Sunday, October 23, 2016Overcast 15°C

A visual history of swimming in Toronto

Posted by Derek Flack / June 20, 2012

History of Swimming TorontoAs the temperature creeps above the 30 degree mark, I often imagine what a nightmare it must have been to endure a heatwave in Toronto before the advent of air conditioning. Unlike today, when most of us who lack AC at home at least have it at work (or can impose upon more successful friends for a temporary cool down), the opportunities for reprieve back in the day were few and far between. Short of standing directly in front of fan or heading down into a dark basement, the only way to escape the heat was to hit a pool or the lake.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that the Toronto Archives is chock full of images of people bathing, as was the more common parlance a century ago. Whether it be on the Toronto Islands or at Sunnyside — two of the city's prime destinations for water-based activity — there are scores of images that demonstrate just how important public swimming was prior to around the 1970s or so, when more and more suburban homes were outfitted with private pools and air conditioning started to become more common in general.

Although I certainly wouldn't want to turn off the AC right now, there's something rather romantic and exhilarating about the prospect of getting so frustratingly hot that one must simply surround himself with water just to remain sane. In honour of that past reality, here's a little history of swimming in Toronto. May it remind you at once of the joys of air conditioning and what we lost when it became ubiquitous.


2012618-swimming-pool-f1244_it3139.jpgYWCA, 1907

2012618-hanlans-1907-f1244_it0154.jpgSwimming at Hanlan's Point, 1907

2012618-ymca-1908-f1244_it2558.jpgYWCA swimming class, 1908

2012618-kew-beach-1908-f1244_it0157.jpgKew Beach, 1908

2012618-scar-beach-water-chute-1908-f1244_it0230a.jpgScarborough Beach water chute, 1908

2012618-john-innes-pool-1908-s0372_ss0001_it1822.jpgJohn Innes Pool and Recreation Centre, 1908

2012618-jigh-park-mineral-baths-f1244_it8157.jpgHigh Park Mineral Baths, 1911

2012618-high-park-baths-f1548_s0393_it12315.jpgHigh Park Mineral Baths, alternate angle

2012618-private-swimming-pool-1911-f1244_it3123.jpgPrivate swimming pool, 1911

2012618-sunnyside-1912-f1244_it0220a.jpgSunnyside, 1912

2012618-skinny-dipping-don-1912-f1244_it7339.jpgSwimming in the Don, 1912

2012618-life-saving-drill-1914-f1244_it1532.jpgLife saving drill, 1914

2012618-Island-swim-race-1914-f1244_it6051.jpgToronto Island Swim Race, 1914

2012618-ymca-swimming-champs-1915-s0372_ss0052_it0527.jpgYMCA Swimming Championships, 1915

2012618-waterslide-1920-f1244_it9153.jpgWaterslide, 1920

2012618-sunnyside-1924-f1244_it0219a.jpgSunnyside, 1924

2012618-bathing-cars-sunnyside-s0071_it3272h.jpgTTC Bathing Cars at Sunnyside, 1924

2012618-toronto-ladies-swim-club-1925-f1266_it5010.jpgToronto Ladies Swim Club, 1925

2012618-sunnyside-1926-f1548_s0393_it20695half.jpgSunnyside, 1926

2012618-sunnyside-1926-f1548_s0393_it20695a.jpgSunnyside, 1926

2012818-humberside-collegiate-pool-f1257_s1057_it0259.jpgHumberside Collegiate pool, 1930s

2012618-CNE-marathon-swim-f1244_it1941.jpgCNE Marathon Swim, 1930

2012618-cne-marathon-swim-1930-f1244_it1396.jpgCNE Marathon Swim, 1930

2012618-sunneyside-pool-beach-1940s-f1257_s1057_it0092.jpgSunnyside, 1940s

2012618-swimming-pool-bull-estate-1930-f1244_it2397.jpgSwimming in Brampton, 1930

2012618-water-show-MLG-1940s-f1257_s1057_it7121.jpgAqua Parade at Maple Leaf Gardens, 1940s

2012618-aqua-parada-1948-mlg-f1257_s1057_it7119.jpgAqua Parade, 1948

201188-CNE-diver-aquarama-1950s-f1257_s1057_it5721.jpgCNE Diver, 1950s

2012618-marilyn-bell-practice-swim-1956-f1244_it2124.jpgMarilyn Bell, practice swim in 1956

2012618-unionville-pool-1960s-f1257_s1057_it3112.jpgThe suburban dream, 1960s

2012618-northview-heights-f0207_s1251_it0111.jpgNorthview Heights swimming pool, 1960s

2012618-sunnyside-1960s-f1257_s1057_it6494.jpgSunnyside / Gus Ryder, 1960s

2012618-dovercourt-boys-club-1960s-f0207_s1251_it0104.jpgDovercourt Boys Club, 1960s

Photos from the Toronto Archives



mike in parkdale / June 20, 2012 at 01:11 pm
great update!

According to Mike Filey (long time Toronto historian) the pool at Sunnyside was always called 'the tank' by anyone and everyone who went there. Just a random tidbit of info
imakehighways / June 20, 2012 at 01:24 pm
What's so surprising to me is how we were once a city of lake-swimming, beach-going, water-loving people. And then we destroyed all of that for some reason and built factories instead of beaches.

HOWEVER, now our Lake Ontario beaches are some of the cleanest! But try getting people to go swimming. Trust issues.
Ratpick replying to a comment from imakehighways / June 20, 2012 at 01:37 pm
I think you got the story a little wrong. The beaches pictured here were never covered over with factories. You're thinking of the harbour.

Besides, we built those factories and railway lines out of necessity, so that we could have a diversified economy, jobs and food for our families. Later, we moved those factories to China, and now all the nastiness takes place overseas.

I use the beaches all the time. Had a syringe brush up against my feet in the water at Cherry Beach two years ago, undoubtedly washed into the lake by storm sewers (along with countless tampon applicators, oddly). The trust issues are arguably well founded.

Alex / June 20, 2012 at 01:56 pm
Wow, that's what was considered suburbs back then? It looked like it was on a farm in the country!
Jen / June 20, 2012 at 02:02 pm
I LOVE these pictures! Fabulous to see everyone getting out and into the water. Seriously fun looking water slides too!
just so you know / June 20, 2012 at 02:16 pm
the 3rd picture was at the YWCA not the YMCA
Cyril Sneer / June 20, 2012 at 02:23 pm
All clothes, all the time!
mean / June 20, 2012 at 02:42 pm
Such a tease posting this on the hottest day !
Julie / June 20, 2012 at 02:49 pm
what happened to the mineral baths??? that sounds amazing...
I am now aware replying to a comment from just so you know / June 20, 2012 at 02:50 pm
Thanks for the heads up!
bgm / June 20, 2012 at 03:06 pm
The last picture looks more like the St. Alban's Boys and Girls Club pool.
RKMK replying to a comment from Julie / June 20, 2012 at 03:29 pm
"High Park Mineral Baths and Sanatarium

The High Park Mineral Baths were created at Clandeboye, the mansion of Toronto mayor George St. Leger, built in 1899, at 32 Gothic Avenue, north of High Park.

In 1907, the property was purchased by Dr. William McCormick who built a mineral bath sanitarium pool then a recreational pool with an Olympic-height diving board that was enjoyed by generations of young people into the 1960s.

Clandeboye eventually became the Strathcona Maternity Hospital and, ultimately, the condos one sees today, while the pools were closed to make way for the Bloor subway."
Fig / June 20, 2012 at 04:12 pm
Great post Derek! The high school pools looked so clean and modern back in the day.
iSkyscraper / June 20, 2012 at 04:44 pm
Great photos - love the waterslides especially. (No lawsuits in those days.)

For some NYC context over a similar time period:

I was just at a preview of the rebuilt McCarren Park pool, and it is stunning. Sorry that old Sunnyside no longer exists as it would have been a comparable reno job.
iSkyscraper / June 20, 2012 at 04:49 pm
Sorry, excuse the error. I thought Sunnyside pool had closed but I see it was just being renovated. Definitely watch the architectural press for McCarren images, as it would be a good model for revitalizing Sunnyside.
W. K. Lis / June 20, 2012 at 05:22 pm
The High Park swimming pool was the replacement for the High Park Mineral Baths, because of the Bloor-Danforth Subway. It was located where the High Park Subway station is today. Unfortunately, the replacement pool was never a good replacement for the mineral baths, even if it was getting on in years.
Sniderscion replying to a comment from RKMK / June 20, 2012 at 08:28 pm
I was wondering about the Mineral Baths as well; thanks for posting!
Oni / June 21, 2012 at 07:37 am
Hey, this is awesome! I've always wondered about the Mineral Baths and Sunnyside ever since reading 'That Scatterbrain Booky' by Bernice Thurman Hunter more than 25 years ago. (Fantastic book about a young girl growing up in Depression-era Toronto). Here's the part I was thinking of:

"Ellis Avenue was a long, gradual hill with Lake Ontario spread out at its foot like a huge blue swimming pool. I had never been in a real swimming pool myself, but I had seen two of them at a distance. One was the Mineral Baths on Bloor Street, and the other was Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion.

The Mineral Baths were right opposite High Park. Willa said the twin pools used to be part of a hospital. A the Sunday School picnic all the kids lined up along the grassy banks and stared across Bloor Street at the lucky people diving from the tower and swishing down the slide into the gleaming mineral waters.

Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion was on the lakefront. We often strolled down the hot, treeless beach while our lunch was digesting and peered through the wire fence at the paying customers. I could never figure out why anybody would pay to swim in there when only a stone's throw away was glorious - free - Lake Ontario. Dad said they must have more money than brains. But Mum said she though it would be lovely to bathe in that pretty turquoise-blue water."
ct / June 21, 2012 at 08:18 am
I loved the Booky series as a kid!
Paul / June 21, 2012 at 11:07 am
Well if you want to cool off, Lake Ontario is the place to do it. I've always found that water to be extremely cold even during the hottest part of the summer. The pix of the mineral baths are great. My maternal grandparents met there in the days just after WWI. I myself discovered the place as a kid just a few years before it was lost to the subway construction in the 60's. A favourite pool for us west-end kids in the 50's was the magnificent Alex Duff public pool at Christie Pits. As a last resort, there were numerous circular wading pools scattered in neighbourhoods all over the city.
Norm / June 21, 2012 at 01:51 pm
In the 40's/50's kids in the Queen and Bathurst area went to the Islands or for 5cent car fare took the streetcar to Sunnyside or Kew Beach to swim. By August the lake water temps. became bearable. If you had a quarter you could probably get a pop and a hot dog for 15cents. If you spent or lost the final nickel you walked home along Queen St. and got hell for missing supper!! The cheapest cool-off was for a neighbor to open their water sprinkler and for the kids to soak under the spray; often the "best" neighbors would then cut up a cool watermelon for all the kids to enjoy. Sat. matinees at the Orpheum or Chateau theatres were air conditioned and a real steal for a dime (two movies/1 serial and at least 1 cartoon) and management gave you a sucker on the way out as a way to clear the kids out quickly! Every park had a wading pool for the little kids. I don't remember feeling the heat much. We we tougher/less pampered??
Ἀντισθένης / June 21, 2012 at 07:05 pm
Incredible how much better society looked when half were not obese.
A / July 18, 2012 at 01:07 am
The last photo of the dovercourt Boys club is actually the WINONA POOL, located in the school of winona grades 7 + 8, and connected to mcmurrich public school around st.clair west and oakwood/winona! Went to school there, it is THE pool!
A replying to a comment from bgm / July 18, 2012 at 01:12 am
last picture is definitely Winona Public School
MofUsene / September 12, 2012 at 12:27 pm
user-pic QeMneet louis vuitton handbags outlet CeHcckl louis vuitton bags outlet AnEcoqc louis vuitton outlet sale CnCogrv louis vuitton bags outlet
Bongo / November 2, 2012 at 11:55 am
Toronto Underwater Hockey Club
Richard Nelson / June 29, 2014 at 04:40 pm
Great post; appreciate it!

"Tank" is just an older word for a pool. Nothing special about it.

The Innes pic is 1953, not 1908, as the annotation on it clearly says. It was in fact built in '53. (And I've swum there many times.)

About our not swimming in the lake. As one of the other commenters used the word "tolerable" about lake temps, that might give you a clue! We (or our kids, or in my case grandkids) have better options now on hot days than shiver in the water.
A / June 29, 2014 at 07:03 pm
Funnily enough, you guys still didn't edit the error from last year " JULY 18, 2012" lol the last photo is the Winona Drive Senior Public School pool!
d / June 30, 2014 at 02:13 am
In the mid 60s we used to walk every day in the summer, from Runnymede north of Bloor to High Park pool that was about a subway stop away, go swimming and then walk home again. We would each get 10 cents for ice cream and sometimes I would save five cents and get Pink Elephant popcorn as a treat instead after all our activity...and we went without our parents, just my 11 or 12 yr old sister! People wouldn't do that today!
Kelvin Landolt / July 1, 2014 at 09:38 am
Nice to see these pics and explore our pool history in Toronto. To celebrate, our swim group is permitting the Sunnyside pool for 91 meter swim training on July 6, 19, Aug 9 & 23 - swim training the length of the pool - 8:15 AM for 1.5 hrs. Should be fun. If you are a distance swimmer or triathlete and want in ($30p/s), just reply or visit Best.
Other Cities: Montreal