A tour through the tunnels

PWC students go below ground to explore the history of Humber College

In this post, student writer Sarah Nieman chronicles an afternoon spent getting closer to the buildings we walk by every day. Sarah is a member of this year’s PWC cohort.

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Humber’s Tunnels

With armfuls of legends and ghost sightings, you’d think that the entrance to Humber’s storied tunnel system would be a vault door with iron grating, or at least a hidden door, inconspicuous to the outside world. Instead, visitors to the tunnels begin their journey in the relatively unspooky L building, just past a mundane loading dock.

On Friday, December 2nd, several PWC students braved a cold and rainy day to follow Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre curator and guide Jennifer Bazar on a tour not only through the cottages, but through history.

The tunnels, like the red brick “cottages” they run beneath, were built in the 1880s by male patients of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto. What would first be called the Mimico Asylum and finally the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital was designed as a “moral treatment” experiment; physical labour and a focus on the natural world around the hospital would heal patients.  Even the apple orchard that runs between the two sides of campus was part of this treatment: patients tended it and collected the apples produced.

Used to transport supplies from building to building, the tunnels originally had tracks running through them like in a coal mine. Although the tracks were removed in the 1930s, you can still see the domed brick ceiling and original river rock foundation in some sections.

The layers of building material that cover the walls of the tunnels is reminiscent of the stone layers found on grand ancient ruins. Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital was continuously repurposed as the years went by, changes evidenced by varying materials, changing shades of brick, and bricked-over windows and doorways. Wandering the tunnels, some of which lead to buildings that no longer exist, those on tour can feel the energy of long-gone inhabitants.

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A view from the past: Humber’s entrance and cottages

Historically, the facilities changed as the treatment did. The shift to physical intervention in the 1940s with the rise of electroshock therapy and leucotomies (the Canadian version of lobotomies) and then the synthesis of chemical anti-depressants in the 1950s and 60s saw a gradual population decline in the hospital. Patients no longer needed to live there to manage their illnesses.

The hospital closed in 1979, and lay mostly abandoned until 1991, when Humber College signed a 99-year lease for much of the property. The College restored the buildings to their current state: modern on the inside, yet restored to their original red stone beauty on the outside.

This year saw the opening of the Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre, which chronicles the history and culture of the site. “History is a great way of challenging how people see the world,” curator Jennifer Bazar told me when I asked about the importance of studying the property, “It’s so easy to arrive on campus, go to class and head home – without ever taking a moment to realize the life the buildings around us have lived, the events they have ‘witnessed’.”

Tunnel tours at Humber College are available to the public on Doors Open and Culture Days, and to student groups by appointment. Humber College’s Lakeshore Grounds Interpretation Centre will open its first exhibit starting in January, focusing on a history of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital. For more information, visit http://www.lakeshoregrounds.ca/

Author: audaciousmag

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