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The Toronto Island Ferry Service

A History

Vol. 2, No. 4, March 1976

by Larry Partridge

It began like this...

THE ISLAND. How many of us have gone to the ferry docks, taken a delightful ferry ride across Toronto Bay and gone to the Islands? I'm quite sure that many of us have, but some believe it wasn't always this easy to do, and they're quite right. Many people have wondered how the ferry service grew into its present form today, so I'll try to set down the story as I've learned it from researching the material that still exists.

First of all, the Island didn't begin as an island. In the early days of Governor Simcoe and the founding of York, people of the time had many ways of gaining access to the "Peninsula" as it was called then. They would ride horse onto it, paddle boats to its shores, even approach it upon foot; for you see, the Island was originally attached to what is now known as Cherry Street by a small neck of sand. (Cherry Street is located at the present Eastern Gap channel of the Island.)

But those early pioneer soon realized that they could make something out of that mass of land, and subsequently farms and homes sprang up on the shores of that hallowed place of peace. Many Yorkists used that area as a place to get away from the then hustle and bustle of "Muddy York".

It was this latter idea of amusement, of relaxation, that sprang into the mind of one Michael O'Connor, and the beginning of the ferry service came into being when the first ferryboat ever to sail across Toronto Bay made its appearance in 1833 under the name of SIR JOHN OF THE PENINSULA.

O'Connor charged his passengers 7½d (pence) for the trip to and from the Island.

Another man, George Heathcote, also followed the idea of ferrying people across the Bay. Heathcote had gone one step further, and submitted a proposal to City Council for the building of a steam ferry. His proposal was successful, and construction commenced rapidly afterwards. Heathcote's ferry, TORONTO, the first steam ferry on Toronto Bay, served the city from 1835 to 1851.

In 1843, the Privat brothers, Peter and Louis, had bought the Peninsula Hotel on the Island. While Peter was looking after the hotel, his brother was securing paying guests by advertising trips across the Bay on their own horse-propelled ferry, the PENINSULA PACKET.

These early horseboats were about 60 feet in length and had paddle-wheels on each side of their hulls. The wheels of same were turned by the efforts of horses turning clockwise gears connected to a treadmill upon which the animals were forced to run. For that period, the system worked effectively.

Because of the sudden surge in horseboats appearing on the Bay, the good citizen of York increased their patronage and immigration to the Peninsula. Many of today's readers will remember hearing of the Wards, Laffertys, Durnans, Hanlans, Parkinsons, and many others who were populating the new area.

But time was pushing on and gradually horseboats were removed from active use. In 1851 James Good constructed his ferry the VICTORIA, and the second to be propelled by steam. This vessel outran the sluggish horseboats, and set an example of the changing trends in marine transportation. The VICTORIA remained a fixture on the Bay until 1855, and only two year earlier had begun receiving competition from two other ferries, the BOB MOODIE and the LADY HEAD.

1861 was a year of a novelty that would later creep into modern Toronto for just the same purpose. The first moonlight cruises were instituted aboard the FIREFLY, which was added to the ferry fleet that year.

Steam brought forth a number of new acquisitions to the Bay ferry terminus in these years. In 1864, the WATERTOWN had come into operation, and in 1865 the RIPPLE entered the competition for the growing number of paying passengers.

One of the more famous old-timers was the PRINCESS OF WALES. Built and owned by John Walsh in 1865, she entered service in that same year and served until 1883. At that time she sank near Queen's Wharf, but was raised and taken to Oakville where, after some initial changes, she was rebuilt and renamed GENERAL WOLSEY. Only a short time later, the newly-named vessel was to end her days in a tragic blaze on Fire Island.

The BOUQUET succeeded the old PRINCESS OF WALES in 1866, and she was followed by the ADA ALICE and PRINCE ARTHUR in 1868.

But the boat business didn't seem to be lagging. In 1870 another boat appeared in the already overcrowded docking area, and so Thomas Lundy's PERRY was new part of the Bay traffic scene.

As the transportation fleet was changing rapidly, so was the Island.

In 1846 J.G. Howard, the patriarch of High Park's Colborne Lodge, made a survey of the Island, laying out 283 acres in 57 two-acre lots. This was to prove invaluable later on, in the planning of street and roads for the later Island community.

The Privat brothers had used a horseferry, as mentioned previously, to provide some transportation to their Island hotel, which contained an amusement park and small zoo around it. The PENINSULA PACKET remained in service until 1851, when it was retired from service.

Although the Privats were the mainstay of Island innkeepers, they were by no means the only ones there. A carriage builder by the name of Reubon Parkinson built a hotel on Maskelonge Point, which is now known as Mugg's Island, the home of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. As his business conflicted too often with that of the Privats because of his close location to their hostel, Parkinson moved his dwelling eastward and located it on that sandy neck of land connecting the Peninsula with the mainland.

Parkinson saw his hotel carried away by raging waters brewed up by a severe storm in 1858, which created the Eastern Gap. Upon his death, Mrs. Parkinson moved to another hostelry set upon land known today as Island Park. Mrs. Parkinson realized she couldn't keep the business going by herself, so she sold it to a Robert Mead and his wife. Mead died later and his wife took over the business, which she later sold to the city in 1887 as an additional parcel of land for Island Park.

As time went on, the Island Filtration Plant for purifying the city's water supply was built on the portion of the Island known as Hanlan's Point (named after the famed Toronto oarsman and sculler, Ned Hanlan), and the now-defunct Wiman Baths also made their appearance on the east side of the Hanlan grounds.

TRANSIT, GOLDEN CITY, ST. JEAN BAPTISTE, JULIETTE—all of these ambitious ferries made their appearance during the 1870s. And it was during this period that the Lord's Day Act had a bearing on the ferry service. For several years after the usage of ferry boats began, some operators decided to get the jump on those who observed the Sabbath by operating their boats on Sundays. The process kept up for a time, until several of the ferry owners who didn't believe in that practice decided to settle the matter and went to court. The judge in the case overruled the protests of the owners, who had invoked provisions of the Lord's Day Act, and the ferries continued to operate as they do today, on Sundays.

Ferries continued to be built, and by 1882 the CANADIAN, LUELLA, SADIE and PROUVETTE BEYER, owned by the Turner Ferry Company, went into service. These were followed in the same year by boats of the A.J. Tymon Ferry Company which included the ARLINGTON, JESSIE McEDWARDS, KATHLEEN, GERTRUDE and ISLAND QUEEN among its numbers.

And as if this impressive list wasn't enough, another ferry made its appearance. This was the MASCOTTE, and the ownership of this vessel has never been clearly determined.

It began
like this...
Ferries of
the 1890s
1890 - 1938
1890 - 1938
1906 - 1955
1910 - 1957
The Changing Fleet:
1918 - 1926
The Modern Fleet:
1935 - 1960
Fleet List

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