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A visual history of the Toronto Islands

Posted by Derek Flack / July 19, 2011

Toronto Island HistoryThe Toronto Islands have been the city's go-to summer day-tripping spot for over 150 years now. The first horse-powered ferries started carrying folks across the harbour in 1833, and by the turn of the 20th century the western side of the Islands was already a bustling resort spot, anchored by the Hanlan family who opened a hotel there in 1878.

The main stretch of the Island actually started as a peninsula, formed by deposits from the Scarborough Bluffs (see the 1818 map of York below) over thousands of years. It wasn't until two huge storms, first in 1852 and then in 1858, ripped through the city, that the Eastern Gap was formed. There have since been numerous plans to build bridges and tunnels to the Islands, but as of yet none have been completed (though the most recent proposal has just been approved).

Although the Coney-Island-like atmosphere on the Islands died when the Hanlan's Point Amusement Park closed up shop in the late 1920s, the area still retained a sizable residential community until the 1950s when Metro Toronto Council sought to convert the Islands into City parkland. Over the next 20 years, numerous homes were demolished, but residents on Ward's and Algonquin Islands continued to battle the City until late 1981, when the province granted them the right to stay until 2005. The matter eventually come to a close in 1993 with the passing of the Toronto Islands Residential Community Stewardship Act, through which residents were granted the opportunity to buy 99 year land leases that ensured they could continue to occupy their homes.

The Island airport, which opened in 1937, has also see its fair share of controversy over the years. Like the homes, however, it's not going anywhere. With the exception of Centreville and a few other business (e.g. the Shopsy's at the Centre Island dock), the rest of the Islands remain tranquil parkland with ample beach areas and views of the Toronto skyline.



2011719-plan-york-1818-Philpotts.jpg1818 Plan of the York Harbour


2011720-Toronto's_first_Ferry_Horse_Boat.jpgThe first ferry boat


2011719-Island-bridge-1896-s0376_fl0001_it0071.jpgIsland Bridge

2011719-island-dottys-hippodrome-1890-f1478_it0035.jpgDotty's Hippodrome

2011719-island-filtration-plant-tunnel-1890s-s0376_fl0005_it0113b.jpgIsland Filtration Plant tunnel

2011719-Island-pano-1899-w-s0376_fl0002_it0069.jpgElevated view of the Island


2011719-Island-hanlan-hotelf1478_it0013.jpgHanlan's Point Hotel

2011720--Hanlan's_Point_Hotel_and_regatta.jpgHotel and Regatta

2011719-Island-skyline-muggs-1921-f1244_it0243b.jpgToronto skyline from Mugg's Island

2011719-Island-hanlan's-bathers-1908-f1244_it0184.jpgHanlan's Point bathers

2011719-Island-hanlans-cottages-1908-f1244_it0165.jpgCottages at Hanlan's Point

2011719-Island-rowing-1908-lagoon-f1244_it0183.jpgOne of the Islands' many lagoons

2011719-Island-war-canoe-1908-f1244_it0203.jpgWar canoes!

2011720-Ruins_of_Hanlan's_Point_Hotel.jpgRuins of the Hanlan's Point Hotel after fire


2011719-Island-homes-ca-1911-f1244_it6045.jpgIsland homes

2011719-island-map-centre-island-1913-f1231_it0056.jpgCentre Island map

2011719-Island-rowers-hanlans-1913-f1568_it0407.jpgIsland rowers

2011719-Island-skyline-1914-f1244_it10082.jpgToronto skyline

2011719-Island-from-filtration-chimney-1915-f1231_it1146.jpgView of the Island from the Filtration Plant chimney

2011719-Island-hanlans-stadium-s0372_ss0001_it0323.jpgHanlan's Stadium and Amusement Park


2011719-Island-beach-1920-f1231_it1144.jpgAn Island beach

2011720-Concession_stand_at_Hanlans_Point.jpgConcession stand at Hanlan's Point

2011719-Island-Olympic-1920-s0372_ss0084_it0448.jpgOlympic Island bridge

2011720--Group_of_swimmers_at_Hanlan's_Point.jpgSwimming at Hanlan's Point

2011719-Island-rcyc-1923-f1266_it1055.jpgRoyal Canadian Yacht Club

2011719-Island-aquatic-f1257_s1057_it0137.jpgIsland Aquatic

2011719-Island-Durnan's-boathouse-f1244_it0165a.jpgDurnan's Boathouse

2011719-Island-garbage-collection-1929-s0372_ss0070_it0315.jpgGarbage collection the old fashioned way

2011719-Island-tents-1929-s0372_ss0070_it0318.jpgIsland tents


2011719-Island-turner-baths-1928-s0372_ss0001_it0856.jpgThe Turner Baths

2011719-island-houses-1929-s0372_ss0070_it0317.jpgIsland Homes


2011719-Islands-aerial2-1930-f1244_it6052.jpgAerial view

2011719-Island-airport-opening-f1244_it4590.jpgAirport opening

2011719-island-lakeshore-house-1932-f1231_it1117.jpgLakeshore House

2011719-Island-baordwalk-1938-s0372_ss0052_it2000.jpgIsland Boardwalk


2011721-Island_Airport_and_Centre_Island_Toronto_1944.jpgIsland Airport


2011719-Island-train-1970s-f1257_s1057_it0159.jpgCentre Island train

2011719-Island-airport-ferry-1970-s1465_fl0330_it0009.jpgAirport ferry

2011719-island-ferry-1970-s1465_fl0330_it0010.jpgIsland ferry

2011719-Island-hanlan's-1970-s1465_fl0330_it0013.jpgHanlan's Point



2011720--Centre_Island_Beach_Toronto_2010.jpgCentre Island Beach

2011720-Toronto_skyline_July_2010.jpgToronto Skyline from 2010

Photos from the Toronto Archives and the Wikimedia Commons



John Dough / July 19, 2011 at 04:46 pm
Loved this! Thanks.
Fig / July 19, 2011 at 04:48 pm
Great post Derek. I really enjoy these. I could go for a redhot at the Flora Dew right now.
Adam henderson / July 19, 2011 at 04:52 pm
This website continues to blow my mind. What an amazing effort that is shown with each and every posting.
DonnySalami / July 19, 2011 at 05:12 pm
Geez, who's the lady with the rack in the 1970s train photo? She would be getting on in years now, but damn!
paul / July 19, 2011 at 05:28 pm
No biggie, but the first image—the water filtration plant from the air—is flipped. Probably 'cause it was a slide originally.
RobertB / July 19, 2011 at 05:52 pm
When I was a kid, the TTC ran the ferries and you could go across with a transfer, then it was 10 cents. I recall in the early '70s my wife and I regularly took the ferry for a quarter.
Derek replying to a comment from paul / July 19, 2011 at 06:03 pm
Indeed. I thought it looked funny, but didn't try to flip it when I first put this together. In any case, it's fixed now.
KarlM / July 19, 2011 at 06:09 pm
Was I the only one that did a double-take at "horse-powered ferries," and then pictured swimming horses pulling a boat? I did not know that such things existed...
Heyhey / July 19, 2011 at 07:02 pm
I hear ya Donny!!
Also, great post Blog TO
Leonard / July 19, 2011 at 07:50 pm
Wonderful selection of pics!
hendrix / July 19, 2011 at 07:54 pm
great pics. I love the islands. Sometimes when yer on them, out of sight of the downtown, it's hard to believe how close you are to the city. It's like a completely different little world, particularly with the cute houses on Wards island.
matt / July 19, 2011 at 08:04 pm
Sunsets from the island were so much more serene without the today's skyline.
Ola / July 19, 2011 at 08:48 pm
You're absolutely amazing bringing all the old-pictures here! Thank you and looking forward to more!
Rick / July 19, 2011 at 10:36 pm
I was disappointed in not seeing the baseball park on the island, that Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run from.

Jibbly / July 20, 2011 at 01:07 am
Awesome! What a trip down memory lane. Err, uh, memory pier I guess.
warmflash / July 20, 2011 at 03:06 am
Wow. This one is the BEST so far. Fantastic. Thanks. Great stuff.
AndyBlack / July 20, 2011 at 04:24 am
Than more old city, that it more beautiful! Does not it?
Calgary Doug / July 20, 2011 at 09:02 am
Fantastic photos!! And aren't we blessed to be able to view them and be magically transported to a kinder simpler time.
Snowman / July 20, 2011 at 09:06 am
I really loved Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s. We need to protect any remnants of that era. You skipped 30 years from 1940 to 1970 - I would have liked to see the transition years when Centre Island was developed - not the greatest times in my opinion, but interesting nonetheless. Some of that 50s/60s? infrastructure is looking kinda tired now.
Liam replying to a comment from KarlM / July 20, 2011 at 10:10 am
Sadly, I was confused, too. "But the horses will drown"

Morning coffee time!

Derek - can you view these pics online, or do you need to obtain them from the archives/reference library?
marc / July 20, 2011 at 10:15 am
Check out the girl with the tig ol' bitties on the centreville train! damn!
ChristieLea / July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm
I actually think the view of the skyline looks better now. Look at the soot and smoke hanging over T.O in those shots from the early 1900s! Can you imagine having to breathe that in, especially when the temps are in the upper 30s? SHUDDER. The island must have been such a marvellous escape for people back then.
bugg replying to a comment from Adam henderson / July 20, 2011 at 03:58 pm
Krys / July 20, 2011 at 04:11 pm
Were the Turner Baths actual showers? That picture intrigued me but I googled them and couldn't find out any info...anyone know what that was for?
Ted English / July 20, 2011 at 04:19 pm
Thanks for the images - a joy to remember. I'm still looking for an aerial image of the entire island,
with Hanlan's Point in the foreground, preferably before the construction of the airport, and showing all the way to Wards.

Also, in this blog, the image of "Durnan's Boathouse" is actually English's Boathouse.

Looking forward to more historical images.


/s/ Ted English
Jan replying to a comment from DonnySalami / July 20, 2011 at 10:31 pm
Hey careful about calling us 70s'ers as 'getting on'!
Jan replying to a comment from Krys / July 20, 2011 at 10:31 pm
Changing houses.
Jerry Englar / July 21, 2011 at 12:33 pm
Great work showing changes to the island park. Originally meant to serve all the people of an expanding city. I just read in the news that Far Enough Farm is being closed and in a separate article the city has approved the construction of a tunnel to an airport with a 100 flights a day and expanding. I guess the idea of a green waterfront for the city is old hat and the city needs to pollute the waterfront to satisfy a few wealthy patrons.
Jerry Englar / July 21, 2011 at 12:43 pm
A couple points I forgot to include, 1- More Jets have been obsereved using the airport, 2-In order to build the tunnel the port authority is having the law changed to make it legal. It's currently illegal to have a connection and illegal to allow jets.
Jerry Englar / July 21, 2011 at 12:48 pm
And another point. The historic terminal building is being dismantled and moved to Downview.
Am I witnessing the age of stupid?
Lou / July 21, 2011 at 03:47 pm
Lay off the dogs Fig! Sodium remember!
Mark Guest / July 21, 2011 at 04:46 pm
Beautiful! Thanks for posting. I, too, would be happy to see more pix from the 40's through the 70's.
John (Hicks) replying to a comment from Jerry Englar / July 25, 2011 at 10:20 pm
Jerry Old Friend:

You will be amazed to know I'm still practicing Landscape
Architecture - almost 40 years. You were one of my profs @
U of T (1973 grad along with Bob Fleming, Bruce Corbin). I lost track of them all. You will be further amazed to learn that I was a professor at community college (13 years) Sir
Sanford Fleming. I am also a writer (international) having
completed two books - one in astronomy and one in biology.
When I left Toronto I took over a 25 acre parcel on Lake Simcoe (a cow pasture) and turned it into a private forest
estate. I eventually worked for Frank Stronach, along with Ontario Parks. I spent almost all my years in the North designing Park Facilities because I love the north. I kayak
and canoe lakes and rivers all over the mid-north. Landscape Architecture changed my life. I'd be long dead now at Dow Chemical - I still hate that place. I've led a beautiful life
after L.A. If I had to do it again I'd do exactly the same. I
love my retreat - its a private heaven. In winter I go down
to Sanibel Island and live in another heaven. Thank you for
you efforts Jerry. I graduated 800 students at Fleming - you must be proud too of your efforts - your students changed the world.

jerry englar / August 9, 2011 at 07:58 pm
Hi John,
good to hear from you. Congrats on your successes.
jerry englar / August 9, 2011 at 08:04 pm
For those interested in what the island airport would look like as a park check out the Community Air website and view my proposal for a Solar Wind Park. Or Goggle Jerry Englar.
kari hart / October 31, 2011 at 01:31 pm
hopefully one day jerry, the airport can be closed
Hamish Grant / October 31, 2011 at 02:40 pm
The island airport is a thriving business that delivers a terrific product to its customers. Not just Porter but all the private operators and recreational flyers who use the airport. The Toronto Air Ambulance is based there as well. Oh and those aren't "jets"... they're turboprops.
Lorne S. Jones replying to a comment from paul / December 17, 2011 at 03:19 am
No, the image isn't flipped. The lettering at the bottom is in reverse, and that's probably because the image is from a slide. But the East-West orientation of the pic is correct.
Lorne S. Jones
Gordon Forgrave / March 18, 2012 at 06:58 pm
After coming from N.Ireland in 1929 with her family, my mother lived for some time at Centre Island. She attended a little church there. I saw it years later as a boy when my father, mother and older sister picknicked. It would be nice to have seen a picture of it.
I thank you for the pleasant memories!
Allen Lockerbie / March 24, 2012 at 07:07 pm
Note the Ball Park on Hanlans Point. That is where Babe Ruth hit his first professional Home Run.
Lorne S. Jones / March 26, 2012 at 06:24 pm
This is the Island I was born on, grew up on, taught my children how to ride bicycles on, and finally had to move away from largely because of all the "anti-Islander-residents" venom.

But I loved the place and wrote this song about it:
jimmy jones replying to a comment from RobertB / April 8, 2012 at 04:45 pm
Robert... I have lived on the Island all my life. When the TTC ran the ferry at no time could you transfer from the streetcar to the ferry boat using only a transfer. You had to pay another fare. Today the fare is $6.50. I was born March 16, 1930.

Regards, Jimmy Jones.

k mifsud / May 28, 2012 at 11:16 pm
I have quite a few photos of the islands from photographs my grandfather took in the early 50's- any interest>?
Ron Leitch replying to a comment from k mifsud / May 29, 2012 at 05:05 pm
I was raised on Center & Wards Island from 1954 - 1966/67 Would love to see the pictures. Can you post them on the Toronto Islamnd connection Site?
Michael Dewdney / May 30, 2012 at 07:46 pm
great pics, particularly like the one of the Olympic Island bridge.. that's where I proposed to my wife. Haven't seen any of these on Vintage Toronto's Facebook page either. One nitpicky point; Islanders never say Toronto Islands plural. just sayin' :)
Paulette Graham / July 1, 2012 at 01:57 pm
Loved the pictures, none of the school or the redcross or main drag. We lived on Centre Island, went to school and one year overflow at the school, they used the redcross building. The minister of St. Andrews by the Lake was Rev. Trevor Jones I believe. Great place to live, many interesting people as well, this was early 50's.
John Clayton / January 12, 2013 at 06:04 pm
Great job on the pictures of the Island. I lived on "Centre Drag", the main street on Centre Island, until 1956 at which time we were forced to close my dad's grocery store "Clayton's"
and move off the Island. What a shame.
Heather / April 25, 2013 at 06:45 pm
My Mom lived at the Island (Hanlan's Point) every year from Mother's Day until Thanksgiving weekend every year from the late 30's until everyone was told to leave. She used to tell me stories all the time....
Allan Muir / April 29, 2013 at 06:44 pm
Thanks for your terrific collection of photos. I was born in 1938 and lived at 22 Hiawatha at Hanlans Pt. from 1941 to 1944, and after time in Yellowknife, again from 1951 to 1956 when we were forced by city government to relocate. There is a broken down unused tennis court where our house stood. They were wonderful times; as a teenager, I delivered dry cleaning with a cart behind my bike, ran the concession stand at B and F Grocery, worked at Durnan's Boathouse, and operated the merry go round at Hanlan's Point on a lease from the city one summer, I think I lost money on that venture. My trip to high school at Jarvis was by ferry in the summer, and icebreaker tugboat (The Ned Hanlan) in the winter. As I remember, the fare was a five cent TTC ticket. And I sure remember Jimmy Jones, he delivered for either Eatons or Simpson's. I was reminded of the Island and looked up your website when a relative who lives in Toronto wrote me that they were considering improving the island airport for jet use.....i guess it's progress, just as it was in the fifties when metro toronto burned down the homes at Hanlans Pt. and Centre Island.
Allan replying to a comment from k mifsud / April 29, 2013 at 10:25 pm
Hi K. Mifsud: I lived on the Island in the fifties, and although the collection of photos is wonderful, they do not include much from the forties and fifties...i would love to see your grandfather's can we do it???
Beverley Bell / August 24, 2013 at 07:03 pm
Photos are great would like to see more of centre Island, Manitou Hotel lots of memories from the 50's
I have blue prints for the tug boats.
Sharon Taylor / August 30, 2013 at 11:18 pm
Took the Sightseeing Toronto Harbour Boat tour on Aug.27 First time to check out the area. Was interesting and fun. Lots of history explained. Would like to learn more about the baseball park re: Babe Ruth. You have a nice collection of historic photos and yes horse driven ferries pretty amazing.
Beverley Bell replying to a comment from Ron Leitch / September 3, 2013 at 06:54 pm
I think I may have babysat you.. If your sister is Carol then I probably did. Lost track of her a few years ago.

Rick Norrie / October 9, 2013 at 02:33 pm
My parants got married at St Andrews by the lake in Aug 1947 and they lived on the island until 1958. We spread there ashes around the church last Oct 2012. Great photos.
Thank you
Gonzo / April 13, 2014 at 04:09 pm
I wish we had a bridge I'ver to the island. Something for cyclists or walkers (not cars). Every good city needs a cool bridge in their skyline.
Respect / April 14, 2014 at 01:33 pm
Seriously, you guys should, at the very least, give credit to the Toronto Archives and link back to them. A lot of hard work and time goes into managing and making all these photos available in print and in digital format.
Grant / May 18, 2014 at 09:45 pm
This is a wonderful group of pictures, thanks so much for posting! Love it!!
crackerssouth / July 3, 2014 at 08:46 am
Centre Island Train, yeah, sorta got distracted for a minute. Seriously though, these pics are fantastic. Hard to believe the skyline of the early 70's, only skyscraper being the TD Centre.
crackerssouth replying to a comment from Rick / July 3, 2014 at 08:57 am
Reply to Rick: It is there, Hanlan Point Stadium that the Babe hit his home run in. Sept 5th, 1914.
Merchu / July 8, 2015 at 09:23 am
Great pics! I came to Toronto in 2002... I don't know anything about this beautiful city, I enjoyed a lot reading and learning about the Toronto Island .. Thanks
unclebuck001 / July 8, 2015 at 01:05 pm
Sadly in today's time the park would get a ton of complaints about the scantily dressed woman pulling the kids around the park...just saying.
schmoo / July 8, 2015 at 02:29 pm
The girl driving the train has the look of a "Sunshine Girl" pic. It seems unlikely she was the driver for the summer- high heel shoes and a bikini top seem like an unsuitable choice. The Toronto Sun archives may have more info.

Love the post - will use it in my classroom next year if I may... We do a long term project on the Toronto Islands (the students act as a consultant's panel to suggest improvements for the citizens of Toronto) and this slide show gives great background context for them to set their proposal within.
John Leitch / July 9, 2015 at 07:37 am
I grew up there in the 50's & 60's and these bring back a lot of memmories...T.Y.
Ron Leitch / July 9, 2015 at 06:49 pm
Hello Bev, I just talked to my sister Carol & she would like you to get in touch with her, she told me you once lived in B.C. I have lived in Abbotsford B.C. for 28 yrs. Ron
carol leitch (JOHNSON) / July 9, 2015 at 07:28 pm
BEV BELL its carol LEITCH (JOHNSON) from the island my email is hope to hear from you

Donald Pettit / July 30, 2015 at 04:51 pm
My grandfather had the first flying boat base at the island in 1913 and I recently just started looking for images and info. Love all the pavilions of the past. Thx
Lynda Rooney (ne Boyd) / August 1, 2015 at 11:22 am
I lived on Centre Island the first 10 years of my life. We lived in the apartments behind the grocery store next to the Manito Hotel on the west side of Main Street. Lots of wonderful memories. Thanks so much for all the pictures.
Rob replying to a comment from Allan / November 7, 2015 at 06:45 pm
Hi Allan, since it appears you lived on the Island in the 50's I am wondering if you know anything about the fire (service) station. I know it moved a number of times and now there is a new station where it appears old firemen head into retirement. I am interested in Ontario fire service history and I have collected some information on the island station. My main concern at this point is that I'm not sure of the sequence of moves or actually where the station on Manitou Road (Street) was located. If you know anything about this stations history please contact me. The information I currently have is linked from my webpage at and my email address is listed there.
Brian Clark / February 23, 2016 at 04:12 pm
Lived on Hanlans 1946 - 1956
Here are my memories of that time:

A while ago when I was young,
I know a girl, Jean Hutchison,
Her eyes where blue, her hair was gold,
I loved her, but I never told.
Now years have come, and years have gone,
And life of course, has moved along.

But in the spring, when winters gone,
And I hear the red wing blackbirds raspy song,
My thoughts and heart goes back to when,
I loved a girl, Jean Hutchison.
Other Cities: Montreal