Toronto Island was formed over thousands of years by wind carrying sand off the Scarborough Bluffs, depositing it into the bay and eventually taking the shape of a peninsula. As the centuries rolled on, the Mississauga First Nation used the newly formed neck of land as a healing place and to fish for salmon, pickerel, bass and sturgeon.
By the time the British arrived to establish the Town of York in 1793, Elizabeth Simcoe, wife of the Governor, would take her horse and gallop out onto the wilds of “this her favourite sands”, as she noted in her diary.
In 1808, Gibraltar Point Lighthouse is built. It is the oldest structure in Toronto, with an increase to its height completed in 1832. Now situated inland due to landfill, this oldest lighthouse on the Great Lakes was in use up until 1959.
The lighthouse is also the scene of a grisly murder. On a bitterly cold night in January 1815, two drunken soldiers visiting from Fort York beat lighthouse keeper J.P. Radermuller, the Island’s first permanent resident, to death. They were acquitted for lack of evidence, as the body was never found. Some say to this day they can hear a hollow thud slowly descending the winding staircase.
In 1858 a huge storm ripped through its eastern gap and thus created an island. Today Toronto Island is made up of approximately 18 lesser islands and of those, only two are inhabited year round. Soon campers began to migrate over to Wards Island when the city banned camping overnight at Hanlan’s Point.Ned Hanlan (whom Hanlans Point is named after) was a World Champion professional sculler, hotelier, and alderman and became Canada’s first world sporting champion in an individual or singles event after winning the sculling championships in 1880.
In 1888 the Island Schoolhouse is built. It is now home the Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts, an arts co-op, writers’ retreat and conference centre. From a First Nations healing place to a playground for Toronto’s elite and plain folks alike, Toronto Island from the very beginning has always been evolving.
In 1894 the Toronto Ferry Co. began an ambitious landfill operation and set out to create an enormous addition to the existing Hanlan’s Point. On this newly built plateau they constructed an amusement park and a few years later a ten thousand-seat baseball stadium where a young visiting American player named Babe Ruth was to hit his first professional home run in 1914.
In 1904 there were 10 campers who began pitching their tents for the entire summer. In 1912, 685 campers summered on Ward’s Island. From this rustic setting a community was born.
In 1913, the site was graded, lights were strung, water pipes and plank sidewalks were installed. In 1916 Ward’s Island was laid out on streets looking much like it does today.
In 1914 Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run into the waters of Lake Ontario from the original stadium of the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team. The original stadium was erected on Hanlan’s Point in 1897.
In 1918 Algonquin Island was originally named Sunfish and began life as a YMCA camp.
In 1921 Queen City Yacht Club was built on the east side of Algonquin and remains there today.
In 1931 Toronto City Council agreed to allow permanent homes to be built to replace the tents. Then came the bizarre restriction that no home could be more than 840 square feet and must be always kept in a well-maintained condition. Hard to do when in theory you weren’t really allowed to maintain your home at all.
In 1937 there were 130 cottages on Ward’s Island and by the time WWII came around, no campsites were permitted. But the Toronto Harbour Commission had a plan. They demolished the stadium, filled in the surrounding lagoons and paved over the site. While Hanlan’s Point as a beautiful park with a long windswept beach didn’t vanish completely, it’s nickname as Canada’s Coney Island with its beach side cottages, dance halls and moonlit walks on the boardwalk, was to be no more. It was now going to share its space with a very 20th century innovation, an airport.
In 1938 the city had laid sidewalks, planted trees, built a bridge to connect it to Ward’s and changed it’s name to Algonquin.
In 1960, after the bulldozers razed the communities on Center and Hanlan’s, the residents of the remaining Islands were wondering how they could ever be saved from the political bulldozer that not only was devastating Toronto Island but that too of the old downtown core back on the mainland.
In 1963 Metro parks commissioner Tommy Thompson laid out his 12 million dollar plan of leveling every single building on the Island and developing it into one enormous park (including a private golf course) by 1968. There’s always been a fight to save the 262 remaining island homes. Those who have homes on these islands have got to be resilient. With no grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, movie theatres, nightclubs, and all the stuff that we like to know is within walking distance, living on the island while in theory might appeal to some would pose a challenge to others. It’s also one of the least ethnically diverse communities in Toronto.
WHERE TO EAT ON THE ISLAND
(If renting a boat, REMEMBER - you are responsible for your rental. Never leave your boat unattended)
1. Rectory Café, located on Ward’s Island just west of the beach, is moderately upscale and includes a beautiful shaded eating area amongst the trees. A club sandwich costs about $14. Best to park your boat on the south beach of SnakeIsland, or just East of the Algonquin Island bridge.
2. The Island Café is part of the Ward’s Island Community Centre and is just off the path from the Ward’s Island ferry dock with a kayak-friendly small beach just to its east. The veggie dogs, burgers, iced coffee and burritos are recommended and are fairly inexpensive.
3. Carousel Restaurant is located just beside the Centre Island bridge that leads to the pier. This boasts another kid-friendly menu and is about the same price as the Rectory. Kayaks can be pulled up directly beside the eating area.
4. The Island Paradise Restaurant is beside the Centre Island Ferry Dock includes Shopsy’s Deli. Other Kiosks such as Pizza Pizza can be found throughout Centreville Amusement area.
5. The Toronto Island Marina Restaurant is relatively inexpensive and is adjacent the gas pumps that overlook the City. Best to pull out on the small beach just to the west of the entrance to the gas pump bay.