May 17th, 2022

Beaches Living Guide - Spring & Summer 2016

Canada's waterways:
welcoming newcomers
for over 200 years

Painting-Thousand Islands by Elizabeth Simcoe, July 26, 1796- Archives of Ontario

The Birth of Toronto Early Settlers

It was a bright, sunny morning on July 30, 1793. A British government boat called the Mississaga slowly sailed its way along the shore of Lake Ontario into our harbour. Aboard was the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada and founder of York (Toronto), John Graves Simcoe. With him was his wife, Elizabeth. They'd travelled north from Fort Niagara. He'd been to the area before but it was the first time for Elizabeth.

When the boat reached the area at the mouth of the Humber River, it stopped and put down an anchor at a natural bay (Toronto Bay which we now know as Toronto Harbour). They waited until it was light enough for the two to climb into a smaller boat and be rowed to shore. A native trader, St. John Rosseau, was their trusted pilot. They landed east of what we know now as Fort York.

Transportation at that time was most easily done by boat. Most early travellers to Upper Canada came by bateaux, canoe, or Durham boat up the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. After canals were built to bypass the Lachine Rapids, more newcomers arrived by steam-powered vessels. All would be awed by the beauty of the richly wooded and rocky Thousand Islands where the St. Lawrence joins with Lake Ontario.

Portrait of John Graves Simcoe, 1791 - Toronto Public Library

Elizabeth Simcoe passed through the area and drew this scene of islands and bateau near Brockville

Elizabeth's home on the shoreline was initially a canvas tent. Within days of arriving, she set out to explore the surroundings. She wrote in her diary:

We went in a boat two miles to the bottom of the bay, and walked thro' a grove of oaks, where the town is intended to be built. A low spit of land covered with wood, forms the bay and breaks the horizon of the lake, which greatly improves the view, which indeed is very pleasing. The water in the bay is beautifully clear and transparent.

Elizabeth Simcoe paints a rare glimpse for us as to what the shoreline of Lake Ontario in front of our present day Toronto looked like. In other diary entries, she talks about enjoying fresh salmon caught off the shores of the islands, and her first look at the Scarborough bluffs.

Imagine what she'd think if she could see it today, with our skyline shining across several miles of shoreline! Hopefully, she'd appreciate the areas where there are still beaches and parks, and love the fact that the harbour is still filled with boats, even row boats like she once travelled in to reach the shore!

Elizabeth Simcoe, photo of an original watercolour painted in 1790 - Toronto Library

(inset) A Historical Atlas of Canada, Edited by D.G.G. Kerr - University of Western Ontario, Thomas Nelson and Sons, Second Edition, 1966 Toronto Harbour in 1793 - Toronto Archives

Early History Settling in and around the Don and the Humber

The Mississauga Native People travelled the rivers and along the lake shore in large, birch bark canoes made from Birch trees easily found in Ontario forests.

Their settlements were located at the mouths of the Don, Humber and Rouge Rivers where there was shelter and plenty of food and water. In fact, there were so many fish in these rivers, that some sources say that the name "Toronto" came from the Huron word Wendat, meaning fish weir (a way to catch fish).

For centuries, various groups of Aboriginal people hunted, camped and fished at the river mouths along our lake front. During the 17th century, two French trading posts were established on Toronto's present day shore, one at the mouth of the Humber River, and one by Fort Rouille (near the western end of the CNE grounds). Neither became permanent settlements until almost one hundred years later.

Early explorers, trappers, fishermen and tradesmen then arrived by boat, often making their way down the St. Lawrence and the various rivers, lakes and portages. When they reached Lake Ontario, it was necessary to find a safe place to anchor so they could row a smaller boat to shore. The area in front of what we now know as Toronto had 3 good spots: the bay between the mouth of two major rivers, the Humber and the Don (sheltered by the Toronto Islands); and further to the east, the mouth of the Rouge. The areas where these rivers emptied into the lake became the city’s early settlements. The town of York literally sprung up between the Don and the Humber.

Toronto harbour in 1883 - Ontario Archives

Over the next hundred years, settlers began to arrive in the area. They came up from the United States by land (many walked), including large numbers of British loyalists following the American War of Independence. Others were escaping various kinds of persecution, such as one of Toronto's founding settler families, the Ashbridges. Elizabeth Simcoe even records their arrival in her diary and a visit she made to visit "Mrs. Ashbridge").

As Quakers, the Ashbridges opposed war of any kind. So in 1793, the widow Sarah Ashbridge and her extended family immigrated from Pennsylvania and settled just east of York. Their land, 200 acres, extended from Woodbine Avenue to the East all the way to Cherry Street. It had some lakeshore frontage that the family soon named Ashbridge’s Bay. After clearing the land, they built their first log cabin beside a little creek that flowed into the lake.

They are the only Toronto family to occupy their land continuously for 200 years. The house that stands today on Queen Street East was built by a grandson of Sarah Ashbridge in 1854.

Dredge Gander, Centre Island, 1909 - Toronto Archives

Although small boats made their way down the St. Lawrence River, the river, and crossing from one Great Lake to another was not possible for large boats or ships. Everything literally had to stop at Montreal - making that city Canada's most important for many years. The issue was the narrow or shallow passages along the way as well as the rapids at Lachine. A canal was built in 1824 to get around Lachine, but that was only the beginning. Many more canals and locks would follow, including the various phases of the Welland Canal.

Only when The St. Lawrence Seaway project was completed in 1959, the river was fully opened to navigation. It was a challenging engineering feat. Seven locks were built in the Montreal-Lake Ontario section of the Seaway, five Canadian and two U.S., in order to lift vessels to 246 feet (75 meters) above sea level.

But with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the Great Lakes became connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River (which led to New York harbour). The opening of the Erie Canal was called the "Marriage of the Waters" of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.

The effects were immediate and dramatic for all colonists in North America including York (Toronto). Goods from Europe could now be transported at one-tenth the previous fee in less than half the previous time.

Toronto Harbour Commission

Now established as a city, Toronto grew rapidly so that by 1900, our waterfront had become an emerging industrial port.

By now, domination by the railways had cut Toronto's waterfront off from the business district. As a result, the harbour operations were is bad shape. The wharfs and docks were described as "ramshackle", and the sediment brought down by the Don River made it almost impossible to get vessels in or out of the harbour. There also was a huge marsh at Ashbridge's Bay, which meant the area was considered unusable.

It was time for someone to step in and figure out how best to manage it all.

In 1911, the Toronto Harbour Commission was established by an act of parliament on to maintain the navigability of a harbour as well as in the area of land development. From now

Early signs of industry

It wasn't long before an early system of trade and development took place. Sawmills, woolen mills and gristmills were built at the river mouths where it was easier to float lumber downstream from forests north of the town. Fishing in the rivers and on the lake was a major activity because it was a steady source of healthy, fresh food. The Kew Beach area established a market and gardening, and the Scarborough area produced grain.

All these various settlements and small industries were connected by boats along the shoreline, and up and down the rivers. Until the early 20th century, rail travel was limited and roads were in terrible shape. Boats were the most efficient way to travel, first sail boats and canoes, and then steamers. The mail, for example, arrived by boat. The Royal Mail Lines shipped the mail of Upper Canada from Queenston to Kingston across Lake Ontario from the 1840s to the 1870s. It was much faster and less expensive than by coach or train.

People also used boats for personal travel. In fact, travel up and down the shoreline, and travel across the lake to American settlements became a favourite pastime for families.

And because of the reliance on boats, the construction and repair of water craft became an important trade, eventually leading to shipbuilding.

"Marriage of the Waters" - Connecting Toronto to New York and Europe.

If you were a settler in York (Toronto) in the 1800s, it took many months to get supplies from overseas. This could mean fabric to sew a dress, books, or furniture sent to your new home in Canada from England.

Painting of Yonge Street Dock in 1906

Toronto's First Waterfront Beautification

As the town of York grew, however, so did the need for a waterfront that could handle boats properly. This meant creating a man-made "hard edge" along the shore so proper docks and wharfs could be built. The first of these man-made edges was constructed by a Polish immigrant, Sir Casimir Gzowski. Gzowski designed "The Esplanade" in 1850. The project was conceived as a beautification project to clean up the city's waterfront. It meant filling in the various gaps and soft spots along a particular stretch of Toronto Harbour.

The original Esplanade extended from Berkeley St. in the east to Brock St. in the west. (Portions of the original Esplanade were rediscovered in 1987, when crews were digging the foundation for the SkyDome).

Once completed, long and small piers jutted off The Esplanade able to handle commercial and passenger boats, and accommodate small warehouses.

Toronto Harbour Commission Building - Toronto Archives

Waterfront fill from Yonge Street, 1926 - Toronto Archives

Eventually, however, the days of ship travel and delivery gave way to railroads and trucking. Although shipping didn’t disappear, the days of Toronto Harbour as a busy, industrial area declined. Along the shore, there were many abandoned warehouses, and except for taking the ferry to the Toronto Islands, our city lakefront was not considered an attractive place for recreation.


In 1972, a creative undertaking began called the Harbourfront project. Inspired by the transformation of the Granville district in Vancouver, the idea was to convert the abandoned industrial area of the waterfront into a place where once again, people could enjoy our lakefront. The project meant expropriating the industrial port lands from York Street west to Bathurst Street, south of Queen’s Quay and convert them to a cultural and residential district for Toronto.

Today, Habourfront is one of Toronto’s most beautiful and interesting venues, particularly during the summer months. It includes the Martin Goodman Trail, a 56-kilometre (35

The Humber Bay Bridge, the far west end of the Martin Goodman Trail

mile) path along the waterfront, taking you from Humber Bay Arch Bridge in the west to the Rouge River in the east. If you stay on the trail, you can actually walk around Lake Ontario by following the Waterfront Trail (730 km). There are many cultural and art events at Harbourfront, as well as various boating and marine activities such as sailing, waterskiing and fishing!

Two Harbours for Toronto

First known as Toronto Bay, Toronto Harbour is actually made up of two harbours: the original natural harbour described above, and the "Outer Harbour". Access into the "Inner Harbour" is made via either the Western Gap or Eastern Gap. The Don River drains into the Inner Harbour from the north-east, through the Keating Channel.

The Outer Harbour was developed in the 1950s by the Toronto Harbour Commission. There was talk at the time that there would be need for more ships once the Saint Lawrence Seaway opened. The need for the space never materialized. Today, the Ports of Toronto operates a marina in the Outer Harbour.

A bridge at Rouge Beach, the far east end of the Martin Goodman Trail

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