Toronto Urban Legends: Tunnel Visions
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Toronto Urban Legends: Tunnel Visions

Is there really a tunnel leading from Fort York to the Wheat Sheaf Tavern?

The truth behind the tales people tell about Toronto.

The Wheat Sheaf Tavern has been a favorite watering hole since 1849. {a href=""}Photo by enedkl{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

For enlisted men based at Toronto’s Fort York back in the 1800s, nothing could be better than stealing away for a night of carousing at a local public house after an arduous day on the parade square. Under the watchful eyes of their commanding officers, and posted as they were in a backwoods town like Muddy York, such an expedition would have been all but impossible, right?

A secret tunnel that could spirit soldiers away to a nearby watering hole sure would have come in handy.

A rumour persists that soldiers billeted at Fort York burrowed a half kilometre north, surfacing inside the basement of the Wheat Sheaf Tavern, all without raising the suspicion of military keepers, citizens, or town fathers.

Did this actually occur? Not likely. There is, however, a more plausible theory that’s even more adventurous.

The Wheat Sheaf has been pouring pints since 1849, making it the city’s oldest pub. According to co-owner Maria Tsakiris, the legend of the tunnel has been around for at least 50 years. Patrons are continually inquiring about its existence. Though there have been some spirited discussions about the reality of the subterranean booze tube, Tsakiris confirms that no physical evidence of the tunnel exists on the premises today.

Waitstaff confided that among pub employees, there are whispers that at one time the tunnel was accessible through a basement storage area that currently houses the women’s bathroom. A little ironic, considering females were prevented from entering the Sheaf for its first 120 years of operation. Women were first allowed inside in 1969.

After some coaxing, Torontoist was granted access to the lady’s loo. Tapping walls proved futile. If a portal did exist, it is now well hidden behind mirrors and ceramic tile.

The basement women's bathroom at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern. Photo by Edward Brown/Torontoist.

Exploring the mythical tunnel’s southern entry point proved inconclusive, as well. Stephen Otto, co-chair of the Friends Of Fort York, explained that his organization is aware of the fabled tunnel. To date, archeological digs and extensive renovations on the grounds have turned up nothing resembling a beer-run passageway.

Otto has heard of only one Fort York tunnel. It was built during an incident he says took place early in the 20th century. Apparently, miscreants attempted to penetrate the munitions cache by burrowing under one of the fort’s ramparts. Authorities apprehended the culprits before the situation became explosive.

The tunnel theory began to seem even less believable when Otto explained that soldiers were actually provided with a daily ration of beer and spirits. As well, Dylan’s Tavern, a popular drinking house, was located a bottle cap’s throw from the barracks, at what is now Front and Bathurst Streets. Considering this, if soldiers had the mind to tunnel, why not just prairie dog it to Dylan’s Tavern? Less tunnel time equals more time for rabble rousing.

After the British established New Fort York in 1841 (later known as Stanley Barracks) on the present-day grounds of Exhibition Place, the original Fort York—the one in the shadow of the Gardiner Expressway—had little military usefulness.

(Proving how malleable an urban legend can be, a version of the story has soldiers tunnelling from Stanley Barracks to the Sheaf, a distance of nearly two kilometres! The redcoats would have been mighty thirsty after a dig like that.)

As for Muddy York’s unblemished reputation, the truth is it wasn’t so wholesome. True, the temperance movement was alive and well, but imbibing among soldiers was the norm, as was the presence of prostitution at the garrison’s gate. In Historic Fort York 1793–1993 author Carl Benn tells how soldiers from the Rifle Brigade ambushed constables sent to arrest prostitutes plying their trade on garrison commons.

Burrowing hundreds of metres would have been an engineering marvel. Depending on when the tunnel was completed, the soldiers would have needed to breach at least one rail bed. Geography also worked against such an endeavour. Tunnelling to the Wheat Sheaf would have necessitated excavating underneath Garrison Creek.

And herein is a possible explanation for the Fort York–Wheat Sheaf express. At eight kilometres in length, Garrison Creek once flowed into Lake Ontario just east of original Fort York. (Back then, the shoreline was much closer to the fort.) Beginning in the 1880s, the watercourse was diverted into sewers. Encased underground, a rivulet known as Fort Reach would have been easily accessible to adventurous soldiers.

Hypothetically, soldiers could have entered this particular sewer and trekked north underground, resurfacing a few paces west of the Wheat Sheaf at Walnut Avenue and King Street.

So what if the stench of sewage clung to their wool tunics? A night on the town in ’ol Muddy York may have required some sacrifice.