How we’ve saved our house from Lake Ontario
The struggle sapped our savings and our strength. Once it almost killed me. But we’ve muzzled the biting waves that threatened to topple our cliff-edge house—and won more than safety
To most people a house is just a place to live, attached to a mortgage and a chance to profit from rising real-estate values. But for better or for worse we’re committed to the idea that our home is part of our lives. It has involved us in a ten-year struggle with waves, wind, subterranean water and surface water, and, occasionally, with local opinion, to prevent it from ending up in Lake Ontario, two hundred feet below, along with all our labors, hopes and savings. My wife Mollie has named our house the Bird’s Nest. It is located on Birchmount Road at the eastern outskirts of Toronto, in a beautiful wooded area, perched on the very edge of Scarborough Bluffs, the almost vertical cliffs that rise out of Lake Ontario to almost half the height of Toronto’s thirty-four-story Bank of Commerce building.
To keep it up there, I’ve had to work at the base of the cliff, building bulwarks of oil tanks, cement blocks and war-surplus barges to try to stop wave erosion. I’ve piped springs and built terraces on the sheer face of the cliff. My fight with erosion has influenced the course of the past ten years of my life. Because of it and the time and hard work it requires. I’ve had to pass up better jobs and chances for advancement. I’ve been told by well-meaning friends to give up. I've been called the madman of Birchmount.
But we all have our quirks and aberrations. Mine is to hang onto my home, come frost, flood or high water. I chose it because the cliffs have been part of my life since boyhood, and because I love the lake and the quiet wooded district at the top, where the houses are hidden from one another by the trees. I love the ever-changing scene of water and sky, moonlight over the lake, the sight of gulls and planes soaring in front of us, the sound of the waves, the cry of the loon, and the fascinating wildlife outside our door. It is home to our twin daughters, and something a bit more than that to my wife, for it was the view of the lake and the closeness to nature that gradually overcame her homesickness for her native Berkshire. These are the reasons why we’ve struggled to hold it, and why we’re determined to keep up the fight.
I bought the house in 1946, soon after I got out of the army, but the story really begins when I was a boy helping to battle the cliff with my father,
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cIt happened to us” This is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean’s . . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives. HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor, Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Maclean’s will pay the regular rates it offers for articles.
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a Toronto businessman who moved there when I was twelve. It was then considered so far out in the country that his friends were aghast at his pioneer spirit, but he bought a two-story frame house that stood about twenty feet from the cliff, intending to build farther back later on. Then the Depression came along and he couldn’t afford to do anything but stay in the house he was in. By the time he realized this, which was about two years after he had moved in, the cliff had eroded back eight feet.
But my Dad, a wiry energetic Irishman, is not a man to sit around and weep in his beer. If he has a problem he does something about it. He began to study the situation. The bluffs are composed entirely of easily eroded gravel, sand and blue boulder clay deposited by the receding glaciers of the Ice Age. Most of the erosion takes place in spring. The cliff recedes from six inches to four feet a year. The greatest causes of this are the undermining action of the waves; lake currents that scour sand from the shore of the cliffs and deposit it at Toronto Islands, opposite Toronto harbor; surface water that forms streams that cut back into the cliff; and springs that cause gouging and sliding.
My Dad made arrangements with several firms of auto wreckers to have them dump old car bodies down the cliff in an attempt to hold the beach. As many as five or six loads a day arrived, and we spent one whole summer arranging old Essexes, Fords and Durants side by side with their backs to the lake and lacing them together with wire or cable. We took the doors off and turned them upside down to fill the back windows, then filled the bodies with sand.
“The place haunts you”
Bad storms finally washed out most of the cars, but they had slowed down the erosion. Many of the cars lodged themselves part way up the cliff. Tons of metal that my father, my brother and myself shoved down the cliff are still visible today under the dense undergrowth. When my Dad bought this property, neighbors gave him three years; that is, the optimists did. The pessimists gave him one year. Today, twenty-seven years later, the house is still there. But it wouldn't be if he hadn’t done something about it.
I left home when I was eighteen. After I married I kept coming back to the bluffs for visits. The place kind of haunts you. My wife and I had bought a house in North Toronto, which we rented when I went into the army. We sold it in the summer of 1947 and moved temporarily into the lower room of a house that my father was building next to his own. In the fall we were so in love with the place that we began to wonder if we should buy it. We talked about it one night at supper.
“It’s beautiful,” Mollie said. “It would be like living in a summer cottage all year ’round.”
“Well, if we're going to buy it we'd better decide fast.” I told her. “I’ve
learned that someone else has made Dad an offer.”
It was one of those decisions that are a bit frightening, but we made up our minds that evening. I had looked the cliff over and it looked pretty good to me. Besides, I knew something about coping with erosion.
Mollie and l used my father's place for facilities for the time being. 1 borrowed here and there and started to get the house finished. I put in a chimney, oil furnace, partitions, plumbing and floors. 1 had the plastering done by a very dramatic little man who kept looking at the house, then the cliff, clapping his hand to his forehead and saying: “Oy, yoi, yoi, you bought yourself a headache!”
I began to wonder if he was right one night in January 1948 after a heavy rain when, about three in fhe morning, Mollie woke me up. I heard her voice in the dark saying: “Tim, listen! I hear water. It sounds as if it’s right in the room.”
We were used to hearing the lake, but now we had the eeriest feeling that it was surging right under our bed. For a minute I had an idea that we’d slid down the cliff. Our house is on the very edge: in fact, the sun-deck overhangs it.
1 finally got my wits collected. “Well, if we're in the lake we’d better do something about it.”
I switched on the light. A sheet of water was pouring in the back door, under our bed. and out the front of the house. I found that eight inches of water had piled up behind my house, then had found a w-eak spot near our septic tank, and started right through our house to reach the lake below.
Mollie said. “Well, we wanted the sound of water. We've got it."
The beach vanished
But I was totally unprepared for what happened in the spring. When the ice went out, there was no beach below us. The water came right up to the cliffs. 1 knew what this meant. A beach is the only protection against erosion. As long as the waves have a beach to break on, the cliffs are untouched.
Now the waves were crashing against the cliff itself, and 1 knew what was going to happen if it kept up. But I felt that the lake would go down soon to a normal level and that we might still escape any serious damage. The lake didn't go down. There was no beach all summer. The lake was at a record high that year. The mean water level of Lake Ontario is 245.86 feet above sea level. During 1948, the mean level rose to above 248 feet.
The abnormally high water level on Lake Ontario was accompanied by stronger-than-usual southeasterly winds, the worst kind for us. This was bad enough, but things got worse. The lake stayed that way all summer, and the following spring it was just as high. It was the first time two consecutive years of such high water had occurred since 1930, and only the third time since I860.
I began waking up when there was a bad storm, picturing those waves eating in toward my house. 1 could feel the house tremble when chunks went down from the face. I knew Mollie was aware of what was happening, but most women have a tendency to put an emotional veil around situations like this—either that or they put great confidence in their husbands.
It had always been hard to get Mollie to go down the cliff, and for good reason. It can present quite a formidable sight. About half the guests who come to my home walk into the living room and say: “What a beautiful view!” Then they step
“Seven foot waves lashed the cliff. Our home was menaced, but the lake's fury thrilled us"
But as the summer of 1948 passed and there was no subsiding of the water, I thought it was time that Mollie and I talked this thing over openly, and late one stormy autumn afternoon 1 told her that I’d like her to come down the cliff with me as far as we could go to see what was happening.
“Thanks all the same, I’ll stay up here,” she said.
“Mollie, this is important. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
It didn’t take her long to realize that something special was behind my request. Finally she said, “Well, all right, if you promise to hold my hand all the way.”
We clambered down as far as we could go. This was to a point about fifty feet above the lake. The rest was a perpendicular drop right into the water. There was a strong southeasterly wind blowing up waves seven feet high from crest to hollow. They were breaking against the blue boulder clay on the face of the cliff and throwing up spray to where we were sitting. In some ways we enjoyed it. Even with the fear and terror of seeing what was happening and knowing that there was eventual danger of everything being washed out from underneath us, we couldn’t help being thrilled by the fierceness of the thing.
To flee or to fight?
People don’t make very memorable remarks at a time like this. Mollie turned to me and said, “Oh, Tim!” But there was a lot of meaning in those two words. I know that she had the same vision I had—of the day not far off when we would be forced to remove our belongings from the house and leave it to await its fate.
“Tim, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know, exactly.” I. got to my feet and looked up at the Bird’s Nest. To me it still looked like the best house in Toronto, with the best view. And I knew it did to Mollie. There’s no doubt about it, the course of your life changes at moments like this. I said, “But I know one thing. I’m going to do something.”
We still weren’t having erosion at the top, but I knew what was going to happen in a few years if things kept on the way they were going. So I started my first counteroffensive. My father had had some big thousand-gallon tanks off Shell Oil trucks put down the cliff. He had come to the conclusion that it was mass that was required. For the most part, the lake will leave a five-ton stone alone, but anything less than that has little chance of holding its position against the force of the waves. There were three of these big tanks near the base of the cliff. My first job was to get them right down to the bottom.
One of them was in a spot that made rolling it very difficult. My brother came over to give me a hand and we worked out a strategy. Although the tank was a heavy brute, it was lying on a steep angle and most of the weight was at the bottom. We figured that by lifting it to a sharper angle, propping it, taking a rest, then lifting again, we could eventually topple it over. We got a kid from next door to stand by ready to lodge a pole underneath the tank when we lifted. We
gave him a thorough briefing. My brother got on one side and I on the other. By considerable straining we got the tank up into position. Then the boy dropped the pole. He stood there mesmerized. We couldn't let the tank fall. We couldn’t jump. We couldn’t get out from under. The boy had panicked completely and had started to bolt. It was my brother who somehow managed to get him to come back, probably because he used a much more colorful brand of language than I do. The boy eventually performed his part of the job.
But the strain had been too much for me. I pulled a ligament in my back. A few days later it developed into such a burning pain that I couldn’t sleep, and eventually I had to take extensive treatments for it. I was studying for an arts course at the University of Toronto at the time under the DVA, and I began missing so much time and study that I had to give it up.
But when you fail at one thing there is probably a subconscious determination to succeed at something else. I became doubly determined to win my battle with the cliff. When my back was better, I got a job as a Toronto streetcar and bus operator, a job I chose because it would give me daylight hours to work on the cliff, and also because I could volunteer to do extra runs to make money for materials. I began buying old oil tanks as fast as I could afford them from an oil refinery. They cost me from ten to twenty-five dollars each. I would work these down to the bottom of the cliff, cut openings in the tops with an acetylene outfit and fill them with sand. I welded together one group of seven thousand-gallon tanks, forming a long, sand-filled metal tube along the base of the cliff.
I would get up at five in the morning, report in to work at six, take out an early-morning run and be home by nine, have my breakfast and be free to work on the cliff until three or four in the afternoon. I would take another run out then, and be back at seven or seventhirty, with time to do some more work before dark.
But I soon saw encouraging results. I’ve discovered that if you study nature a bit and work with her, she’ll co-operate with you. It wasn’t long before drift-
Who is it?
He left home to become top moneymaker in a neighbor's game. Turn to page 66 to see who this boy grew up to be.
wood and sand began to pile up behind the tanks. The driftwood would be continually coming and going, but there was always some there forming a protective wave break.
At about this time I was fortunate in acquiring some twenty-eight-foot reinforced war-surplus barges, which 1 believe were used in wartime for bridge pontoons. I began to manufacture my own concrete blocks to sink the barges with when I got them into position opposite my shore line. When everything was ready I went along the beach and up the cliff to dig the barges out of the bank where they had become embedded, rolled them down to the beach on domestic hot-water boilers, launched them and poled them over the water to my place.
I was beginning to get some weight down at the bottom of my cliff and felt that I was making real progress. Then I ran into other problems, more complicated than the erosion. I had been watching the base of my neighbor’s cliff start to go. On these cliffs, what looks alright from the top looks altogether different from the bottom, or from a side angle. I could see the cliffs changing next to me. But it was not my property. In many cases in this area, such as ours, the property line doesn’t run at right angles to the shore line, yet the line of erosion comes in at almost a right angle, thus traversing one, two or three property lines. In other words, looking down from the top, the property on the beach and part way up the cliff could be your neighbor’s. To protect forty-five feet of my property at the top, I had to work on three hundred feet at the bottom.
In fairness to those who aren’t engaged in this work, especially women, who don’t understand the mechanics of erosion, there’s something to be said for their point of view. All that inexperienced onlookers could see was a madman digging like fury at the base of their cliff, as if the cliff wasn't caving in fast enough for him. Whenever there was a cave-in, the obvious thing to say was that Mr. Palmer had been down there just half an hour previously, digging.
I could understand it, but it was rather embarrassing to find myself in danger of being booted off by the police, and to lose valuable time in explanations. 1 explained until my face was the color of the boulder clay, that if somebody didn’t do something down there, there was going to be more serious erosion.
When it started to go from the top and to the east of us it did a spectacular job. By 1951 it was alarmingly noticeable, and in the following years, a great chunk dropped off the top, forming a vast concave bight, the western edge of which came up almost flush with my eastern foundationIt was particularly trying to me because I knew from experience that it could at least be slowed down and probably stopped, as had been proven in the case of my Dad’s original home.
Twenty-three agents, no sale
My place had cost me $11,500 by the time 1 put the oil furnace in. Now, instead of going up a thousand dollars a year, which other properties of comparable value were doing, it was going down a thousand dollars a year because of the appearance of the cliff around it. I felt I couldn’t sell the place under false pretenses, although I have seen some taken in, and they themselves having no qualms about doing the same thing to someone else. If we left the house and built at the back of the lot we could face the same problem at some future date. Anyway, we had put everything we owned into the house. If we let it go, we would have no money to do anything, let alone build another house.
To help with finances, I rented a room on the lower level. Then, in 1955, I decided to put the house in the hands of a real-estate man for three months on an honor basis. He was to tell prospects the exact situation about the cliff, and what could be done. He was very interested in it as an unusual property, so much so that twenty-two other agents came down to see it; but they felt that too much of their time would be lost trying to sell it or explain it. And down in
“The sandslip buried me to my mouth. 3 couldn’t turn. I couldn’t yell. I could scarcely breathe”
our hearts Mollie and 1 were glad that no offers came through. Right from the time we listed it, we were half hoping we wouldn't sell it. I felt now I’d bought the place 1 should make the best of it. It had become part of my life, and by now our twin daughters were learning to love it too.
But I couldn't do very much until my neighbors relented. I don’t know' whether my persistence had anything to do with it. but finally they gave permission to work on the cliff. 1 got busy like a bunny. The edge was now almost up to the side foundation of my house. I began to terrace the face of the cliff with thirtyfive rows of timbers. I built two retaining walls close to my foundation to give more substantial protection to the eastern side of the house.
i had to dig six feet into the ground vertically for these walls. One day while I was working in the trench, the sitie began to slide down on me. 1 realized what was happening and started to stand up straight, but the sand caught me slightly stooped and buried me right up to my mouth. I started blowing the rolling sand away from my mouth, and tried to yell, but I couldn't get any volume. I knew that if 1 could just straighten up another tw'o inches I could yell. But try as I w'ould. I couldn't. This might seem hard to believe. But the muscles in my legs showed bruises afterward from my efforts to move. I couldn't budge. I couldn't turn my head. I couldn't do anything. 1 could barely breathe because of the pressure. The perspiration from my body couldn't evaporate and I was getting uncomfortably wet.
“I was in the cliff”
I knew' that as soon as the sand got a chance to dry it w'ould start rolling down, and it would take only a few spoonsful in my direction to stop me breathing. As it was, I was alive only because of an old army-issue helmet I’d put on to protect my head from falling pebbles. 1 was facing the lake, and the helmet, rammed onto the back of my head, made a little ledge of sand, with enough air-space in front for me to breath.
I heard my wife calling me for lunch. 1 was only thirty feet from where she stood on the sun-deck, and in full view of her: that is, if she could have seen me, but my cries of “Mollie! Mollie!” were so feeble that I couldn't make her hear. Finally, when she did hear the sound of my voice, it was so faint that at first she thought 1 was dowm on the beach, then she thought I was having some fun hiding from her. It's a lucky thing for me that she decided to indulge me and follow up the game of hide-andseek. She told me later she had leaned over the railing of the sun-deck, studying the cliff, turning her head to catch the faint sound of my “Mollie! Mollie!” After what seemed ages I knew she’d finally realized that I wasn't playing games, and that I wasn't on the cliff, but in it.
She flew through the house, down the cellar stairs, and out onto the cliff calling in terror, “Tim, where are you? I can’t find you.”
“Over here,” I kept calling. “Over here!”
She walked right over to me and still couldn’t see me. Then finally she saw this little shelf, and looking out of it, my two anxious eyes. I could see that it was
taking all her will power to keep from fainting.
"Well, come on.” 1 told her. "Get me out of here."
“Tell me what to do, dear. Tell me what to do."
"Now don't get excited," I told her. “There's a shovel around here somewhere. Get it and start digging.”
She found it and began digging frantically. She dug right into me. 1 yelled “Ouch!” and she said, "Tim, I'm going to go for help.”
She was trembling so that she could hardly hold the shovel and I knew that she was thinking if she ever passed out I wouldn’t have a chance.
Fortunately my tenant has a job that gives him every holiday going, and it was a bank holiday. He came over and started to dig. And did he dig! It took him half an hour, working like fury, to get me out of the cliff.
Up until last year, 1 always felt that Mollie and I were in danger of losing everything. Now' I feel that we are over the hump and that in time we will be able to relax our physical effort, although never our vigilance. Our property is gaining in value due to the work done on the cliff. Soon we hope to be back where w'e started financially. I feel, too, that more people will in time come to see this as a community problem. Already, some people whose homes are too far back to be threatened have show'n an admirable spirit of co-operation in helping those involved. Another group close to the cliff farther east from me have split the cost and the labor of putting in groynes, structures of railway ties that jut into the lake to catch the drifting sand and create a beach.
The work at my place isn’t over yet. I’ll have to make use of all the time I have free from the job I now hold with a business-machine company. I have to do more terracing. I have to spend more money. But money can't buy anything more valuable than contentment, and I’m content. I'm not sorry for a minute's w'ork I've done on my home. Fighting the cliff has brought me closer to nature, and has done me a lot of good morally and spiritually. It’s a Christian experience to stick with a thing like this instead of backing out of it. The answers to life aren't found in evading problems, but in facing them intelligently and in having faith. And our faith is stronger than ever that I made the right decision when I decided to struggle to keep my home. ★