Historicist: Worshipping in the Open Air
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Historicist: Worshipping in the Open Air

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
High Park Toboggan Runs, ca. 1906-1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 438.”
After a month and a half of acrimonious debate, on February 19, 1912, City Council passed a by-law outlawing tobogganing in public parks on Sundays. Many councillors took their cue from the Lord’s Day Alliance and similar organizations. They felt that the Sabbath was such a grave moral issue that public engagement in business, sporting activities, and other entertainments needed to be curtailed not only to encourage church-going but also to ensure workers had a day’s rest. The city’s labour movement, however, took exception to religious groups speaking for them and rallied to vigorously defend Sunday tobogganing. Despite a massive public outcry, however, the Sunday sledding ban was passed by a large majority at City Council with only Mayor George Reginald Geary and six aldermen dissenting. The controversy surrounding the issue reflected how, at the turn of the twentieth century, Toronto’s social and religious establishment felt under siege in the rapidly growing city by the forces of industrialization and immigration and by the growing strength of the labour movement.

High Park Toboggan Runs, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 441A.”
In the late Victorian era, an immigration-fuelled population boom dumped most newcomers and industrial workers into the city’s crowded, squalid slums. Reformers raised concerns that a lack of recreational opportunities for residents of these districts might breed disorder, vice, and delinquency. From the late 1890s, city-run recreational programs and leisure facilities became important public issues.
With the two hundred yard drop to the valley floor in Riverdale Park and the massive hill in the undeveloped wilderness of High Park, tobogganing had been a favoured winter pastime for Torontonians since private operators had begun running toboggan slides at both locations in the 1880s. By the turn of the century, overcrowding had raised concerns about safety. Even after lights were added when the city assumed responsibility for the toboggan slides in the winter of 1906, some reformers still questioned whether the city was doing enough. When, in 1907, thousands of resourceful kids began to use the slopes just west of Queen’s Park for sledding, they were chased away by University of Toronto officials. This prompted newspaperman and social reformer J.J. Kelso to call for an expansion of city-run free sliding facilities for children. In response to this and The Star‘s 1909 criticisms about safety at the park slides, the municipal government upgraded the slides and assigned police to supervise. As historian Gene Homel writes in his October 1981 article in the Urban History Review, by 1912 “Toronto now had a fancy new system of public tobogganing, and its residents flocked to the slides seven days a week.”
The Beginning of the Toboggan Run, High Park, ca. 1906-1910. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 439.”
In January 1912, the Ministerial Association took exception to the Sunday crowds on the snowy slopes and issued a proclamation condemning city officials for encouraging the desecration of the Sabbath by keeping the toboggan slides open. Initially, Mayor Geary and the Board of Control paid little notice, and the public continued to flock to the hills of Riverdale Park and High Park each week. But, as other religious and moral-reform organizations rushed to defend Toronto’s Christian morality, City Council couldn’t ignore the barrage of petitions they received demanding that the slides be closed on the Lord’s Day.
Sabbatarianism was a well-established political force in Toronto. Based on the notion that, in a Christian society, all people needed one day of rest for their moral and spiritual well-being, Sabbatarianism had gained strength as a movement in the 1880s with the establishment of national church organizations and the Lord’s Day Alliance. On a national level, they’d succeeded in petitioning the federal government to pass the Lord’s Day Act in 1906, which prevented all non-essential and non-charitable Sunday activity. Locally, the Sabbatarians had led a long, protracted fight in the 1890s against allowing streetcars to run on Sundays, as recounted in Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles’s The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company (Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1977). With the support of the working class, the Sabbatarians won civic plebiscites on the streetcar issue in 1892 and 1893. But eventually labour leaders defected because, although a few people might now have to work, Sunday service presented the best opportunity for workingmen and their families to escape their unhygienic and over-crowded neighbourhoods for healthy recreation in the parks and suburbs. In a close referendum vote in 1897, streetcars were finally allowed to run on Sundays.
GroupOfSleddersf1244_it0478a.jpgOn the issue of Sunday sledding in 1912, labour and religious groups once again fell into opposing camps. In a January 16 deputation before the Board of Control, Presbyterian clergyman W.H. Rochester expressed the genuine religious sentiment fuelling the Sabbatarian cause. He argued that “the city is secularizing the day and the city enters into direct competition with the church, the Sunday school and the home.” He also argued that the sledding could lead to commercial activities and therefore the seven day work week that some of Toronto’s larger industries desired. An almost unspoken undercurrent to the Sabbatarian argument, however, was the desire for moral and social control. Newcomers, some felt, needed to be acculturated into developing proper Sabbath habits. Toronto’s blue laws, Armstrong and Nelles argue, provided an institutional means for controlling immigrants, workers, and other “unruly elements in the community.”
The case in favour of Sunday tobogganing was made before the Board of Control on the same day by prominent labour leader J.D. O’Donoghue. Sunday, the labour argument went, was the only day that workingmen could actually make use of toboggan slides in city parks. Closures would therefore be unfair and harmful for the very group who most required healthy recreational activity. More importantly, union leaders were incisively critical of the hypocrisy of the Sabbatarian position—an indication of the deepening schism between twentieth century labour and moral reformers—whereby the religious folk invoked working men’s interests for their cause but thought nothing of engaging their own chauffeurs in Sunday work. The critiques of labour advocates towards Sabbatarians could therefore take a pretty biting tone. Phillips Thompson, a radical, called for workers to unite against “a few noisy fanatics…of this priest and parson-ridden city.” A supportive newspaper opined that Sabbatarians had “just enough religion to miss all the fun in this world and get a lot of painful surprises in the next.” Union leader L.H. Gibbons was more articulate. He argued that recreation and religion need not be in conflict because people “can worship in the open air or anywhere, as well as inside the four walls of a church.”
High Park Toboggan Runs, ca. 1908-1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 440.”
Newspapers were filled with letters supporting Sunday sledding. The Star reiterated that the safety of sledders was cause enough to keep the slides open because the by-law might drive winter enthusiasts from the specially designed slopes to more dangerous ravines and hills. Even business interests ardently opposed a prohibition on tobogganing—albeit because they didn’t want to deepen class cleavages by antagonizing those who worked in their factories and workshops. Business leaders, according to a petition published in the papers, even recognized that the proposed prohibition was merely discriminatory “class legislation.” While those against the Sabbatarian proposal were probably more numerous and agitated than during the streetcar debates, Homel argues, they weren’t as united and lacked the organization and institutional weight of the church groups. Nor was there a single corporate entity, like the Street Railway Company, backing the opposition as there had been in 1897.
And so where the debate mattered most—in the council chamber—Sabbatarian-influenced councillors were not swayed by the popular outcry. One of the few dissenters, Alderman Samuel McBride twice failed in his attempt to have the city hold a plebiscite on the issue. On February 19, the new by-law was passed. It stated: “No person shall on the Sabbath in any public park, square, garden or place for exhibition in the City, slide upon or use any of the public slides constructed or maintained by the Corporation.” Ironically, ever-resourceful Torontonians simply shifted their winter recreational activities to comply with the law. Rather than tobogganing, each Sunday thousands simply availed themselves of Grenadier Pond in High Park and the city’s other skating rinks—which had grown in number from one or two in 1890 to over thirty in 1912.
Observance of the Sabbath remained so strong throughout the 1930s and 1940s—although restrictions were slowly diluted to allow the opening of the museum and art gallery—that the quirks of Toronto’s notorious blue laws required repeated explanation in guidebooks. Organized games, team sports, and tobogganing in city parks continued to be banned on Sunday. Even after the park slides were phased out of existence in the 1940s and 1950s, the edict against tobogganing remained on the books until December 1961.
Image of Group on Toboggan, ca. 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 478A.”