Let's Go Sleddin'
A look into one of Brantford's oldest winter pastimes and a historical guide to the gnarliest and most bodacious toboggan runs Brantford has ever seen.
Tim Ford, December 14, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioSnowy hills - a sleddin' paradise. Stock photo.
I was a wee 10-year-old when I first broke a bone in my body. It was the tip of my pinky finger and it hurt… and I cried… in front of my brother and his older, cooler, friends. The Great Wipeout of ’91 was the result of a sledding spill so flinchingly ugly it was told on the school grounds during recess for years after. It also destroyed any dreams I had at becoming a hand model. The daintiest of my digits would never point straight again, after the GT Sno-Racer I was piloting grabbed too much air off a handmade ice ramp that the local kids had constructed. It was packed with such firmness it could have passed as Italian marble.
When I stepped to the edge of the highest mount of Arrowdale Golf Course, I heard snickers and scathing yelps of “come on ’fraidy cat baby boy” from the other kids behind me waiting their turn. I was visibly shaking in my snowsuit, and I had no choice but to heave down the slope or suffer the bullying consequences. I found the courage I knew I had in me, nudged my boot into the snow and thrusted down the hill with a whoosh – and the feeling of immediate regret.
Sweat, snow and snot glistened off my rosy cheeks as my tiny hands struggled to keep grip of the comically small plastic wheel. The moment the front ski hit the catapult and I left this earth I knew I was toast. Almost instantly, I had twisted myself 180 degrees, and was now flying backwards, facing uphill, and bearing witness to everyone on top bursting into laughter. My brother stumbled down the hill after me, not even needing to see me land, for him to know my fate.
I crashed with a thwonk that echoed through the cherished Kentucky Coffee trees. He ran over to me half laughing, half in fear and dragged me to the side to begin to assess the damage. Considering the dramedy of the fall, I walked away relatively free of harm, barring my pinky and my pride. It was worth every throb of pain when my brother gazed down at me and exclaimed, “Did you see the air you got?! That was the most amazing jump I’ve ever seen!”
Gorgeous view from above. Stock Photo.
It became a tradition throughout the years for us to try to outdo that jump. Annually, the local kids would gather at Arrowdale or W. Ross Macdonald School for the first good snow fall of the year and go sleddin’. Those who were earliest to arrive would promptly begin to fashion a ramp, each year seemingly getting bigger and grander in scale. Then everyone would spend the evening zipping 20 seconds down the hill and spending 10 minutes walking back up, on repeat, until someone’s parents called the search party, or someone broke something. There wasn’t a slope in the city that was too steep or too “traffic heavy” for us and it seemed every hill from Brantford to St. George had tracks and streaks from toboggans running down them.
The word toboggan is said to have come from the Algonquian term ‘odabaggan’ which means sled. The tradition of tobogganing in this area far surpasses my 1991 wipeout. The valleys and peaks that weave through Brant County were one of its defining features when first inhabited by the early Indigenous peoples and was a significant attraction to American settlers scurrying north post revolutionary war in the early 1800s. Even in the unforgiving Canadian winter, early Brantfordians utilized the surrounding hillsides for leisure and sport. As far back as the 1850s, it was documented in the local papers that the natural slopes were being used for tobogganing and winter activities. Families would hand make sleds from cheese boxes and skis out of barrel staves. A few were lucky enough to find some scrap iron so they could crudely hinge everything together. Some of the neighbouring Six Nations community would bring their own toboggans, that were far more well crafted and stable, and joined the festivities.
If we were to rub away 200 years of streets, houses and settlements that have been built on top of the landscape, it would reveal quite a hilly terrain, with half the city being on top of the Brant Valley and half being on the lower part. This meant an abundance of choice sledding slopes for the early townsfolk to choose from. The community would all gather on top of one of the many hills around town and spend their afternoons whizzing down, praying their sleighs would hold. West Street hill was a popular spot and with the right winds, a sledder could reach as far as Elgin Street. Although, it was said that Strawberry Hill was the longest in length. With a running start, one could get from Shellard’s Lane to Mount Pleasant Road, stretching all the way to the river. Imagine that walk back after every launch. Vinegar Hill was always the busiest and was known to have the steepest incline and fastest routes.
For those with true grit, however, the Terrace Hill drop was the go-to. This was not for the novice sledder, mind you. The run lead right to Clarence Street and into Greenwood Cemetery, giving it the nickname “Tombstone Alley”
For those with true grit, however, the Terrace Hill drop was the go-to. This was not for the novice sledder, mind you. The run lead right to Clarence Street and into Greenwood Cemetery, giving it the nickname “Tombstone Alley” (note: journalist may have taken liberties in the nickname). Those whirling down would need to maneuver through giant cedars and manage to avoid the acres of gravesites at the bottom of the hill. One can only assume many pinky fingers suffered a familiar fate just as mine did.
In the 1880s, the pastime became so popular a snowshoe/toboggan club was organized. They proudly rose their flag over the hill that now has the General Hospital on it, making it the first private sledding hill in the city. As the winter weather rolled through each year the pastime never lost popularity, although it became harder to find a hill to enjoy it on. Strawberry Hill was eventually broken up into what is now West Brant. In 1905, Terrace Hill (or “Tombstone Alley”) now had the railway to add to its hazards. West Street Hill no longer had any patches that didn’t have a house or street on it, and Vinegar Hill coincidentally became Arrowdale Golf Course, the location for the Great Wipeout of ’91.
Today there are even fewer public spaces the community can gather and enjoy one of Brantford’s oldest winter recreations. Sledding is no longer allowed at W. Ross Macdonald and any trespassing whatsoever is heartbreakingly prohibited at Arrowdale. The beloved holiday hobby seems to have a similar tone as the skateboarding purge the city invoked in the mid ’90s.
Albeit, with legitimate concerns of liability from the property owners, tobogganing within the city now seems less accessible. The discussion of greenspace within the city limits is a contested and debated subject amongst our community and should continue to be discussed, but with fewer spots for us to gather and enjoy our naturally stunning landscape, it may be harder to keep the small-town community charm Brantford has been grasping on to. People just want to go sleddin’, and unfortunately the hills seem to be getting smaller and shorter each year. But it’s beyond sledding. Our greenspaces need to be protected at all costs. Once they are gone, they can never truly be replaced. No matter how difficult it is to currently find a place to toboggan, Brantfordians endure, keeping with the local tradition and continue to hunt for any stellar sleddin’ slopes hidden within the city.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Ford is freelance hobbyist who lives in his twelfth home in Brantford, Ontario… so… yeah, he knows a thing or two about aluminum siding.