Growing up in Sudbury's Ramsey Lake District -1950's - Part 1
13 February 2021
Growing up in the 1950's in Sudbury, Ontario provided a great opportunity to appreciate many of the things relating to the unique post World War 2 way of life. In our experience, the bright coloured bold automobile designs, the individual feel of different neighbourhoods, the corner stores, the belching smelter smoke stacks, the barren rock terrain but most notable of all - the lakes within the city, all served to develop a mix that made this vintage environment very special.
Our family, especially the older kids, had the privilege of living on the west shore of Ramsey Lake at the close of the 1950's. My Mom and Dad, Margaret and Bill Swain owned the "Snack Bar" diner and SuperTest Gas Station on Paris Street located across from the Ramsey Lake Marina where the lake empties into Lily Creek. This location was bulldozed over when Paris St. was reconfigured to accommodate among other things the Science Center, the sports field complex and the large new hospital.
Supertest Gas Bar/Garage - Lakeview Snackbar at the west end of Ramsey Lake 1959 – our green house at left
The narrow bay which formed the west end of the Lake had previously accommodated Nickel Belt Airways which was one of two competing 1940’s Ramsey Lake floatplane operations at the time. Austin Airways stationed on the other side of Bell Park, eventually got a leg up and ended up buying out the interests of Nickel Belt in 1952 after the hangar burned down. This led to the abandonment of the flight station at the west-end location – soon to be taken over by Ramsey Lake Marina. This was followed shortly thereafter by the construction of the Diner/Gas Station across the road. When Nickel Belt Airways was in their heyday they were a key cog in ferrying mining exploration teams throughout Northern Ontario. See an interesting archived article by Bruce McLeod - Mclean’s Magazine (1948) about Violet Milstead a trail blazing female bush pilot who was flying out of Nickel Belt Airways at the time https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1948/3/1/bush-angel
Offices and hangar of Nickel Belt Airways – late 1940’s
Bush Pilot Violet Milstead re-fueling her Fairchild Husky floatplane at the Nickel Belt Airways hangar – see “Science North” rock face in the background
The Snack Bar Diner was a classic – a straight lunch counter with swivel stools faced the kitchen which had the big exhaust hood with a flat grill and deep fryers underneath and an extended counter with the typical milk shake machine, other fast food apparatus and those old style thick porcelain plates, cups and saucers . On the other side of the room against the windows were retro arborite tables and chairs and the cherry on top was the juke box beside the door – Pat Boone, Elvis Pressley, The Kingston Trio, Ricky Nelson and of course the “Chipmunk Song” – I can remember the tunes playing in the background.
My Mom and Dad’s gas station was one of only a few SuperTest Stations in Sudbury at that time – another was located beside the CPR Station downtown across from the Sudbury Arena. The Arena in the late fifties was a pretty new building having been constructed in 1951 at the end of the Art Deco period - explaining some of its interior finishes in the main foyer leading upstairs. SuperTest was a Canadian oil company and their Maple Leaf logo was certainly an iconic trademark from that time period – especially the older logo that adorned my parents gas bar with the vintage orange and green border leaf. See historic timeline of SuperTest – https://members.tripod.com/williams_j/supertesthistory.html
1958/59 was probably the worst time to be in the restaurant business in Sudbury with the infamous union Strike spreading hard times through the community with over 17,000 mine and mill employees out of work – virtually the entire city was shut down. The acrimonious battle between competing unions, fear of communist infiltrators, and wide spread discontent with mining companies all dragged the situation down into desperation for many. My Mom and Dad fed many people without charging and provided shelter for others as the community pulled together to help those most heavily impacted by the economic downturn. Ultimately these factors together led to Mom and Dad’s sale of the business in the fall of 1959 to Earl LeDrew and his wife who added a towing service to the business (the sale included some crazy trade of a property on Whitewater Lake in Azilda which I don't think worked out too well for my Parents).
Despite what was going on around us, we kids were all under ten years old and the Marina was our home all summer while my Dad “moonlighted” at the gas station while working full time driving trains at the CPR yard, and my Mom manned the lunch counter serving up the best hand-made hamburgers and fries (hot chips as they were called back in the day) in the city. She also ran out to pump gas when my Dad was away at work – there was no self-serve in those days. I ran into people years later from all around Sudbury who remembered Mom's hot chips from their childhood – hand peeled and hand cut with a paring knife (no skins left on the fries in those days).
Ramsey Lake Marina in late 1950’s – Lily Creek culvert/dam in foreground and boat launch to the right – note the typical barren Sudbury landscape in the background – universally called “the rocks”.
At the Lily Creek culvert at the end of the lake we would swim, fish, make up games and watch people come and go from the Marina. They would launch boats here and I remember one man in particular who had a distinctive modern looking 40HP chrome and black Mercury outboard on his boat - he would launch with his entourage, get all kitted out with the tow rope then sit on the edge of the moorings and yell "hit it!" He would take off waterskiing at high speed always wearing his signature white sailor's cap (I suspect that he was probably a WW2 navy vet) - he was a hero to us and we were all very excited to watch his every move when he pulled up to the Marina.
While living at the Diner, the kids that were old enough attended Wembley Public School – a full mile away (uphill in both directions). It was quite a climb for a six year old up the hillside to get to the roads leading to the school, especially in heavy snow in the winter as there was certainly no trailblazing ahead of us. Luckily my Mom knew my teacher and there was some leniency on my arrival time when the weather was bad.
Black 1950’s 40 horse Mercury on a vintage boat
The three older boys in our family (my brothers Jim and John and myself) had some friends from the large modern homes up on the hill above us overlooking the lake - Richard Tuddenham, and John and Mario Negusanti. Richard would get together with us and we would fashion little sail boats with foil chip bags for the hull, popsicle sticks for masts, and torn apart cigarette packages for sails threaded onto the sticks. Setting the boats into the lake with a light breeze we would race our creations down the wooden marina retaining wall, all the while encouraging our entry with hand made waves from sticks propelling from behind - across the heavily gasoline slicked waters. We swam in it so I guess no problem racing boats in it!
John and Mario had a tricycle with a chain drive on it that we would adventurously drive down a steep road on occasion. I haven't seen one of those contraptions since and I understand that they were short-lived and only produced at scale in the 1950's. One time I was driving the trike down the hill and the pedals got going too fast for my little feet and I lost control and went over a steep embankment head first to the rocks below (every road in Sudbury is blasted out of rock).
1950’s Nesbitt’s Orange – my favourite!
I remember getting helped to the Snack Bar down the steep hill and my Dad was minding the store at the time - he cracked open a bottle of Nesbitt's Orange pop for me and sat me at the lunch counter while he arranged for a customer to drive me the short distance to the General Hospital to get stitched up. One of the many adventures we had living in this extraordinary environment.
1950’s Chain Drive Tricycle
Many motorists both local and out of town drove by on Paris Street, which was then the two-lane main drag which carried most of the local traffic to the “Four Corners” at that time, and also a big part of the Highway 69 traffic which then came right through the city to connect to Highway 17 east or west before the bypass was built. One time a lady came running into the Diner shouting for help for the small children who appeared stranded on the steep rock face above what is now the pedestrian walkway adjacent to Science North. Little did the lady know that we traversed that thin toe hold crevasse in the rock on a regular basis as if we were mountain goats - my Mom dead panned to the lady not to worry, that the kids were in fact her children and that she would call us down when she got a chance. Poor Mom couldn't mind the lunch counter, pump gas and watch over all these crazy kids at the same time.
Our climbing rock (way before the days of "climbing walls" and rope belays) - after the Paris St realignment but before Science North and walkway construction.
Another memorable occasion was when my brother Tommy who would have been about two years old, was found walking aimlessly down the center of Paris Street buck naked, with one rubber boot that he had put on before walking out the front door of our house beside the Gas station. Luckily, a motorist pulled over, scurried him up and brought him to safety in the Diner. My Mom probably had some ‘splainin’ to do on that one, although at that time you could throw all your kids in the back of a pick-up truck and no one would even blink an eye let alone get you thrown in jail.
Heavy traffic on the old two-lane Paris Street heading down to our former home at the end of Ramsey Lake - Diner/GasStation just out of sight on right – Lily Creek on the left - 1960’s
I wore a little yellow bathing suit and no shoes for the entire summer (I don’t think I even took it off once) and at some point I had blood poisoning develop in the bottom of my foot – probably from walking on all the contaminants at the garage and marina. I guess it got pretty bad and painful as I informed my Mom one evening that I was not able to walk very well. My Mom couldn't leave the diner and my Dad was working at the CPR, but Cummy Burton, a Sudbury native who was then playing on Gordie Howe's line for the Detroit Red Wings, just happened to stop in for a snack. The Burtons were friends of my Mom's family and she had known Cummy since he was a kid so she asked if he could take me up to the hospital.
With his NHL hockey salary, which paled in comparison to today's millions, it was still big enough then for Cummy to buy a big new convertible which was just about the fanciest ride you could get in the day. I will never forget the drive up the hill to the hospital with the warm summer evening breeze blowing across my face making me forget the pain in my foot. Cummy stayed the entire time that they spent cutting open my foot and stitching it up and delivered me back to my Mom before he tied into one of Mom's legendary hamburgers - on the house!
Cummy Burton with Gordie Howe - 1958
I remember other highlights too - like when my Dad borrowed D.L. McKinnon's Land Rover which was equipped with four wheel drive and a snow plow and drove out onto the lake at the Marina and built a sizable skating rink which was used by many locals and of course the Swain kids (D.L.’s family were friends of my Mom’s family and I recall he was a bit of a cult figure in the community at that time with respect to his mining exploration interests).
1950's Land Rover with Snowplow
We used to also see the ice cutters on the lake out from Bell Grove who were cutting huge blocks which were used by the CPR to put into the top of the passenger train cars to provide an air cooling system for the coaches during the summer. They were stored in the ice house down on Elgin Street and pulled out every morning on carts, broken up with ice pics and loaded into the top of the older purple coloured Pullmans used for “The Dominion” cross country passenger train.
Early1960’s – Bill Swain’s Engine 7092 switching up the “Dominion” early in the morning (I recall it came in just after 5:00 AM) – combining the passenger and baggage cars from the Montreal and Toronto overnight trains ready to head west as a single unit. If you look carefully you can see the ridge on top of the purple Pullman’s where the ice was placed – this version of the Dominion has one of the “Canadian” dome cars on the tail end which was a regular addition at that time. The “Canadian”, the more “ritzy” trains from Montreal and Toronto, which were made up of all sleek stainless steel cars, came in much later in the morning and my Dad often switched it up also to head west at about noon – it was pretty exciting with all the Passenger action coming into the Sudbury yard in the morning back when passenger train travel was much more prevalent. The linked article details the complete make-up of both the Canadian and the Dominion in that era. https://www.cptracks.ca/data/documents/CPR%20Transcontinental%20Consists-3.pdf
And who could forget the legend of Dead Man's Island barely visible out in the middle of the Lily Creek marsh where stories of finding arrow heads and other relics made it a compelling destination for a kid. One day my brothers and I started out to walk through the marsh but with water up to our knees and uncertain what the next step would bring - maybe quicksand? - we aborted the adventure before we got very far and could only dream of finding treasure from then on.
There are plenty more stories to share from when we moved a stretch around the lake at the end of 1959. Mom and Dad bought a house on Nelson Street right beside the Old Iron Bridge, which in our minds was the center of our the universe with every amenity a kid with no money could dream of – we’ll pick up on some additional anecdotes on vintage Sudbury life next time from Nelson Street.