photos
November 24th, 2014
Never Ending Summer

Q1. How did Scarboro Beach Amusement Park get its name? (P16)
Q3. How did Brooklyn N.Y. influence Scarboro Beach in late 1800s? (P8)


Never Ending Summer

The Beaches Golden Era of Amusement Parks

By Beth Parker

Ask anyone why they love the Beaches in Toronto and they’ll reply, “they like the neighbourhood”, “it’s beautiful by the lake”, “it’s vibrant and fun,” even, “it always feels like you’re on a vacation because of the cottage-style houses, parks and waterfront”. These attributes have never changed. From its very beginning, people experienced the “beaches” of Toronto like a year-long vacation area where it is always beautiful and there’s always something fun to do outdoors in the sun by the water. On hot days, we pour down to the beach to cool off. Even during the winter, we enjoy a walk on the boardwalk.

This is why, starting in the 1870s, the various small “beach” villages east and west of the then small City of Toronto, became established as summer and vacation destinations. Residents of Toronto could travel to these beach villages, first by boat, then by the 1900s, on trolley cars, in order to spend a weekend away or an afternoon having a picnic on the beach.

The Beaches also have always been recognized as a good place to “invest”, whether to build your residence or create a business around “beach life”. So as Toronto grew, wealthy residents built private summer getaways along the waterfront, and many local business and land owners opened hotels as well as resorts with cottages or rooms you could rent, or tent sites for those who wished to camp.

They also established commercial recreational areas at places with names we still recognize today. There were commercial beach facilities at Neville Beach, venues for spectator sports at places like Woodbine Race Track where you could watch horse racing live, natural settings at Small Park/Pond where you could walk or fish in the summer and skate in the winter, and of course, many facilities where you could participate in sports such as tennis, baseball, canoeing, boating, swimming, etc.

Travelling and Trolley Parks

As Toronto grew from 1890 to 1920, so did the demand to travel to the various beaches east of Toronto. Numerous boat and rail services were available, many operated by those who owned a particular park or recreational facilities. At first, people travelled by boat along Lake Ontario’s north shore. For example, they would get off at the Wharf at Victoria Park in the 1890’s and climb 100 steps (at the foot of Fallingbrook Road) and enjoy two levels of fun and entertainment.

As rail lines opened, the various independent trolley companies wanted in on the action. These trolley companies created what were known as “Trolley Parks” – recreational and amusement parks found not only in Toronto, but also throughout North America. It was an effective way of using local trolley lines during evenings, weekends and holidays. For example, Scarboro Beach Amusement Park, the largest amusement park east of Toronto, was bought by the Toronto Railway Company, previously known as the Toronto Street Railway Company that introduced many of Toronto’s first streetcars or “trolleys” that ran on tracks. In 1912, they acquired the lease to the land east of Victoria Park so they could promote their business of transporting people to and from amusement parks and beaches during off hours such as weekends.

The Toronto Railway company also bought a nearby competing park, Munro Park, as well as the Toronto LaCross Team. The streetcar loop stopped near the covered entrance and offices of the park.

The Rise of the Great Amusement Park

One of the most popular kind of commercial recreation of the time became the amusement park. Inspired by the great amusement parks like Coney Island in New York, the early 1900s became the golden age of such playgrounds for “children” of all ages. By 1900, over 2,000 amusement parks existed across North America, and the very best of them had spectacular attractions and rides, in particular, roller coasters. Each amusement park tried to out-do the other as to who “had the best”, the “highest”, and the “scariest” coaster.

In Toronto, amusement parks came into being at the various beach locations along the waterfront: specifically at Munro Park, Scarboro Beach Park, and Victoria Park; west of the city: Sunnyside Amusement Park; and on the Toronto Islands: Hanlan’s Point Amusement Park. Like those in the USA, some also had large wooden roller coasters, like the 400-metre long "Scenic Railway" built in 1907 for the opening of Scarboro Beach Park and the Sunnyside Flyer, which was promoted at the time as having the “dippiest-dips on the continent.”


Each amusement park tried
to out-do the other as to who
“had the best”, the “highest”,
and the “scariest” coaster.


Toronto’s Amusement Parks

part of the 19th century, several amusement parks entertained thousands of people along Toronto’s waterfront. These weren’t just picnic areas, but parks with large roller coasters, many different kinds of rides, bandshells for concerts, boardwalks, sparkling lights, and the everpopular miniature or “scenic” railways that carried visitors from place to place about the parks.

Although there are no amusement parks today along our waterfront (with the exception of Centreville on Toronto Island), there are several reminders of the parks that once existed, including two that occupy at least part of the original locations, Kew Beach and Balmy Beach (known for a long time as Beaches Park). Next time when you walk along the beaches, boardwalks, parks and streets where these amusement parks once stood—just imagine the fun and laughter from a century ago!

Here is a brief history of these former amusement parks, the earlier ones are described first, but the one that most people still remember, is the great Scarboro Beach Park. It was built a decade later than the others and along with Sunnyside in the west end, became Toronto’s biggest amusement parks.

Victoria Amusement Park (1878 – 1912)

Imagine, before there were streetcars, families visiting Victoria Park would enter via a wharf for ferry service and use an elevated walkway to get up the bluff to the park. There also were three different staircases that led to the beach where you could swim or rent a boat, one led to the top of the bluff on the “upper level” of the park. At this upper park there were picnic shelters, a dance pavilion, the restaurant, and an observation tower that overlooked the entire park area and the waterfront.

The area known as Victoria Park was developed by a Toronto businessman and opened in 1878, with buildings, landscaping and paths around the sand-coloured bluffs that overlooked Lake Ontario. Over the next 10 years, the park enjoyed its heyday with donkey and bicycle rides, steam-driven carousels, a zoo, shooting gallery, and events such as balloon ascensions, band concerts, and tightrope walking.

One interesting story about the park is that Toronto Rail Company, which bought it, set up 13 streetcars as “sleeping cars” in 1885 just to accommodate overnight visitors!

The park struggled financially after 1900, and eventually was used as a “forest school” to educate children in the “outdoor air”, and as a camp for boys. All this came to an end in 1927 when The City of Toronto bought the park to build what is there today, the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant.

Balmy Beach Park (1876 – 1930 – Present)

Balmy Beach was built up in the 1870s as streetcar and boat service began to infiltrate the district. A local landowner, Adam Wilson, liked his neighbourhood so much that he specified that a part of his land would become Balmy Beach, with summer residences and a recreational expanse set aside for its residents. Balmy Beach even included a private promenade leading to the recreation area at the bottom of Beech Street. It was a busy time for parks, with Kew Beach and Victoria Park also opening around the same time. All three were served by the new Scarboro Heights Hotel just north of the recreation area at the foot of Beech Avenue. But it’s not clear if there were any amusement park attractions at the site.

As residential development grew in the area, there was pressure to preserve parkland for public use. The Balmy Beach Park Commission was established to keep the area as recreational space. When the park re-opened in 1904 with improvements including a baseball diamond with a home team, bicycle trails, and lawn bowling. A new beach clubhouse was opened with improved facilities for sailing, rowing and paddling. It also became popular place for social activities such as dancing, recitals, concerts, and card games. The Balmy Beach Club became known for its athletes who competed in bowling, hockey, rugby, and volleyball, winning seven Olympic medals as well as Canada's Grey Cup in 1927 and 1930.

The original club house, which opened in 1905, was torn down in 1936 but was replaced soon after with current structure. The association still exists today as The Balmy Beach Canoe Club.

Munro Park Amusement Park (1896 – 1906)

George Munro, a Toronto businessman/politician, bought a 25-hectare site in 1847 and called it the "Painted Post Farm". It started as a picnic park with 50 benches and 100 seats, a large dance hall, a bandstand, carousel and swings. It would have been a very pretty park. Two 90 metre boardwalks led from the entrance of the park to the dance hall, flanked by 20 arches of lights along the way.

Each year, improvements were added: a mineral well, a large Ferris wheel, a water carousel and “Lundy’s Ostrich Farm”. By 1900, you could watch a movie there, or see live performers on stage including vaudeville acts from the USA and Britain with animals, acrobats, comedians, magicians, and musical performers.

Kew Beach/Kew Gardens (1879 – 1906 – Present)

Kew Beach occupies the area west of Balmy Beach. You could watch firework displays from the original turreted Beach Club House, which resembled a large sand castle.

There was a wooded area which the original owner called the “Canadian Kew Gardens”, which had many places for pitching tents for overnight and weekend visitors from the city, as well as picnic areas, wooded trails, and cottages and boarding houses. There also was a beach area, east of a protected arm of Lake Ontario called Ashbridge's Bay, much of which is filled in today. Over time, Kew Beach included a baseball diamond with its own team, bicycle trails, and lawn bowling and tennis clubs. At the club house, visitors met for sailing, rowing and paddling, or in the evening, to play cards, dance or attend recitals.

Kew Beach also catered to year-round residents and winter visitors, with bob sledding, tobogganing, and skating, plus curling and hockey (each with its own team & club).

The City of Toronto purchased the recreational area of Kew Beach as a public park, and removed the various buildings to make room for Beaches Park. You can still see a few reminders from the original grounds: At Lee Avenue you’ll see Kew Williams Cottage: a pretty little house with a corner tower and a wrap-around verandah; the Leuty Lifesaving Station (moved and restored in 1993 to its current location) and the intricate drinking fountain (on Lee Avenue).

Leuty Lifesaving Station. Leuty Station has been the scene of more than 6,000 successful rescues. In response to the changing shoreline, the Station has been moved four times since it was built in 1920.

Scarboro Beach Amusement Park, (1907 – 1925)

Inspired by two big American parks, New York's Dreamland and Luna parks at Coney Island, Harry and Mabel Dorsey had a big dream. They wanted to build the biggest amusement park in the Beaches area. They bought land in 1906 for $160,000 and built Scarboro Beach Amusement Park in the area between Kew beach and Balmy beach, and then held a contest in order to name the park!

One of the most recognizable landmarks at Scarboro Beach Park was an illuminated tower about 30 metres tall, with a beacon on top that could be seen for miles. The tower was in the shape of a tapered obelisk with anchors sculpted in relief near the top, along with designs on its sides. The tower was blown down in a storm and replaced with something smaller but it endures as a symbol of this wonderful amusement park.

There were many great features at the park including its own boardwalk, a giant Ferris wheel and a quarter mile long roller coaster call. Other attractions through the years were "Chutes" ride that splashed down into a long lagoon, "Air Ship Tours", "Electroscope", "Circus Gallery", a penny arcade, a Tunnel of Love, several shooting galleries, "Laugh Gallery", and "Joyland - House of Nonsense". A theatre at the park showed some of the first motion pictures of the day as well as live re-enactments of various disaster stories! There also were freak shows, a snake show and air ship tours. Even Canada's first air show was held over the beach in September 1909.

A popular ride at the time was a Traver "Circle Swing". The ride consisted of gondola-shaped cars with four 2-passenger wicker seats, with sides and a canopy. Each seat was attached to a central tower that rotated. As the ride turned, the cars would swing out at an angle and lift you into the air as if you were flying.

Associated with the park was The Toronto Athletic Field, located next to the park, which consisted of a track and a central field for baseball, football, and lacrosse. The park also had its own lacrosse home team, The Toronto's, and a track used for bicycling and bicycle marathon races. Later, a wood velodrome was added.

Nothing of this amusement park remains today, but if you walk down Scarboro Beach Boulevard to Hubbard Boulevard, you’ll pass through what would have been the original entrance gates to the park. Hubbard Boulevard is said to occupy the exact location of the beach side of the park's boardwalk. Think back and what it must have been like as you make your way to the beach past the area that used to have the Circle Swing and the Chutes lagoon. Most of the area became developed for houses. The city purchased back a portion between Hubbard Boulevard and the lake to include in its new Beaches Park which opened in 1932.

End of an Era

The fun of amusement parks didn’t last much longer than the 1920s. The Great Depression was not good business for amusement parks and most began to be converted back to either parkland or developed for homes and industry..

From 1910 to 1920, much of the private and commercial recreational areas, including amusement parks, were bought by local governments as Toronto continued to grow. Some of these were turned over entirely to growing residential and commercial communities, but others were converted to public parks and beaches so everyone would continue to enjoy them. One of the earliest of these city-owned ventures was the Beaches Park, opened in 1932. Extending along the shore area from Nursewood Road to Woodbine Avenue, Beach Park took in some of the land from the original commercial parks of Scarboro Beach, Kew Gardens/Beach, and the shore line of Munro Park. Beach Park also connected with The Woodbine Beach area peninsula between the Greenwood Racetrack and the water.


60,000 people came out to celebrate the new waterfront park, May 1932

Woodbine Racetrack, 1907, Toronto Archives

Fortunately, today we still can enjoy the various beaches and parks along our waterfront and remember the thousands over the years who have played in the sun by the water, held a picnic under a tree or enjoyed a stroll along the boardwalk.

There are very few signs of the amusement parks of yesteryear. However, there is a plaque commemorating the location of the Scarboro Beach Amusement Park at the foot of Scarboro Beach Boulevard and a section of streetcar tracks on Neville Park Boulevard just south of Queen. Some of you may also remember a mural illustrating the Scarboro Beach Amusement Park at 1 Scarborough Road, which has recently disappeared.


A mural of the Scarboro Beach Amusement Park,
located at 1 Scarborough Road (recently been
painted over). Photo: Fran Battaglia

A small section of streetcar tracks remain on Neville
Park Blvd. south of Queen St. E. Most of the tracks
have been paved over. Photo: Fran Battaglia

Resources:
The Way We Were by Mike Filey
I Remember Sunnyside: the Rise and Fall of a Magical Era by Mike Filey
The Coaster Enthusiasts of Canada, Canada’ Comprehensive Outdoor
Amusement Resource
Toronto Historical Plaques


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