The Toronto Islands were not always islands but actually a series of continuously moving sand-bars originating from Scarborough Bluffs and carried westward by Lake Ontario currents. Eroded stone of the Scarborough Bluffs was carried westward by Lake Ontario currents to create the islands. By the early 1800’s the longest of these bars extended nearly 9 kilometres south-west from Woodbine Avenue, through Ashbridge’s Bay and the marshes of the lower Don River, forming a natural harbour between the lake and the mainland.
The sand bars were first surveyed in 1792 by the British Navy, but they were well known by native people, who considered them a place of leisure and relaxation. The main peninsula became known to European settlers as the “Island of Hiawatha”. A carriage path from York which led to Gibraltar Point was very popular during the 1800’s. It later became known as Lake Shore Avenue. Part of the boardwalk on Centre Island traces this same route. A number of severe storms and their strong wave action worked to erode the peninsula, requiring frequent repair to small gaps until finally, in 1858, an island was created when a storm completely separated the peninsula from the mainland and the gap was not repaired.
Centre Island is between Hanlan’s Point and Ward’s Island. A carriage route along the peninsula connecting the mainland to Gibraltar Point Lighthouse later evolved into Lake Shore Avenue, the main east-west axis along Centre Island. By the late 1800’s, many of Toronto’s wealthiest families built beautiful Victorian summer homes along Lake Shore Avenue, east from Manitou Road to Ward’s Island.
In 1884, construction of an Anglican church, St. Andrew-by-the-Lake, was directed by Archbishop Sweatman. Four years later Island Park was established on land previously occupied by the Mead Hotel, and has continued to offer an impressive panoramic view of downtown Toronto ever since.
Two distinctive bridges, still in use today, were built to accommodate the increase in traffic along the central north-south axis as the Centre Island Ferry, operated by the Toronto Ferry Company, became more popular. The Manitou Road bridge (1912) replaced an old wooden bridge and the Olympic Island bridge (1914) was built to link Olympic Island with Island Park.
Ward’s Island, actually the east section of the old peninsula, was named after the Ward family who first settled here about 1830. David Ward, a local fisherman, raised seven children. His son, William, built the landmark Ward’s Hotel in 1882, just south of the ferry docks at Channel Avenue. Originally the building had two floors and a central, third story tower, but in 1922 the tower and upper floor were removed after the structure deteriorated. The remaining building operated as a grocery supply and ice-cream parlour until its demolition in 1966. The hotel, in addition to Wiman’s Baths, built in 1881, created a pleasant resort that attracted many visitors.
The Hanlan family was among the first year-round inhabitants on Toronto Islands, settling at Gibraltar Point in 1862. After the islands were transferred from the federal government to the City of Toronto in 1867, Plan D-141 divided the land into lots and allowed cottages, amusement areas and resort hotels to be built. The west side of the island, commonly known as West Point, rapidly became a resort destination for the citizens of Toronto; the first summer cottage community was found here. In 1878, a hotel was built by John Hanlan at the north-west tip of the island and soon after the area became known as Hanlan’s Point. An amusement park and a baseball stadium for 10,000 spectators were built in the 1890s-1910. Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run here.
High lake levels continually damaged island properties and, on January 1, 1956, the City of Toronto transferred responsibility for the Toronto Islands to the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto to be developed as a regional park.
The Island Lighthouse is the oldest landmark in Toronto. From its site on Gibraltar Point, it has watched most of Toronto’s history unfold. For over 150 years its light beam has been a welcome guide into the Harbour of Toronto for mariners.
At a very early date it was realized that a lighthouse on the peninsula (now Toronto Island) was essential to the safety of the vessels sailing Lake Ontario. In March, 1803, the following Act was passed: Section 7 – “and whereas it will be necessary and essential to the safety of vessels, boats, rafts and other craft passing from Lake Ontario into the River Niagara and passing by the island called Isle Forest and likewise into the port of York that there should be a lighthouse erected near each of the said last mentioned places… One to be erected and build upon the… and the other upon Gibraltar Point.”
There appears to be no direct evidence of the date that the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse was started, but in 1808 the Upper Canada Gazette reported that: It is a pleasure to inform the public that the dangers to vessels navigating Lake Ontario will in a great measure be avoided by the erection of a lighthouse on Gibraltar Point which is to be completed in compliance with an address in the House of Assembly to the Lieutenant Governor.” The address referred was dated March 9, 1808, and on April 6th the Lieutenant Governor visited the peninsula and chose a site for the lighthouse.
Like most other historical buildings, the lighthouse has had its days of tragedy, giving rise to tales of the macabre. January 2nd, 1815 was such a day. On this day the lighthouse keeper, Radan Muller, died in circumstances which left two forever unanswered questions – how did he die, and by whose hands?