Ryerson’s legendary treasure hunt still eludes students
Almost 60 years ago the Ryerson community was consumed by a mystery fit for fiction. In the early 1960s, it was an annual tradition for a small contingent of students to scour the campus for buried treasure, rumoured to contain $10,000 (equivalent to more than $85,000 today) in assorted riches.
The treasure was said to be hidden somewhere in the Toronto Normal School, now the site of Ryerson’s Kerr Hall and Quad. A time capsule including Egerton Ryerson’s personal manuscripts, rare stamps and silver coins could be found inside the building’s cornerstone — the very first block laid by then-governor general James Bruce when the hall was constructed in the early 1850s.
The problem was that nobody could tell which one the cornerstone was. Searchers believed that the bronze plaque marking it had been inexplicably removed some time in the intervening century. To make matters worse, the land around the school had been raised since the original construction, meaning that the cornerstone was possibly buried.
Worst of all, the building was set to be demolished in 1963, adding a ticking clock to the mix.
“There didn’t seem to be a lot of mystery, back in 1851, when they put together the cornerstone,” said John Downing, former Toronto Sun editor and Ryerson journalism graduate circa 1972.
“[The stone-laying ceremony] was a great event, everybody came. Too bad no one ever thought to mark where they actually put the bloody cornerstone,” he said.
University administration took precautions in case the cornerstone was found. Howard Kerr, then university president and namesake for the forthcoming Kerr Hall, had written into the demolition contracts that any treasure found by workmen had to be turned over to the school.
In the meantime, students took it upon themselves to uncover the artifacts.
Ryersonian articles from the time tell a story of persistent frustration. Treasure hunters repeatedly descended into the cramped space beneath the building in search of any identifying marks or engravings. In March 1962, students told reporters that they had narrowed the spot down to a certainty, following a feverish bout of research at the Toronto Reference Library. A year later, however, clippings describe the final search coming up empty.
Even the Toronto Daily Star got into the frenzy, reporting on the developing search with such headlines as “Clue in $10,000 hunt dug up at Ryerson,” in March, 1962; and then “No clue to 1851 ‘treasure’ buried on Ryerson site” just over a week later. The Star also appears to be the origin of the rumoured $10,000 valuation, citing an anonymous stamp collector as their expert source.
Downing, who wrote about the cornerstone and the mystery surrounding it in his 2017 book, Ryerson University – A Unicorn Among Horses, says the paper likely made up the number out of thin air.
“It’s hard to figure out what was in the cornerstone,” he said in a recent interview. “No one really knows … I can see some guy sitting at his typewriter saying, ‘You know, I bet there was 10,000 bucks in there!’ I’m a newspaper guy, I know how it works. If no one objects, that’s the figure you use.”
According to Downing, the search was a clandestine affair. Fearing the liability in allowing students to root around in cramped and unmaintained crawl spaces, Kerr prohibited any and all treasure hunting, under threat of expulsion from the school.
The Toronto Normal School building was demolished in 1963, leaving behind a portion of the hall’s two-storey facade that now serves as the entrance to Ryerson’s Recreation and Athletics Centre.
Legend has it that Howard Kerr went to his grave believing the treasure was carried off by thieving demolition workers. In the years since, there have been no reports of any of the cornerstone’s contents surfacing.
“Somebody got the bright idea to tell the workmen that they couldn’t take anything that they found of value from the site,” said Downing, who mentioned the legend in his 2017 book. “That’s not standard. That makes you think, ‘Hey, maybe the cornerstone has value?’”
Downing has other theories.
“They might have put a second level of bricks down during construction to help support the building’s third storey,” he said. “That could have covered up the cornerstone. Or maybe someone decided to drag it away in the middle of the night.”
The practice of hoarding valuables in the bricks of a building isn’t unique to Ryerson. In 2012, construction workers uncovered another time-lost cache in the walls of Maple Leaf Gardens, during the renovations that would convert it into what we know today as the Mattamy Athletic Centre.
Believed to be put in during the arena’s original 1931 construction, the time capsule contained, among other things, an NHL rulebook and a small elephant carved from ivory, one the CBC describes as “of mysterious origin.”
For now, the mystery remains unsolved. As Kerr Hall approaches its 60th year, one can’t help but wonder: When the time comes to tear it down, what treasures might be found?