Hurricane Hazel Series- 1: The deadly knock

A knock on a door sealed the fate of two families on the rainy night of October 15, 1954. They lived on Raymore Drive in an idyllic neighbourhood by the shore of the Humber River. That night, radio stations had warned of a dangerous hurricane making its way north that would dump more heavy rain onto an already saturated ground.

Autumn in Ontario is a time of transition. The province occasionally finds itself in the path of extra-tropical hurricanes that are usually shadows of their former selves by the time their energy supply of tropical air has been cut off. This hurricane, named Hazel, was different. It had wreaked havoc in many areas of the United States. Instead of becoming a rain event, Hazel managed to re-energize itself by finding and merging with a cold low pressure area and using that to squeeze out more wind and moisture.

As the evening progressed, the storm parked itself over the city and the already swollen Humber River began to rise higher than residents had ever seen it. In wintertime, ice jams would bring water and inconvenience to the doorsteps of a few homes at the lower end of Raymore Drive but this time was different as the higher water level ceased to be an annoyance and started to become a threat. The roaring water surged wildly with no sign of levelling off.

As water lapped over thresholds into homes near by the river, one family thought it wise to ask neighbours on higher ground if they could bring over furniture threatened by the rising waters. This was the fatal knock. While the two families focussed on moving furniture to the higher house, their single-minded dedication to the task may have prevented them from acting quickly when events took a sudden turn for the worse.

What neither family could see and what would end up costing the lives of 35 residents of the neighbourhood was an unpredictable turn of events. Straddling the river hung a suspension footbridge. It was then, as its replacement is today, a convenient short cut from Raymore Drive to the bustling town of Weston, a centre of commerce for miles around. It was known as the swing bridge, not because of any mechanical abilities but like any suspension bridge, it could be coaxed into swinging by rhythmic walking or jumping.

As the water continued to rise, the western abutment of the footbridge was dragged off its perch into the river a few metres downstream where it anchored itself in the position it occupies today. The cables of the bridge held and in effect, re-positioned the bridge diagonally across the river forming a barrier which, thanks to the debris washing downstream quickly became a diversionary dam. Suddenly and without warning, the river was steered directly into the path of the homes at the end of Raymore Drive engulfing our two families and taking a total of 35 lives at this location.

Today, the western abutment is still resting in the river, standing as a grim witness to that terrible night. The eastern end of the bridge remains in place and as mentioned previously, was decorated with a (now badly peeled) commemorative mural in 2002. Raymore Park itself contains no memorial to the people who lost their lives that day. Perhaps this would be a worthy project.

Looking upstream, the western abutment is still in the Humber.

Looking upstream, the western abutment can be seen below and to the left of the bridge.

Readers are invited to add their own memories or anecdotes of Hurricane Hazel.

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7 thoughts on “Hurricane Hazel Series- 1: The deadly knock

  1. Jill

    My father was a young police officer stationed at the Lawrence Avenue bridge with the task of keeping car and pedestrian traffic off the bridge that night. People were still cajoling him to let them cross as the Humber rose and flowed across the pavement. Eventually it was a moot point when the bridge collapsed.

    Dad was sent to Raymore Drive the next morning to assist in recovery (sadly, at this point rescue was not an option). The devastation brought back memories of war torn London a decade earlier.

    Shaken by the sight of the ravaged neighbourhood, he sent a telegram to my mother in England to let her know he was safe. She was rather confused, seeing as the news of the hurricane wasn’t even being reported over there.

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    1. Cherri Hurst

      This is a great story. I am looking for more information on Hurricane Hazel, most especially a time line as to when things were happening. Did your father ever say what time the bridge collapsed or when the power went out in the area? I am hosting a walk this fall on Hurricane Hazel and I am looking for some new information.

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  2. Cherri Hurst

    I loved your article but have a couple of questions and notes. I am participating in a walk this fall with the Weston Historical Society and Mary Louise Ashbourne and I am looking for more information on Hurricane Hazel. I am still confused as to why the storm lasted as long as it did and why cold low pressure would help it when it is warm water that a hurricane needs to continue.
    Can I also point out that the swing bridge was not old or condemned. It was at one time but was rebuilt in 1950. I have documents and a newspaper article that shows the local politicians cutting the ribbon.
    Also was it 35 or 36 people killed on Raymore Drive? You use both numbers.
    The memorial that is in such sad state is supposed to be getting fixed. I will check on that to be sure.
    Again, I loved your story and sorry for being so picky.

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    1. murraycr Post author

      Hi Cherri,
      Thanks for your response and corrections. Whenever I can get help with correcting my (many) errors, that’s not being picky – it’s adding to the knowledge base.
      I was under the impression that the bridge was condemned – thanks for clearing that up. I would love to see those documents!
      Before the hurricane reached Ontario, it became an extra-tropical storm which under normal conditions would be a large area of warm rain precipitated by the gentle cooling on the northern journey. Storms become a problem when cold and warm air meet. With the remnants of Hazel, the cold air mass began to merge with the relatively warm storm and the mixture simply parked over Toronto and dumped its contents.
      As to the number of people, it was 35 – excuse my carelessness – I will correct the article to reflect your corrections.
      Good luck with the walk – there is a tremendous interest in the local aspects of Hazel story.

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      1. Cherri Hurst

        I can send you the article and picture if you want. Can I attach it somehow to this reply or how should I go about it.
        By the way the bridge was condemned at one time before it got rebuilt.

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