The Beaches Area
(1793 – Present)
This area was divided into lots by Alexander Aitken for Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe in 1793 and the new owners, or their heirs, developed roads and settlements. This prompted stagecoach and rail service into the area. As the villages grew, some owners fashioned recreational areas which they often opened to the local population. Word spread and by the 1870’s The Beaches became a summer resort for the general population of Toronto. This prompted parks to open or private ones to go public, some of which were owned or run by rail and ferry transportation companies that wished to promote business during normally off times.
The communities grew to be towns with their own schools, churches, and post offices, all of which would eventually be incorporated into Toronto. By the 1910’s, local governments began to buy the land many of the private and commercial recreational areas occupied. The plan was to open the entire area as a public recreation site with no commercial establishments or amusements. Property purchases and renovation work progressed slowly, but in 1932 Beaches Park opened. It encompassed the shore area from Nursewood road to Woodbine Avenue and then connects with The Woodbine Beach area peninsula between the Greenwood Racetrack and the water.
Balmy Beach Park (1876 – Present Day)
Part of The “Beaches” District in present-day eastern Toronto, Balmy Beach was a summer play area that was built up in the 1870’s as streetcar and boat service began to infiltrate the district. In 1876, Adam Wilson owned a large waterfront lot on Lake Ontario bounded by Victoria Park Avenue on the east (just west of present-day Scarborough) and Queen Street on the north. He specified part of it to become Balmy Beach, which would be like a small village with summer residences and a recreational expanse. This recreational area was at the bottom of what would become Beech Street. Wilson wanted it set aside for the use of the residents. Within three years, two other parks would also open in the Beaches area: Kew Beach and Victoria Park.
The neighbourhood began to grow, which prompted the opening of the Scarboro Heights Hotel in 1879. It was about one kilometer north of the recreation area. The beach district, which is east of a protected arm of Lake Ontario called Ashbridge’s Bay, drew summer visitors who tented, or stayed in boarding houses while taking in the recreational activities.
By 1902, some residents wanted Beech Street to continue to the water right through the promenade. However, others petitioned the area council to obtain legislation from the province declaring the stretch to be preserved as a recreational area. An act passed in 1903 did just that by forming The Balmy Beach Park Commission. It provided for squatter building demolitions, an enclosure for the park, breakwaters, tree clearing, and other improvements, as well as setting the hours of operation.
The park officially opened June 20, 1904. A loan was secured for further improvements. These improvements grew through an organized club. A boat club had been formed in 1903 and they had a small boathouse which had to be demolished under the new act. A new beach clubhouse was built which opened August 17, 1905. The club became so powerful and the focal point of the park, that in 1907, an agreement was signed with The Commission to run the park jointly. Although the club house was torn down in 1936, the association still exists today as The Balmy Beach Canoe Club with a building on site.
Year-round residents and winter visitors could enjoy curling & hockey (each with its own team & club), and skating. Balmy also had a Bachelor’s Club and a gun club. Being so close to Kew Beach, the teams often had sporting matches against one another. Balmy’s athletes were world known, competing in bowling, hockey, rugby, and volleyball, among other sports. They attended seven Olympics with gold and silver medals awarded, and its football team won Canada’s Grey Cup in 1927 and 1930.
All this prompted the building of more residences which required more streets and services such as a waterworks in 1905 and sidewalks. A permanent fire hall was built in 1902 and a telephone exchange was installed in 1903. Both the exchange and waterworks were shared with Kew Beach. By 1908, the City of Toronto annexed East Toronto to which Balmy Beach relied upon for some services. In 1909 Balmy Beach too was annexed and over the next few years services improved.
Scarboro Beach Amusement Park
This popular park was located in the Beaches area just west of present-day Scarborough. It was in what is now part of The City of Toronto between Kew and Balmy beaches. The land had been owned by Thomas O’Connor who operated it as The House of Providence Farm, and upon his death in 1895, it was willed to The Sisters of St. Joseph’s. After being declined by Toronto council as being too expensive, they sold it to Harry and Mabel Dorsey in 1906 for $160,000. The Dorseys wanted to open an amusement park on the site patterned after New York’s Dreamland and Luna parks at Coney Island, so they invested $600,000 to build the largest park with the most attractions ever put in the Beaches area. In March of that year, a contest was held to name the spot which then opened June 1st, 1907 as Scarboro Beach Park.
Associated with the park was The Toronto Athletic Field. It was situated next to, and just outside, the park. In fact, the end of the field that contained the main entrance ran parallel to Scarborough Beach Boulevard which ran right to the park’s entrance gate. The stadium consisted of a track, central field (where baseball, football, and lacrosse were often played – the park had its own lacrosse home team: The Toronto’s), a partially covered grandstand, bleachers on two other sides, and a clubhouse.
The track was used for bicycling and often hosted six-day non-stop bicycle marathon races. Later, a wood velodrome was added. One of its most famous participants was Canadian Bill Peden, whose nickname was “Torchy”, for his red hair. Not only did he take part in and win these races, he also competed internationally. With his partner, Spencer, they won the 6-day bicycle event at Madison Square Gardens in New York City three years in a row. Later in his career in 1931, he set the world’s bicycle speed record at just under 120 kilometers per hour!
In 1912 the Toronto Railway transit company, which had previously owned a nearby competing operation (Munro Park), bought The “Toronto’s” lacrosse team. They also bought the park, making Scarboro a “trolley park”; that is, one used to promote trolley business during off-peak times. The streetcar loop stopped near the covered entrance and offices to the park. Just outside and east of the main part of the park were rail yards and a car barn.
With the escalation of land value and the resulting increased taxes, the park was sold to the city in 1925. Sometime after this it was resold to real estate developer Provident Investment Company, who were actively buying up estates in the area for housing developments.
The developer eventually bulldozed the site, new streets were laid out and houses were built. The city purchased back a portion between Hubbard Boulevard and the lake to include in its new Beaches Park which opened in 1932. Nothing of this park remains today.
Kew Beach/Gardens (1879 – 1906)
It opened in May 1879, after the area began to be serviced by rail and ferry. As with Balmy Beach, the surrounding area became a village in its own right with churches, schools, a post office, and many other public and private buildings. It even had its own fire fighting service. As the region became fashionable, a building boom began to grow because many persons desired summer and year-round residences. There were also a great number of tent sites for those that wished inexpensive short stays in the summer resort.
The recreational tract consisted of a beach east of a protected arm of Lake Ontario called Ashbridge’s Bay, much of which is filled in today. There were picnic areas, wooded trails, campsites, cottages, and boarding houses for seasonal visitors. Like Balmy Beach, the section grew to include a baseball diamond with its own team, bicycle trails, a beach clubhouse for sailing, rowing and paddling, and a lawn bowling club. Their boat club also had facilities for card socials, recitals, concerts, and dancing. Kew boasted a tennis club, as well.
A bathing/skating pavilion was built in 1913 and bordering on Queen Street there were tennis courts. Lawn bowling and baseball continued to be played, and band concerts continued. The beach still featured swimming and boating. A lifeguard station went up in 1920 on the lakeshore just east of the gardens proper. Also that year, an intricate drinking fountain was placed in the park on Lee Avenue. Both the lifeguard station and the bathing beach are still designated as such.
These books are the primary sources of information on this page. To learn more about Toronto’s past, visit your local library and explore these and many other fascinating books about Toronto’s past.
Campbell, Mary and Barbara Myrvold. The Beach in pictures, 1793-1932. (Local History Handbook No. Six) Toronto: Toronto Public Library Board, 1988.
Campbell, Mary and Barbara Myrvold. Historical walking tour of Kew Beach. Toronto: Toronto Public Library Board, 1995.
Toronto Historical Photos