Toronto the Great: the City’s Island Residents

Take a short ferry ride across Toronto’s inner harbour, away from the downtown core of the city, and you’ll find a magical place that possesses the qualities of a fairy tale village. With picturesque, tree-lined avenues and cottages that could be taken from a story book, the communities located on Ward’s and Algonquin Islands are unlike any other within the city.

The settlement of the Toronto Islands began well before the British arrived. First Nations peoples consider the islands sacred healing grounds, and the Objiwa and the Mississaugas were the last aboriginals to occupy the area. After the Toronto Purchase of 1787, the islands became more accessible as York developed into a city (and later into Toronto), and in the later half of the 1800s the first year-round inhabitants settled in and a cottage community was begun. Now, property is almost impossible to obtain (with interested buyers having to buy into a 20+ year long waiting list with no guarantees, signing a 99-year lease if they’re one of the lucky ones), and the communities on Ward’s and Algonquin Islands enjoy a level of exclusivity rivaling that of any gated community (except you have to either own a boat or take a ferry to enter).

The island community boasts a public school, a Montessori school, a church, a senior’s centre, and an artist’s residence, and has full infrastructure like a fire department, garbage/recycling disposal, and mail services. Roads are paved, however the only cars that are allowed are service vehicles belonging to the city, so the Islands also make up the largest car-free community in North America. It really is quite outstanding that this community exists as part of the largest city in Canada.

Ward’s Island (which technically isn’t an island on its own, but rather the very eastern end of Centre Island), was named after the first settlers — the Ward family, led by patriarch David Ward. The family built a hotel in 1882, which stood just south of the ferry docks and acted as a resort for residents of the city. It was eventually reduced in size and converted into an ice cream parlour and a grocery store, but the building was later demolished in 1966. Now, Ward’s has the Island Café, which is located very near to (if not on the same spot) where the Ward Hotel once stood.

The community on Ward’s Island is an eclectic one. About 150 homes take up its 12 acres of land, and each house has its own unique character. Its streets follow a grid system, with north-south routes named consecutively from First to Sixth Streets (followed by Withrow, that runs alongside the Island Café, then Lenore further west). These streets are then divided by three east-west avenues: Bayview, which borders the northern shore along the ferry dock, then turns into Cibola (and continues on to Centre Island); Channel, that divides the residential part of the island in half; and Lakeshore, which begins in the very south-eastern end of Ward’s and runs all the way to Hanlan’s Point along the southern shore of Centre Island. Fun fact: Lakeshore Avenue began as a wagon route.

Most of the houses on Ward’s can be found in an area bordered by First Street to the east, Lakeshore Avenue to the south, Sixth Street to the West, and Bayview Avenue to the north. This part of the island is probably my favourite, because it almost feels like you might catch Goldilocks skipping down one of its avenues at any moment.

 

 

Another thing I love about the islands is the number of willow trees there are. The first time I visited (which was just a few days prior to my most recent trip), the air was full of wispy, fluffy bits that had blown off these trees. There was so much fluff that it started to collect along the sides of the avenues, creating little “snow banks”. Everything was draped with this fluff, and some houses even looked like they had been decorated with that fake cobwebbing you can buy around Halloween. On my return trip, the air was clear and evidence of the fluff had dissipated.

During that first trip I discovered the biggest willow I’ve ever seen. Located on the southwestern corner of a field bounded by Withrow Street and Lakeshore Avenue, this gentle giant stands guard.

 

 

These photos don’t do that tree justice. If you’re on the island, take a moment to visit my new friend. Chances are it’s been around for a few years.

Continuing past this tree, along Lakeshore Avenue and the remaining houses of Ward’s Island (and its second restaurant, the Rectory Café), you come to a bridge that connects Centre Island to the residential community of Algonquin Island.

 

 

Algonquin Island has a different overall feeling than Ward’s. The community on Ward’s originally began as an extension of the Ward Hotel. In the 1880s, tents were rented to visitors during the summer, and by 1913 this tent community had grown so large that streets were installed to accommodate the pedestrian traffic. Eventually, these tents were replaced with cottages, and you’re left with a neighbourhood with a rustic, quaint, somewhat hippie-coloured air. Over on Algonquin, this air is blown away by the gentle breezes coming in from Toronto’s inner harbour.

The history of Algonquin Island is really quite interesting. What originally started as nothing but a sandbar now holds year-round homes that can put mainland houses to shame — and we have the island airport to thank.

Where Billy Bishop Toronto Island Airport now resides once stood Toronto’s own version of Coney Island — Hanlan’s Point. There was an amusement park, a stadium (where Babe Ruth hit his first home run as a professional baseball player — the ball went into the lake), and a cottage community. In the 1930s the park and stadium were demolished to make room for an airport expansion, and 31 of its cottages were floated by barge to their new homes on Algonquin Island.

In preparation for the move, Algonquin Island (which was actually originally known as Sunfish Island), had been expanded with land reclamation projects. Walking through its present community, you would never know that this island once had no vegetation, landmarks or significant structure of any kind.

 

 

There are only seven avenues on Algonquin Island, and they are all named after First Nations peoples — Seneca, Wyandot, Dacotah, Oneida, Ojibway, Nottawa, and Omaha.

 

The lots on Algonquin seem to be bigger and more spacious than on Ward’s. The houses also appear to be larger and in some cases more modern.

 

However, this one house (which has a spectacular view of the Toronto skyline), stands out from all others with its gingerbread trim and bright colours.

 

 

The Toronto Islands truly are amazing. Visiting only Ward’s and Algonquin Islands barely allowed me to skim the surface of what they offer. My goal is to return in the near future, walk the entire length of Lakeshore Avenue, visit every possible island I can, and maybe even take a relaxing break at Toronto’s only nudie beach (ha…as if).

Besides, this view makes the ferry ride across the harbour worthwhile any day.

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