In the last issue of the Beach Metro News, the Wizard of Written Witicism, fellow columnist Glenn Cochrane wrote about our Beach boardwalk. It then came to me that I had written an article on the boardwalk many years ago. So I would like to dedicate this column to Glenn, who in my humble estimation has done more than any person to further the history and lifestyle of the Beach.
Secondly I would also like to mention that my other friend, Carole Stimmell, who in her own way also promoted the Beach better than anyone else, is editing her last issue. Carole, we will miss you.
After this boardwalk episode, which deals with the first 100 years, I will write another one following the history of the boardwalk to the present day.
Just as the beautful local beaches are part of our way of life, so is the boardwalk an integral part of the Beach. The boardwalk, as we know it today, is a nearly continuous stretch of wood planking running from the historic Balmy Beach Canoe Club to the newly created Ashbridges Bay spit, a distance of nearly three miles.
Many think that the boardwalk has always been there, but of course this is not so. Like everything else it has its origins.
The dictionary defines a boardwalk as a promenade along a beach – exactly what the Beach boardwalk is. The origins of the Boardwalk are somewhat sketchy but it is possible to establish an approximate date.
Geographically, the Beach starts at the R.C. Harris Purification Plant and continues west through the old Victoria Park, Munro Park, Balmy Beach, Scarboro Beach, Kew Beach and Woodbine Beach.
The early pioneers
The Eastern Beaches (the earliest name for this area) were a conglomeration of cottages, small residences owned or rented by people working for the Grand Trunk Railway and living on Lakeview Avenue (now Gerrard Street).
There were also a few hardy pioneers who obtained land in the sometimes marshy area of Ashbridges Bay on the lakefront. There they built cottages and fishing shacks. In front of these buildings, they built walkways made of lengths of planking so they could walk without fear of falling into the mud or water. This would be the first type of boardwalk in the Beach area in the middle 1850s and early 1860s.
Some of these families were people such as the Williams. They came to the area around 1853. They soon established their presence in the community, a presence that is felt to this day. They had a cottage and extensive property on the lake and built a type of boardwalk in front of their properties.
Another prominent pioneer family was the Langs. Mr. Lang settled on a sandbar on the southern extremity of Coxwell/Woodbine Beach area. He plied his trade as a fisherman and also built a few cottages and fishing shacks. In front he placed wooden sidewalks.
During the late 1800s, people from Toronto were beginning to discover the beauty and uniqueness of the Eastern Beaches (something we all know today) and started to build summer homes and cottages in the area (some of which still stand and are being used today).
At Victoria Park, there was an amusement park which catered to the people of the surrounding area. Boat excursions came from Toronto and landed at the pier which jutted out enabling people to come off the boat walk along the pier to the wooden boardwalk, and down to the amusement area.
There were certainly several boardwalks along the beachfront in those early days where people built their cottages. As people came to walk, swim and fish in the area, the city took an interest, and in the 1880s a strip of land stretching from the water to north of Queen was incorporated as part of the City of Toronto.
In the first recorded instance of anyone asking for a walkway, a deputation of citizens approached the city in 1888 for a roadway at the bottom of Lee. This was led by one of the leading citizens of Toronto and an extensive land holder, Walter S. Lee whom Lee Avenue was named after. The motion was debated before city council and in the following year, 1889, bylaw No. 1406 stated: “I beg to recommend opening of a street on the lakefront from west of Lee Avenue to a distance of 530 feet as a local improvement — Certified by the City Clerk. Cost $1,345”. This bylaw was changed later from west of Lee to east of Lee.
The next notation in the city council meetings is bylaw 1061: “Opening of street called Kew Beach (1890).” During the years from 1890 to after the turn of the century, people started pouring into the area. Recreational activities naturally focused on the beach and surrounding areas. Boating, lacrosse, baseball, lawn bowling and swimming were enjoyed by both residents and visitors. In 1903 the Balmy Beach Canoe Club was established on land donated by a past Mayor of Toronto and noted jurist, Sir Adam Wilson.
During this period, large numbers of people were going to Munro Park and Victoria Park to enjoy themselves. In 1906 the Scarboro Beach Amusement Park was built. It included games of chance and rides of the day such as Shoot the Chute. There was a real carnival atmosphere. But the biggest attraction was the boardwalk built in front of the park. The amusement park and its boardwalk were in existence for approximately 21 years. The park was eventually closed down and replaced by houses but fortunately the boardwalk was left.
Around 1907, further west along the shoreline a new boardwalk was being built along Woodbine Beach. This was in the vicinity of the Lang property around Coatsworth Cut east of Woodbine Avenue.
The city steps in
In 1908 the city began negotiating to acquire most of the private property along the shoreline from Woodbine to Leuty Avenue. The city’s idea was to turn this area into one giant park eventually. In the minutes of 1908 Parks and Recreation Report, mention is made of plans for Kew Gardens and Kew Beach.
The boardwalk as we know it now must have started around 1908 in the vicinity between Lee and Woodbine Avenues. All types of activities were springing up in this area. The Harbour Commission presence was felt with the construction of a life-saving station at the foot of Leuty Avenue. The Kew Beach Lawn Bowling Club was formed.
But maintaining the boardwalk was not easy. Minutes of City Council meeting of 1913 show that $500 was appropriated to repair the structure. This was the first of many continuing battles to keep nature from destroying the boardwalk.
The great war came and went. The boardwalk was by this time a major focal point for Torontonians. After the war, the Beach issued a great challenge: “Come and try to beat us at any sport.” During the 1920s, the Beach was home to a number of great athletes such as the great and legendary Ted Reeve, and many of their activities were held down at the beach.
Then came the storms
Then, in 1929, along with economic crash, came the crash of the boardwalk. Storm after storm hit the area. Cottages were damaged, basements were flooded on Leuty, Waverley, Kenilworth and Kippendavie. The boardwalk was chewed up. Pieces of it fell into the lake. Disaster stuck the Eastern Beaches.
People petitioned the government to do something, provide financial aid or even sand bags, anything to stop the water from doing any more damage. However, the old boardwalk was damaged beyond repair.
In 1931 and 1932 (bylaws 246 & 226) a city committee proposed the establishment of a permanent boardwalk between Woodbine and Silver Birch. This would allow a continuous walk between Woodbine and the eastern end of the Beach.
In the pre-Second World War years, people promenaded on the boardwalk living a carefree existence, enjoying the beach and park. Parades were held and soldiers marched on the boardwalk prior to going overseas.
In 1942, City Council minutes reported that the boardwalk was damaged by fire, and immediate funds should be given to repair it. The Boardwalk was restored, and when the war was over, troops came home victorious and again marched along the beach’s promenade, but for the last time in uniform. The boardwalk again enjoyed tranquillity.
In 1950, Alderman Lipsett recommended repairs to the western portion of the boardwalk. “Last year , $24,500 was spent on the boardwalk, this year $12,500 was recommended to be spent.” By-Law 215 authorized some replacement and repairs. In 1952, by-law 201 got more repairs done. However, in the same year, by-law 217 reported on the collapse of the entire boardwalk due to erosion. Residents clamored for action – “Save our Beaches, Save Our Boardwalk.” In 1953, by-laws 371, 391, 332 were passed for the restoration of the boardwalk from “Beaches Woodbine to the East City Limits.”
During all these years, the Balmy Beach Club opposed the establishment of a boardwalk in its area, stating it would interfere with the club’s activities and for quite a while it stopped it. Eventually, however, the boardwalk was extended to Silver Birch where it ends today.
The 50s came and went with little change. However, in 1964, City Council meeting by-laws 33 and 69 indicated that the city was interested in extending the boardwalk east to Nursewood and Munro Park. There was also talk of a boardwalk renewal program (Item 7) at the cost of $20,000.
People were starting to use the boardwalk in greater number than ever before. Could the walkway stand the weight? In 1965, work was done on the beach groynes. Would this help? In 1968 a new plan was laid out for the entire Beach area (No. 42 & 73). It seemed that the boardwalk would soon enjoy a new era of people and activities such as never before.
In came the 1970s. The people began to use the boardwalk for different things. Running was the thing. A bicycle path was opened beside the boardwalk. In 1970 permission was requested to use the boardwalk for the site of the Beaches Easter Parade, the first of many sponsored by Alderman Tom Wardle Senior. In 1972, the Beaches Boardwalk Marathon was run. Any hour of the day or night there seemed to be someone enjoying the boardwalk.
Then in 1973 disaster again stuck the boardwalk in the form of a giant storm. It hit with such a fury that the structures on the beach have not recovered to this day. Planks were ripped up were not replaced for many years.
Today the boardwalk is used by everyone, at anytime. Joggers, crosscountry skiers, older couples walking, younger couples pushing baby carriages, and visitors to Toronto all enjoy uniqueness of the boardwalk. One thing the history of the boardwalk has shown me is that throughout its first 100 years, it has managed to survive and grow because the need for it has always been with us. It is a definite part of our past and with the help of the community it will be a part of our future.
Please call the paper or me for any errors or comments.