Toronto Islands were not always islands; instead, they were a series of continuously moving sand bars, which arose from Scarborough Bluffs and have been carried westward by Lake Ontario currents. Lake Ontario currents carried eroding stone from Scarborough Bluffs westward, forming the islands. A natural harbour formed between Lake Ontario and the mainland in the early 1800s when one of the longest of these chains extended 9 kilometres southwest from Woodbine Avenue, through Ashbridge’s Bay and the lower Don River marshes.
Native Americans were well aware of the sand bars when the British Navy first surveyed them in 1792. They were considered a leisure and relaxation area by native people. The main peninsula came to be known as the “Island of Hiawatha” to European settlers. During the 18th century, a carriage path connected York with Gibraltar Point. Lake Shore Avenue was later named after it. On Centre Island, there are parts of the boardwalk that follow the same route. There were several severe storms and strong waves that eroded the peninsula, requiring frequent repairs until, eventually, in 1858, an island occurred when the peninsula was completely separated from the mainland.
Hanlan’s Point and Ward’s Island are located between Centre Island and them. Lake Shore Avenue, the main east-west axis along Center Island, evolved from the carriage route linking the mainland with Gibraltar Point Lighthouse. From Manitou Road to Ward’s Island, many of Toronto’s wealthiest families built beautiful Victorian summer homes along Lake Shore Avenue in the late 1800s.
It was Archbishop Sweatman who directed the construction of a Church of England church, St. Andrew-by-the-Lake, in 1884. A panorama of downtown Toronto has been available at Island Park from the location originally occupied by the Mead Hotel for more than four decades.
In the western part of the city, where the Centre Island Ferry operates, two bridges were built to accommodate the demand for ships to and from the island as the ferry was increasing in popularity. Several manmade bridges have been built to link Olympic Island and Island Park, including the Manitou Road bridge (1912) and the Olympic Island bridge (1914).
Ward’s Island, or the east section of the old peninsula, was named for the Ward family who settled here around 1830. David Ward, a fisherman in the area, raised seven children. The Ward’s Hotel, built by his son William in 1882 just south of the docks at Channel Avenue, is a landmark in the area. As originally constructed, the structure had two floors and a central, third-story tower, but it was demolished in 1922 due to deterioration. It was used as a grocery store and ice-cream parlour for a long time until 1966, when it was demolished. A pleasant resort was created with the hotel, as well as Wiman’s Baths, built in 1881.
Hanlan’s settled at Gibraltar Point in 1862, one of the earliest year-round residents on the Toronto Islands. After being transferred from federal to city ownership in 1867, Plan D-141 divided the islands into lots and authorized the construction of cottages, amusement parks, and resort hotels. West Point became a popular resort destination for Toronto citizens, and it was here where the first summer cottage community was established. John Hanlan built a hotel at the northwest tip of the island in 1878, and the area quickly became known as Hanlan’s Point. From the 1890s to 1910, a baseball stadium could accommodate 10,000 spectators and there were amusement parks. This was the site of Babe Ruth’s first professional home run.
After years of damage from high lake levels, the City of Toronto transferred responsibility for the Toronto Islands to the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto for development as a regional park in 1956.
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