Summer time to remember life savers

This story was first published July 2013


These bathers at Kew Beach were likely photographed in 1908, in the era of heroes such as Robert ‘Bob’ Berry, who risked his own life to save swimmers and boaters who found themselves facing the rough side of Lake Ontario. PHOTO: City of Toronto Archives, Fond 1244 Item 15
These bathers at Kew Beach were likely photographed in 1908, in the era of heroes such as Robert ‘Bob’ Berry, who risked his own life to save swimmers and boaters who found themselves facing the rough side of Lake Ontario.
PHOTO: City of Toronto Archives, Fond 1244 Item 15

There have been great scullers, oarsmen, swimmers and athletes who lived in the East End and on the Toronto Islands. There have been stories about shipwrecks in Lake Ontario, and of the sailors who nearly drowned, but were saved by a few people living around the islands and on the fringes of the city at Ashbridges Bay. There have been tales of storms like the ones we’ve had this summer, pounding  boats, from canoes to large merchant ships. Many lives have been lost, but many have also been saved. In the East End, there have been great people who helped others, even saving people from drowning.

This is a story that few people know, about a special person who saved countless lives in the Beach, but was never truly recognized for his great deeds. It’s time we give credit to this great life-saving champion: his name is Robert ‘Bob’ Berry.

His contemporaries included people like Ned Hanlan, the Laings and several others whose names are synonymous with the East End and the Beach.

Acts of heroism are always something to marvel at, and saving lives from ‘the deep’ is very difficult. In the Beach and Ashbridges Bay area dozens were saved by Berry. He was an icon amongst other life savers.

One of the reasons many have not heard of Berry’s deeds over a century ago is that he was black. Bob was a large man, standing over six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, all muscle on his frame. He was an imposing figure wherever he went.

Berry had to overcome racial prejudice as a youth growing up in the East End. He was always a gentleman, and rarely threatened anyone calling him names. Berry carried himself with dignity, and was kind and charitable to everyone. He was known for his humility along with his size and strength.

Bob had many narrow escapes on the water’s edge, saving people from the stormy lake. It’s said he was one of the best fishermen in this part of the lake – he was sometimes referred to as ‘The Big Fisherman’.

Berry was a natural athlete, able to excel in all types of competition. He was a great boxer, and it was said he could have been a heavyweight champion, ranked with the American champ Jack Johnson. Many an East Ender made money betting on Berry.

Berry’s most notable achievement is the number of lives he saved. Picture this: a tramp steamer slams into a rock on Lake Ontario, battered by 60 mile an hour winds, with water filling the boat. The crew of 15 sailors cry for help. On the shoreline, two figures appear, swimming to the boat and helping the sailors to safety. One is a Mr. Ward, of Ward’s Island fame. The other is Bob Berry. The two nearly lost their own lives saving others.

Over the years Berry swam out in gales and storms and rescued countless others, including swimmers and paddlers with overturned canoes. Legend has it he was the old man of the sea, and the lake was his world. Although many owed their lives to this unsung champion, how many he saved is unknown. Mr. Ward has said Berry has saved so many and helped to avert so many potential catastrophes that no one would believe it.

If there was any East End hero to look up to and emulate, Robert ‘Bob’ Berry would be it.

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