Dark side of Sandy Hill revealed in walking tour

Hilary Duff

I was sitting on the terrace at Working Title Café when the idea struck. Chatting with other members of Action Sandy Hill’s communications committee, we were brainstorming ways to engage our neighbours and raise awareness about the work of the community association.

“At a time when few events can take place, why not plan an outdoor walking tour for Halloween?” I shared.

I had been incubating the idea since the summer but had never said it out loud. That’s when one fellow ASH board member pointed across the street and told me about the séances that Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would host in his third-floor study. That sealed the deal, and the Dark Side of Sandy Hill Halloween tour was born—a guided walk to share some of the lesser known and more mysterious elements of our slice of this city.

As many readers of IMAGE likely know, Sandy Hill is rich with history. I’ve always been interested in these local tidbits, especially when they offer another layer of understanding to enhance a neighbourhood walkabout. If you’re anything like me, the pandemic has meant you’re doing a lot more of those strolls.

My walking tour research began from there, and fortunately I didn’t need to start from scratch. Sandy Hill’s resident volunteer historian (and walking encyclopedia!), François Bregha, has poured weeks of his time into creating the extensive Sandy Hill Stories website (ash-acs.ca/history). Like François, I’m a believer in the power of storytelling to transport people back in time, and that’s certainly what I aimed to do with this tour. Selecting 13 stops along Somerset Street East, Range Road, and Laurier Avenue East, the Dark Side of Sandy Hill tour took participants to Cold War-era Sandy Hill, back to the Second World War, and into the throes of the 1918 Spanish flu influenza.

One reality of history in Sandy Hill is that on many occasions, the building in question is no longer standing. In order to help with the “imagine yourself in 1873…” piece, the tour stops were complemented by archival photos, including a few striking images of rifle shooters assembled on the Dominion Rifle Range (the precursor to Strathcona Park!). Those images were generously scanned and sent by Bruce Foster with the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association.

Our four by-donation tours were fully booked within three days (20 people per tour), a testament to the desire of folks to gather responsibly during the time of COVID. The walk certainly garnered a few double takes and waves—it’s not often you see a larger group these days, though everyone on our tour remained physically distanced and masked throughout.

In the end, just over $540 was raised for Action Sandy Hill, and a handful of neighbours became community association members. While our Dark Side of Sandy Hill walking tour was hardly the scariest thing to happen in 2020, it’s my hope that it will be a recurring event to help people better appreciate our neighbourhood—in the time of COVID and beyond.

Hilary Duff prepared the script, practised, recruited assistants, advertised and led four Dark Side of Sandy Hill walking tours at Hallowe’en, pleasing many and boosting ASH.
Photo Harlequin Studios