Thursday, May 21, 2015

# 58 ~ Toronto's "Lost Island"

Sorry if the title of this post is a little deceiving!  To those of you who were hoping for news of a discovery of an island in the Toronto harbour where dinosaurs still roam, or where a group of stranded travellers were scheming their way back to the city while fighting off mysterious monsters ... I apologize!

This coming weekend, on Saturday, May 23rd, and Sunday, May 24th, I will be conducting four tours each day on Toronto's very well known set of islands.  These tours are free and are conducted through the auspices of Doors Open Toronto.

The Toronto Islands are a place set apart from the city.  There is a certain amount of mystery to the islands.  And, they were once home to a number of buildings that have been demolished.  Though lost to us now, they paint a charming picture of the Toronto Islands as our city's "back garden".  So, I've decided to put together a post of a brief history of the islands and some of the buildings that once stood there.

Geologists tell us that the Toronto Islands were created over thousands of years.  Over 10,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age that struck the North American continent ended, the ice receded and what is now the St. Lawrence River opened up.  Over a very long time, the currents of the river washed away at the chalks of the Scarborough Bluffs, and deposited the silt and sand in Toronto's harbour, forming the Toronto Islands that we know today.  As many of those who are keen on Toronto's history will know, the lake shore and harbour of Toronto has changed considerably, even in the last 200 years.  The Toronto Islands are no exception.  The contours of the Toronto Islands have shifted and changed considerably.  Some of these changes can be spotted in the following two maps.  

This map from 1813 portrays the Toronto Harbour, Garrison Reserve, and the Toronto Islands.

This contemporary map from Google can be compared to the map above, from 1813, showing how the Toronto Islands have changed over two centuries.

According to tradition, the Toronto Islands served as a place for the region's aboriginal people to convalesce.  The sick and the tired would be taken over to recover.  This is a tradition that carried on after British settlement in 1793, and it is a tradition that is with us today.  Every summer, thousands of us who live in the city travel across the harbour to get away from it all.  The islands have become an important retreat, especially for those who don't have cottages north of the city to retreat to.

By the middle of the 1800s, a few people had begun to live on the Toronto Islands all year round.  The first permanent residents of the Toronto Islands were the Hanlan family, who settled near Gibraltar Point, towards the west end of the Islands, in 1862.  John Hanlan would later build a hotel at the northwest tip of the island - I'll discuss the hotel later in this post.  The area become known as "Hanlan's Point".  John's son, Edward "Ned" Hanlan earned a worldwide reputation as a rower, before retiring from athletics and taking over his father's business.  You can read a biography of Ned Hanlan at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography by clicking here.

Growing up on the Toronto Islands, Ned Hanlan picked up the skills that would make him a world class rower.

Land on the Toronto Islands was subdivided to make way for cottages, recreational and amusement attractions, and hotels, like the one Hanlan had built.  Along the southern side of Centre Island, facing the outer harbour and Lake Ontario, large Victorian summer homes were built by Toronto’s leading families.  They were looking to escape summer in the city, and they could also take advantage of their memberships in the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, which relocated to the Toronto Islands. 

By 1899, there a total of eight tenants on Ward’s Island, who each paid $10 rent to stay there for the summer season.  By 1913, this number had increased so much that the municipal government found it necessary to organize the area into streets, and the area eventually evolved into a cottage community.

The number of people living on the islands only grew, and by the 1950s, this residential community stretched all the way from Ward’s Island to Hanlan’s Point - so across most of the islands.  There were about 630 homes, as well as services like a movie cinema, a bowling alley, stores, hotels and dance halls.  These attractions were located at the southern end of Centre Island.  But, the homes on the Toronto Islands were threatened when planning began for the Gardiner Expressway.  In the early 1950s, he new thoroughfare ate up a lot of recreational and park land along the city's lakefront.  City council chose to demolish the residential community on the Toronto Islands and replace it with parkland, to compensate for the loss of all that green space on the city side of the harbour.  City crews began demolishing the homes on the Toronto Islands. 

By 1963, all the residents of the Toronto Islands who were willing to move on had done so.  Those who remained carried on a very long battle to keep their homes.  By 1970, only 250 of those original 630 homes remained.  They were clustered together on Algonquin Island and Ward's Island.  Through the 1970s, island residents continued to lobby both the municipal and provincial governments, and as various elections came and went, the prospects of those living across the inner harbour kept changing back and forth.  However, no significant demolition was carried on through the 1970s. 

There was a showdown on July 28, 1980.  Municipal authorities sent a sheriff to serve eviction notices to remaining residents.  Most of the island residents met the sheriff at the bridge to Algonquin Island.  Those who had gathered managed to convince the sheriff to withdraw.  On July 31, 1980, the community won the right to challenge the 1974 evictions. The Islanders lost the challenge, but by this time, the province had started a formal inquest. On December 18, 1981, the province of Ontario passed a law legalizing the Islanders to stay until 2005.

On July 28, 1980, there was a "showdown" between Toronto Island residents and a sheriff who had been sent to evict them.  The stand off took place here, on the bridge between Centre Island and Algonquin Island.  Residents eventually persuaded the sheriff to leave, and in 1981, a law was passed to allow Island residents to stay, at least temporarily.

The community's final fight for survival was finally rewarded in 1993, when the Ontario Government passed the Toronto Islands Residential Community Stewardship Act, which enabled Islanders to purchase 99-year land leases from a Land Trust.

This briefly tells the story of how those homes on the Toronto Islands that we know today managed to survive.  But what about the buildings that were destroyed?  Here is an inventory of some of the buildings that used to grace the landscape of the Toronto Islands.


As mentioned, the Hanlan family were pioneers in settling on the Toronto Islands.  The family had settled there in 1862, and in 1878, John Hanlan built a hotel near the northwest tip of the islands.  The hotel was destroyed by a fire in 1909.

Hanlan's Hotel, circa 1890.

Tennis at Hanlan's Hotel in 1905.

Local children enjoy the water while a regatta assembles in front of Hanlan's Hotel in 1907.

Hanlan's Hotel is shown here sometime shortly after it opened in 1878.  It certainly would have been a whimsical place in which to stay and enjoy recreation on the Toronto Islands.  It was destroyed by a fire that swept through Hanlan's Point on August 10th, 1909.


This home was built as a summer retreat for economically disadvantaged young children.  Many of them suffered from Tuberculosis or other respiratory diseases.  The original home opened in 1883, near the western end of the Toronto Islands.  In 1891, John Ross Robertson, who had founded the Evening Telegram newspaper, and who had lost his own daughter to Scarlet Fever, donated the funds for a large addition to the home and a veranda that looked out over the lake.  

This painting from 1892 shows the location of the Lakeside Home for Little Children relative to the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse.

Every June, the children who enjoyed the home were taken from the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children, which was then located on College Street.  The sick children would be paraded down to the docks in a long line of carriages, with many of the children still in their hospital beds.  They stayed on the Toronto Islands until September, when they would be brought back to the hospital.

The home was damaged in a fire that struck on April 22nd, 1915, but fortunately, none of the children had yet arrived for the summer.  Robertson once again gave a donation and the home was repaired and continued to be a fresh air haven for thousands of children.  It continued until 1928, when a new country home for the Hospital for Sick Children opened up in Thistledown, Ontario.  The former Lakeside Home for Little Children was then used as emergency housing during the Second World War.  It was being used as a housing complex up until the time it was demolished in 1956.

The Lakeside Home for Little Children, circa 1883.

Hospital Ward, Lakeside Home for Little Children, circa 1883.

Children being transported to the Lakeside Home in 1923.

Patients from the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children are seen here being transported to the Lakeside Home, aboard the S.S. John Hanlan, in 1928.

The two photographs above show a similar scene, with children being transported across the Inner Harbour to the Lakeside Home for Little Children.  The lower photograph also gives us an insight into what nurses and policemen wore to work.
Red Cross Hut, Lakeside Home for Little Children, July of 1924.

This photograph shows the Lakeside Home for Little Children looking rather abandoned in 1954.  It was demolished two years later.


The Royal Canadian Yacht Club an trace its origins back to 1850, when a small group of Toronto boating enthusiasts established the Toronto Boat Club.  This evolved over the next three years to become the Toronto Yacht Club, and the group applied for a Royal Warrant.  This involved obtaining permission from the Sovereign of the day to use the word "Royal".  The petition was actually granted by Queen Victoria, and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club was born. 

Sir Caismir Gzowski allowed a building that he owned near the site of today's present Union Station to be used as the first clubhouse for the original Toronto Boat Club.  In 1853, the clubhouse moved to a scow that was docked at the foot of Simcoe Street.  In 1858, the clubhouse moved again to a steamer called the Provincial.  The new headquarters lasted for a decade, until the Provincial was pooled away from its moorings by ice in the harbour, and was eventually blown up to eliminate it as a risk to any other ships navigating through nearby waters.

The following year, a clubhouse was built on Front Street, near Simcoe Street.  This site was eventually replaced when a new clubhouse was finally constructed on the Toronto Islands in 1881.  This first RCYC clubhouse to be built on the Toronto Islands was evocative of the summer cottages that were so much in vogue at the time.  With the tall tower to one side of the clubhouse, and the verandah that encircled the building, there would have been plenty of vantage points from which to take in all the boating events that took place in the harbour.  On the inside, the clubhouse presented another face.  Complete with dining space, lounges and residential rooms, there was no question that the building was a resort for the well-to-do.  The lighthearted, rustic look of wood and ivy on the clubhouse's exterior gave an intentional contrast to the brick homes that those who came to enjoy the clubhouse were escaping from back in the city.  Designed by noted Toronto architect Frank Darling, this clubhouse stood on the site of the present day RCYC clubhouse, until it was destroyed by fire in 1904.  Fire was a serious threat to buildings in Toronto and other cities at the time.  Most buildings were constructed of wood and were both heated and illuminated by coal stoves or lanterns.  In fact, most buildings were put up with the expectation that they would only last a few decades, anyhow.

The first Royal Canadian Yacht Club clubhouse on the Toronto Islands was built in 1881.  It lasted for just over twenty years before being lost to fire in 1904.

Garden Party, Royal Canadian Yacht Club, circa 1900.

When the 1881 clubhouse was burned to the ground in 1904, it was replaced by a new facility, designed by architect Henry Sproatt, and completed in 1906.  The style of this second RCYC clubhouse to be built on the Toronto Islands was definitely a step away from the rustic nature of its predecessor.  There was definitely something more formal about this second building.  The architectural firm of Sproatt & Rolph, which had designed this building, had also designed Victoria College, which was in the Gothic style, the Canada Life Assurance Company building on University Avenue just north of Queen Street, which was in a Classical style, and many private homes in Forest Hill and Rosedale, many of which were in the Georgian style.  So, the firm was definitely very versatile in what they had to offer.  This second clubhouse only lasted a dozen years before it fell prey to fire, too, in 1918.  

The second clubhouse for the Royal Canadian Yacht Club to be built on the Toronto Islands was completed by 1906, and was destroyed when fire struck again in 1918.  It was replaced with the current building, which was made to look similar to the 1906 design by Sproatt & Ralph.

The burned out hulk of the second RCYC clubhouse served until a slightly altered reincarnation of Sproatt's clubhouse could be completed in 1922.  The fire had been devastating, though fortunately the club's trophies and silverware service had been saved.  However, it was because the design by Sproatt & Rolph had been so popular that the third clubhouse was built to resemble the second clubhouse so closely  This third facility is the one that survives today.  It is Toronto's largest wooden building, and holds a ballroom, a dining room, and other social spaces.  This is not to be confused with the clubhouse across the harbour on the mainland, on St. George Street, just north of Bloor Street.

The Royal Canadian Yacht Club's Toronto Islands clubhouse today.


The Toronto Islands have seen various amenities come and go over the years, but its church has survived for 130 years, although it has had its appearance altered and has been moved.  The Anglican Church of St. Andrew's-by-the-Lake was opened in 1884, and built at a cost of $2,000.  The church was originally located on Lakeshore Avenue, on the south side of the islands, towards the western end of Centre Island.  Prominent Toronto families, like the Gooderhams, owned cottages on the islands, were members of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club, and also contributed to the establishment of St. Andrew's-by-the-Lake.  

The architectural design of the church was a curious combination of Gothic and Medieval elements, mixed with something called "Stick-Style", which was often used for cottages and seasonal summer hotels.  Between 1919 and 1921, a set of stained glass windows were installed in the church.  These windows had been designed by Robert McCausland, a noted Toronto area stained glass window designer, whose work can also be seen in Toronto's 1899 City Hall and the Press Building at the Canadian National Exhibition.  

Above, the windows of St. Andrews-by-the-Lake Church.

This window, located in the main lobby of Toronto's 1899 City Hall, was designed by Robert McCausland, who was also responsible for the windows at St. Andrews-by-the-Lake church.

The church was moved away from Lakeshore Avenue to its current location in 1959.  This was at a time when a lot of the residential demolition was taking place on the Toronto Islands.  Fortunately, the church was moved very carefully, even though it was actually cut in half to facilitate the move.  The cherished McCausland windows were salvaged.  

The original rectory for the church was not so fortunate.  Often referred to as the "Sweatman Cottage", this name is a reference to the Right Reverend Arthur Sweatman, who arrived in Toronto in 1879, and eventually became the Anglican Archbishop and Primate of all of Canada.  Sweatman was a driving force in setting up the summer church community on the Toronto Islands.  His cottage was constructed at the same time as the church, for a cost of $1,500.  Photographs of the cottage show it having an outline very similar to that of the church, complete with even something that looks like a bell tower.  Verandahs and porches were the order of the day, especially for summer cottages.  Regular homes may often have included them at the front of the house, but on summer cottages, they usually wrapped around all four sides of the building.  A roof would often overhang these verandahs to create additional "outdoor rooms".

The Sweatman Cottage was not lost to fire, but instead, to the thorough destruction that City Council carried out across the Toronto Islands during their swath of demolition in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today's Rectory Cafe did at one time later serve as a rectory for St. Andrew's-by-the-Lake Church.  Built in 1948, it was due to be demolished during the demolition that swept across the islands.  However, its heavy concrete construction made it too difficult to take down, so it survived.

This photograph from 1888 shows the "Sweatman Cottage", left, and the church of St. Andrew's-by-the-Lake before the church was dismantled and moved to its current location.


The lighthouse at Gibraltar Point is a much loved historical landmark in Toronto.  It doesn't quite rank as the oldest building in the city, but the fact that it was constructed by 1808 gives it a revered status in a city as young as Toronto.  It's a solitary landmark, too, standing watch over the harbour and the city as if it has watch Toronto grow for over two centuries.

The lighthouse itself has changed over the years.  Originally built to a height of 52 feet (just under 16 metres), it was extended in 1832, to a height of 82 feet (25 metres).  The original building was made out of stone from Queenston and the 1832 extension was made out of stone brought in from Kingston.  The light of the tower was originally burned using whale oil, until coal was used starting in 1862.  An electric light was put in, by 1917, and updated in later years.  Further minor renovations were made in the early 1960s.

In addition to these physical changes, the islands have changed around the lighthouse, too.  It once stood right on the water's edge, but with the shifting of the sand and silt around the lighthouse, it now stands about one hundred metres from the shore.

This painting of the lighthouse and Gibraltar Point was rendered in 1817.  Anyone who has been to visit the site of the lighthouse can compare this painting from nearly 200 years ago to the way the location looks today, and note the many differences.

All the electric light at the top of the lighthouse is still hooked up, the building is no longer ever put into operation.  It stands, tall and stoic, shut up against the wind and the rain, after all these years.  There is an enduring tale of the mysterious disappearance of the lighthouse's first keeper, who vanished a century ago now.  It is this legend, at least in part, that has helped to enter the lighthouse into the annals of Toronto's folklore.  But, perhaps a rendering of this story would offer good prospects for a future blog entry.  When the lighthouse originally opened, provision was made for a lighthouse keeper to be housed right next door.  There was an official "light keeper" right up until 1958, but this appointment was eventually rendered obsolete when the lighthouse fell out of use.  The lighthouse keeper's cottage eventually disappeared.  Below is a list of lighthouse keepers, followed by some images of the lighthouse keeper's cottage.

  • John Paul Radan Muller (1809 to 1815)
  • William Halloway (1816 to 1831)
  • James Durnan (1832 to 1853)
  • George Durnan (1853 to 1908)
  • Captain P. J. McSherry (1905 to 1912)
  • B. Matthews (1912 to 1917)
  • G. F. Eaton (1917 to 1918)
  • F. C. Allan (1918 to 1944)
  • Mrs. Ladder (1944 to 1955)
  • Mrs. Dodds (1955 to 1958)

George Durnan, who served as lighthouse keeper from 1853 to 1908, is shown here in June of 1907 being interviewed by John Ross Robertson, of the Evening Telegram.

Captain Patrick McSherry, lighthouse keeper from 1905 to 1912.

The Gibraltar Point lighthouse keeper's cottage stood to the north of the lighthouse.

The lighthouse keeper's cabin.

Interior, lighthouse keeper's cabin, 1908.

Above, details from the lighthouse keeper's cabin.  All three photographs were taken in 1908.

Houses near the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, 1910.

This photograph from 1912 shows the area around the lighthouse being more built up than it looks today.

By the time this photograph was taken in 1954, many of the buildings seen in the previous photograph from 1912 had been removed.


The buildings discussed above are just a few examples of those that once spread across the Toronto Islands.  There were many others that are lost to history, including hotels, boathouses, recreational attractions, and the baseball stadium near today's Toronto Island Airport where Baby Ruth hit his first professional home run.  To conclude this article, I have included a photographic miscellany that documents just a few of the homes that once stood across the Inner Harbour.

Cottage at Hanlan's Point, 1900.
Cottage at Centre Island, 1907.
Centre Island, 1907.

Hanlan's Point, 1908.

Hanlan's Point, circa 1908.

Centre Island, 1927.
A windswept day on Centre Island in 1912.

Homes on Toronto Islands, 1929.

Homes on Toronto Islands, 1929.

Cottage, Centre Island, 1930.

Ward's Island, 1933.

Toronto Islands, 1935.