, eventually blocking the watercourse and creating Grenadier Pond behind it. A fuller explanation of its formation can be found here.

The notion of a build-up of sediment explains the pond’s muddy base. Grenadier Pond isn’t as bottomless as it’s said to be. It’s just really, really mucky.

There are a number of urban legends about how Grenadier Pond came to be named. The version with the most traction concerns the watery demise of an unspecified number of grenadiers attached to the Eighth Regiment of Foot, based at Fort York during the War of 1812.

The story goes that during the Battle of York in 1813, while in hot pursuit of retreating American troops, several members of the regiment broke through the icy surface of Grenadier Pond and drowned.

There really was a charge across a frozen surface involving grenadiers from the Eighth, but it occurred months earlier and hundreds of kilometres away.

Known as the Leather Hats, the Eighth, a regiment of the British army, was established in 1685. During the War of 1812, its first large-scale engagement with American forces occurred in February 1813, at Ogdensberg, New York. Braving a fierce snowstorm, the grenadiers led a successful charge across the frozen St. Lawrence River, capturing the upstate New York village.

Fast forward two months. After US forces initiated the Battle of York, the Leather Hats were among the first troops American soldiers encountered. Unlike at Ogdensberg, the conflict at York didn’t go well for the Eighth. They were outnumbered. Their feeble bayonet charge was soundly defeated.

No records from the battle indicate that a single one of the Eighth’s grenadiers drowned at Grenadier Pond. The battle in question happened well into spring, so it’s possible the pond wasn’t even frozen at the time. Even more damning for the drowning-grenadier theory is the fact that the Battle of York happened years after records indicate that Grenadier Pond got its name.

Another possibility is that Grenadier Pond was named in honour of soldiers who frequented High Park. Fort York militia, grenadiers among them, often fished the pond’s waters.

Come wintertime, soldiers enjoyed skating on the pond, as did the rest of the local population. For a time, ice pageants were a common occurrence at High Park. According to a January 31, 1936, article in the Toronto Daily Star, the highlight of an ice show during the winter of 1800 was the on-ice appearance of 18 Royal Grenadiers sporting scarlet jackets and bearskin busbies. The regiment reportedly executed a series of drills and manoeuvres while on skates.

If no grenadiers ever drowned in the pond, what explains reports of ghostly sightings in the area? They could be the result of a prank gone awry. A prominent page-two story from an April 22, 1913, edition of the Toronto Daily Star said police had been alerted to the existence of a phantom arising nightly from the pond’s swampy depths.

April Fool’s was three weeks past. This was serious reportage.

Several eyewitnesses claimed the phantasm appeared first as a gathering mist, then coalesced into a towering figure mounted upon a white nag. Some swore they heard nighttime groaning around High Park. Others observed the apparition passing unimpeded through solid objects. Two weeks later, a follow-up story buried on page nine reported several pranksters armed with flashlights had been discovered to be the cause of the haunting.

Considering the dearth of information (neither Friends Of Fort York, nor Heritage Toronto, nor the Swansea Historical Society could provide an explanation of where the pond got its name), we propose a theory of our own.

Besides being the given name of grenade-toting foot soldiers, a grenadier is also a kind of fish. Unfamiliar with the type? Think Filet-o-Fish.

With its bulbous head and tapered body, the gilled version of the grenadier resembles the outline of the west-end pond.

Coincidentally, the smaller West Pond, adjacent to Grenadier Pond, is refereed to as Catfish Pond, which is another bottom-dwelling fish.

Admittedly, we’re casting a wide net, but if you’re willing to be reeled in by ghosts of grenadiers past, why not consider our fishy version of how Grenadier Pond came to be named?

Additional material from the Toronto Star, April 22, 1913. Side photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives.

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