Beautiful Toronto Island was formed by sand and stone carried westward from the erosion of the Scarborough Bluffs. The islands, part of a series of sandbars, were once a peninsula attached to the mainland near present-day Woodbine Ave, extending 9 km west into Lake Ontario and then turning north.
This long, curved peninsula created a natural harbour which influenced Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe in founding Fort York and the Town of York (Toronto) in 1793.
Storms and waves were continually eroding the peninsula, which required constant repair. However, in 1858, a severe storm separated the peninsula from the mainland. It opened what is known as the Eastern gap, thereby turning the peninsula into an island.
A Place of Healing
For centuries, the sands of the Island have been a significant place for Indigenous peoples. The ancestors of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation named it “Mnisiing,” meaning “on the islands.” The peninsula was considered a place of healing and rejuvenation and used for childbirth, ceremonies and burials. It was also a place for hunting and fishing. Staples like wild rice and whitefish were harvested on the Island.
Early Military Use
In the 1700s, French explorers came upon the peninsula, followed by the British. Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, realizing the Island’s strategic location, ordered storehouses, a blockhouse and a lighthouse be built on the peninsula across the harbour from Fort York. Completed in 1794, the blockhouse had two cannons and was guarded by a few soldiers. The blockhouse was dismantled after the War of 1812; however, today’s Blockhouse Bay is its namesake. The Gibraltar Point Lighthouse at the southwest corner of the then-peninsula was completed in 1808.
In the 1830s, the first homes began appearing on the peninsula. There was the lighthouse keeper’s home and two summer residences which later became hotels.
Ward’s Island, Hanlan’s Point & Centre Island
The east side of the peninsula was settled by a fisherman named David Ward and his family. His son William went on to build the grand Ward’s Hotel in 1882 (demolished in 1966).
In the mid-1800s, seasonal fishermen began camping on Ward’s Island, and by the turn of the 20th century, their families joined them during the summer months. The area became known as a “tent city.” In 1931, the city permitted the Ward’s Islanders to build permanent dwellings on their campsites, eventually becoming the year-round cottages and residences on Ward’s Island today.
In 1862, the Hanlan family settled on the Island’s west side and constructed a home. John Hanlan went on to build a hotel, and the area became known as Hanlan’s Point. John’s son was Edward (Ned) Hanlan, who learned to row in Toronto Harbour. Ned became one of the world’s greatest oarsmen, and his statue is located at the Hanlan’s Point ferry dock.
In 1867, the Federal government transferred the ownership of the Island to the City of Toronto. The land was divided into lots for cottages, resort hotels and amusement areas, and as time went on, Toronto Island became increasingly popular.
By the late 1800s, there were houses, churches and businesses across the Island. At Hanlan’s Point, there was a lively amusement park and baseball stadium (both later demolished to make way for the Island Airport). Well-to-do Torontonians like George Gooderham (of Gooderham & Worts), Charles Goad (whose company produced fire insurance plans/maps for many communities, including Toronto) and EJ Lennox (the architect of many of Toronto’s landmarks) were building summer residences on the Island.
Between Ward’s Island and Hanlan’s Point is Centre Island. On and around Centre Island’s Manitou Road, also known as the “main drag,” there were grocery and hardware stores, laundries, hotels, barbershops and much more. There was a casino, movie theatre and an outdoor bowling alley for entertainment; until the early 1950s, it was a thriving little town. The year-round community numbered over 2,000, with approximately 10,000 residents in the summer.
The Island Becomes a Toronto Park
In 1956, the responsibility of Toronto Island was transferred from the city to the newly formed Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto to create a regional park. Metro Toronto Council expropriated land on the Island to compensate for waterfront parklands lost through the construction of the Gardiner Expressway.
As leases expired, Metro demolished the homes and businesses. By the end of the 1960s, all of the shops and 400 houses on Hanlan’s Point and Centre Island had been destroyed.
Islanders and politicians started a 30-year battle to save the remaining homes on Ward’s and Algonquin Islands. In 1993, the community’s presence was secured through provincial legislation by creating a land trust. Ownership of the houses was returned to the residents with a 99-year lease on the land.
Today, about 750 people are living in 262 homes at the east end, on Algonquin and Ward’s Island year-round.
Manitou Road is now known as Avenue of the Island. The pedestrian walkway on Centre Island is lined with trees, flowerbeds, hedges and reflecting pools, plus a picturesque bridge crosses over Long Pond.
Toronto Island Ferry
Ferries have been going to the Island since the 1830s. The early ferries were “horse boats,” powered by two or more horses walking on a circular table on the boat’s deck, which set the side paddle wheels in motion. It took 30 to 40 minutes to cross.
By the mid-1800s, the ferries that travelled to the Island were steam-powered. Initially operated by private companies, in 1926, the city acquired eight ferries from the Toronto Ferry Company.
Today, the City-operated Toronto Island Ferry has a fleet of four primary vessels and one heritage vessel ranging from 50 to 100 years old. Together they transport 1.4 million passengers each year.
From downtown Toronto, the ferry dock is located at Jack Layton Ferry Terminal on Queens Quay W at the foot of Bay St. It travels to/from the ferry docks at Ward’s Island, Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point. The ferry ticket price includes the return trip. When you take the 15-minute ferry to one of the Island docks, you can return to the city from any of the three docks. Click for the Toronto Island Ferry schedule.
Private water taxis are also available for a fee for each one-way trip.
Toronto’s Beautiful Island Today
The Island is a popular destination in the warm months. It’s 4.5 km wide, about 825 acres and made up of 15 islands, including Ward’s, Algonquin, Centre and Hanlan’s Point. Their collective name is Toronto Island. The distance to walk or cycle from Ward’s Island ferry dock to Hanlan’s Point ferry dock is about 5.3 km. While most of the islands are connected by roads and bridges, some are only accessible by water.
Along with strolling the walkways, lounging on the beaches, paddling the waterways or picnicking in the parks, points of interest include:
Ward’s and Algonquin Islands are home to the Island community and associations’ clubhouses. Visitors will find Willow Square, a public space in the heart of the community.
Between the Community and Centre Island is The Boardwalk, The Rectory and Land Trust office, the Island Fire Hall and an 18-hole Disc Golf Course.
Centre Island is the most frequently visited area of the Island. Centreville Amusement Park features rides and attractions for children, including a carousel, bumper cars, mini coaster, flume, Ferris wheel, pony rides and mini golf. At Far Enough Farm, there are pigs, ducks, horses, sheep, chickens, cows, peacocks, goats and more. Other family-friendly highlights at Centre Island are the William Meany Maze, Lakeshore Splash Pad, Franklin Children’s Garden and the Sky Ride.
Between Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point are the Island Public and Natural Science School, the Island Water Treatment Plant, Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts, Gibraltar Point Lighthouse and Gibraltar Point.
Hanlan’s Point is home to the Dunes, with clothing-mandatory and clothing-optional beaches. Other points of interest on Hanlan’s Point is Mugg’s Island (only accessible by boat), Ned Hanlan statue, Babe Ruth/Stadium plaques and Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.
There are also boat and bike rentals, lockers and change rooms, harbour tours, restaurants, food outlets, and much more on the Island.
Did You Know?
Elizabeth Simcoe, an accomplished artist and wife of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, often rode along the peninsula. She referred to it as “my favourite sands.” Her 1793 watercolour of York (Toronto) Harbour is shown below.
The peninsula was also called Aiionwatha or Hiawatha Island, and to European settlers, it was known as the Island of Hiawatha.
In 1914, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run from Maple Leaf Park once at Hanlan’s Point.
There are three yacht clubs on the Island, including Queen City Yacht Club (on Algonquin Island), Royal Canadian Yacht Club (on RCYC Island) and Island Yacht Club (on Mugg’s Island).
The Island Public and Natural Science School serve children from the Island and Waterfront up to Grade 6. Once a year, children in Grades 5 and 6 from across Toronto spend a few days at the Island school learning about the ecosystem and wilderness.
The Algonquin and Ward’s Islands communities take up less than 5% of the Island, the airport uses 25%, and the remainder is parkland.
There are no stores on the Island, and it’s also car-free except for service and delivery vehicles. Islanders get around by bike or walking.
Visitors are welcome to walk through the Island’s residential communities, but please respect residents’ privacy.
The distance between Ward’s Island ferry dock to Centre Island Pier is about 2.2 km. The distance from Centre Island ferry dock to Centre Island Pier is approximately 850 m. The distance from Centre Island Pier to Hanlan’s Point ferry dock is about 3.1 km.
The book More Than an Island – A History of the Toronto Island by Sally Gibson was an important resource used for writing this article.