Growing up in Sudbury's Ramsey Lake District - Part 2

28 March 2021

The following anecdotal recollections of growing up in the Ramsey Lake district of Sudbury, Ontario in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s may conjure up other memories for others who shared these experiences. Sudbury and area had a population of around 80,000 people at that time spread over neighbourhoods which extended from the Blezard Valley to the north, Levack to the northwest, Lively and Naughton to the west, Coniston and Wahnipitae to the east and Richard Lake to the south.

The make-up of the neighbourhoods were very different across the city but the one thing that pretty well tied things together were the impacts of the two nickel company giants – Inco and Falconbridge. The companies had almost 17,000 direct employees at that time.

The barren and blackened rock hills were outcropped right across the city and I imagine just about every kid had his turn in those wide open playgrounds. Ramsey Lake was another common destination for just about everyone who lived in the city at that time. For most of our lives growing up, our family was very close to the center of the popular migration of residents to the Lake.

Note: I have pulled various photos from various websites to weave into my story – a big thank you to all who have preserved these memorable photos and posted on-line for the enjoyment of others

Growing up in Sudbury's Ramsey Lake District - Late 1950's / Early 1960's - Part 2

My parents hit the end of the road in late 1959 operating the Gas Station and Diner at the west end of Ramsey Lake. The INCO strike had created financial hardship throughout the city plus the workload of long operating hours – seven days a week, my Dad having a full-time regular job at the CPR, and the burden of raising six young children put the task over the top despite a valiant effort.

When I was born in 1952, the family lived with my Grandmother on John Street just a two minute walk up from the north-shore of Ramsey Lake. Shortly after I was born, my Aunt and Uncle, who were also living in the house, had a daughter and my Mother had another on the way on top of 4 boys already so I guess it was time to move out from the nest.

My parents did not have a lot of money so to afford a house big enough for the growing family, they purchased a place on what was then called McFarlane Lake Road (now Regent Street). The house is still standing annexed behind what was Starlite Cleaners for many years. From the rock cut at Gloria’s Restaurant there were only 4 houses on that side of the road for the distance up to what was then the new single story Caswell Motor Hotel. Next door became Pitt’s House of Treasures for decades after we moved away and the “tar-paper shack”, as we called it, on the other side of our house was soon torn down to make way for “Motel 69” before it became a Pub years later.

This area of Lockerby was on the frontiers of Sudbury in the mid 1950’s – a large Finnish settlement had been previously developed between our place and Trout Lake (Lake Nepahwin) and I clearly recall the one quarter mile running track for the Finnish athletic club located behind the Caswell. Other than this settlement, the Caswell and sparse houses dotted along McFarlane Lake Road, there was not much going on. The lots weren’t serviced and I remember we would run inside the house when the “poop peddler” came by to pump out the septic tanks in the neighbourhood – it wasn’t a pleasant odour for a kid!

My Dad had grown up on Cartier Street and John Street so I guess he must have wished to be closer to Ramsey Lake, my Grandmother and to improve the financial position of the family, so the purchase of the business at the west end of Ramsey Lake seemed like an upgrade at the time. After the failure of that venture we moved to Nelson Street adjacent to the Old Iron Bridge – only a 300 meter walk down to Ramsey Lake.

This location was a magic place back in the day. Traffic from the south, including Highway 69 from Toronto, all came through along Paris Street from the 4-Corners, turn on John Street and then take Nelson Street to Elgin Street. After heading downtown traffic turned onto Durham before heading to East or West Highway 17 at Elm Street. Thousands of cars passed by every day and most stopped at the traffic lights at the north end of the Bridge.

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Vintage pic of the south end of the Old Iron Bridge – walkway on the left heading towards Elgin Street – the steel railing on the walkway seemed to be a magnet for kids’ tongues in the winter and I can confirm that it would stick tenaciously when frosty.

There was a commercial strip on upper Elgin St. at the Bridge, all of which buildings still stand today. There was the White Rose Gas Station on the corner, Tammi’s Confectionary (and diner) next to that, then Elgin Lunch restaurant (who can forget the Chips and Gravy there!) and finally Christakos Groceteria.

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The White Rose Gas Station at the iron Bridge – Tammi’s was in the two story brick building behind – you couldn’t walk in the lane behind the station as it was thick with spilled oil and grime.

All of the establishments were very busy through the early 1960’s with the high volume of through traffic. Those were the days of splashy finned and brightly coloured automobiles from the mid to late fifties and we used to relish sitting on our front stoop watching all the cars – being able to identify all the makes and models. Saturdays were the best with a long continuous procession of vehicles heading back and forth to Ramsey Lake and Bell Park – every weekend seemed like a carnival of activity.

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Typical of the splashy cars of the day passing across the Old Iron Bridge was the 1959 Edsel – this model on the right is exactly the same as the one my parents bought used in 1961 – a 4 door blue hardtop. It had already started to rust and it didn’t last very long but my Dad loved that car – it had a lot of power and I recall him doing 100 miles per hour along the 13 mile straight stretch near Sturgeon Falls – we were coming back from ice fishing on Lake Nipissing and my Dad had driven all the way across that huge Lake in the Edsel.

Nelson Street at the Bridge had all the amenities that a family needed very close by, plus my Dad could walk to work down the hill to the CPR station. We kids could enjoy everything from watching the bridge traffic, taking the short walk to the lake, playing up in “the Rocks” at the end of Nelson Street, or playing softball up at the Grotto (“the Field” as we called it) – all within a very short distance.

Nick and Soc (Socrates) Christakos teamed up to run their legendary family grocery store on the Elgin Strip and they were very kind to us kids and my Mother. They ran a credit slip for my Mom so we didn’t need cash to run over and grab grocery items and my Mom would settle up when she had the funds in hand – no credit cards in those days. We would get all the poor family staples there: “Multi-milk” (mix two parts water to one par multi-milk –gross!, but better than the powdered skim milk!); white bagged margarine with the red dot that “needed” to be “kneaded” to make it yellow; bags of Leinala’s Bakery dry cinnamon toast; and of course the main culprits – bags of puffed wheat, shredded wheat and porridge.

Pete McLaughlin at Tammi’s was also a very nice man who would greet us cheerily when we came by to get a snack or some grocery items when the grocery store was closed. Tammie’s had a classic lunch bar with a grill and they used to open early in the morning and close late.

The Sudbury train yard was one of the busiest on the mainline being the location where the Toronto and Montreal tracks met. I certainly recall the constant “trill” sound of the diesel engines and the banging of railway cars together all day and night as diesels worked the yard connecting and disconnecting cars so they could be shuttled into a train to head east or west. We became so accustomed to the sounds from under the Iron Bridge that we didn’t even notice.

Another Sudbury fixture that we became accustomed to was the Sulphur Dioxide gas that permeated every part of your life in those days. You didn’t notice it so much most days however when certain atmospheric conditions prevailed you could taste it and it would get into your lungs - you could feel the acrid heaviness as you breathed. For years Sudbury’s landscape icon was the three stacks at the Inco Smelter – these lower elevation stacks belched the SO2 “acid rain” out onto the city for decades before the Superstack was built in the1970’s to send the gas higher into the atmosphere.

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The iconic three low level Inco Smoke Stacks were the subject of this 1960’s Postcard – note the SO2 belching out over the city.

We spent a lot of time in the summer up in the rocks and playing ball at the field. Both locations were right in the core of the Grotto area at which installations had been initiated in 1907 by a French Lord with the construction of the rock cairn around a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was then upgraded in the early 50’s with the 10 Stations of the Cross, the amphitheater stairs and pavilion down on Lourdes Street, and an additional kneeling statue in front of the original Virgin Mary. When we lived on Nelson Street, the entire area was in a sad state of neglect – the crushed slag road around the Stations of the Cross accessed off Van Horne Street, was not passable by vehicle and very few people visited “the Statues” as we called them in that era.

Behind the main Crucifix statue, there was a small pond which we imaginatively called “the Pond”. If you looked closely, on occasion you could see a catfish swimming around plus there were all sorts of frogs and other species which we would catch and release - including pollywogs in season. We spent many hours poking around the pond and playing in the slag which was spread all over the hill top.

Mostly though we played softball at “the Field” – kids would come from all over the neighbourhood once a game started up – even from as far as Minto and Drinkwater Street down the hill. The field was actually a sand covered parking lot/standing room for the amphitheater and was seldom used in those days before the school building was constructed years later – blocking off the little trail down to Nelson St.

We would start playing “scrub” and reorganize into teams if enough guys came along. A good hit along the sand field would carry all the way to “the Apartment Buildings” on Lourdes. We would play all day without eating or drinking anything and once my Dad had to come up at dusk to retrieve us as my Mom was worried that she hadn’t seen us since early morning – he wasn’t happy! We should have all made the major leagues with all the time well spent playing at the Grotto.

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The Pavillion at the Grotto on Lourdes St. – 1960 – “the Field” in the foreground. Note the small kneeling statue in lower left of the Virgin Mary cairn.

We would make our way around the surrounding neighborhoods and I was always surprised at the number of corner stores that all seemed to make a go of it. The Elgin strip was busy being on the main drag but there was also Black’s on Morris and Annie, Orange’s and Wright’s right across the street from each other on lower Elgin and Shaughnessy, another couple of stores on Van Horne – one at Shaughnessy and one just above Drinkwater, then there was all the stores across the Bridge including McCrae’s at Nelson and John Street corner. The stores were also the family dwelling so I guessed they must have just scraped by with low overhead despite the competitive market.

My Dad as mentioned grew up on Cartier St when he was young just around the corner from Burgess Bakery at the east end of Van Horne. He was friends with one of the Burgess boys and even worked part time in the bakery before he headed off to join the Navy in WWII. The bakery was just heading into decline when we lived there but you could still buy a loaf of bread on-site. It was sad to see the end of this enterprise as it was pretty cool to have a full scale bakery in the hood.

My older brother Jimmy got a Sudbury Star paper route which started at the Bakery and extended all the way along Van Horne past Prince Charles School down the hill to Drinkwater. A total ethnic mix of people lived along the route and you could smell many types of cooking while delivering the local rag.

I remember helping him some days and especially on “collection day”. We would always be nervous when collecting from Mr. Lawson’s house. Mr. Lawson had been the Principal of Central Public School when my Dad was growing up. Dad told us that once Mr. Lawson had cuffed him across the head with a roll of nickels in his fist. My Dad’s crime was making the mistake of using a bad colloquialism by calling “hey youse guys” to his friends while Lawson was within cuffing range. Use of good grammar was an expectation in and around the hallowed halls of learning back in the 1930’s. We were always wary of that roll of nickels, however Mr. Lawson had still been the Principal of Central School when my Mom taught there as a young woman in the late 30’s and 40’s – he had a lot of respect for Mom and as a result he was always very kind to us and even tipped Jimmy pretty well sometimes.

The treat at the end of the paper route collection adventure was stopping at one of the aforementioned stores and picking up a bag of Hostess potato chips to share with the extra money. The hockey coin inside was the big deal and we always hoped to not get a “trader”. It appeared that this particular store on lower Van Horne was overstocked with Jean Guy Talbot coins as we seemed to get an inordinate number of his hockey coins much to our disappointment when opening the foil bag of chips – a Terry Sawchuk would have been nice.

Some of our friends had the Shields that you could push your hockey coins into and mount on the wall – one shield for each team. One kid even had the whole set with all six teams – what a sight to see!. I wonder what that would be worth now?

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1960 Hockey Coins – my fave Terry Sawchuk lower left.

The quest for hockey coins carried over into trying to get Mom to buy Jello to get the coins. What I recall is that there were two kinds of jelly dessert options at the that time – there was Jell-O that was premixed that you could eat out of the box by wetting your finger with spit and sticking it in the box (like Lik-m-Aid packets) with no hockey coin, or the kind with the hockey coin Shirriff, which had the awful tasting plain gelatin crystals in the box. This brand had the hard “flavour bud” separate that needed to be dissolved with boiling water to get the sugar and fruit taste. That was the conflict that I recall – getting a hockey coin brand weighed against being able to get a few tastes on your finger before the mixing occurred (hopefully the boiling water killed all the finger germs!).

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Early 1960’s “Lik-m-Aid” packets – there’s no way you poured the packet into your mouth like this elf – it was wet finger dipping all the way!

The CPR tracks came into downtown Sudbury from the east along the north shore of Ramsey Lake and under the Iron Bridge to the main switching yard, which was a great source of adventure for kids. Dad always warned us to take care and stay off the tracks but sometimes we would “hike” down Morris St. to Jeanne d’Arc to pick blueberries or gather acorns at one of the few oak trees (bushes) in Sudbury back in the day. There were also quite a few young maple trees there which still had smooth bark which were great for licking the sap right off the tree in the spring. We would sometimes return along the tracks just for some adventure.

One time we gathered rock samples on the track bed which we were certain had flecks of gold in them. We filled our pockets with the ore chunks and couldn’t wait to show Dad as he was quite knowledgeable about prospecting. He even had a “Geiger Counter” which he used to prospect for Uranium which was in high demand during those early stages of the Cold War (world affairs were tense in the early 60’s and I remember when the “air raid siren” tower was erected on the hill above directly Prince Charles School which was followed by drills where you had to curl up under your desk when the siren went off).

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Late 1950’s Geiger Counter – an expensive piece of equipment (I think my Dad paid $1,000 in 1958 – his life’s savings) but the US government was offering a $10,000 reward at that time for anyone discovering a significant deposit of Uranium. In the day they even made toy Geiger Counters for kids?

We looked forward to Dad’s confirmation that our family was now going to be rich thanks to our efforts and keen observations. Unfortunately we got a Mr. Lawson style head cuff; for (a) walking along the tracks and (b) for touching anything off the slag rail bed and railway ties – we weren’t aware then that the toilets from the passenger trains emptied straight out onto the tracks. Dad made sure that there was no doubt in our minds about not touching anything along the tracks again. We were also disappointed with Dad’s immediate observation of our find being Chalcopyrite (Fool’s Gold) – but we learned a couple of unforgettable lessons that day.

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Fool’s Gold (Chalcopyrite)

Although we were supposed to avoid the tracks, we spent hours standing up on the Iron Bridge watching my Dad when he would be on day shift. He would shuttle the railway cars back and forth in the yard and at times back-up underneath the Bridge to get to past a certain switch where he could lean out his window to wave to us above – we were pretty proud of him. One time, my brother Johnny and I were standing on the walkway on the Bridge watching, and my Dad stopped the train, got out on the gantry, and waved for us to come down. We were very surprised and hesitant at first but we scurried down the steep slope, ran over some tracks and scrambled up into the engine where Dad was waiting. It was the most exciting day of our lives up to that point. We rode with him until near the end of his shift when he drove back to where we had started and sent us off hopping over the tracks and on our way.

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Typical 1950’s -60’s CPR Yard Diesel – Dad’s Engine number 7092 was identical to this unit – notice the manual switch in the foreground mid engine.

My Dad must have enjoyed having his kids on the train because it started a several years long practice of me getting awakened early Saturday morning at 5 AM by my Mom when Dad was on graveyard shift. I would get up and dress, go to Tammie’s, where the lunch bar opened early, and get a to-go coffee for my Dad. From there I would go to a spot in the bushes beside the tracks at Drinkwater and Elgin (before the overpass was built in that location) and wait for Dad’s arm wave. It was always exciting waiting for the opportune moment when all was clear. He would wave and I would look back and forth and run across several tracks over the engine - he would grab the coffee and pull me up the stairs into the train.

Dad would sip that coffee at his control seat driving the train. His helpers (firemen), who would be connecting and disconnecting the railway cars, would climb up into the cab for a quick ride on a long shuttle. They would be so jealous of his hot morning coffee and would bug me to bring one for them too next time – which we couldn’t afford (everyone’s thermos would be empty by that time in the shift). I would sit all morning in the “fireman’s seat” on the opposite side as Dad switched out the passenger trains coming in at about 5:30 AM. The Railway Station was a happening place all morning and people who saw me in the train would point and smile. It was something I really enjoyed and my Mom was happy as it would put my Dad in a good mood for the rest of the day.

Birthdays weren’t much of a big deal in our family but I do remember a couple of neighborhood experiences of particular note. One year after we finished a shift on the train on my birthday, my Dad took me to Tammie’s and sat me up at the lunch counter and ordered me a cheeseburger. It was a simple little bun and skinny patty – nice and greasy, hot and frazzled on the grill with melted cheese and nothing else – I will never forget it! It’s what I call a “retro burger” to this day and I think it’s still the way a burger should be prepared – none of this 6 ounce patty, lettuce, tomato or sesame seed bun!

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What can I say!

On another occasion for my ninth birthday, Dad took me to the Sudbury Arena for a hockey game – family friend Cummy Burton got him the tickets cheap. It was an exhibition game between the Eastern Professional Hockey League - EPHL Sudbury Wolves (who Cummy was then playing for after his short stint in the big leagues) and my team, the parent club, the NHL Detroit Red Wings. Dad had taken me to Eaton’s when Gordie Howe was signing autographs in the front lobby that summer and although Gordie didn’t play in this game, there were a number of the other high profile NHL’ers that were my heroes at that time.

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Eaton’s was the iconic downtown destination for gifts, clothing and household items – there was an annex on the back where they displayed appliances and when we were kids and didn’t have a TV, we would go and watch at the back of Eaton’s.

Unfortunately my favourite player Terry Sawchuk didn’t play either however I vividly recall that his back-up Hank Bassen was in the cage that night for Detroit. He was very vocal yelling at his teammates continuously and telling them what to do with the puck – he was yelling so hard his face was rosy red from exertion – he was sure engaged in the game. I guess he was trying to make an impression to stay with the big club rather than being formed out to the lesser tiers of pro hockey.

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Hank Bassen of the Detroit Red Wings in action in 1961 – no masks in those days (except Jacques Plante).

Back then the Arena seats were divided by colour into different sections – reds facing the centerline of the ice, green at the blue lines, blue seats in the end zones and orange in the corners. We sat at the top row of the corner orange seats, which were the cheapest, right under where the stuffed Wolf comes rolling down now – the original Wolf was there in 1961 although it just peaked out a trap door after a goal at that time!

Back in 1961, many men were still wearing fedora hats and I recall being in awe of the overall spectacle of such a large crowd, guys hanging over the rail behind us in “Standing Room Only” yelling, and everyone so excited and supportive of the local professional hockey team – another unforgettable experience.

We hung around the Arena a lot as it was just a 5 minute walk down the hill. We could get in free to some games or snuck in to others – occasionally we had enough money to pay the twenty five cents to see the Sudbury Cubs then. We would wait at the end of the game in the alley where the players came out to return to the dressing room and ask each player if we could have their stick. The players couldn’t afford new sticks any more than us however once in a while you would get a broken stick that we would nail together to use for ball hockey on Nelson St or ice hockey at Ramsey Lake.

The ultimate goal was to get a “Wally” hockey stick – which was the gold standard in the day. There were no curved sticks then just a big piece of lumber with a straight blade lap jointed and glued into a flexible shaft – with lots of tape!

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1960’s Wally Pro Hockey Stick

Wally sticks were made by Wally Enterprises out of Wallaceburg, Ontario beginning in 1946 after the war. Their sticks were the ultimate in craftsmanship then matched only by Northland Pro’s out of Minnesota. The Wally company was bought out by the American Hillerich and Bradsby “Louisville Slugger” company in the mid 1960’s who quickly transitioned into new branding for their sticks retiring the iconic Wally name. Hespeler brand sticks were also popular back then with their MicMac (three red stripes lower on the shaft), Green Flash (two green stripes) and Practice (1 blue stripe) models – also made in Southern Ontario.

We used to be very keen to go to the annual Midget hockey night at the Arena which showcased one period of play between each of the major midget teams in the city – the step above playground hockey leagues at that time. Our friend Dave Tataryn played goalie for the Lions Club team so we went to cheer him on and I recall some of the other teams were ACT, Elks and St. Jean’s Painters to name a few. The old hockey helmets in those days were pretty flimsy plastic or painted felt packs with a light front panel set screwed onto the larger back panel. I remember St. Jean’s Painters wore black uniforms and there were a couple of really tough brothers on the team that had whiskers as 16 year olds. They looked very menacing skating around with the front panels removed from their helmets and curly hair spilling out.

Another interesting anecdote relating to our hockey world back in the early 60’s was every hockey kid’s desire to someday acquire a pair of CCM Tackaberrys. The story goes that a fellow named George Tackaberry, who was a bootmaker by trade, lived next door to a hockey player back in the early 1900’s in southern Ontario. The neighbour complained to George about his ill-fitting skates which lacked support to last through an entire hockey season. Mr. Tackaberry undertook to make a better boot for the skates by combining durable kangaroo leather with a reinforced toe. The design went over so well that Mr. Tackaberry was soon overwhelmed with orders and established a flourishing skate making business. When he died in 1937, his company was sold to CCM who continued with the traditional Tackaberry name – soon to be iconically known as Tack’s for many decades to follow.

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1960 CCM Tackaberry “Tube” Skates (“Tacks”)

There was public skating every Saturday down at the Sudbury Arena and I believe it cost a nickel to get in. My older brother Jimmy and younger brother Tommy were keen to get down there at every opportunity and quickly developed into exceptional skaters which significantly promoted their hockey skills. I remember some grown up man coming by once and telling my Dad what an incredible skater little Tommy had become. My brother Johnny and I found more excitement in “taking shots” on the street and playing ball hockey with an assortment of neighbourhood kids.

Heading down to the Arena early was also a priority on the day of the Santa Claus Parade. As I recall the entire entourage of the parade staged up on Minto Street with the front floats beside the Arena building. We would stand in the slush on the corner at the Ledo Hotel with the familiar waft of stale beer which was always in the air around that building (I believe I was informed of what that smell was at that time). Regardless of the surroundings, it was always very exciting as kids to see the parade of floats and bands and of course the final Santa Claus sleigh at the end.

To be continued….. in Part 3

Bobby Swain