The Toronto Islands

Some surprising facts about this beloved, car-free haven

Racing along the shadowed path, tall green shrubs on either side of me, I came to a dead end. Heart thumping, a shiver of fear and excitement rippling down my spine, I turned and retraced my steps. Would I ever find my way out? It took quite awhile, but I was always able to burst out onto green grass and sunshine, thrilled that I could overcome the mystery.

Getting lost in the maze on Centre Island was an annual tradition for me as a child. I loved so many things about the island back then. Far Enough Farm with baby animals was a highlight, as was driving the slow, ambling antique cars in the Centreville Amusement Park.

As a teenager, I loved riding my bike along the many paved paths on Centre Island. I never tired of meandering along the boardwalk on Ward’s Island, looking out over Lake Ontario, and I have many fond memories of visiting various yacht clubs for dinners and sailing adventures with friends.

I never tire of visiting this necklace of island gems on Toronto’s front doorstep. The cool breeze on my face as the ferry chugs towards the dock, the wide open green spaces, the small cottages, picnics in quiet coves, or the excited hubbub of Centreville ­– it thrills and soothes me now, just as it did when I was a child.

That’s why when my husband told me his father’s family once spent their summers in a house on Centre Island’s Lakeshore Avenue, I was intrigued. For as long as I’ve visited the Toronto Islands (or as we Torontonians say “The Island,” even though there is more than one) they have been a public space. Growing up, I was aware of the ongoing fight by the Ward’s Island inhabitants against eviction by the city, but I had never met anyone who had actually been a part of the once thriving Centre Island village.

“My father’s family owned a two-story summer home there dating back to the 1920s. It was in the family until the city expropriated the Centre Island residences in 1955. There was a bustling commercial strip of salons, shops, and grocers to service residents, some of whom lived there year round. The city wanted to expropriate because it was expensive to keep up the infrastructure due to the harsh winters. My dad had many friends and great memories of his time in this tight-knit community of islanders. He was furious and heartbroken at how the city moved home owners off the island, some of whom had been there for generations.”

Digging on the Internet for more information, I learned “The Island” is actually a chain of 15 small islands and they cover around 330 ha (820 acres). They are home to the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, several yacht clubs, Centreville Amusement Park, several beaches (including clothing optional Hanlan’s Point Beach), and the residential community on Ward’s Island.

Car-free, except for a few service vehicles, the islands are accessible only by water. Prior to European colonization, indigenous peoples including the Anishinaabeg (known also as the Ojibwa and Mississaugas) thought of the area as sacred and brought their sick there to heal in the healthful environment. Back then it was a shifting sand peninsula, attached to the mainland. Although the city of Toronto thought they owned the region, it was never part of the Toronto Purchase of 1787 and 1805 by the British. The ensuing land claim settlement was only resolved in 2010 when the Government of Canada made a cash payment to the Mississaugas.

The largest island is Centre Island, followed by residential Algonquin Island and Olympic Island, which is parkland. Ward’s Island is actually the east end of Centre Island. To add to the confusion, Middle Island is home to the Centre Island dock and Centreville amusement park. Other islands of note are Mugg’s Island, home to the Island Yacht Club and RCYC Island, occupied by the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.

After the sand shifted and the peninsula turned into islands, the City of Toronto acquired them from the federal government and the land was divided into lots for cottages, amusement areas and resort hotels. Although the city leased land to them, residents owned the buildings.

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. Around the same time large Victorian summer homes were built by Toronto’s leading families along the lakefront of Centre Island.

The Ward’s Island community began in the 1880s as a tent community. William E. Ward built the Ward’s Hotel, plus a few houses, and he rented tents to visitors. These tents slowly morphed into the small cottages that remain there today.

One interesting fact is that in 1897 the Hanlan’s Point Stadium was built for the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team. Rebuilt several times over the years, in 1914 Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run into the water of Lake Ontario from this very spot.

At its peak in the 1950s, the islands’ residential community contained 650 cottages and homes, a movie theatre, a bowling alley, stores, hotels and dance halls. Because the construction of the Gardiner Expressway had obliterated acres of recreational land along the Toronto waterfront, the City decided the islands would replace this acreage and the Metro Parks Department started to demolish homes and cottages whose lease had expired, or whose leaseholders agreed to be bought out.

Development of the park included Far Enough Farm in 1959 and Centreville Amusement Park in 1967. In 1971, a new ferry terminal at the foot of Bay Street was constructed.

As far as the expropriation went, the Ward’s Islanders fought back and by 1973 City Council voted to preserve the community. Various battles continued with different levels of government until 1993 when Islanders were granted continued deeds to their houses and 99-year leases on the land. As of 2018, there were 262 residential properties on Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island.

Walking along the charming, cottage lined streets of Ward’s Island, I could see why residents fought so long and hard to maintain their homes. In summer it offers refreshing repose from the hot, car-filled city. In winter, it is a soothing, quiet, snow-blanketed haven.

Luckily, for the rest of us, the Toronto Islands have also remained a tranquil public space where we can follow in the footsteps of its earliest inhabitants, rejuvenate our weary urban bones and bask in nature’s calm.

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