The History Behind the Ferry You'll Take to the Toronto Islands

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The History Behind the Ferry You’ll Take to the Toronto Islands

Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.

The Trillium ferry circa 1916  when it used to take passengers to and from the Island. Photo from the Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 261.

The Trillium ferry circa 1916 when it used to take passengers to and from the Island. Photo from the Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 261.

This summer, countless city goers will be Snapchatting or Instagramming videos or photos of themselves taking the ferry to the Toronto Island. The wake of the boat at it crosses the water and the view of the skyline on the way out and the way back in are popular, even if overdone, shots.

Although the city has changed substantially over the past hundred years, visiting the Island and enjoying the breeze on the boat hasn’t. In fact, you might even be taking the same boat as your Edwardian predecessors.

The City of Toronto has five ferries that bring people between the Island and the mainland—the Sam McBride, the Thomas Rennie, the Wm. Inglis, The Ongiara (which can carry vehicles), and the Trillium. The Trillium is the heaviest of the fleet, weighing in at over 611 tons, and the oldest. It was built by the Polson Iron Works and launched in 1910, joining other flower ships: the Bluebell, Primose, and Mayflower.

The Trillium is a steam-powered side-wheeler ferry (the only steam-powered ferry in the City of Toronto fleet), and was originally operated by the Toronto Ferry Company. In 1926, the City of Toronto took over ferry services and ownership of the Trillium was transferred. Gradually, steam-powered boats were phased out, and the Trillium was retired in 1956. It rested near the filtration plant at the Toronto Island for years.

Trillium, as it steams across the lake in 1935. Photo from the Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 10962.

Trillium, as it steams across the lake in 1935. Photo from the Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 10962.

According to a 1963 article in the Toronto Star, a brief note in the column “In Town and Out,” the City purchased Bluebell and Trillium to convert them into sewage disposal craft. Bluebell apparently sank on a trial run, before extra floatation devices were attached. In 1973, conversations began about fixing up the old boat and having it steam across the water once again. Reaction seemed favourable: people were impressed with how old the boat was and felt it could be like a floating museum. In 1973, Alan Howard, then the curator of the Marine Museum of Upper Canada, spoke to the Star about the old ferry and its historical value, as well as some of its quirks, like an engine defect that made a knocking noise. “It almost had a conga beat,” he said. “I half-expected that all the passengers would form a line and snake-dance across the deck.”

In 1974, rebuilding and fixing of the Trillium began and lasted for two years and cost more than $1 million. The ship started taking passengers over the lake, with its original steam engine, and hosted Caribana parties and moonlight jazz cruises. On its second maiden voyage, on May 19, 1976, a spray from a fireboat intended as a salute ended up pouring water all over the boat and the guests all dressed up for the trip. On passenger told the Star, “I have never seen a fireboat in operation before and I never want to see one from that distance again.” The newspaper reported that she was drying her hair at the time.

Trillium has two plaques about its history—one, from Heritage Toronto, in the ferry terminal, and one from 1985 from the Toronto Historical Board, which is on the ferry itself.

Trillium's historical plaque at the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. Photo by Erin Sylvester.

Trillium’s historical plaque at the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. Photo by Erin Sylvester.


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