The Very First Ride At The CNE by Adam Bunch

It all started back in the mid-1800s, as a relatively small provincial fair. They held it in a field out behind Upper Canada College, which in those days was on King Street (on the northwest corner of Simcoe, across from where Roy Thompson Hall is now). It was a very agricultural affair. They had cows and sheep and horses and blankets and knitting and needlework. The cheese was very popular. So was the wax fruit. The day ended with a big dinner at the Lieutenant Governor's residence across the street. The city's bigwigs were all there; they declared it a success.

For the next few decades, the fair toured around the province, moving from one city to another each year.  Mostly, it came here and to Kingston and London and Hamilton. And as it grew, we started putting up permanent buildings for it. A Crystal Palace was the first to go up. And we set aside some land for it, too, part of the old Garrison military reserve that the government had held on to ever since our city was founded. A century and a half later, the Ex is still held on that same ground.

It wasn't until 1879, though, that we decided to have the fair here every year. And that we'd call it the Canadian National Exhibition. The CNE was officially born. By then, the fair was a huge freaking deal. There were 23 permanent buildings on the site. Thousands of exhibits. It drew more than 100,000 visitors that first year. 

Now, no one, it seems, is quite sure exactly when the CNE's first ride opened. It might have been that year, or, at the very least, soon after. It was a tiny little Ferris Wheel. Just 15 feet high. It had four buckets; they could hold two people each. And the whole thing had to be powered by hand. It was such an early prototype that people didn't even call them Ferris Wheels yet. That didn't happen until about a year after this photo was taken, when George Ferris Jr. unveiled his enormous creation at the Chicago World's Fair. Tens of thousands of pounds of iron and steel. Enough room for more than two thousand people. All powered by steam engines. The world of amusement park rides had changed forever. And the Ex didn't waste any time following suit. The very next year, our fair boasted "Ferris Wheels, Carousals, Swings and other amusements for young and old." Soon, there would be an entire midway.


Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

This post originally appeared on the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, which tells stories about the history of Toronto. You can read more highlights from it here, or visit it yourself here.


Post a Comment