Toronto Islands in Toronto

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The Toronto Islands are a chain of small islands in the city of Toronto, Ontario. Comprising the only group of islands in the western part of Lake Ontario, the Toronto Islands are located just offshore from the city centre, and provide shelter for Toronto Harbour. The islands are a popular recreational destination, and are home to a small residential community and to the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. They are connected to the mainland by several ferry services.

The islands comprise the largest urban car-free community in North America, though some service vehicles are permitted. Recreational bicyclists are accommodated on the ferries, and bicycles, quadracycles, and canoes can be rented on the islands as well.


The area of the islands is about . The largest, outermost island, called Centre Island, is crescent-shaped and forms the shoreline of both the Eastern and Western Channels. Algonquin (Sunfish Island) and Olympic are two of the other major islands. The former is mostly a residential area and the latter home to the city's Island Public Science School. What is commonly called Ward's Island is actually the eastern end of Centre Island and like Alqonquin is a residential area. Confusingly, Centre Island Park is located on Middle Island, which is as a consequence often mistaken for Centre Island. Centre Island is sometimes referred to as Toronto Island (note the singular form) to prevent this type of confusion. Other smaller islands include:

  • Forestry Island – heavily forest and no fixed link to other islands
  • Snake Island – partially forest and beach facing Toronto Harbour (Snake Island Park); access from bridge to Centre Island
  • South Island – used for mooring and on land storage of boats by the Royal Canadian Yacht Club; east end of island cut off at Chippewa Avenue
  • RCYC Island – occupied by Royal Canadian Yacht Club

Two unnamed islands occupy what was once Block House Bay:

  • ringed island in Long Pond (the former water intake of the City of Toronto) – located across from Mugg's Island
  • small island in Lighthouse Pond

The islands were originally a 9 km peninsula or sand spit extending from the mainland. The islands are composed of alluvial deposits from the erosion of the Scarborough Bluffs. The flow from the Niagara River to the south across Lake Ontario causes a counter-clockwise east-to-west current which has, over time, deposited sediments at the south end of the harbour to form a sand spit.

In 1852, a storm flooded sand pits on the peninsula, creating a channel east of Ward's. The channel was widened and made permanent by a violent storm in 1858. The channel became known as the Eastern Gap. The peninsula to the west became known as the Toronto Islands. To the east of the Gap, the area of today's Cherry Beach was known as "Fisherman's Island".

Sediment deposition was halted in the 1960s when the Leslie Street Spit was extended beyond the southern edge of the islands. Left to nature, the islands would diminish over time, but this is limited due to hard shore lines built to limit erosion. Over the years land reclamation has contributed to an increase in the size of the islands. The harbour was shallow with a sandy bottom and the sands were moved by dredging or suction methods. Ward's Island was expanded by dredging. Today's Algonquin Island, formerly known as Sunfish Island, was created from harbour bottom sands.

The area now occupied by the airport has been subject to several landfills over what was once sandy shoal, initially to accommodate the amusement park that preceded the airport, and then to accommodate the airport itself.

After the peninsula became an island, the Hanlan family were among the first year-round inhabitants, settling at Gibraltar Point in 1862. In 1867 the City of Toronto acquired the islands from the federal government, and the land was divided into lots, allowing cottages, amusement areas and resort hotels to be built. The west side of the island became a resort destination for the people of Toronto and the first summer cottage community was built there. In 1878, a hotel was built by John Hanlan at the north-west tip of the island and soon after the area became known as Hanlan's Point. John's son, Edward "Ned" Hanlan, earned international recognition as a rower before taking over his father's business.

In 1894, a land reclamation project by the Toronto Ferry Company created space for an amusement park at Hanlan's Point. In 1897, the Hanlan's Point Stadium was built alongside the amusement park for the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team. The stadium was rebuilt several times over the years, and in 1914, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run into the waters of Lake Ontario from this stadium. In the 1920s the Maple Leaf team moved to a new stadium on the mainland.

From 1915 to 1916 a temporary wooden hanger (see image at [1]) was built at the beach by the Curtiss Flying School. This floatplane aerodrome was used for flight training for World War I.

In 1937 construction started on a new airport on the site of the park and stadium.

To the descendants of the Ojibwa, now the Mississauga First Nation, the Toronto Islands are sacred land. Their aboriginal title to the islands has been acknowledged by the federal government of Canada. The land is currently owned by the City of Toronto, and the Mississaugas are considering how they will exercise their aboriginal title and have a presence there.

In culture

The Toronto Islands have appeared as significant settings in Canadian literature. Examples includes Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride and Robert Rotenberg's Old City Hall.

The islands today


The central area hosts Centreville, a children's amusement park which was built in 1967 with a 1900s-style turn-of-the-century theme. The park includes a miniature railway and antique carousel, and is open daily in summer. The Far Enough Farm is nearby and displays common farm livestock and birds.

Recreational boating has been popular on the islands for over a century. The Islands are home to four yacht clubs: Harbour City Yacht Club, Island Yacht Club, Queen City Yacht Club and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. There is a public marina, the Toronto Island Marina, and several smaller clubs including the Toronto Island Sailing Club, the Sunfish Cut Boat Club and the Toronto Island Canoe Club. There is also a dragon boat regatta course and grandstand, where the Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival is held annually.<ref name="cityti"/>

For many years the Caribana has held an annual arts festival at Olympic Island on the Simcoe Day weekend. Other Island events include the Olympic Island Festival, an annual rock concert initiated in 2004 by Sloan's Jay Ferguson. The Wakestock festival has also been held on the islands.


A community of 262 homes still remain on the Toronto Islands, concentrated at the eastern end of the island chain on Ward's Island and Algonquin Island. Under the terms of the Toronto Islands Residential Community Stewardship Act there are strict rules under provincial law governing the buying and selling of these homes.<ref name="titpmd"/><ref name="elaw"/>

There is one school, two daycares, and one church on the islands. The Toronto Island Public School, a public school located at Gibraltar Point, operates a day programme for island residents up to grade 6, a residential natural science programme for visiting grade 5/6 students from the mainland, and a pre-school nursery. The Waterfront Montessori Children's Centre, a non-profit, parent run co-operative pre-school nursery for children aged 2½ to 5, is located on Algonquin Island. St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Church is an Anglican church located on Centre Island which serves the islands' residents and visitors.

Artscape Gibraltar Point (formerly The Gibraltar Point Centre for the Arts) occupies buildings previously used by the Toronto Island Public School, and comprises more than 15 artist work studios occupied by a mix of painters, ceramists, sculptors, musicians, theatre companies, and a recording studio. The centre provides a long and short-term studio and bedroom rental service for artists, together with meeting, conference and special event services and an artist residency program.



The islands are part of Toronto Ward 28 Toronto Centre—Rosedale and represented by Pam McConnell. The area was once part of St. Andrew Ward and Metro Toronto Ward 20 Trinity-Niagara.


The islands have been part of the riding of Trinity—Spadina since 2007 and are represented by NDP MPP Rosario Marchese. From 1999 to 2007 the area was part of Toronto Centre—Rosedale, and from 1987 to 1999 it was part of Fort York.


The islands have been part of the riding of Trinity—Spadina since 2004 and are represented by NDP MP Olivia Chow. From 1997 to 2004 the area was part of Toronto Centre—Rosedale, from 1966 to 1997 it was part of Rosedale, from 1933 to 1966 it was part of Spadina and from 1903 to 1933 it was part of Toronto South.

Commercial activity

Other than the airport, Toronto Islands have other commercial oriented business:

  • Beasley Entertainment – Etobicoke based operator of Centreville and related food stands in the park
  • Royal Canadian Yacht Club
  • Island Yacht Club



The north-western tip of the Toronto Islands is home to the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, more often known as the Toronto Island Airport. The airport is used for civil aviation, including airlines, flight training, medevac flights and private aviation. Since 1984, it has been used for regional airlines using approved STOL-type aircraft. In recent years, the airport has become the centre of controversy between those who wish to close it down, and those who want to expand its usage. One focus of this controversy had been a plan to construct a road bridge to the airport; this was a major issue in the 2003 election for mayor and was cancelled by Toronto mayor David Miller soon after his victory.

Ferry services

There is no fixed road link from the mainland to the Toronto Islands, which therefore rely on ferries, water taxis and other boats for their transport needs.

Three public ferry routes provide links for passengers and service vehicles from the central Toronto waterfront to docks at Hanlan's Point, Centre Island Park and Ward's Island, and are used by recreational visitors and residents. The fourth public ferry service provides a vehicle and passenger connection from a dock at the foot of Bathurst Street to the airport. There is no public access between the airport and the rest of the island chain.

Beside the public ferry services, several yacht clubs and marinas located on the islands provide private ferry services for their members and guests.


All roads on the islands are paved, the only exception being a long wooden boardwalk on the South end of Ward's Island. The use of motor vehicles is limited to City of Toronto service vehicles (Toronto Parks and Recreation, Toronto Water and Toronto Works). However, bicycles are welcome on the ferries and the island, and there are rental bikes available on the island. Lakeshore Avenue is the main road handling vehicular traffic. The single lane paved road traverses the east, south and west sides of the park. Most bridges on the island are for pedestrian traffic, bicycles and all-terrain vehicles only. The bridge carrying traffic from Avenue of the Islands can support large vehicles, but not cars or heavy truck traffic. Two TTC GM TC40-102N buses provide service on the Island. For the Islanders it is the only way to get around quickly..

Notable dates

  • 1787 – Toronto Purchase. Mississauga Indians receive 10 shillings for
  • 1793 – Blockhouse built by the Queen's Rangers at Gibraltar Point.
  • 1808 – Lighthouse constructed at Gibraltar Point.
  • 1834 – Fisherman David Ward and family one of first settlers on island.
  • 1830–1840 – First island hotels built. Start of ferry services.
  • 1850 – Filtration plant on island starts supplying water to Toronto.
  • 1855 – Ned Hanlan born.
  • 1858 – Storm separates Toronto Islands from mainland.
  • 1867 – Islands become property of City of Toronto. Lot leases are established.
  • 1870–80 – Summer homes established on island. Cottages from Hanlan's Point to Centre Island.
  • 1874 – Hanlan's Hotel opens.
  • 1880 – Royal Canadian Yacht Club established on island.
  • 1882 – William Ward, son of David Ward opens Ward's Hotel; closed 1966.
  • 1884 – St. Rita's and St. Andrew-on-the-Lake churches built.
  • 1897 – First amusements on Hanlan's Point established.
  • 1897 – Baseball and lacrosse stadium on Hanlan's Point.
  • 1899 – First summer colony established on Ward's.
  • 1903 – Baseball stadium destroyed by fire and rebuilt.
  • 1909 – Hanlan Hotel destroyed by fire.
  • 1909 – Baseball stadium again destroyed by fire and rebuilt.
  • 1913 – First 'tent city' on Ward's.
  • 1914 - First professional home run of Babe Ruth's career hit at Hanlan's Point Stadium.
  • 1926 – Baseball stadium vacated by Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team.
  • 1937 – Construction of Island airport. Some cottages moved to Algonquin Island.
  • 1939 – The Sam McBride ferry enters service.
  • 1947 – City approves year-round residency to cope with housing shortage.
  • 1956 – New Metro Toronto government takes over Island and leases. Starts demolishing cottages.
  • 1959 – Far Enough Farm opens.
  • 1967 – Centreville Amusement Park opens.
  • 1967 – Toronto Island Marina opens.
  • 1977–1993 – Supreme Court approves of cancellation of leases by Metro. Remaining residents fight to remain.
  • 1984 - Start of scheduled regional airlines at Island airport.
  • 1991 – Transfer of cottage lands and lease to City allowing residents to stay.

Source: Sward, p. xv, pp. 42–51


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