Buildings hold history, not just boats

When were the Beach boathouses first built?  Where were they? Who were the first boathouse owners? These are all good questions, and at this time maybe we should try to find the answers.

Right now there are two boathouses, which may be in jeopardy. One is the Silver Birch Boathouse, currently used for its intended purpose. The second is the Kew Beach Boathouse, currently not in use. These two are all that are left of what once used to be a thriving business and pleasant occupation, as well as many personal boathouses on our beloved beach in times past.

Silver Birch boathouse, 1934
The Silver Birch boathouse seen after its re-construction in 1934.
PHOTO: Toronto Archives, series 372 item 1274

Canoes, boats, skiffs – I will refer to them as canoes. The first canoes on the lakefront were used by native people. That was of course the mode of travel centuries ago. They traversed lakes and rivers in small and large canoes.

I would imagine the Ashbridge family, who were among the first pioneers in the East End in the 1790s, had a boathouse because of their proximity to Lake Ontario. Mrs. Buller, one of the last descendants of the Ashbridge family, owned a canoe and stored it in the back yard of her house on Queen Street East near Woodfield Road.

Joe Williams’ family, who lived at the bottom of present-day Lee Avenue starting in the 1850s, had another early boathouse. They were involved in naming Kew Beach and Kew Gardens, and some family members became captains of ships on the great lakes.

Another pioneer family, the Langs, were fishermen near what is now the bottom of Woodbine Avenue in the 1860s, and had more than one boathouse on the lake front.

Ashbridges Bay at the time was a mostly enclosed body of water, beginning near present-day Queen Street, and running from about MacLean Avenue, west to the Don River.

As the Beach became more popular, cottages began to spring up from Fallingbrook to the Toronto Islands. There were anywhere from 200 to 300. There were many names for the shore in this area, including Victoria Park, Munro Park, Balmy Beach, Scarboro Beach, East Kew Beach, West Kew Beach, Woodbine Beach, Leslie Street Beach, Simcoe Park, Cherry Beach, Fisherman’s Island, Brighton Beach and others.

The main mode of transport along these beaches was the canoe, and of course people would either store canoes in the back yard or make a small boathouse. The Beach was a very popular place to go in the summer. Hundreds of city folk would come to the Beach with wagons filled with furniture in late April or May – this was the beginning of the migration to this wonderful holiday resort for the next several months. Later the part time Beachers became permanent residents of this lovely green and blue place.

Whenever a recreation spot is discovered, commercialism follows, and the popularity of the Beach did not go unnoticed. Entrepreneurs came in and began building amusement parks for the masses. One of the first was Victoria Park, where the R.C. Harris Filtration Plant currently stands. Victoria Park was built in the 1870s. People came by the thousands from downtown Toronto by steamer to this popular park, particularly on weekends during the summer. One of the big attractions was going out in the lake in a canoe, and since this was a popular excursion a gigantic boathouse was built by the lake.

When Victoria Park closed, another named Munro Park was built nearby. Munro Park was built in 1896 and lasted 10 years. Along with its first Ferris Wheel, the park rented canoes, and naturally had a building to store those boats.

Ah, those were the days for boating enthusiasts. Munro Park, like Victoria Park, closed after a dispute between the owners and the Toronto Street Railway.

At the same time Victoria Park was in operation, canoes were available for rent at Kew Gardens, but the park went out of business due to lack of funds.

The largest and most successful amusement park was at Scarboro Beach, which operated from 1907 until 1925. Scarboro Beach Park was located between Leuty and MacLean Avenues, from Queen Street to the lake. The park has a large electric tower which could be seen from miles out on the lake at night. There was a ‘shoot the chutes’ waterslide, a scenic railroad, a midway and the first boardwalk for 1,000 feet along the waterfront. The most prominent part of the park was the Scarboro Inn where D’Urbano’s orchestra played on the weekends. Out beyond the boardwalk on the lake would be hundreds of canoes filled with young couples listening to the music, floating along to the songs such as Moon Light Bay. Imagine a Saturday night out with your loved one in a canoe 100 years ago, listening to the strains of romantic music. All good things come to an end, and Scarboro Beach Park closed in 1925.

Kew Beach Boathouse has been on its site in one form or another for over 120 years. The original boathouse was called the Kew Beach Clubhouse, a combination boathouse, dance hall and recreation centre. It originally housed the Kew Beach Lawn Bowling Club, Tennis Club, Baseball Club, hockey team and more. Many dances and social functions were held in the original building over the years.

In the 1930s the city ripped down all of the buildings on the waterfront, including at least a dozen private boathouses which rented or housed canoes. The Beach was not like it is now – there was no boardwalk, or breakwater to keep the waves from taking out cottages or boathouses during a violent storm. The city took over the land and turned the area into a park.

Again the need for a place to house canoes was great, so in the early 1930s the Kew Beach Boathouse was redesigned. This was a private venture and it was rented to an individual responsible for the building’s upkeep. The boathouse operated until the early 1950s when it was ravaged by the elements. The Kew Beach Boathouse has since been used for recreational and community events, and some are still trying to turn it into a proper recreational facility.

One of the more popular boathouses was Spinks’ Boathouse, named after a father and son duo who lived in the Beach and were well known for their public service. Their building was unusual as it was made of cast iron (cost $400), in contrast to the other wooden structures on the waterfront. The Spinks also ran a dance hall and a café on the beach.

One of the largest and oldest boathouses is the Silver Birch Boathouse, located at the foot of Silver Birch Avenue (which used to be known simply as Birch Avenue). Originally there was a private operation called Hoare’s Boathouse on the spot. It was removed and replaced by the city along with the others in the 1930s.

The Silver Birch Boathouse has been in place since 1934, and is the only boathouse of its kind on the waterfront today. Architecturally, historically and contextually it should be preserved as a historic site. Thousands of people have used this building over the years, and it would be a shame if it were ever torn down.

Silver Birch boathouse, 1931
The original Silver Birch boathouse, photographed in 1931.
PHOTO: Toronto Archives, series 372 item 1013

Over the years it has been used for purposes other than storing boats. It has been the start and finish line for the Beaches Spring Sprint for 26 years. I have led many historic walks and talks from the site. The space in front of the building has been used for beach volleyball, children’s activities and other recreation for decades. Barbecues are held for the opening and closing of the boathouse every year.

Boathouses were not a phenomenon exclusive to the East End. Places like Sunnyside Beach, Port Credit, New Toronto, Long Branch, Mimico and the Toronto Islands all had boathouses, but they have been lost to progress – except our venerable Silver Birch Boathouse.

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