Bloor Street Viaduct bridges history, culture, life and death

The Bloor Street Viaduct has had a tumultuous and tragic past during its 90-year life span.

Constructed in 1918 to facilitate mass transit in the growing city, the Viaduct was officially named for Prince Edward VIII. Over the next 85 years, the 494 metre long steel and concrete arch bridge gained notoriety for over 480 deaths by suicide – second only to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge as the most prominent location for suicide worldwide.

The death of Maple Leaf Gardens molestation victim Martin Kruze prompted renewed calls from mental health advocates for a suicide barrier.  The Luminous Veil changed the landscape of the Don Valley skyline and halted the record number of deaths upon its construction in 2003.

The Viaduct’s historical significance plays a prominent role in musical and literary influence as well. The landmark is featured in film and television, is referenced in songs by Bruce Cockburn and the Barenaked Ladies, and figures prominently in author Michael Ondaatje’s renowned novel “In the Skin of a Lion.”

The book is a fictionalized account of the lives of immigrant labourers who constructed many of Toronto’s landmarks in the early 20th century. Project Bookmark Canada selected a passage from the novel for their inaugural plaque, which was unveiled at the east end of the Viaduct on April 24.

Founded by Miranda Hill, wife of author Lawrence Hill, Project Bookmark Canada recognizes the ‘architexture’ of Canadian locations featured prominently in Canadian literature. “If you want to really experience a place,” Hill said, “you should really read the stories and the poems that are set there.”

City of Toronto Mayor David Miller showed support for the project, which coincides with the city’s two-month Lit City event. He revisited the bridge’s literary history and the commended the imagination of the builders who planned for mass urban transit over half a century before Toronto’s subway system was realized.

“Project Bookmark Canada is an extraordinary way to commemorate not just our authors but our public places.” Miller said. “What Mr. Ondaatje said in his book is that before a city can be seen it has to be imagined.”

Michael Ondaatje recounted his struggles when researching the immigrant workers who built the viaduct, and his controversial decision to use the names of real people for their fictionalized counterparts.

He said financial information and benefactors were prominent in the media, but the names of the workers involved in construction were found only at the Multicultural History Society.

“Ideally I would love to have this bridge named after him,” Ondaatje said of his character, and real-life Macedonian bridge builder, Nicholas Temelcoff. “I’m very glad that, because of this plaque, his name is somewhere on this bridge at last.”

Filed by Lara Willis

One comment:

  1. According to Toronto historian Mike Filey, Prince Edward crossed the bridge, but never even stopped, much less attended a ceremony naming the bridge in his honor. Yet such was Toronto’s British obsession that it named it for him anyway. Ninety years later, we have yet to become independent. No Canadians appear on our coins, all laws are passed in the name of an overseas monarch, new citizens must swear allegiance to a non-Canadian queen or king; we don’t have a Canadian as our head of state, and our Maple Leaf flag gets bumped off the Peace Tower anytime a royal or his or her representative is near. It’s time to grow up!

    I urge a moratorium on using British royal symbols and images on any of our stamps and coins, and the same for royal names on OUR buildings, parks, monuments, etc. Ultimately, I hope we finally become wholly Canadian, and soon. Prince Edward viaduct? Hah!

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