Last of the Toronto Island Tent Dwellers

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Last of the Toronto Island Tent Dwellers

What was it like to live in a tent on Ward's Island? Before cottages were built, there was Tent City.

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In the late-1800s and continuing into the early 1900s, seasonal fishermen camped on Ward’s Island with their families in tents. The community was known as “Tent City.” In 1931, the City allowed the islanders to build permanent year-round cottages on their campsites. Many of the small houses on Ward’s Island today were constructed during this era. Photo via waterfrontbia.com.

This year will be remembered as the Year of the Flood on the Toronto Island. With the re-opening of the park at the beginning of August, things are finally getting back to normal. One effect of all the flood-related publicity has been to introduce the communities on Ward’s and Algonquin islands to a whole new segment of the public. Time and again park visitors step off the ferry saying, “I had no idea people live here.”

They most certainly do, and one Island resident who can truthfully say she’s lived here her whole life is Chris Gay. Born in 1925, Gay has spent every summer on the Island, and this year marks her family’s 100th year of continuous residence on the same lot at #5 Fifth Street. What’s even more remarkable is that Gay is the last living Islander who experienced life as one of the fabled tent dwellers.

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Flooding on Ward’s Island in the spring of 2017. Photo via Sean Tamblyn.

Not many Torontonians are aware that the residential community on Ward’s Island started life as a Tent City. In the 1890s, people began pitching tents on Ward’s so they could spend the better part of the summer there. Over the next few decades, the tenting population grew, and by 1913, City authorities decided to impose some order by laying the tent sites onto a grid with wooden planks to mark the streets. In short order the tent dwellers began to build 24 foot by 24 foot platforms and covered them with large canvas tents, many purchased from the D. Pike Company at King and Church streets.

On weekends in June, the streets of Ward’s Island looked like an old-time barn raising, as residents helped each other hoist the heavy beams and poles to frame the canvas. At summer’s end, they joined forces to take down the tents, storing furniture, bedding, and kitchen items in sheds over the winter.

Through the 1920s, Tent City residents added verandas, cooking sheds and other semi-permanent structures. In the early 1930s, City officials responded to pressure and granted permission to build permanent houses, which over the coming decades were upgraded to the year-round residences they are now. Today the houses on Ward’s Island cover the same footprint as the former tent sites, which provides the answer to an Island FAQ: “Why are the houses so close together?”

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Gay has vivid memories of life in the tents. There were no indoor toilets, so every morning the women formed the “bucket brigade” to take the nighttime waste to outhouses at the end of the street. Occasionally—very occasionally—the men would help out, and Gay recalls one neighbour who managed to escape brigade duty because she had a maid. Other aspects of life in the tents required some ingenuity, Gay remembers:

“We had iceboxes, and you’d get ice delivered, a big chunk of it, a 50-cent one or a 25-cent one. If it was very hot and our ice melted, I would dig a big square hole, deep enough that it was cool. I had a cover for it and put the perishable items in there, and they kept fresh.”

The summer season on Ward’s Island brought a plethora of organized sports for kids and teens, and Gay excelled at nearly every one she played, especially baseball and tennis. She recalls overnight camping trips on Algonquin Island, then known as Sunfish Island, which was an open field in those days. Sunfish only became populated in 1938, when 30 houses were floated down from Hanlan’s Point to make way for construction of the airport—but that’s a whole other piece of Island history.

In fact, being tent dwellers was what brought Gay’s parents together. They met when her father was at a YMCA Boys’ camp and her mother was staying at a nearby girls’ camp. When the camps disbanded, the City decided to rent the sites to private leaseholders, and her father got the boys’ camp site, which became #5 Fifth.

The transition from tents to houses was anything but swift. “Everybody made jokes about who was going to be the last tent standing,” Gay says. Her own family’s tent lasted until the late 40s. In 1950, the last two tents on Ward’s were finally replaced. Gay and her brother Art continued to live seasonally in the house at #5 Fifth, which Art had winterized in the 80s so he could live on the Island year-round. Art, who died in 2009, was a decorated war veteran of the Second World War with the Queen’s Own Rifles. The baseball diamond right across from the house has a sign, “Art’s Park,” honouring his many years grooming the field.

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According to torontoisland.org, the first summer colony on Ward’s in 1899 consisted of just eight tenants, each of whom had paid a fee of $10 ground rent for the season. By 1913, the number of tents pitched had increased to the point where the city felt it necessary to organize the community into streets.

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Fooding on the Toronto Island in 1908. Ward’s Island was the hardest hit. Photo: The Toronto Archives via Twitter.

Historically, flooding is nothing new to the Island. There were major periods of high water in the late 40s into the early 50s, and again in the early 70s and 90s. Then as now, Centre Island and Hanlan’s Point bore most of the brunt of the flooding. Though Gay recalls some boardwalks around Ward’s to keep feet dry, she says that overall the high water periods were no big deal and didn’t much affect their lives. In this she echoes the matter-of-fact attitude of Islanders, who got through this year’s flood pumping and sandbagging with resilience, a cooperative spirit and ample support from City parks staff. (How times change. In years past, the then-Metro Toronto government used high water as an excuse to justify demolishing the houses, claiming that Island living was dangerous and unsanitary. The reason the communities on Ward’s and Algonquin still exist is because they stood their ground against the bulldozers, and ultimately won the battle to save their homes and secure long-term leases.)

Gay is retired from her longtime position with the Toronto Board of Education, where she taught elementary grades and ran school libraries. At 92, she still spends June to September at #5 Fifth, while a cousin, whose great-grandparents were also tent dwellers, lives there the rest of the year. Those Island summers in the tent are treasured memories, Gay says.

“It was a great life.”


Kathleen McDonnell is a Toronto writer, teacher, and Island dweller. Her work can be found here

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