A Look Back at 138 Years of The CNE

A Toronto Tradition since 1879

Once the sun sets, and the lights come on, there is something magical about the CNE. The sounds of sirens and whistles, the sweet smell of deep fried foods, the rides, the nostalgia.

Founded in 1879, the CNE is Canada’s largest fair and its home has been at Exhibition Place for 138 years, but did you know it wasn’t always a Toronto staple? This tradition started as a travelling fair in 1846, visiting cities like Kingston, Niagara Falls and Hamilton. It wasn’t until 1879 that the fair found a permanent home in Toronto.

Since its opening, the fair has changed tremendously over the years, but has always remained a Toronto tradition. Each year crowds get new attractions, out of this world food options, and new exhibits to explore.

Take a look back and see what the CNE was like through the beginning years:

Originally known as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition, the fair’s main purpose was for agriculturists, engineers and scientists to showcase inventions in technology.
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The CNE introduced audiences to Edison’s phonograph in 1888, the wireless telephone in 1890, radio in 1922, and to television in 1939.
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Columbia Record & Gramophone Exhibit at the Toronto Exhibition in 1890 was new and exciting for patrons, because this was the first time recorded music could be brought home!
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Built in 1850, Crystal Palace was known as a modern world centrepiece. Inside an array of products from pianos, firearms, wedding cakes, fishing tackle, condensed milk and tools could all be found.
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Before the Ferris wheel was invented, we had The Crank Wheel! Powered by human muscle, this ride was brought to the Toronto Exhibition in 1892. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the invention of the Ferris wheel.
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The Grand Stand was a huge draw for crowds, featuring horses, motorcycle races, elephant shows and a sport called auto polo. The stadium was rebuilt twice due to fires, one in 1906 and the second in 1947.
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Starting in 1912, an attraction at the CNE was the Midway Freak Show. Visitors could see various shows, from divers consumed by flames plunging into water, to daredevil horseback entertainers and sideshow performers in every shape and size. This went on until the early 1970s.
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The CNE has over 1.3 million visitors each year. Check out the crowds during the 1930s!
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Designed by Charles Heck, the Shriners Memorial was unveiled in 1930 and represents the Goddess of Peace and commemorates nearly a century of peaceful relations between Canada and our American neighbours.

In the distance is “Canada’s largest dance floor”, the CNE Tent, measuring 80 feet by 260 feet. It officially opened in 1938 and patrons had a chance to dance to the world’s finest swing music.
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Crowds gathered outside Bandshell circa 1948. Over the years, artists like Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong, Danny Kaye, Lighthouse, Crowbar, and Shania Twain all performed here.
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The CNE Food Building, which may be the happiest place on earth for some, opened in 1954. It’s known for serving up some outrageous food.
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Constructed in 1953, at a cost of $200,000, the Flyer promised fair-goers “thrills galore.” During its 39 years of operation, over 9 million passengers rode the Flyer.
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Soaring over Lake Ontario each Labour Day Weekend, the Canadian International Air Show has been thrilling audiences since 1949.
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When the CNE Alpine Way opened in 1966, it was a one-of-a-kind experience in North America. The cable cars ran for half a mile over the Exhibition grounds. The Sky Ride now serves as the CNE’s aerial attraction.
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Finely dressed 60s gals dance in front of Princes’ Gate, which was constructed in 1927 to commemorate Canada’s 60th birthday.
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Although the grounds have gone through some changes since the fair first opened, the midway has been a CNE mainstay.
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Fair food & fashion at the CNE in the 1970s.
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The CNE Polar Express is notorious for playing screaming loud music. Over the years its sounds have changed from Heavy Metal, to R n’ B, to Top40.
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Showcasing the newest in technology, kids play one of twelve video games at the Coleco Exhibit at the CNE, released in 1982.
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The CNE now features 60 rides, 114 games, 1085 entertainers / performers, 700 vendors and exhibitors, and 7 music stages.

The CNE opens on Friday, August 19, and runs until Labour Day, Monday, September 5. See you there! Learn more at www.cneheritage.com.

(All photos courtesy of CNE Heritage)