T.O. History Revisited – Toronto Island (2)

By Bruce Bell

Bruce Bell is the history columnist for the Bulletin, Canada’s largest community newspaper. He sits on the board of the Town of York Historical Society and is the author of two books ‘Amazing Tales of St. Lawrence Neighbourhood’ and ‘TORONTO: A Pictorial Celebration’. He is also the Official Tour Guide of St Lawrence Market. For more info visit brucebelltours.com

The hush-hush world of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club with its antebellum clubhouse, historic ballroom with murals by famed Canadian painter Owen Staples, sweeping lawns, private ferry docks and tall drinks served by white-coated waiters who never look you in the eye all harks back to the days when segregation between the classes was not only the norm, it was the law.

The RCYC, as it’s popularly known, was first established in 1852 as the Toronto Boat Club when the annual fee was two dollars a year.

Money was important back then to gain entrance but good breeding like in race horsing was everything and just having two bucks to rub together didn’t ensure admission.

In 1854 a letter arrived from Windsor Castle signed by Queen Victoria stating that the prefix Royal may be used as requested, however she was also the one who added Canadian and dropped Toronto something that the members didn’t apply for or dare question Her Majesty about.

For a time the RCYC had their premises on the mainland and it wasn’t until 1880 that a 21 year, fifty dollar annual lease was signed for their mucho prime real estate facing the city on Toronto Island. That same year the most powerful man on earth, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, had he visited Toronto would have been barred entrance because he was a Jew, and Jews weren’t allowed for more than half a century at the RCYC (or a lot of other places for that matter).


Satellite photo of Toronto Island

The following year a club house was built on Toronto Island but was destroyed by fire in 1904. A second club house was built but it too succumbed to fire in 1918. In 1919 the enormously popular Prince of Wales (later the uncrowned Edward VIII) on his first visit to Toronto laid the corner stone to the new and present clubhouse.

There’s no lining up at the ferry docks for those that belong to this concealed world, not with private boats like the Kwasind and Hiawatha (one of the worlds oldest operating passenger vessels built in 1895) to whisk them out to their Shangri-La.

Not that I’ll ever be invited, I’ve already lost any chance of sipping mint juleps on the veranda by writing this much. They really don’t like to be talked about. However, I may not want to after what I witnessed recently. While getting close enough to peer into this cloaked world from a safe distance I gasped when I noticed (gasp) white plastic patio furniture on the club house’s sweeping lawn!

Well, that did it for me. They’re not so different after-all. It would seem that not even old money can escape the lure of the Canadian Tire Garden Centre, but then again they probably own the company.

While the RCYC might be the height of WASP respectability standing up for the preservation of the old values (historic and otherwise), it’s island neighbour, Centreville, is the perfect metaphor for all that was disturbingly wrong about the Great Urban Renewal Wars of the 1960’s.

Even though a heaven sent for adults with kids visiting the Island, I believe those kids deserve more than this bizarre miniature clapboard village that lies smack dab in the middle of Centre Island. To think a perfectly fine and real town was destroyed by parks commissioner Tommy Thompson and replaced with a bad replica defies description.

In the middle of Centreville in front of its ersatz Town Hall sits an giant urn on a pedestal. That urn, one of Toronto’s most historic relics, used to reside where the fountain in Market Lane Park opposite St. Lawrence Market now gushes. It was donated to the citizens of Toronto by Mayor Angus Morrison to commemorate Queen Victoria’s birthday May 24, 1877. It got moved about over the years and was finally erected in Centreville on May 24, 1978. It’s time it came back home.

In spite of itself, Centre Island has some of the most picturesque vistas in all of Toronto and one of them, the view of St. Andrews Church as seen from the farm at Centreville, is my favorite. This unique church first built in 1884 and moved from its original location down by Lake Ontario on the corner of long lost Chippewa and Lakeshore Avenues in 1959 could possibly be the only building left standing on Centre Island after the great destruction. Where the formal gardens begin just over the bridge and continuing right down to the beach was once Manitou Road the main drag of Centre Island.

Homes, shops, hotels even a movie theatre once lined it’s sides. How different the experience of visiting Toronto Island would be if Manitou Road and its buildings were still standing and thriving rather than that very 1960’s Disney version of a Versailles garden.

No other area of Toronto was affected more radically than Centre Island. When the bulldozers wiped out the old downtown core on the mainland, at least they kept the streets and for the most part re-built a new and powerful city, but Centre Island and its history was completely and utterly wiped clean off the map. It’s streets, its sidewalks, even its sewers were torn up and used as landfill. Every trace of its culture, history, customs, traditions and way of life now lies at the bottom of Lake Ontario.

Occasionally you can stumble across a bit of an ancient stone pathway that once led to someone’s house, but if you never knew there’s nothing to tell you that at one time an entire neighbourhood thrived where now blue bottom fountains bubble and concrete walkways lead nowhere.

Paradoxically, even though hundreds of buildings were demolished, Toronto Island has the oldest structure in Toronto, the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse built in 1808, with an increase to its height completed in 1832. Now situated inland due to landfill, this the oldest lighthouse on the Great Lakes was in use up until 1959. It’s also the scene of a grisly murder.

On a bitterly cold night in January 1815 lighthouse keeper JP Radermuller the Island’s first permanent resident was beaten to death by two drunken soldiers visiting from Fort York. 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.

Across for the lighthouse is the Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts, an arts co-op, writers retreat and conference centre remodeled from the old Island school house itself first built in 1888. 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.

But what was to come next was to change not only the tranquility of this generational retreat but part of its intention as well. 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 1937 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 1939, after the Toronto Harbour Commission constructed a control tower on this new flat and barren terrain, the Port George VI Airport, now known as the Toronto City Centre Airport Island officially opened. Although a new control tower has been built, the old Island control tower still stands and has been declared a protected heritage site. Oh, the irony is not lost.

There were plans to have a tunnel built from the foot of Bathurst Street to the Island airport, but nothing became of it. It’s non-construction had nothing to do with protests, petitions or demonstrations as they were almost unheard of back then as anything to do with blocking forward motion was seen as anti-government and pro-communist. Any development regardless of its consequences that was to advance the enlargement and modernizing of the City of Toronto was seen as a good thing.

Like the building of Gardiner Expressway a few decades later, the construction of the Island airport however disruptive its presence, was seen as modern, progressive, even a tad American, anything but what we really were at our very core; a former colony still very much under the control of Mother England incapable of moving forward on its own. But we’ll show them. We’ll show them all. We’ll knock down everything that tells people where we came from and start anew!

In the Island Airports first year over 7,000 take offs and landings occurred. Today there are over 120,000. The appearance of the airport changed forever the harmony and rustic quality the Island was so celebrated for.

Needless to say, the airports presence is still a highly contentious issue. Next time you’re on the ferry going to Ward’s Island turn to a resident and ask politely is this the ferry to the airport and watch the gates of hell open up.

I don’t think the airport is ever going to go away and I feel if the city is hell-bent in building a bridge to it (and it looks like it’s going to happen despite Councillor Pam McConnell’s valiant and hard fought battles) then at least make a structure that could develop into a cherished landmark and not just a slab of concrete spanning the channel like the plan calls for.

A tunnel like first proposed would have been an better idea. There are a few changes I’d like to see on Toronto Island however. At the expense of losing the few friends I have on the Island I’d like a small privately run and inexpensive hotel built somewhere hidden away so as not to interfere with daily life.

A place where the rest of us can enjoy the tranquility of Island life that the residents and members of the RCYC enjoy. Like it used to be back at the turn of the 19th century when hotel’s like Monreith’s, Hanlan’s, Ward’s, Pierson House, Bailey’s and the Manitou welcomed guests from the mainland.

I’m not asking for million dollar condos or a subway connecting Ward’s to Hanlan’s, just a small place with screen doors that slam out in the woods by a languid lagoon. But I doubt this will ever happen. Any alteration to the Island way of life is met with fierce opposition which is truly understandable as it’s seen more than it’s share. When all is said and done I too would join the fight to preserve its uniqueness, hotel or not.

As much as I’ve come to appreciate and love Toronto Island I could never live there year round as I’m too much of a spoilt 24hr round-the-clock city boy, even though it’s just a short ferry ride away.

And as I wait for that ferry to take me home I realize the Island does however have one thing I can’t get on the mainland: that absolutely stunning view of Toronto’s magnificent skyline. For this kid who grew up on the barren, bleak and desolate black hills of Sudbury the fact that I now live in that pulsating and energetic metropolis across the harbour gives me goose bumps.

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