Spending a day at the Toronto Islands is one of the quintessential pleasures of summer in the city.
From beautiful beaches to picturesque bike paths, an amusement park, open-air dining, exploring a haunted lighthouse, unparalleled views of the skyline, and the ability to partake in all sports under the sun, there’s something for everyone just 1.6 kilometres from the hustle of the city.
Yes, lines for the ferry are a marathon – but worth it every time. And lest you believe Island madness is a recent phenomenon, people have been soaking in all 820 acres of their recreational bounty for longer than Canada has been a country.
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Here are some of the most notable moments in the history of the Toronto Islands.
1809: Construction of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse
The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse, the oldest existing lighthouse of the Great Lakes and among the city’s oldest dwellings, has a story to match its landmark status. In 1815, the lighthouse’s keeper was murdered, a mysterious crime that has served as the basis for Toronto’s most famous ghost story. So yeah, you can add “phantom hunting” to the list of Island attractions.
1833: The first hotel opens
“The Retreat on the Peninsula” opened on the Islands, at that point still a peninsula extending from the mainland, almost two centuries ago – close to one century before the historic Royal York welcomed its first guests. The construction of at least four other hotels followed, none of which remain in operation today.
Ferry service begins
1833 also saw the first ferry cross from the Toronto Harbour to the Islands. It was operated privately by Michael O’Connor to usher passengers from where York Street meets the mainland to his island hotel, called The Retreat. Two steamboats followed in 1850 and 1853, with departures every half hour. The Toronto Ferry Company turned ferry service to the island into a more commercial endeavour by introducing two double-decker paddle steamers in 1906 and 1910 with a capacity for almost 1,500 passengers each. Today’s fleet features eight vessels, the largest of which carries only about a third of those from the early 1900s.
1852 and 1858: Storms create the Islands
A storm in 1852 cut through the peninsula to temporarily form islands before the resulting channel was filled with sand and connection to the mainland restored. A more severe storm in 1858 permanently created an even bigger channel – 150 metres wide east of what is today Ward’s Island – that would remain until this day. Two hotels were sacrificed by the unruly weather in the process.
1880: The Royal Canadian Yacht Club relocates to the Island
Originally established in 1850, the prestigious Royal Canadian Yacht Club relocated to a stunning new island clubhouse in 1881. Unfortunately, it only survived for 23 years and was destroyed by fire in 1904. Today, four yacht clubs – the Harbour City Yacht Club, Island Yacht Club, Queen City Yacht Club and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club – call the Islands home.
1937: Airport construction begins
Two years after construction began, Port George VI Island Airport welcomed its first commercial flight. It served primarily as a training field for fighter and bomber pilots during the Second World War and saw a peak of over 200,000 annual passenger flights in the 1960s. That was followed by a decline that threatened the airport’s closure and nearly 40 years of limbo surrounding its future. In 2010, Porter Airlines opened a new terminal at the airport, which was renamed Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport one year prior.
1947: City approves year-round residency
A housing shortage on the mainland urged the City to approve year-round residency on the Islands, which were primarily home to summer cottage communities at the time (the first summer colony was established on Ward’s Island in 1899). That was followed by the opening of public schools, a nursery, a yacht club, and a farm. There was even a milkman who delivered daily dairy. Around 300 homes are settled on the island today.
1967: Centreville Amusement Park opens
With visitors flocking to the Islands in record numbers, the mid-60s saw a flurry of activity as part of a master plan to transform the land from cottage residences to recreational use. The pinnacle of that plan was the Centreville Amusement Park, which is home to all of the amenities of a world-class children’s amusement park, including a vintage carousel, Ferris wheel, log flume, swing boat, teacups, and a miniature train ride.
2017: The Great Flood
Extensive rainfall and historically high water levels in 2017 wreaked havoc on the Islands, which were closed to the public for three months due to flooding. Centreville Amusement Park missed its first opening date in half a century, ferry services were cancelled, and carp began spawning on Centre Island’s baseball diamond. The Islands eventually reopened to the public on July 31 that year.
2020: The pandemic
The Islands never officially closed, but public ferry service was paused in March 2020 due to concerns over COVID-19. Ferry service began operating again on June 27, but at a maximum capacity of 50%. Tickets had to be purchased in advance and only 5,000 tickets were available each day.
With files from Lloyd Braun