It's a beautiful fine summer's day on Centre Island Toronto and we can see people strolling along Avenue of the Island. We can also see the Centre Island fountain, and in the foreground, people are approaching the Centre Island Bridge. There are boats and a person on a kayak or a canoe on Long Pond.
The Toronto Islands are a chain of 15 small islands in Lake Ontario, south of mainland Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Comprising the only group of islands in the western part of Lake Ontario, the Toronto Islands are located just offshore from the city's downtown area, provide shelter for Toronto Harbour, and separate Toronto from the rest of Lake Ontario. The islands are home to the Toronto Island Park, the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, several private yacht clubs, a public marina, Centreville Amusement Park, a year-round residential neighbourhood, and several public beaches. The island community is the largest urban car-free community in North America. Public ferries operate year-round from Jack Layton Ferry Terminal, and privately operated water taxis operate from May to September. A pedestrian tunnel connects the mainland to the airport.
The Toronto Islands are a popular tourist and recreational destination. Bicycles are accommodated on the ferries at no charge and can be rented at Centre Island. Canoes, kayaks, paddle boats, and stand-up paddle boards are also available for rental from May to September. A disc golf course exists on the island. The main beach is along the south shore of Centre Island and part of the beach on the west shore of Centre at Hanlan's Point is clothing-optional. There is ample parkland suitable for picnicking, several playgrounds, water play areas, and several gardens. During the winter months, people reach the lagoons and Toronto Harbour from the islands for ice skating when conditions permit.
For thousands of years prior to European colonization, the group of islands and sandbars were used for ceremonial gatherings and as a place of healing by Indigenous peoples, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, who named the peninsula and surrounding landforms "Mnisiing". To the descendants of the Ojibwa, now the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, the Toronto Islands are sacred land. According to British Crown records, Treaty 13, often referred to as the Toronto Purchase of 1787 and 1805, included the Islands and compensated the Mississaugas with "goods including 2,000 rifle flints, 24 brass kettles, 120 mirrors, 24 laced hats and 96 gallons of rum valued at £1,700 for the sale of Toronto." The Mississaugas, in a land claim settlement process started in 1986, claimed that the Islands were never included in the agreement and that the compensation was inadequate. In 2010, a settlement was reached which resulted in a $145 million cash payment to the Mississaugas from the Government of Canada. In return, the Mississaugas relinquished their claim to the Islands.
The peninsula and surrounding sand bars that now form the Toronto Islands were surveyed in 1792 by Lieutenant Joseph Bouchette of the Royal Navy. D.W. Smith's Gazetteer recorded in 1813 that "the long beach or peninsula, which affords a most delightful ride, is considered so healthy by the Indians that they resort to it whenever indisposed". Many Indigenous communities were located between the peninsula's base and the Don River. The peninsula was a series of many sand spits and ponds known to European settlers as the "Island of Hiawatha".
During the 1790s, the British built the first buildings on the island. The Gibraltar Point Blockhouse and storage structures were built at Gibraltar Point in 1794. The garrison was known as the Blockhouse Bay garrison, and it supported the garrison on the mainland. By 1800, another blockhouse and a guardhouse were built. These were destroyed in the Battle of York. Another garrison was built, but it was abandoned by 1823 and demolished in 1833.
The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was constructed at Gibraltar Point, the southwestern extremity of the peninsula in 1809. It is perhaps best known for the demise of its first keeper, German-born John Paul Radelmüller, whose alleged 1815 murder by soldiers from Fort York forms the basis of Toronto's most enduring ghost story. Although the precise circumstances of his death remain a mystery, recent research has verified many aspects of the popular legend. The two soldiers charged with but ultimately acquitted of Radelmüller's murder were John Henry and John Blueman, both of the Glengarry Light Infantry.
The peninsula was first cut off from the mainland to the east by a storm in 1852, but a breakwater was built and the channel was filled in by silt. However, on April 13, 1858, the peninsula became an island permanently by a violent storm that cut a 500-foot (150 m) wide channel. The same storm destroyed two hotels on the island.
After the peninsula became an island, the Hanlan family were among the first year-round inhabitants, settling at Gibraltar Point in 1862. In 1867, the City of Toronto acquired the Islands from the federal government, and the land was divided into lots, allowing seasonal cottages, outdoor amusement areas, and summer resort hotels to be built. The west side of the island became a destination for the people of Toronto and the first summer cottage community was built there. In 1878, a hotel was built by John Hanlan at the northwest tip of the island, and soon after the area became known as Hanlan's Point. John's son, Edward "Ned" Hanlan, earned international recognition as a rower before taking over his father's business. Other notable families on the Islands included the Durnans (James Durnan was the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse keeper in 1832) and the Wards (David Ward settled on the eastern end in 1830).
At the same time as Hanlan's Point was developing as a summer suburb of Toronto, developments were going on elsewhere on the Islands. Along the lakefront of Centre Island, large Victorian summer homes were built by Toronto's leading families looking for refuge from the summer heat and drawn by the prestigious Royal Canadian Yacht Club, which had moved to a location on the harbour side of RCYC Island in 1881. By contrast, the Ward's Island community began in the 1880s as a tent community. William E. Ward built the Ward's Hotel and a few houses and rented tents to visitors.
The records of the School Board indicate that a one-room school existed on donated land near the Gibraltar Lighthouse in approximately 1888 but it was not necessarily open every day, particularly in winter. The school became permanent in 1896, though still with a single teacher. After it burned down a new school was built; there were 52 students in 1909 and 630 by 1954. As of 2018, the Island Public/Natural Science School operates classes for Junior Kindergarten to grade 6, a residential natural science program (which began in 1960) for visiting grade 5 and 6 students, and a daycare centre for children ages 2–5.
In 1899, there was a colony of eight summer tenants on Ward's Island paying $10 rent for the season. By 1913, the number of tents pitched had increased to the point where the city felt it necessary to organize the community into streets, and the tents eventually evolved into a seasonal cottage community.
In 1894, a land reclamation project by the Toronto Ferry Company created space for an amusement park at Hanlan's Point. In 1897, Hanlan's Point Stadium was built alongside the amusement park for the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team. The stadium was rebuilt several times over the years, and in 1914, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run into the waters of Lake Ontario from this stadium. In the 1920s, the Maple Leaf team moved to a new stadium on the mainland.
From 1915 to 1916, a temporary wooden hangar was built at the beach by the Curtiss Flying School. This floatplane aerodrome was used for flight training for World War I.
In 1937, construction started on a new airport on the site of the park and stadium. The construction of the airport on infill led to the demolition of the stadium and most of the amusement park. It also meant that the cottage community at Hanlan's Point needed to be relocated. The residents were given the choice of either moving their cottages further south at Hanlan's Point or resettling on Algonquin Island. Originally, Algonquin Island was simply a sandbar known as Sunfish Island that was expanded by land reclamation operations. In 1938, streets were laid out to accommodate 31 cottages that were moved by barge from Hanlan's Point.
The airport opened in 1939, formally named the Port George VI Island Airport, after the reigning monarch of the time. During the first few years of the Second World War, expatriate Norwegian (RNAF) pilots-in-training used the Toronto Island Airport as a training field for both fighter and bomber pilots. Several accidents, including one where a pilot under instruction clipped the funnel and mast of the island ferry boat Sam McBride and crashed, led to the training school being moved north to Muskoka, Ontario. A park on the mainland called Little Norway Park commemorates this period.
In 1947, Toronto City Council approved the year-round occupancy of the Islands to help cope with housing shortages after World War Two, an emergency measure meant to expire in 1968. At its peak in the 1950s, the Island residential community extended from Ward's Island to Hanlan's Point and was made up of some 630 cottages and homes, in addition to amenities including a movie theatre, a bowling alley, stores, hotels, and dance halls. Not long after its creation in 1953, Metropolitan Toronto Council undertook to remove the community and replace it with public parkland. The construction of the Gardiner Expressway had removed many acres of recreational land along the Toronto waterfront, and the Islands lands were to replace the acreage. In 1955, after the city had transferred the lands to Metropolitan Toronto ("Metro"), the new Metro Parks Department started to demolish homes and cottages whose leases had expired or whose leaseholders had surrendered. In 1959, the Metro Parks Department opened Far Enough Farm, and in 1967 opened the Centreville Amusement Park, along with a new public marina. In 1971, Metro Parks opened a new ferry terminal at the foot of Bay Street. Unlike the previous terminal, no waiting room was provided.
By 1963, all Islanders willing to leave the island had departed and the remaining residents started to fight the plans of Metro Council to remove their homes. While demolitions proceeded, community alderman David Rotenberg pushed the Islanders' cause and the number of demolitions dwindled. In 1969, the Toronto Islands' Residents Association (TIRA) was formed. By 1970, 250 homes on Ward's and Algonquin Islands had escaped the bulldozer. The 1970s saw no further demolitions as the Metro Parks plans were delayed by year-to-year leases and the election of Toronto City Councillors who were more sympathetic to the Islanders' situation. In 1973, City Council voted 17–2 to preserve the community and transfer Island lands back to the city. However, Metro Council remained opposed and the Islanders started legal challenges to Metro's plans in 1974 to delay plans of expropriation. By 1978, Metro Council had won several legal battles and had obtained writs of possession for the remaining 250 homes. At the time, a minority provincial Progressive Conservative government was in place with both the Liberal and NDP opposition parties in favour of the Islanders. The Islanders appealed to the provincial government, winning more time when the province agreed to act as a mediator between the City and Islanders and Metro.
Matters came to a head on July 28, 1980, when a sheriff sent to serve eviction notices to remaining residents was met at the Algonquin Island Bridge by a crowd of community members, whose leaders persuaded the sheriff to withdraw. On July 31, the community won the right to challenge the 1974 evictions, but the Islanders lost the challenge when the Supreme Court ruled that the city had a right to evict them. The province started a formal inquiry into the Toronto Islands headed by Barry Swadron. On December 18, 1981, the province of Ontario passed a law legalizing the Islanders to stay until 2005. This kept the lands in Metro's ownership, to be leased to the City which would lease it to the Islanders. Wrangling over the terms of the lease payments to Metro took several years. In 1993, Premier of Ontario Bob Rae helped to get Toronto Islands Residential Community Stewardship Act, (S.O. 1993, c. 15) legislation passed, which granted Islanders continued deeds to their houses and 99-year leases on the land. A Land Trust was established to handle any transfers or sales of such properties on the Islands.
There are 262 residential properties on Ward's Island and Algonquin Island as of late 2018. Under the Act, the deed to a house may be transferred only to the current owner's child or spouse. If the house must be sold for personal reasons, and if a child or spouse will not be the new owner, the process is handled by the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust Corporation. The house and the land lease are sold for the owner's benefit, but the buyer must be an individual on a 500-person waiting list which was established through a lottery. A firm price is set by the Trust; no bids or negotiations are allowed. This process was intended to eliminate the risk of the homes being sold on the open market, driving up the prices, and preventing a windfall for the owner.
The area of the Islands is about 820 acres (330 ha). The largest, outermost island, called Centre Island, is crescent-shaped and forms the shoreline of both the Eastern and Western Channels. Algonquin (formerly known as Sunfish Island) and Olympic are two of the other major islands. The former is mostly a residential area and the latter is public parkland. What is commonly called Ward's Island is actually the eastern end of Centre Island, and like Algonquin is mostly a residential area. The Centre Island dock and Centreville Amusement Park are located on Middle Island, which as a consequence, is often mistaken for Centre Island. Centre Island is sometimes referred to as Toronto Island (note the singular form) to prevent this type of confusion. Other smaller islands include:
Three unnamed islands occupy what was once Block House Bay and Long Pond:
The Islands were originally a 9-kilometre-long (5.6 mi) peninsula or sand spit extending from the mainland. The Islands are composed of alluvial deposits from the erosion of the Scarborough Bluffs. The flow from the Niagara River to the south across Lake Ontario causes a counter-clockwise east-to-west current which has, over time, deposited sediments at the south end of the harbour to form a sand spit.
In 1852, a storm flooded sand pits on the peninsula, creating a channel east of Ward's Island. The channel was widened and made permanent by a violent storm on April 13, 1858. The channel became known as the Eastern Gap. The peninsula to the west became known as the Toronto Islands. To the east of the Gap, the area of today's Cherry Beach was known as "Fisherman's Island".
Sediment deposition to the Islands halted in the 1960s when the Leslie Street Spit was extended beyond the southern edge of the islands. Left to nature, the islands would diminish over time, but this is limited due to hard shorelines built to limit erosion. Over the years, land reclamation has contributed to an increase in the size of the islands. The harbour was shallow with a sandy bottom and the sands were moved by dredging or suction methods. Ward's Island was expanded by dredging. Today's Algonquin Island, formerly known as Sunfish Island, was created from harbour bottom sands.
The area now occupied by the airport has been subject to several landfills over what was once sandy shoal, initially to accommodate the amusement park that preceded the airport, and then to accommodate the airport itself. The Western Channel to the north of the airport is part of the original western channel, which was just south of today's Fort York. It was opened in 1911 as part of a program to improve boat navigation into the harbour. The airport lands were created from harbour sands in the late 1930s.
A series of waterways allow boat traffic to navigate the Islands:
Hanlan's Bay was a waterway that has since been buried under the Toronto Island Airport runways.
Jim Crow Pond - filled in by South Island
Ward's Pond - located roughly along the south side of Olympic Island and South Island
Toronto Island has a humid continental climate (Dfb) under the Köppen climate classification system.
The climate differs from the mainland in that cooler lake waters surrounding the island cool spring, summer, and early fall daytime temperatures by 2–3 ℃, on average. In winter, the unfrozen lake waters are sometimes warmer than the air, temperatures are roughly equivalent to the downtown area but warmer than areas further away from the lake. Fog and low clouds are more frequent on the island than on the mainland. Nearshore areas of the lake only freeze after a consistent period of below-freezing weather.
The highest temperature ever recorded at Toronto Island was 37.2 ℃ (99.0 ℉) on 15 June 1919. The coldest temperature ever recorded was −30.0 ℃ (−22.0 ℉) on 13 January 1914.
A community of about 300 homes is located on the Toronto Islands, concentrated at the eastern end of the island chain on Ward's Island and Algonquin Island. Under the terms of the Toronto Islands Residential Community Stewardship Act, there are strict rules under provincial law governing the buying and selling of these homes.
There are two daycare centres, one school, and one church on the islands. The Toronto Island Public School (30 Centre Island Park), a public school located at Gibraltar Point, operates a day program for island residents, residents of the Toronto waterfront, and other students that can apply for enrollment, up to grade 6, a residential natural science program for visiting grade 5 and 6 students from the mainland, and a pre-school nursery. The Waterfront Montessori Children's Centre (18 Wyandot Avenue), a non-profit, parent-run co-operative pre-school nursery for children aged 2½ to 5, is located on Algonquin Island. St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Church (102 Lakeshore Avenue) is an Anglican church located on Centre Island which serves the islands' residents and visitors. The semi-Gothic/Medieval/Stick Style building was built in 1884 and moved later to its current location.
The Ward's Island residential community encompasses 12 acres (5 ha) of the entire 820-acre (330 ha) Toronto Island park. There are approximately 150 residences, most of which are occupied on a yearly basis, and a centrally located Ward's Island Association clubhouse which was built in 1937–8. The layout of the streets remains as it has been since 1915 and the streets are named sequentially First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Streets, as well as Bayview, Willow, Channel, Lenore, Lakeshore Avenues, and Withrow Street.
Artscape Gibraltar Point (formerly The Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts) occupies buildings previously used by the Toronto Island Public School and comprises more than 15 artist work studios occupied by a mix of painters, ceramists, sculptors, musicians, theatre companies, and a recording studio. The centre provides long and short-term studio and bedroom rental services for artists, together with meeting, conference, and special event services and an artist residency program.
There are several swimming beaches on the Islands, including Centre Island Beach, Manitou Beach, Gibraltar Point Beach, Hanlan's Point Beach, and Ward's Island Beach. Hanlan's Point Beach includes an officially recognized clothing-optional section, one of only two in Canada. Ward's Island Beach is located on the island's east end near the Eastern Gap. Island Beach is located on the south side of the island and faces out to Lake Ontario. The beach is actually two beaches with the portion west of the Lookout Pier called Manitou Beach. The eastern boundary is near the western end of the boardwalk from Ward's Island. Hanlan's Point Beach is located on the west side of Toronto Islands on Lake Ontario, south of the airport and Hanlan's Point ferry dock.
Recreational boating has been popular on the Islands for over a century. In 1965, the Toronto Island Sailing Club was founded on Algonquin Island out of the former Algonquin Island Schoolhouse. In 1970, the club moved to the northwest peninsula of Centre Island in the newly opened Toronto Island Marina. The club offers its members certified CANSail courses and competitive racing events with other dinghy clubs and is also a member in good standing with Sail Canada, Ontario Sailing, and the Canadian Albacore Association.
The Islands are home to four yacht clubs: Harbour City Yacht Club, Island Yacht Club, Queen City Yacht Club, and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. There is a public marina, the Toronto Island Marina, and several smaller clubs including the Sunfish Cut Boat Club and the Toronto Island Canoe Club. There is also a dragon boat regatta course and grandstand, where the Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival is held annually. Canoes, kayaks, paddle boats, and stand-up paddle boards are available for rental.
Centreville Amusement Park is a children's amusement park that was built in 1967 with a 1900s-style turn-of-the-century theme. The park includes a miniature railway and an antique carousel and is open daily in summer. The Far Enough Farm is nearby and displays common farm livestock and birds. The Franklin's Garden children's garden was created in the 2000s and is located to the west of the Avenue of the Islands. A splash pad, hedge maze, and playground are also located nearby.
On the western side of Ward's Island is a flying disc golf course. There are public tennis courts located at Hanlan's Point and a community tennis club at the Ward's Island Tennis Club.
Until 2007, Caribana held an annual arts festival at Olympic Island on the August long weekend. Other Island events include the Olympic Island Festival, an annual rock concert held from 2004 until 2010. It was initiated in 2004 by Sloan's Jay Ferguson. The Wakestock festival has also been held on the islands. Starting in 1975, the Canadian Open Frisbee Championships were held on Olympic and Ward's Island.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is an English-first-language secular public school board that serves the City of Toronto, including the Toronto Islands. Currently, the school board operates one elementary school on the Islands, Island Public/Natural Science School on Centre Island. As of 2013, the school has 179 students. 15% of the student population originates from Algonquin and Ward islands and about 85% of the students live in the city and take ferry transportation to school.
Other TDSB schools attended by students that live on the Island include The Waterfront School, Jarvis Collegiate Institute, Central Technical School, Central Commerce Collegiate Institute, and Northern Secondary School. However, these schools are located on the mainland.
In addition to the TDSB, three other public school boards also provide schooling for residents of Toronto Islands, Conseil scolaire Catholique MonAvenir (CSCM), Conseil scolaire Viamonde (CSV), and Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB). CSV is a public French first-language secular school board. CSCM and TCDSB are public separate school boards, the former being a French first language school board, the latter being an English first language school board.
The islands are within the Spadina—Fort York federal riding, the Spadina—Fort York provincial riding, and the Spadina–Fort York Ward 10 municipal district. The islands are represented federally by Independent MP Kevin Vuong, provincially by NDP MPP Chris Glover, and municipally by councillor Joe Cressy.
The islands were part of the federal riding of Trinity—Spadina from 2004 until 2015. From 1997 to 2004 the area was part of Toronto Centre—Rosedale, from 1966 to 1997 it was part of Rosedale, from 1933 to 1966 it was part of Spadina and from 1903 to 1933 it was part of Toronto South.
The islands were in the provincial riding of Trinity—Spadina from 2007 until 2018. From 1999 to 2007 the area was part of Toronto Centre—Rosedale, and from 1987 to 1999 it was part of Fort York.
The north-western tip of the Toronto Islands is home to the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, more often known as the Toronto Island Airport. The airport is used for civil aviation, including airlines, flight training, medevac flights, and private aviation. Since 1984, it has been used for regional airlines using approved STOL-type aircraft. In recent years, the airport has become the centre of controversy between those who wish to close it down, and those who want to expand its usage. A plan to construct a road bridge to the airport became a major issue in the 2003 election for mayor and was cancelled after David Miller was elected. A pedestrian tunnel to the airport was opened in July 2015 but does not connect to the rest of the island park. A proposal to allow jets at the airport was turned down by the Government of Canada.
There is no fixed road link from the mainland to the Toronto Islands, which therefore rely on ferries, water taxis and other boats for their transport needs.
Three public ferry routes provide links for visitors, island residents, and service vehicles from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal on the central Toronto waterfront to docks at Hanlan's Point, Centre Island Park, and Ward's Island. The only year-round ferry service is to and from Ward's Island. A fourth public ferry service provides a vehicle and passenger connection from a dock at the foot of Bathurst Street to the airport. There is no public access between the airport and the rest of the island chain.
In addition to the public ferry services, several yacht clubs and marinas located on the islands provide private-tender services for their members and guests. In June 2017, Centreville purchased a used ferry boat, the Dartmouth III, from Halifax Transit in Nova Scotia and planned to operate its own service, Toronto Island Transit Service, to supplement the public ferry. The ferry arrived in Toronto but due to flooding and the pandemic, it was never used to bring passengers across the harbour.
Roads on the islands are paved, the only exception being a long wooden boardwalk on the south end of Ward's Island. The use of motor vehicles is limited to City of Toronto government service vehicles (Parks and Recreation, paramedics, etc.). Bicycles are welcome on the ferries and the island, and there are rental bicycles and quadricycles available on the island. Lakeshore Avenue is the main road handling vehicular traffic. The single-lane paved road traverses the east, south, and west sides of the park. The six bridges on the island are for pedestrian traffic, bicycles, and all-terrain vehicles only. The bridge carrying traffic from Avenue of the Islands can support large vehicles, but not cars or heavy trucks. Other bridges include:
The Island Bus runs during Toronto Island Ferry downtime, when ferries cannot operate due to high winds, unfavourable weather conditions, a frozen harbour, or maintenance, on a very occasional basis usually during the winter months. When in use, visitors may cross at Island Airport via tunnel or ferry and take the bus from outside the main terminal. Because the bus crosses live airport runways, each crossing has to be accompanied by an escort. Two Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) GM TC40-102N buses provided service to the Toronto Parks Department for use on the Island during the 1970s. Since they were withdrawn it has become usual for TTC to assign to the Island a bus from a series that is coming to the end of its service life. A GM New Look operated on the Island until Spring 2012 after its regular service ended. Orion V #7106 was based on the Toronto Islands until it was replaced by Orion VII OG #7953.
There are fewer restrictions on motor vehicles on the airport lands, with a vehicular ferry providing access to parking lots and service access at the airport, however, there is no public road access from the airport lands to the rest of the islands.
The Toronto Islands have appeared as significant settings in Canadian literature. Examples include Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride and Robert Rotenberg's Old City Hall.
The novel Heyday, by Marnie Woodrow, has two narratives, one set on Ward's Island in the present day, and the other set on Hanlan's in 1909.
Claudia Dey's novel Stunt is also set on Ward's Island.
In Take This Waltz, a 2011 film by Canadian director Sarah Polley, the main character Margot (Michelle Williams) rides the Scrambler at the Centreville Amusement Park.
The second season of Sensitive Skin is set predominantly on the islands when the main character, Davina moves to a houseboat located on the islands.
Canadian singer-songwriter Jordan Paul composed his song Ward's Island, inspired by and during a visit to the island. The song was subsequently recorded with Jon Anderson, producer of Aidan Knight and Said The Whale.
In the 2013 film The F Word, characters Allan and Nicole get married on the Island.
Source: Sward 1983
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