The history of cottaging on the Toronto Islands

A trip to the cottage for a Torontonian in the 19th century might have meant a boat ride across choppy and uncertain waters, crossing lagoons, and skirting marshes, all in search of a weekend of relaxation.

The trek makes the modern weekenders crawl north along a crowded Highway 400 look positively luxurious, but the destination of these intrepid early cottage-goers was far closer than Muskoka. In fact, their destination was across Toronto’s harbour.

postcards of Toronto Islands
Postcards show how popular a destination the Toronto Islands were. Photo by Hannah Mittelstaedt

Opposite the towering buildings of the city’s skyline lies an archipelago of crescent-shaped islands born from alluvial deposits of eroded stone from the Scarborough Bluffs. Known as the Toronto Islands, early residents of the city built one of Canada’s first cottage communities here more than a century ago.

aerial view of Toronto Islands
Photo by Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock

The Toronto Islands are still a popular summertime destination, but most of the over 600 cottages that once spanned its length are long gone. The 50s sparked decades of political fighting over the land levelled nearly all of the once-bustling summertime community, except for a tiny remnant of a few hundred homes that remain on the island’s eastern tip. But many current island residents have deep roots, and the history of a cottage community is etched in the collective consciousness. It’s a story that includes hardship, perseverance, and, for good measure, murder.

Ad for cottage on Toronto Island
An advertisement for cottages on Ward’s Island. Photo by Hannah Mittelstaedt

The first cottage was built on the island in 1873 by a Mr. James Morris, just a few years after Confederation. By then Toronto was firmly ensconced as one of the country’s largest cities and the island was well on its way to becoming a major summer retreat. But just under a century earlier, the island’s strategic role played a part in the founding of the city. 

“It’s because of the island and the harbour that the city is here,” says Bill Freeman, a long-time island resident and historian, whose book A Magical Place chronicles the history of the island.

Bill Freeman. Photo by Hannah Mittelstaedt

Lieutenant-Governor John Simcoe, tasked with establishing a capital for the fledgling Upper Canada in 1793, chose to found the city of York, later Toronto, on the defensible harbour created by the island.

“Simcoe was a military man, so he built a fort to defend the western gap. There was a battery of guns on the island to guard the entrance to the harbour and the city was built behind that,” says Freeman.

Prior to the disputed Toronto Purchase, both the island and the newly formed city were the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. They would use the island as a place of healing, and to fish and hunt game. Occasionally, they would be joined by settlers who would journey over to fish, hunt, or take day trips. Early records of the city of York make frequent reference to the island, though at the time it wasn’t an island at all.

“When the Europeans first started coming here it was a peninsula, but people still called it the island,” says Freeman.

Shortly after the city was founded, the island became the site of its first major landmark: the Gibraltar Point lighthouse, erected in 1809 to help guide ships into the busy harbour. The first lighthouse keeper, J.P. Rademuller, also bears the distinction of being the island’s first permanent resident, though he is better known for his grisly murder.

Manuel Cappel, keeper of the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse. Photo by Hannah Mittelstaedt

Rademuller, who moonlighted as a bootlegger, was visited by a few soldiers for a drink one night in January 1815. Some accounts suggest that the old lighthouse keeper cut the men off. Others claim that after leaving his cottage their bottles of liquor froze, indicating that they had been watered down. In any event, most agree on what happened next; the soldiers killed Rademuller and disposed of his body near the lighthouse. According to legend, his ghost remains to haunt the lighthouse.

The current lighthouse keeper, Manuel Cappel, thinks it likely that Rademuller did meet his end that night, though he doesn’t believe the ghost story that he stuck around to haunt the old tower. However, Cappel does credit it with helping to keep the lighthouse—now the oldest on the Great Lakes—safe over the years.

“It’s a romantic story and it whets people’s interest in the lighthouse, which is a good thing because even in the 60s there was a great deal of talk about blowing it up,” he says.

Despite the fate of its first resident, the island population was slowly ticking upwards. The Durnan family took over the lighthouse, but most of their neighbours were fishermen, most notably the Hanlan family and the Ward family, after whom the western and eastern points of the island are named, respectively.

Hanlan's beach
Hanlan’s Point beach. Photo by BYUNGSUK KO/Shutterstock

These hardy islanders were soon joined by hoteliers, the first to see the tourist potential of the island. A number of hotels sprung up on the island in the 19th century to varying success, though sometimes the elements took matters into their own hands, like on the night in 1858 when a storm turned the peninsula into an island.

“It must have been an extremely intense storm because it actually cut a channel [across the peninsula]. There was a hotel there, it totally demolished the hotel and the people who ran the hotel were very lucky to survive,” says Freeman.

Shortly after James Morris built his first cottage he was joined by others and before long there were thriving summertime communities on Hanlan’s Point, Centre Island, and Ward’s Island. Hanlan’s was the most popular of the three, boasting international rowing sensation Ned Hanlan, as well as an amusement park and the stadium where a young Babe Ruth would hit his first professional home run in 1914.

There was also—for reasons that can only really be explained by the sensibilities of the time—a diving horse, which would climb a tall tower and then jump off into the lake below.

“People really started coming to the island in large numbers around the 1880s and it was really cottage life that drew them here,” says Freeman.

Some of the cottages on Centre and Hanlan’s were relatively luxurious, but on Ward’s, a more middle-class summer community was springing up in rows of tents.

“We’re not talking about a pup tent—we’re talking about something closer to a war surplus military tent with rooms. So there’d be the tent with rooms where the sleeping would occur and room for the cooking,” says Liz Amer, an island resident whose grandparents stayed in tents on Ward’s in the summer.

Liz Amer stands in front of cottage
Pictured, Liz Amer. Photo by Hannah Mittelstaedt

Those tents would eventually evolve into today’s island community, which comprises homes ranging from old-fashioned 1930s style cottages to modern houses. Amer says that it wasn’t until the island was connected to the city’s plumbing system that a full-time community became viable. She also credits former mayor Sam McBride with allowing construction of houses on Ward’s, though she theorizes that his main motivation was to drive sales to his lumber business.

“Sam McBride came and said to my grandfather ‘Art, where did you get this crappy lumber?’ and my grandpa said ‘I just got it from Toronto Lumber across the way,’ and Sam said ‘Well, you should send that back and I’ll give you some better lumber for the same price,’” Amer says.

Freeman says that by the 1940s the island had become mostly a year-round community. But the post-war years marked the beginning of the end for the island as it was. The newly formed Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto decided that the island would serve better as parkland and began to evict island residents, demolishing their homes one by one.

Manuel Cappel, the lighthouse keeper, has spent most of his life on the island and has childhood memories of the community disappearing.

“It was an odd atmosphere to live in, even as kids,” he recalls. “We could see the decay setting in, the buildings being shut down and boarded up. And later we got to see them being destroyed by the park’s bulldozers. That was surreal.”

bulldozers destroying cottages
Bulldozers destroy cottages on Toronto Island. Photo by Hannah Mittelstaedt

The communities at Centre and Hanlan’s were the first to go, but those on Ward’s and neighbouring Algonquin islands successfully fended off the efforts to dislodge them. The residents of those islands refused to give up their homes, forming a group called the Toronto Islands Residents Association to fight the evictions.

Goose and Duck newspaper
The Goose and Duck was one of two community newspapers on the islands. Photo by Hannah Mittelstaedt

The group strategized both political and legal action, but the struggle came to a head on a rainy July day in 1980, when the acting sheriff was dispatched to the island to deliver writs of possession for the homes. A mass of islanders and their supporters rushed to the Algonquin Island Bridge, where they waited for the sheriff. Liz Amer, co-chair of TIFA, spoke to him that day.

“I have no idea why it was me and not anyone else,” she says. “I just said, ‘You’re here to deliver these writs of possession, but we believe the writs of possession have expired and we have gone to court to have a judge make a decision. We’re just asking that you go back to your house for 24 hours until the judge makes a decision.’ ‘Ok,’ the sheriff said. He turned around, got back in his car, and drove away.”

Liz Amer in a standoff with police
A young Liz Amer, pictured. Photo by Hannah Mittelstaedt

The sheriff never came back, though it was years before the issue was settled. In 1993, the island residents were granted 99-year leases to stay in their homes.

With all due respect to Rademuller’s ghost, the struggle to save island homes is the prevailing legend for the community today.

From yearly trips to her grandparents’ humble island getaway, Amer has sunk her roots deep into the island’s sandy soil; her daughter and granddaughter live just down the street from her home of 50 years. Amer recalls hosting a piano recital for some of the young islanders one day, including her granddaughter. At one point she remembers overhearing her granddaughter drawing some friends into a side room. Hanging on the wall was a photo of an impassioned Amer at the standoff at the bridge.

“This is my grandmother,” the young girl told her friends. “She saved the world.”

Featured Video