Saturday, September 26, 2015

# 60 ~ "Play by the Bay", Part II - The Toronto Islands

This is the second of four articles that are taken from a presentation that I gave during the week of September 21st, 2015.  Given that we have reached the official end of summer, I presented a look back at some of Toronto's favourite summertime recreational spots - particularly, those located around the Toronto harbour.

The second stop on my "tour" of these recreational areas is the cluster of islands in Toronto’s harbour.   This area has served the city as a recreational area for generations.   History suggests that the prior to European settlement, the Mississauga people used the Toronto Islands as a place to let their sick convalesce. 

Once the old Town of York was established in 1793, British troops built a small fortification on the islands, across the harbour from Fort York, and early settlers used the islands as a place to fish and hunt.

The main painting in this image shows what Gibraltar Point would have looked like about 1820.  The lighthouse at Gibraltar Point was built in 1808.  If you look closely, you can catch a glimpse of a blue coated hunter searching for prey in the marshy grasslands.

Year round settlement on the Toronto Islands began in the early 1860s.  In 1867, the City of Toronto acquired the islands from the federal government and divided the land into lots, allowing for cottages, amusement areas and resort hotels to be built.  The west side of the island became a resort destination for the people of Toronto and the first summer cottage community was built there.

It was the Hanlan family who became one of the first year round inhabitants of the Toronto Islands back in the early 1860s.  In 1878, John Hanlan built a hotel on the northwest tip of the Toronto Islands and soon the area became known as “Hanlan’s Point”. 

Edward “Ned” Hanlan would become a world famous rower before retiring from athletics and taking over his father John’s hotel business.  He also represented the Toronto Islands on City Council for a few years near the end of the 1890s.

In a story similar to that of the Hanlan family, David Ward was an early settler on the eastern end of the Toronto Islands, and Ward’s Island would eventually take his name.  David Ward’s son, William E. Ward, built the Ward’s Hotel in the 1880s.  He also constructed a few other homes and tents that he rented to visitors.

This photograph from 1911 shows some of the tents that were available to rent on Ward's Island.  Just two years later, by 1913, the number of tents had increased to the point where the city felt it necessary to organize the community into streets, and the tents eventually evolved into a cottage community.

In contrast to the small homes and tents that were built on Ward’s Island, Toronto’s wealthiest families were building large Victorian summer homes on the lakefront at Centre Island.  Many of these were built in the last few decades of the nineteenth century.  The Toronto Islands were really developing as a summer suburb of the city.  

Here we see industrialist George Gooderham, left inset, at the helm of his yacht, which was harboured at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.  His "cottage" on the Toronto Islands is also shown.

Toronto’s wealthy came in search of refuge from the crowded heat of the city, and joined the prestigious Royal Canadian Yacht Club, which had moved to its location on the harbour side of Centre Island in 1881.  The tall tower to the one side of the clubhouse, and the veranda that encircled the entire building, gave good vantage points to take in all the boating events in the harbour. 

Complete with dining space, lounges and residential rooms, there was no question that the yacht club was for the well to do.  The lighthearted, rustic look of the clubhouse’s wood and ivy gave an intentional contrast to the brick homes that club members were escaping from, back in the city.

The Royal Canadian Yacht Club's first clubhouse on the Toronto Islands was built in 1881.

Fire struck this 1881 clubhouse in 1904, and it was destroyed, but it was rebuilt quickly.  A new clubhouse, shown here, was finished by 1906.  This second clubhouse was a step away from its more rustic predecessor, and it was definitely more formal.  However, it only lasted a dozen years, before it fell prey to fire, too, in 1918.

The second clubhouse that the Royal Canadian Yacht Club had on the Toronto islands lasted from 1906 until 1918.

The burned out hulk of the second yacht clubhouse served until a slightly altered reincarnation of the building could be completed in 1922.  The fire had been devastating, though fortunately the club's trophies and silverware service had been saved.  However, the design of the second clubhouse had been so popular that the third clubhouse was built to resemble its immediate predecessor.  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.

In 1894, a land reclamation project by the Toronto Ferry Company created space for an amusement park at Hanlan’s Point.  In 1897, the Hanlan’s Point Stadium was built alongside this amusement park.  The stadium was home to the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team, and was modified and rebuilt several times over the years. 

In 1914, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run from the stadium into the waters of Lake Ontario.  The Maple Leaf team moved to a new stadium on the mainland in the 1920s.

Hanlan's Point Stadium.

The residential community on the Toronto Islands reached its peak in the 1950s.  It extended all the way from Ward’s Island to Hanlan’s Point, and was made up of about 630 cottages and homes.  There were also such amenities as a movie theatre, a bowling alley, stores, hotels and dance halls.  However, the Gardiner Expressway would sound the death knell for a major part of this community. 

The expressway meant the demolition of a lot of recreational land along the city’s waterfront – including Sunnyside Amusement Park, as mentioned in my previous post.  The city’s government turned its eye towards the Toronto Islands, and looked to demolish the residential community in order to turn the area into more parkland for the city.  Demolition of the homes started in 1955.

To compensate for the demolition of homes, recreational attractions began opening on the islands.  A petting zoo called “Far Enough Farm” opened in 1959.  The Centreville Amusement Park opened in 1967, and was meant to be a replacement for the midway at Sunnyside, which had been demolished a dozen years earlier, in 1955.  

 Any island residents were encouraged to leave, and by 1963, all of those who were willing to leave their homes on the Toronto Islands had done so. Legal battles and protests to save the island homes were waged back and forth through the 1960s and 1970s.  Islanders either gained or lost ground depending on who held sway at Queen’s Park or City Hall.  Eventually, only 250 homes out of an original 630 were still standing.  These were all located on either Algonquin Island or Ward’s Island.

Island protestors call on Ontario's Premier Bill Davis for help.

Matters came to a head on July 28th, 1980, when a sheriff was sent to serve eviction notices to the remaining residents.  He was met at the Algonquin Island bridge by most of the island residents, and there was a showdown.  Residents managed to convince the sheriff to withdraw without serving the eviction notices.  In December of 1981, the Province of Ontario passed a law permitting the island residents to stay until 2005.  Then, in 1993, the Ontario Government passed the Toronto Islands Residential Community Stewardship Act, which enabled island residents to purchase a 99-year lease on their island homes. 


So, this gives you a sense of the history of the Toronto Islands, from the earliest days of European settlement to the cottages that stand there today.  Now, I’d like to share with you some historical photographs that I’ve chosen to give you an idea of what recreation on the Toronto Islands was like in years past.

The Toronto islands have always been a place where people come to relax and refresh.  I mentioned before that aboriginal peoples once crossed the harbour to recuperate on the islands.   The former Provincial Insane Asylum once kept a summer home for its patients on the islands.  Today, there is an island retreat for seniors.  In 1883, an institution known as the Lakeside Home for Little Children was located on the western end of the Toronto Islands, near Gibraltar Point.

The home was built as a summer retreat for poor children, mostly suffering from Tuberculosis in Toronto’s crowded inner city.  In 1891 John Ross Robertson, founder of the Evening Telegram newspaper who lost his own daughter to scarlet fever, built an enormous addition and surrounded the entire home with a veranda to overlook the lake.  

Every June these children, some still in their hospital beds, would be paraded in a long line of carriages from the Hospital for Sick Kids (then on College Street) down to the Island docks.  In September crowds would form once again to see their return.

This photograph shows being transported to the Lakeside Home in June of 1923.  You can make out the gritty, smog ridden skyline of the city in the background, and imagine what these young children were escaping from.

This photograph from 1927 shows some of the Lakeside Home's patients arriving on the islands.  Once across the harbour and away from Toronto, the scenery was much more "natural".

Fire struck the Lakeside Home in April of 1915, but fortunately, no one was injured and the building was repaired.  The home was a fresh air haven for thousands of children up until 1928 when a new country home operated by Sick Kids opened in Thistledown, Ontario.  The rambling mansion was used as emergency housing during the Second World War, and was eventually demolished in 1956.

It was John Ross Robertson, who operated the Evening Telegram newspaper, who had enabled the Lakeside Home for Little Children to open.


Long before Centreville opened in 1967, there were plenty of early amusements on the Toronto Islands to thrill children of all ages.  Many of these were located at the Amusement Park at Hanlan’s Point, before they were demolished in the late 1930s and 1940s to make way for the Island Airport.  The largest ride in the amusement park was the roller coaster.  The rollercoaster was located immediately next to the stadium at Hanlan’s Point, where Babe Ruth had hit his first professional home run in 1914.

Hanlan's Point Rollercoaster, with stadium in background.

Hanlan's Point Midway, circa 1908.

One of the rides on the midway was a sliding affair known as the “Hurgle Gurgle”, seen in the photograph, below.  Like most amusement parks, the one at Hanlan’s Point also featured games that could separate visitors from their money.  The prizes have changed over the years, though.  Also seen in the photograph is a ball pitch game to the right, which gave out cigars to players with good aim.

Handing out cigars on the midway has fallen out of fashion, but I don’t think that the name for this ride would be very popular today, either.  Shown below is the Hanlan's Point miniature train, which was dubbed “the Midget Railway”. 

“The Whip” was another popular ride.  It gave riders a good excuse to hold each other tight as it spun them around.  Apparently it didn’t spin them fast enough for the gentleman in this central photograph, taken in 1930, to lose his hat.

No amusement park is complete with a merry-go-round.  Shown below is the one that Hanlan’s Point boasted.

Games for the kids included this “Drive Yourself” ride, shown here in 1934.  Riders were allowed to go two laps for a nickel. 

If you didn't have a nickel, or you didn't like the look of any of the rides at Hanlan's Point, there was still fun to be had, as we see in this photograph from 1911.

Hanlan's Point also featured a few indoor attractions, like this roller skating rink, shown here in 1934.

When swing was king during the Big Band Era, from the 1930s through to the early 1950s, no amusement park was complete without a dance hall.  They were just as integral a part of a summer’s recreation as the Ferris Wheel, the rollercoaster or the carousel.  Hanlan’s Point was no exception, and it featured the dance hall and flower garden.

Hanlan's Point Dance Hall & Flower Garden, 1928.

Hanlan's Point Dance Hall & Flower Garden, 1929.

There were, of course, water themed attractions on the Toronto Islands.  This photograph from 1908 shows a pavilion that was set up right next to the roller coaster at Hanlan’s Point.  The show featured two diving horses, named “King” and “Queen”.  The horses would travel up the ramp and then dive up from the top, into the water.  There is no way that animal rights activists would let this happen today.  The horses didn’t exactly travel up the ramp by their own volition.  The ramp actually contained an early model of escalator.  Once on the ramp, the horses had no alternative but to travel to the top, and when they reached the summit, they had no choice but to dive.

Diving Horses, Toronto Islands.

Some of the island’s aquatic activity was a little more humane.  The Durnan family had a long history on the Toronto Islands, and the boathouse that they owned rented out canoes and kayaks for island visitors to enjoy.  Although Durnan’s boathouse is long gone, there are still boat rentals on the Toronto Islands today.

Durnan's Boathouse, 1908.

James Durnan emigrated from Dublin to Toronto about 1830s.  He moved to the Toronto Islands, and served as the lighthouse keeper at Gibraltar Point from 1832 to 1853.  His son, George, took over and served as lighthouse keeper for over half a century, from 1853 until 1908. 

This photograph from 1907 shows George Durnan being interviewed by John Ross Roberston, owner of he Evening Telegram newspaper, back in 1907.  It as Robertson who had contributed to the Lakeside Home for Little Children.


To help the transition from Summer to Autumn a little easier, there is always hallowe'en to look forward to.  I've included this video from the CBC archives, chronicling the Gibraltar Point lighthouse and its legendary ghost story.  The clip is from 1958, so the sound is not the best.  However, this clip gives a glimpse into the early broadcasts from the CBC, which had only gone on the area a few years before this aired.  It also introduces a member of the Durnan family, as well as the very last official lighthouse keeper, Mrs. Dodds, who looked over the lighthouse from 1955 until 1958.  Have a look for panoramic sweeps of the Toronto skyline from the lighthouse, which shows how differently the city looked in 1958.

You can find the 1958 broadcast from the CBC here.

If you are looking forward to hallowe'en, it's never too early to sign up for one of our ghost tours.  This will be my 18th hallowe'en giving tours around Toronto.  We offer them most nights between Thanksgiving and Hallowe'en night, which falls on a Saturday night this year.

Some of the nights near the end of October are selling quickly, already.  You can find information on Muddy York Walking Tours at


The amusement park at Hanlan’s Point was eventually lost, but when Centreville opened in 1967, it gave a whole new generation of Toronto kids happy memories of summers spent across the harbour.  This was my era – I can still wander through the grounds of Centreville today and wax nostalgic about discovering it for the first time, forty years ago.  Most of these photographs are from that vintage, taken through the 1970s.

Centreville, 1970s.

The swan ride remains a central fixture at Centreville.

The water flume ride still thrills & soaks visitors to Centreville.

The miniature trains at Centreville could be considered a replacement for the old railway ride at Hanlan's Point.

The vintage car ride at Centreville travels along a guided track, which allows for a little less freedom than the old miniature car ride at Hanlan's Point.

The same holds true for the miniature fire engine ride.


This photograph from 1972 shows how much the skyline has changed in 43 years.  There is no CN Tower, no Rogers Centre, and although a few financial towers have gone up, the Royal York Hotel is still a central part of the skyline.

The following video was produced by the Government of Ontario in the 1970s, to promote use of the Toronto Islands by the general public.


My "blog" on Toronto, Then & Now has developed out of the thousands of historical photographs of Toronto that I have collected over the years, in the course of giving illustrated talks and presentations.

If you have an interest in booking an illustrated talk, please get in touch.  I have many different subjects put together.  Just a few of these include :

- Toronto in the Georgian Era (1793 to 1834)
- Victorian Toronto (1837 to 1901)
- Demolished Toronto
- A History of Old Homes & Estates in Toronto
- A History of Cinema & Entertainment in Toronto
- Toronto During the First World War
- At least two different presentations on True Crime in Toronto
- Ghost Stories of Toronto

Presentations can be tailored to run anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the needs of your group.  I come with all my own equipment - laptop, speaker, and digital projector.  Researching the history of Toronto and going on a detective hunt for old photographs is a passion of mine.

If you don't see a subject that you're interested in listed above, just ask!

You can reach me at :

telephone : 416 487 9017

You can follow Muddy York Tours on twitter @MuddyYorkTours

Also : join our Facebook group for special information on "secret" events and tours that aren't always announced to the public.  Our Facebook group can be found here.

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