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What the Leslie Street Spit used to look like in Toronto

Posted by Derek Flack / July 23, 2013

2012224-leslie-1977-garbage-s1465_fl0329_it0031.jpgI've been spending some time on the Leslie Street Spit this summer, riding along its wind-swept road out into the lake where it always feels a few degrees cooler than on what you might call the mainland. It's a remarkable place, and one that I had somehow almost forgotten about in summer's past, opting instead for the Islands or the eastern beaches. Those places are also wonderful assets that Toronto possesses, but the Spit is special — particularly because it's essentially a watery dump that's blossomed into one of the most beautiful places in the city.

Prior to the late 1950s, the foot of Leslie Street was one of Toronto's nicer beaches. That all changed with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. It was expected that Toronto would witness an influx of shipping at the time, but it never happened thanks to the rise of coastal ports and the use of shipping containers, which ultimately led to the increased use of inter-continental railways in favour of boat-based deliveries. Nevertheless, the Spit was added to over the years thanks to development in Toronto's core, which provided a regular supply of infill for the burgeoning peninsula.

Back in the early 1980s, when the Spit reached out to its current length, it was a less serene place. The refuse on which what is now Tommy Thompson Park was built was far more obvious back then (case in point: the lead photo). Roughly five kilometres long, the narrow strip of land eventually grew into an urban park that's home to 300 different species of birds. It's been called an "accidental wilderness," a moniker which is pretty much perfect.

Believe it or not, the Leslie Street Spit is still actively being built upon, though the rate of infill has slowed dramatically. That's why it's only open on weekends and holidays — even if it's the easiest place to access during off-hours. Below is a gallery of photos from the early 1980s that shows, amongst other things, just how much the place has changed over the last 30 years. Although there's been occasional talk of developing the Spit, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of the Spit, it's remained a natural area with public access.

If you haven't been, you should go.


Leslie BeachLeslie Street Spit


Leslie Street SpitLeslie Street SpitLeslie Street SpitLeslie Street SpitLeslie Street SpitLeslie Street SpitLeslie Street SpitLeslie Street Spit


Leslie Street SpitPhotos from the Toronto Archives, with the exception of the last, which is from the Friends of the Spit



Borte / July 23, 2013 at 12:45 pm
A few years ago I used to make a habit of running from the bottom of Leslie Street to the lighthouse along the outer road and back again. It's a great 10km run when the winds aren't too strong.
DoggyDoggyBuffaloBuffalo / July 23, 2013 at 12:54 pm
Wish they repeal the no dogs bylaw to allow dogs on leash. It's such a great evening stroll. Love to do it with my four legged friend.
Cornish / July 23, 2013 at 01:00 pm
This is where the Leslie Spit Trio were born ... in a little old shack on the north shore.
Tommy replying to a comment from DoggyDoggyBuffaloBuffalo / July 23, 2013 at 02:26 pm
Too risky for the wildlife.

Don't they also still dump the dredging from the Don here too?
W. K. Lis / July 23, 2013 at 02:48 pm
Building and continuing building of the Leslie Spit cuts off the current that carries the sand from the Scarborough Bluffs, leading to erosion of the Toronto Islands. They should be adding fill to the Islands, not just to the spit.
Chris / July 23, 2013 at 03:14 pm
Also close to Leslie St are the Incinerators in the vicinity of Eastern Avenue which stopped full-on burning Toronto’s garbage in the late 1990′s. Currently, it is partially operation burning Toronto’s garbage-mostly during late hours of the night and early morning. The environment and human consequences in the past are evident in what the incinerator has done to residents close to Eastern Ave. Health problems which are not for me to discuss at this very moment. The incinerator has been ‘revamped’ to feed off less carbon dioxide since decades before. The area is less a blue collar neighbourhood, with more middle class families, who have moved into the area since the early 2000′s. When the real estate boom hit Toronto. The question remains what environmental consequences and human cost does the incinerators have for the area and the Leslieville neighbourhood?
Fig / July 23, 2013 at 03:42 pm
Good post - I really enjoyed seeing the evolution of this "accidental wilderness". Haven't ridden my bike here yet this summer - hopefully will rectify that this weekend.
DavidC / July 23, 2013 at 04:11 pm
Chris: The old garbage incinerator on Commissioners Street has not burned garbage for over a decade. This is now simply a transfer station where garbage is sorted and then taken to the dump,
chinto / July 23, 2013 at 10:52 pm
In the end, nature is nurtured.
Cherry Beach was also one of the earliest punk rock tunes:
Steve Behal / July 29, 2013 at 09:14 pm
Great series of pictures ... now please get rid of those Stinking Cormorants that do nothing but destroy everything in their paths ... & the Over Population of racoons ... & allow the place to be an off-leash area for responsible dog owners. That would be progress and a park put to good use!
metric / July 30, 2013 at 02:58 pm
An unfortunate aspect of Leslie Spit is the fact that thousands of seagulls (or terns, or cormorants?) that roost out there. They have killed most of the trees on the north arm with their guano, and the stench is unbearable on the spit when the winds are blowing in a certain direction. The smell even affects downtown. Once you know the smell you can't miss it. Some might argue that these birds are part of the natural fauna but I believe they are more akin to pidgeons and general vermin than natural migratory bird species. I wonder if their presence keeps other species from roosting on the Spit?
metric replying to a comment from Steve Behal / July 30, 2013 at 02:59 pm
Yes! Agreed. The Spit is infested with these birds.
Ron / June 1, 2014 at 11:15 pm
Is it possible to drive all the way to the lighthouse?
Goldielover replying to a comment from Ron / June 2, 2014 at 07:50 am
There is a road all the way to the lighthouse, but no unauthorized vehicles are allowed on it - just Parks vehicles or other working vehicles.

I used to ride along the spit back in the early 1980s when those photos were taken. I remember always hoping I didn't get a flat tire from all the debris.
Rob / June 3, 2014 at 10:15 am
I go to the spit by bike probably 20 - 30 times a year. The colonial waterbird colonies (gulls, cormorants, herons) are amazing, especially during nesting season. What a tremendous asset to Toronto.

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