Is­land time­line

A long his­tory carved from storms and tur­bu­lent politics

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Wind, rain and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters have con­tin­ued to re­shape the Is­lands ever since what is known to­day as the Eastern Gap was opened by a storm in 1858. The his­tory of calamity in Sally Gib­son’s stun­ning chron­i­cle More Than An Is­land: A His­tory Of The Toronto Is­land is long and tragic.

De­cem­ber 1, 1856 The steamer Monarch is driven onto the beach in a rag­ing snow­storm, wash­ing its deck cargo over­board. But some­how the crew make it to shore. A day later, the schooner J. G. Beard, with 200 tons of coal on board, runs ashore af­ter it mis­takes a light on the wreck for the Toronto Light­house.

May 11, 1862 The is­lands’ dark­est tragedy: 15-year-old Wil­liam Ward (son of fa­mous fish­er­man David Ward, af­ter whom Ward’s Is­land is named) takes his five younger sis­ters – Rose, Jane, Ce­cilia, Phoebe, Mary Ann – sail­ing on the bay. His sib­lings per­ish when high winds catch the sail and cap­size the boat. Two days later Wil­liam tells an in­quest: “Phoebe hung on by the side of the boat as long as she could and then went down.”

Wil­liam’s mother had al­ready lost three other daugh­ters, in a sin­gle night, to scar­let fever. She paces the shore for years af­ter­wards, look­ing out to the lake. Chil­dren turn the tragedy into a play that ends with them call­ing “Phoebe” over the wa­ter.

Win­ter, 1870 John Ward, un­cle of Wil­liam, at­tempts to walk across the frozen bay from the city to the Is­land. Blinded by snow, he wan­ders onto open wa­ter and drowns.

May 2, 1870 On the main­land, the city that ex­pe­ri­enced nu­mer­ous out­breaks of cholera dur­ing the 1830s and 1850s con­fronts an­other threat: pol­luted drink­ing wa­ter. In 1873 a steam dredger ex­ca­vates a fil­tra­tion basin along the south edge of the Is­land. The basin is con­nected by a wooden con­duit that car­ries clean wa­ter to Gi­bral­tar Point where it con­nects to a steel pipe that goes un­der the Western Gap to the city. The so­lu­tion is not per­fect. Soon af­ter it’s in­stalled, 2,500 feet of wooden con­duit float to the sur­face “like a wooden snake.” Two more years pass be­fore the pipes are run­ning again.

Oc­to­ber 31, 1873 The schooner Ann Bellcham­bers wrecks. Charles Col­man and two other men wade out to the ves­sel. Col­man finds the cap­tain in the rig­ging, in­sen­si­ble, with the dead body of his son in his arms.

Sum­mer 1878 In July the Han­lan’s Point bridge to the bathing beach on the Western Sand­bar washes away. In Septem­ber, af­ter rain floods the is­lands, Har­bour Mas­ter John Carr de- scribes the bay as “fear­ful to look at, cov­ered with timber, scows, boathouses, bar­rels of beer, oil, etc., so it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble for a steamer to ap­proach the docks.”

Oc­to­ber 1880 Af­ter the “melan­choly death” of two boys adrift on the lake, the Do­min­ion Life Sav­ing Ser­vice pro­vides the Toronto Is­lands with a lifeboat. Wil­liam Ward is its cap­tain de­vot­ing much of the rest of his life to res­cue, sav­ing 164 lives in all. He sup­ple­ments his mea­gre in­come with prof­its from boot­leg­ging for his fam­ily ho­tel. He comes to be known as the “Laird of Ward’s Is­land.”

May 1882 A storm sends four-me­tre waves charg­ing into the south­ern beach where they gouge new chan­nels, up­root trees and rip great chunks out of the sand. Ev­ery is­land house is dam­aged.

1883 A storm hits the Royal Cana­dian Yacht Club. Some of them sink. Two are driven onto the Wa­ter­works Wharf on the main­land and smashed.

A storm slices the western sand­bar. Wooden break­wa­ters are smashed. Ev­ery one of the Is­lan­ders’ 165 tents is knocked down. When it’s over, vet­eran is­lan­der Daddy Frank plants po­plars to hold the sand. They help, but the is­lands are smoth­ered in snow­storms of po­plar fluff ev­ery June from then on.

1908 It’s a wa­ter­logged spring and sum­mer, with 10-me­tre waves blast­ing is­land beaches. Nowhere can be reached with­out boats or rub­ber boots.

1937 To al­low con­struc­tion of the Is­land Air­port, houses are floated down the Is­lands’ Re­gatta La­goon to new sites on Sun­fish Is­land that’s planted with trees and re­named Al­go­nquin Is­land. The la­goon where Ned Han­lan rowed to so many tri­umphs is filled in. The flimsy break­wa­ter on the south shore of the is­land is re­built in con­crete and topped with a boardwalk. It turns out to be a mixed bless­ing: waves that break over it have no way to re­turn to the lake.

July 27, 1941 To­ward the evening of a sum­mer scorcher, a sud­den storm up­roots trees and lamp­posts, smashes tents and cot­tages, cap­sizes boats and causes “more havoc than any storm that can be re­called by any Is­lan­ders.”

Spring 1943 It’s so wet that new lake-level records are set. Mos­qui­toes are said to be so gi­gan­tic they can knock peo­ple off bi­cy­cles.

Spring 1947 The lake-level record set in 1943 is bro­ken, only to be bro­ken again four years later. Beaches are de­voured. Is­lan­ders are “tired of liv­ing in muck and mud.” New pro­pos­als sug­gest mak­ing the Is­lands “a self­sus­tain­ing recre­ation cen­tre for the met­ro­pol­i­tan area of Toronto.”

1952 The Is­lands, still sod­den from the pre­vi­ous year, are drenched again. Parks Com­mis­sioner Wal­ter Love sug­gests the men­ace to pub­lic health war­rants re­moval of the Is­lan­ders. His fears are dis­missed by the City’s Med­i­cal Of­fi­cer, but among politi­cians and of­fi­cials who want res­i­dents off the is­land, it’s an ar­gu­ment that will not go away. Spe­cial sur­vey and reg­is­tered plans from At­las of the City of Toronto show­ing all build­ings and lots on Toronto Is­lands circa 1884.

1956-57 Metro Toronto’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­vert the Is­lands to a park with­out res­i­dents re­duces Cen­tre Is­land “to a gi­ant grave­yard of houses.” More than a hun­dred build­ings are de­mol­ished and burnt; trees are felled.

1963 The re­main­ing Is­lan­ders fight Metro’s plan to turn the is­lands into park­land. It will take 10 years be­fore City Coun­cil de­cides to pre­serve the com­mu­nity. But Metro Coun­cil re­mains op­posed.

De­cem­ber, 1981 Af­ter a num­ber of le­gal bat­tles, the prov­ince passes a law al­low­ing the city to lease lands back to the Is­lan­ders. The agree­ment is for­mal­ized in 1993 al­low­ing Is­land res­i­dents to pur­chase 99-year leases on their prop­erty.

Jan­uary 25, 2017 Wil­liam Ward, last of the fam­ily line on the Toronto Is­lands, dies at his home on Al­go­nquin Is­land 115 years to the day af­ter the death of his fa­mous name­sake who be­came the Laird of Ward’s Is­land. Com­piled by Richard Lon­g­ley news@now­ | @now­toronto

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