Toronto Islands

January 9, 2016

The Toronto Islands were a peninsula in 1793 when Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth  hiked there.  It was the year that York (Toronto) was founded and Elizabeth had named the Scarborough Bluffs after the chalk cliffs in England that they reminded her of. She never knew the connection between the two.  The force of water entering Lake Ontario after flowing over Niagara Falls gives the lake a rotation that carries eroded sand and gravel from the Bluffs and deposits it at the outer edge of the Toronto harbour.  The shape of the peninsula has been evolving over time and by 1815 when the map below was drawn it was nine kilometres long. The marsh on the right is Ashbridges Bay and has been filled in to form the Toronto Port Lands. To get to the islands we took the ferry from the Jack Layton terminal.


The eastern end of the peninsula had been opened up during storms a couple of times but the damage done by a storm in 1858 wasn’t repaired. The Eastern Gap has been open ever since. Since then, dredging of the Lower Don River and the harbour has resulted in the islands more than doubling in size.  Today there are 15 islands that form an archipelago about 1.6 kilometres from the downtown core. The islands are no longer eroding due to hard shore lines and erosion controls.  On the Port Lands side of the gap the pier is lined with old tires and ships still tie off while they wait to be off-loaded or for their turn to enter the ship channel.  On the Ward’s Island side of the gap the old port facilities lay abandoned.


The main roadway across the island is Lakeshore Avenue and it runs the full length of the island along the lake coastline.  Today a boardwalk has been built along part of the old roadway.


In 1862 the Hanlan family were one of the first to settle on the island but following confederation in 1867 the federal government transferred ownership of the island to the city and the land was divided for cottages and an amusement park.  John Hanlan built the hotel shown in the archive photo below on the west end of the island in 1878.


By the early 1950’s there were 8,000 people living on the islands in 630 cottages and homes. They were pretty much self-sufficient with their own stores along with theatres, dance halls and a bowling alley for entertainment.  When the city built the Gardiner Expressway they destroyed a lot of lakefront parkland and they decided to replace it with new parkland on the islands. They began to demolish homes as the leases expired and other residents were encouraged to give up their leases. Today there are about 600 people on the island in what is considered to be North America’s largest urban car-free zone.  The picture below is from a 1953 aerial photograph in the city archives.  It shows the density of homes along Centre Island with Lakeshore Avenue running along the shore of the lake.

Toronto Island2

Today the boardwalk is lined with low walls and sets of foundations.  Stairs lead up and over walls into grass and shrubbery.


Dogwoods come in several varieties and the berries of some of them are used to make jam.  There has also been medicinal use of the plant over the years with the bark being infused in a tea to treat pain and fever. The morning light caught the dogwood berries and made them glow neon orange.


The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was completed in 1808 and is the oldest surviving lighthouse on the great lakes and the oldest stone building in the city.  Originally just 8 metres from the water it now stands isolated in a wooded area. In 1832 the tower was raised by 30 feet to bring it to a total height of 82 feet.  Legend suggests that the first lighthouse keeper, J. P. Rademuller, was murdered in 1815 and that his ghost still haunts the lighthouse.


The two lighthouse keeper’s cottages are seen in this 1910 photo.  The original cottage on the left was built in 1809 and stood until about 1950.


A whale oil lamp burned in the lighthouse and was tended by various keepers over the years.  After 1878 the mechanism that rotated the light was installed and it needed to be wound every 48 hours. The Gibraltar point lighthouse was closed at the end of the shipping season in 1957 when it was replaced with a new, fully automated, steel tower.


Hanlan’s point beach was created in 1862 but in 1999 it became the site of a pilot project for a nude beach.  In 2002 it was officially recognized by an act of city council and has been Toronto’s only nude beach since then.  If there was ever a good day to see the beach this was it because no one was hanging out there.


In 1894 the Toronto Ferry Company created land through infilling to make space for an amusement park on the west end of the island.  That same year a baseball stadium was built on Hanlan’s point for the Toronto Maple Leafs Baseball Team and this is where Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run in 1914.  The stadium was demolished and more land created in 1937 for the construction of an airport.  The local cottages had to be relocated and 31 were moved by barge to Algonquin Island.  The picture below shows Billy Bishop airport with the city in the background.


Built in 1912, the Manitou Road bridge replaced an older wooden structure. Manitou Road was the former main business section of the island and now runs from Centreville amusement park to the Centre Island pier.


Centreville was opened in 1967 and features over 30 children’s rides and attractions.  They are all packed up for the season but Far Enough Farm, which was established in 1959, is open all year around.


There are plenty of places to sit and relax as you wait for the ferry back to the mainland.


An article of this length can only hope to touch on the highlights of the Toronto Islands.  I think several visits would be required to really get the full scope of this little oasis in the city.

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13 thoughts on “Toronto Islands

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  7. Jannnings

    I loved the ability to live in Toronto and yet visit the beach every day in summer, and when I first moved to Toronto in the 70s and was only working part time, I went to Hanlan’s Point beach almost every day. We flew kites on Centre Island, took children to Centerville, enjoyed a few Mariposa Festivals there, and spent hours just walking and envying the people who lived there their island lifestyle! Got to go back!

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