A brief history of the bone-chilling cold snaps of Toronto’s past

January 6th, 2018

© Provided by Toronto Star A tank rolls through downtown Toronto streets after mayor Mel Lastman called in the army to help with snow removal after an overnight snowstorm on Jan. 14, 1999.

Torontonians love complaining about the cold. It seems as though the weather is almost all we talk about during the winter. These past few weeks have been bitterly cold, a number of alerts about extreme cold weather have been issued and temperature records have been shattered. But this winter isn’t the only one where Mother Nature has given Toronto the cold shoulder.

Headlines today about record-setting temperatures are quite similar to those in 1917. The Toronto Star ran the headline “Mercury hits 17 below, colder yet is probable” and it was reported on Dec. 29 that the “official weather gauge at the Observatory” recorded -17 C which was the coldest day since Jan. 13, 1914 when it was -22 C.

On Feb. 5, 1918, the Star reported that the thermometer read -20 C, but some parts of Toronto felt closer to -30 C. Railway officials said trains were up to 12 hours delayed and warned that other trips might be cancelled if the weather didn’t let up. Coal was being delivered to residences until the emergency supply ran out. “With the thermometer still abnormally low, many Toronto citizens are without coal. Rich and poor alike are suffering,” reported the Star.

It was as cold as -20 C in the Toronto area and -34 C near Peterborough on Dec. 3 1976. The Star reported that the cab and transit companies were in favour of the chill because they received more business customers who didn’t want to walk outside. A TTC control officer told the Star that a greater number of people took the transit system because their cars didn’t start. It was reported that stalled vehicles “lined main highways” causing drivers to wait at least two hours for help from the Ontario Motor League.

Almost a month later, the Star ran the headline, “Don’t complain — it was five degrees colder in 1857.” It was -23 C and Torontonians were expecting five to 10 centimetres of snow, bringing the total to over 100 centimetres with about two more months of winter to go. The Star reported that at the lowest temperature ever recorded in Toronto was -33C on Jan. 10, 1859.

While there were some TTC mishaps the year prior due to the cold, nothing was quite like 1981 when 16 people fainted on a packed subway when it froze in its tracks. People waited pushed up against each other for over an hour and the paramedics said the fainters experienced “hysteria and claustrophobia.” Other frozen subway cars caused major delays. “Call this the rush hour?” said one angry commuter to the Star, “I call it the crush hour.”

Two years later, the Star’s Kathy English wrote on Dec. 20, 1983 that the temperature dropped to -18 C which was tied with the lowest temperature recorded on Jan. 18 when TTC overhead wires froze and snapped. English reported that the Ontario Motor League received more than 2,000 calls for stalled vehicles, which, at the time, was a total twice the size for an average winter’s day.

At -30C, the coldest day was Jan. 18, 1976. The Star’s Harold Levy compared that record to the slightly warmer – 24.6C that January 1997. Levy reported that in 1996, it was a balmy 12 C. He said so far that year, one person had died from weather-related injuries and one person had to have limbs amputated and another a foot removed due to frost bite. The Canadian Automobile Association received about 6,000 calls in a day, about double the average as motorists slid on black ice or couldn’t get their car started.

Ah, 2015 . . . . The Star ran the headline “Entering the deep freeze” on the first page of the GTA section along with a photo of a man walking in Humber Bay Park on Jan. 8. It was Toronto’s coldest day so far that winter at – 30 C with the wind chill.

Now another record has been set for the coldest Jan. 5 in Toronto at -22 C in 2018.

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