Nothing says Toronto like a ferry ride to the Islands on a warm summer's day. Never mind the waiting and the overcrowded terminal, every trip across the Toronto Harbour repeats a historic journey that first took place more than 180 years...
Nothing says Toronto like a ferry ride to the Islands on a warm summer's day. Never mind the waiting and the overcrowded terminal, every trip across the Toronto Harbour repeats a historic journey that first took place more than 180 years ago.
The original Toronto Island ferry, powered by a pair of horses walking on a treadmill, first entered commercial service in 1833, several years before the Islands were first separated from the mainland. At the time, it was still possible to reach the lighthouse and other early buildings on foot by way of the marshes at the mouth of the Don.
The ferry service, it turns out, is actually older than the Island.
The first ever Toronto Island ferry was a simple wooden contraption that slowly paddled from the Steam Boat Wharfs at the foot of Church Street to a slip near Michael O'Connor's hotel, named The Retreat, directly across the water. The boat was the first regularly scheduled vessel to service the Islands, even if they weren't actually separate from the mainland at the time.
The basic machine was powered by a pair of horses walking on separate treadmills connected by a series of gears to two large paddles. A single crew member, likely O'Connor, controlled the steering at the rear while passengers rode up front on an open deck.
O'Connor, a former steward on the steam ship Canada, marketed The Retreat to "sportsmen, parties of pleasure," and those that wished to "inhale the Lake breeze." In 1833 he charged 7 1/2 pence for adults, 3 3/4 for kids. His boat ran every two or four hours every week day and Sundays.
Though it was certainly convenient, the ferry wasn't entirely necessary. Before the middle of the 19th century, it was possible to simply walk to the Islands via a narrow sand isthmus from the marshes at the mouth of the Don, as the map above illustrates.
The Eastern Gap, the 300-metre shipping passage between Ward's Island and the Port Lands, was created entirely naturally during a violent gale one spring night in 1858. Interestingly, the area was often called an island by the town's early inhabitants prior to the storm, though it was still technically a lengthy sandbar.
Shortly after O'Connor started his hotel business, manufacturer Benjamin Knott moved his starch and soap factory to the property next door from the waterfront at Sherbourne Street. Shortly after his arrival on the Islands, Knott bought O'Connor's hotel and upgraded the ferry to a faster, four-horse vessel and slashed fares.
The second ferry, the Sir John of the Peninsula, named for Sir John Moore, a British army officer who had lead O'Connor in battle during the Napoleonic wars, was powered by a team of horses coaxed in a circular motion on a single, large turntable.
Needless to say the journey would have taken considerably longer than it does today - the Islands used to be further away (infill has actually moved the city almost half a kilometre closer in places) and horse powered vessels tended to move quite slowly.
Knott's ownership of the hotel didn't last long. He sold up to another group of entrepreneurs, Anderton and Palin, who switched the name to the Peninsula Hotel. They fitted the place out with "neat and comfortable furniture ... a larder stocked with game, etc., in season, and choice wines."
The pair purchased the city's first steam-powered Island ferry, aptly naming it the Toronto. It was 19-metres long with a "commodious deck cabin" and harnessed a boiler capable of producing fourteen horsepower.
For reason that aren't clear, the Toronto didn't stay on the water long. As Mike Filey notes in his history of the Island ferries, the vessel was removed from service and auctioned that same year, sending travel to the idyllic outpost back to animal power.
By this time the Toronto Islands were becoming a popular destination for day-trippers. As a result, the city had established a toll of between four and six pence for each horse-drawn buggy that wished to use the trail