Bruce Bell —
On the hot sweltering Tuesday afternoon of Aug. 10, 1909, passengers lining up waiting for the ferry to take them to the coolness of the Toronto Islands could see a thin line of smoke rise above their destination out at Hanlan’s Point.
That one stream of smoke would develop into a blaze of such intense proportions that at its finality would not only see the destruction of the historic Hanlan’s Hotel but also mark the beginning of the end of the old way of doing things out on the Island. In the days before A/C and weekend trips for some to the cottage, Hanlan’s Hotel was the place to while away the last of the idyllic Victorian summers.
Hanlan’s Point once a thin peninsula surrounded by water that the British had named Gibraltar Point upon their arrival back in the 1700s is now named for Ned’s father, John, an Irish immigrant who first went to Owen Sound before arriving in Toronto.
Hanlan’s Point today is least built up and most pastoral part of the Toronto’s Islands mostly because everything that at one time stood there was either burnt, demolished or moved away. In 1865 during a severe storm John, his wife Ann and their two sons Ned and Ed were huddled in their small Island shack at the eastern end when a huge wave washed them, home and all, into Lake Ontario. They floated safely to the western end where John, undeterred, started to rebuild a new home on land that the next year would be officially deeded to him. A few years later he built his first hotel and by 1880 Hanlan’s Hotel, now newly enlarged, became the centre of Island life. It would be where Islanders picked up their mail, held their first church service and had the first Island telephone installed.
Today there’s a statute just as you step off the ferry to the famous Toronto-born sculler Edward “Ned” Hanlan who in 1880 won the World Rowing Championship.
Ned Hanlan began rowing when he was just a kid when he would row across the bay to St. Lawrence Market to sell his fish that he caught that morning.
He soon realized that if he could be the first to arrive at the market his fish would therefore be the freshest. After a few years of winning local and regional races, it was obvious this kid had talent and soon a legend was born.
Known as the “Boy in Blue” because of his racing colours, Ned’s arrival into Toronto Bay on July 15, 1879 after defeating the English champion, W. Elliott of Blyth in England, was the largest celebratory regatta in our city’s history.
After the fire that destroyed the hotel in 1909 it was never rebuilt but the wooden baseball stadium next to it was, by this time, in concrete. It would be in this new stadium that baseball history was to be made for on Sept. 5, 1914 a young Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run in the newly opened Hanlan’s Point stadium.
Using a 1910 city map I counted 122 cottages lining its beach that—previous to the massive landfill that one day would evolve into the Island Airport—also held the giant baseball stadium, two merry go-rounds, a boardwalk, a theatre and a dance pavilion.
By the time Sunnyside Amusement Park opened in the city’s west end in 1922, Hanlan’s Point was in a steady decline.
In 1937 the enormous stadium was demolished and in 1956 the last carnival ride was dismantled.
If you continue up the road from the ferry docks past the languid lagoons you will stumble across an oval-shaped clearing with a few picnic tables and some chunks of cement on its lakefront.
It was here from 1883 to the late 1950s that the Lakeside Home for Little Children once stood, built as a summer retreat for underprivileged children mostly suffering from tuberculosis in Toronto’s crowded inner city.
Every June these children, some still in their hospital beds, would be paraded in a long line of carriages from the Hospital for Sick Kids (then on College Street) down to the Island docks and in September crowds would form once again to see their return. The building was heavily damaged by fire on April 22, 1915 thankfully before any of the children arrived.
Repairs were done and this Island refuge continued to be a fresh air haven for thousands of children up until 1928 when a new country home operated by the Hospital for Sick Children opened in Thistledown, Ont.
Later on the rambling mansion was for a time used as emergency housing during WWII and by the time of its destruction in 1956 was a housing complex known as Chetwood Terrace.
Today Hanlan’s Point with the exception of its vibrant clothing-optional beach is peaceful, quiet and serene.
Long-time Island resident Jimmy Jones once told me when he comes down to the docks to greet friends he can still hear the sound of the carousel and children’s laughter he first heard back in the 1930s when Hanlan’s Point was known as Canada’s Coney Island.