Beaches Living Guide Spring/Summer 2015
Toronto’s Lost Island
Toronto has its own mysterious lost island, Fisherman’s Island. Once home to a thriving fishing community, its name is now vanished from the Toronto landscape, like it never was.
Toronto’s Islands Were Once a Peninsula
Picture a different map of the city in your mind. In the early 1800s, Toronto was once a pristine paradise with primeval forest, rivers that teemed with fish, and pure waters. Before the Toronto Islands became islands, they were part of a long peninsula, a giant sandbar that started at the foot of present day Woodbine Avenue. Wave action actually carried these sands all the way from the Scarborough bluffs to create this sandbar.
The eastern part of the sandbar peninsula backed onto a vast marsh, which extended eight square kilometres from the mouth of the Don River to the present day foot of Leslie Street. The marsh flourished with life. British author Anna Jameson wrote in 1837 that,
“this marsh, intersected by inlets and covered with reeds, is the haunt of thousands of wild fowl, and of the terrapin, or small turtle of the lake; and as evening comes on, we see long rows of red lights from the fishing boats gleaming across the surface of the water, for thus they spear the lake salmon, the bass and the pickerel.”
Fish and fowl weren’t the only creatures that thrived in the marsh. Mosquitoes lived and bred there in abundance.
One winter day in 1858, a winter storm changed the landscape forever, breaching the sandbar, creating the channel known as the Eastern Gap and the Toronto Islands.
The sandbar area east of the breach became known as Fisherman’s Island, and was a fisherman’s paradise. European fisherman, mostly the Irish, established a commercial fishery there, as well as on Hanlan’s Point and Ward’s Island. A fishing community also settled in Leslieville on Laing Street, on what is now Knox Street. The commercial fishery thrived from the early 19th century.
The primary catch was whitefish, herring and salmon. Fishermen’s huts dotted the sandbar, sometimes obliterated by the wild waves of Lake Ontario storms.
On the mainland, there was a fish market where they sold their catch. In 1803, all land north of Front Street, west of Jarvis, south of King and east of Church, had been declared Market Block, and this was where the fishermen went to market.
Sturgeons – Big Enough 1to Sink a Boat!
An abundance of fish thrived in the lake, and they were big.
Rev. Henry Scadding wrote in his 1873 book Toronto of Old that skiffs and canoes were landing at shore,“weighed heavily down with fish, speared or otherwise taken during the preceding night in the Lake, bay, or neighboring river.”
Scadding noted the sturgeon were so large that struggling to land one might be enough to upset a small boat. And there were so many fish for sale: salmon, pickerel, muskellunge, whitefish and herrings, with the smaller fry of perch, bass, and sunfish. Also displayed for offer were “unsightly catfish, suckers, lampreys, and other eels...”
A Fisherman’s Tale and His Family
One young family that settled permanently on Fisherman’s Island was Thomas and Annie Smith, immigrants from England who moved to the Island in 1883. A booklet, The Smiths of Fisherman’s Island, captures the island memories of their youngest daughter, Elsie McGregor.
Thomas and Annie raised their eight children in a paradise. Thomas worked as a commercial fisherman and operated a boat livery. It was not unusual to make a haul in their nets of 400 to 500 whitefish. The children would catch frogs in the marsh, and sell the legs in the city as a delicacy for some pocket money.
Their eldest son, Jack, worked with his father to bring in the nets full of fish from the lake, and keep the nets and boats in good repair.
Hilda, one of their three daughters, sometimes went with her father to the lake to haul in the catch of whitefish. She told her children of “the beauty and thrill of the experience as the nets rose out of the lake with hundreds of silver fish sparkling in the morning sun.”
Another son, Frank, became a naturalist fascinated by the marsh’s abundant bird life. He became a renowned bird carver, creating life-sized models of the birds in wood. He also banded birds for the government.
When storms raged, the island would flood with water. Saving the boats, their livelihood, was the Smiths’ biggest worry at times like these. The children would cling with determination to the boats, up to their necks in water, as the storms tried to tear the boats from their moorings.
In the early years, they used a rowboat to get from their island home to the mainland. Later, a road and bridges made it easier. By 1911, a school and the Anglican church of St. Nicholas were established on Fisherman’s Island
For 32 years, the Smiths lived in their island paradise. But Toronto had encroached on the marsh, which became polluted with the waste of the city. Fish dwindled in the face of industrialization. The heyday of commercial fishing in Toronto was over.
The City filled in the marsh between 1912 and the 1920’s, creating the industrial area now at Cherry and Commissioners Streets. The Smiths and other residents had to say good-bye to their island paradise. It was no longer an island.
The name was lost, but the sands remain. Toronto’s Cherry Beach is what remains of what was Fisherman’s Island. Next time you visit, close your eyes and try to dream of Toronto’s lost island paradise, and all that once was.
In 1916, they had to move, as the water between Cherry Street and the island was filled in and the area industrialized.
Toronto Historical Association; The Smiths of Fisherman Island booklet; Don Valley Historical Mapping Project; St. Lawrence Market; Pigs, Flowers and Bricks: A history of Leslieville, Joanne Doucette; Helen Mills, John Wilson – Lost Rivers
The Seiche of Lake Ontario
Have you noticed strange changes in the water levels and wondered if Lake Ontario has tides?
There is a tide, but it is barely noticeable. However, Lake Ontario also has something called a seiche, when the water oscillates back and forth across the Lake. Think of water in a bowl tipping from side to side. The normal daily seiche happens every eleven minutes, and is barely noticeable at about two centimetres. But when storm surges, rapid changes in atmospheric pressure, fastmoving fronts and changes in wind direction occur, the seiche can become much larger.