Toronto Threw a Party for the Bridge King


Beer, whisky, rum, and cocktail. Mainstays of the drinking set in Canada from its inception, they were set aside in August 1853 in favour of aristocratic wines, brandies, and liqueurs.

The occasion was a banquet in Toronto for Robert Stephenson (pictured), the great British engineer and bridge designer. He invented the Rocket, shown on the menu below, an early ace locomotive.

Stephenson designed or worked on famous bridges in Britain and elsewhere including the still-standing Britannia Bridge in Wales and Victoria Bridge in Montreal. His father was also an eminent engineer, George. The Stephensons, together with Brunel, a close friend of Robert’s, represented the acme of Victorian engineering.

In the summer of 1853 Stephenson was visiting Toronto in Canada West. “C.W.”, as the nickname went, was the progenitor of the Province of Ontario. C.W. was the English-speaking part of the United Province of Canada. Canada East was the mostly French-speaking part. With Confederation in 1867, these became respectively the Provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Stephenson was in town to advise Grand Trunk Railway on its plan to create a continuous link from Toronto to an ice-free port in Maine. Part of that involved conceiving the Victoria Bridge. Construction began in 1854 and ended a few years later but Stephenson died before completion due to Bright’s Disease, possibly contracted as a result of his work.

Also pictured on the menu (courtesy HathiTrust, the other images are from Wikipedia) is the Britannia Bridge.

The wines and foods would have done credit to any sizeable city in the world let alone the small burgh of Toronto. The town hardly counted more than 30,000 people. Yet, period photos show the city developing nicely then. One or two churches still stand and look the same.

The central part of Osgoode Hall, headquarters then and now of the legal profession in Ontario, is virtually unchanged. Even where the buildings are altered most of the streets have a similar aspect today.

They ate up a storm at Stephenson’s party: prairie chicken, fish of all kinds including salmon from Scotland, all kinds of game, butcher’s meats fresh and cured, fruits and vegetables (it was high summer), fine desserts, and much else. And look at those wines: Champagne, Bordeaux, old sherry, port, and Madeira: they had it all.

As always in such matters there are strangely modern touches. Patties, for instance, which you can get in many quarters of Toronto, Caribbean-style at any rate. Lobster, lobster salad, oysters – all still popular today. Margaux, Leoville, Mumm’s, Sandeman wines – luxury items today no less than in 1853.

While it would have been nice to see an Imperial Stout along with the Curacao, Maraschino, and pale brandy, I’ll take the menu as it comes. Wouldn’t you?

Toronto knew how to throw a party, even way back in the 1850s.

Note: Part II to this post appears here.