Toronto Bay never was the same

“Toronto Bay never was the same”1:

An Examination on the Rise and Fall of Toronto Iceboating

Anderson Hall

Toronto - 2023

What was once a winter activity that brought Torontonians together, Toronto harbor ice yachting swiftly melted away into a forgotten memory to make room for a growing industry. Exactly how the pass time arrived in Toronto harbors is uncertain, the sport seemed to build itself through Torontonian’s fascination with winter recreation. When examining a combination of primary sources through images and newspaper articles, as well as secondary sources and information collected with the aid of members from the 4LIYC, (Four Lakes Ice Yachting Club) it becomes clear that Toronto ice boating is a fond memory that grew and changed alongside the Toronto harbor, only to be forgotten by most as quickly as it arrived. Toronto iceboating had quiet beginnings that can be traced to a blacksmith named Isaac Columbus in about 1824.2 As the sport grew with the strengthening of the economy in late 19th and early 20th century North America, so did a fascinated community, who had specialized gear, race rules, shops, and even ferry and police services on the ice. At its peak, people came from all over to watch races or watch casual sailors on the docks. Since many boats were made at home, the opportunity to partake in the sport was open to a middle or upper-class demographic.3 But this spectacle came to a relatively abrupt end with modernization plans from the Toronto Harbor Commissioner which inhibited adequate ice accumulation. With the addition of the rising temperatures of Lake Ontario, iceboating in Toronto harbors is likely never to gain popularity again. By considering the rise and fall of Toronto harbor iceboating, iceboating is a significant piece of the city of Toronto’s history which impacted Toronto’s port and island culture significantly. It represented a strengthening economy and advancing technology in the late 19th and early 20th century. The sport inevitably gave way to modernization and growing commercial use of the Toronto ports.

In the crisscrossing maze of enclosed waterways of early 17th century Holland, ice skating was already a popular recreational activity or convenient winter transportation. However, unknown sailors began participating in Dutch winter activities when they “attached iron blades held by a triangular wooden framework, oriented with its apex towards the stern of the boat.”4 They kept the rest of the sailboat intact, using its already existing hull to hold cargo, passengers, and its sail for propulsion.5 While specific information is limited on the immigration of iceboating from Holland to North America, it is likely, that it came over with European settlers.6 Then it was popularized primarily on the Hudson River at the Poughkeepsie Ice-Yacht club. John A. Roosevelt (J.A.R) was a member of the club only to create his own club later, the Hudson River Ice-Yacht club, in 1861, where John and Franklin Roosevelt were commodore and vice commodore respectively.7 With influential and wealthy names in New York iceboating it is clear how iceboating became a popular Hudson River pass time. However, in Toronto, the rise of the sport is quite humble, with the first mentioning of its existence in Toronto is from John Ross Robertson Vol.1 of Toronto Landmarks, stating that the blacksmith, Isaac Columbus, advertised the casting for “iron of an ice boat.”8 Summer sailors were the most likely to pick up iceboating in the winter since it is generally the same concept and their knowledge of wind and sails aided in building and designing iceboats.

The simplistic design of a basic ice boat allowed most ice sailors to build their boats themselves, however, specialized boat builders offered up services to fine-tune racing iceboats.9 Only after the fall of iceboating in Toronto harbors did a popular yet basic iceboat kit for the DN60 style iceboat (a small and simple design for beginners) arrive on the market for about \$250 and was popularized in Canada in the early 1970s.10 The price of an iceboat that would have sailed in the harbor is unclear however with the number of iceboats being handmade. Cost likely ranged from inexpensive, using materials already on hand to quite expensive crafts, professionally built for high speeds. It certainly was not necessary to own an iceboat to participate in the sport. C.H.J. Snider mentions their amazement at the lack of accidents due to the “boats weaving their way through dense spectators” in the Toronto harbor among others participating in winter recreation, including skating and horse sledding.11 Figure 1, taken in 1835 by John Howard depicts the busy Toronto Bay filled with winter recreation; a silhouette of an ice boat can be seen in the back left.12

Figure 1: A faint depiction of an ice boat is in the top left of the ice.

As the sport grew in popularity, so did its demand for specialized equipment. Specific gear and methods were used for safety and storage, racetracks were created, and sometimes used landmarks to make their courses. A unique Toronto iceboat culture was adopted, and various services utilized iceboats during the winter months. Iceboats were too heavy when fully constructed to be carried by sailors, so the crafts were often left on the shoreline. The sails were rolled up, cockpit covered, skates were elevated on wood blocks so they did not melt and refreeze into the ice, and the tiller was removed to deter boats from being stolen or ‘borrowed.’ But of course, boats were sometimes found broken and abandoned, far from where they were parked. In one instance, the ice thawed quickly, and many parked ice boats sank.13 Regardless of theft and unpredictable damage due to weather, Torontonians took the risk in exchange for a convenient wintertime thrill.

Iceboating was an extremely cold sport, as it was done on a frozen lake, in this case Lake Ontario, between the bitterly cold wind and snow it was extremely cold and dangerous, even if you were dressed appropriately. As Summers article’s title suggests, iceboating may be “The Coldest Sport in the World.”14 Many mentioned that a normal jacket would not hold up against the piercing cold that iceboating created for its passengers. Therefore, many used buffalo robes or blankets during their sail.15 Ice shavings created another problem when the iceboat’s skates would rip up the ice when taking turns, then ice shavings would fly into the air like “a shower of diamonds flashing” making goggles and helmets a common piece of equipment for iceboating.16 Archie Call, a member of the 4LIYC mentioned in a talk to other iceboat enthusiasts that these ice shavings at high speeds can cut the eye or cause dangers due to temporary loss of vision and therefore supporting the innovation of Toronto harbor iceboating community and their efforts to keep iceboating safe. In the early 1920’s Toronto’s Life Saving and Police Patrol aided in this push for making iceboating a safe sport. City Life Saving Service patrolled the harbor in the winter using iceboats characterized by a crew of three and the life preserver as depicted in Figure 2.17 Unfortunately, as Summers states, the patrol was only effective at responding quickly, providing aid was often difficult and the iceboat police patrol could only be effective in favorable conditions. Where the iceboat police were effective primarily in accident prevention. They would patrol the harbor and place old Christmas trees in the ice as warnings for poor ice or slush holes.18 Due to the speed and freezing water that iceboaters encounter, it is likely that the police patrol could only aid in preventive precautions. A collision at top speed could be fatal, and there are no mentions of broken ice rescue procedures in the Toronto harbor. Meaning there would be a small chance for a crew of three to rescue a frozen sailor, especially when lacking a plan. High winds and white-out conditions would only worsen the ability to provide aid.

Figure 2: A team of City Life Saving Service patrollers on an iceboat equipped with a life preserver.

The dangers of ice boating were evident to most. Similarly, in traditional sailing, cornering can result in flipping the craft, and this risk becomes imminent at the highway speeds that iceboats can reach, only to be made worse with changing ice conditions. Snider states that if the ice is smooth, everything would be fine, but an unfortunate hole or crack could be devastating. This risk didn’t stop many, especially those living on the island who used iceboats to supplement regular summer services. In the early 1920s, ferry services from the island to the mainland were suspended in the winter when the ice became too thick to pass through it easily. Instead, various ice sailors would offer up space in their larger iceboats holding 12 or 13 passengers and charging 25 cents for the fair. This service would be used by residents of the island as well as workers who worked on the water treatment plant on the island.19 Snider mentions a doctor who would use their iceboat to bring his practice to the island in the winter months as well.20 Leisure and necessity seemed to have pushed iceboating to its peak popularity in the 1920s and with that came the growth of iceboating as a sport.

The Toronto Rowing Club and the Toronto Iceboating Association often held races on the harbor on a triangle track. Prizes were offered as cash, or sometimes local businesses would donate prizes, such as the owner of the Parkinson hotel on Toronto Island, who donated a trophy.21 This suggests that iceboat races could be a lucrative opportunity for local businesses. They would encourage these events, likely to draw in spectators and, therefore, potential customers. Snider writes in Schooner days that the ship Ann Brown, that was abandoned in the harbor for a few years and was used as a turning marker on boat races for both ice and water sailing.22

Snider was not often concerned about specific races or events; however, he built on the Toronto iceboat culture more discernibly than most. His Schooner days, articles that appeared in the Toronto Evening Telegram are the most plentiful primary sources for Toronto iceboating. Along with his many other articles discussing a wide range of Toronto harbor activities and changes, he seemed to be fascinated with the spectacle of iceboating. This makes it clear why he was also concerned about its downfall.

Commercial and industry developments, as well as urbanization of the port and Toronto Island would lead to the deterioration of the harbors ice quality, integral of iceboating and ultimately put an end to Toronto harbors iceboating. Snider mentions that the beginning of the downfall for iceboating occurred in 1890 when seven sewers that dumped waste into Lake Ontario at Toronto harbor created patches of thin ice and decreased the quality of ice in general.23 Of course, iceboating prevailed through the issues caused by the sewers and even peaked in popularity 30 years later. Beginning in 1912, the plans to fill the original Western Gap and dredge a new one through Ashbridge bay, previously a marshy plot of unused land, would create a much more significant impact on the quality of ice.24 Large ships struggled with the shallow and narrow original western gap so to keep up with growing industry and import-export needs, the Toronto Harbor Commissioner developed this plan which subsequently changed the current patterns in the harbor causing ice formation to be less stable.25 Additionally, the port was now ‘active’ in the winter, aided by two icebreaking tugboats, breaking any remaining iceboating ice.

Some Torontonians were upset by the tugboats breaking through the ice and, as a result, the destruction of winter activities on the harbor’s ice. One artist even attempted to sue the T.H.C and, when that failed, took to harassing politicians on the street instead.26 The clubs that participated in iceboating also realized the sport no longer had a place on the harbor. On February 1, 1937, The Globe and Mail, released an edition which has an advertisement from the Toronto Ice Yacht Club advertising their new location. This one was much further inland, taking advantage of smaller bodies of water with safer and more stable ice conditions. However, one particularly cold winter in 1941 froze the lake enough that many clubs, such as the Toronto Iceboating Club, returned from their alternative location on smaller inland bodies of water.27 This return to the harbor can discredit any claim that WWII or what Canada felt from America’s depression had any effect on iceboating since it prevailed through the depression years and ended before the war was in full force. Clearly, the end was caused by unstable ice and the growing activity in the harbor during the winter. Snider states that the tugboats and the new western gap relocation “rang down the curtain on Toronto iceboating.”28 However, the final act of Iceboating could likely be Lake Ontario’s drastically rising temperatures. Micah Hewer and William Gough identified the decreasing ice accumulation on Lake Ontario and predicted that by 2080, Lake Ontario ice conditions would be “best characterized as ‘no ice.’”29 Regardless, Toronto police urge people to stay off harbor ice since it is an active harbor all season and therefore the ice will never be safe and present-day iceboaters should look elsewhere to sail.30

Ice boating is a symbol of early Toronto development. It grew in popularity alongside the growing Toronto industry district. Isaac Columbus and later other tradesmen moved their shops near the harbor and sold parts such as iron skates or entire blueprints for iceboats. Specific equipment began to appear for safety and comfort since high speeds on the ice were cold and dangerous. Policing, taxi, and even doctor services utilized iceboats to supplement similar services that occurred in the winter. Furthermore, it became a popular sport, where competitors would race around the harbor in a similar way, but much faster than summer sailors would. Unfortunately, the city began to outgrow iceboating, and with better non-ice boat technology, it was more reliable to go through the ice rather than on top of it. Further research in port history may fill the gaps in the exhilarating history of iceboating, specifically how it was established in North America. As well, greater research could provide more insight into Isaac Columbus who seemingly out of nowhere sparked the beginning of Toronto iceboating. While it may be a lost part of Toronto’s history, the sport is nowhere near gone. The generous and passionate members of clubs like the 4LIYC continue, to this day, to host meetings and races. Most of the members are more than happy to share their passion and spread the word of the unfortunately mostly forgotten leisure activity.

  1. C.H.J Snider, “Columbus 'Iceboat Irons' on Toronto Bay: Schooner Days DCCCXXXV (835).” Maritime History of the Great Lakes.

  2. John Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World’: Iceboating in Toronto Harbour, 1824-1941.” Journals.lib.unb, 1991, 37.; Snider, “Columbus 'Iceboat Irons' on Toronto Bay.” 

  3. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World,’” 38. 

  4. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World,’” 36. 

  5. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World,’” 36-37. 

  6. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World,’” 37. 

  7. River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers, and guest contributors, “The Ice Yacht ‘Vixen.’” Hudson River Maritime Museum, 2021.

  8. J. Ross Robertson, Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto a Collection of Historical Sketches of the Old Town of York from 1792 until 1833 and of Toronto from 1834 to 1893. 1. Vol. 1. Toronto, ON: Evening Telegram, 1898. 131; Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World’” 37; Kevin Plummer, “Historicist: Sailing Faster than the Wind.” Torontoist, January 2, 2010. 

  9. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World’” 38. 

  10. “See Ice Boats at Hamilton.” Toronto Star, 1979. G13. 

  11. Snider, “Columbus 'Iceboat Irons.'” 

  12. Figure 1: A faint depiction of an ice boat is in the top left of the ice. John Howard, “Busy Winter View of Toronto Bay.” n.d. in “‘The Coldest Sport in the World,’" 36. 

  13. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World’” 44; Plummer. “Historicist.” 

  14. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World’” 35-46. 

  15. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World’” 45; Snider. “Columbus 'Iceboat Irons' on Toronto Bay.” 

  16. “Sport on an Iceboat: A Thrilling Experience on Toronto Bay.” The Globe. 1886.; Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World,’’’ 45. 

  17. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World’” 36; Figure 2: A team of City Life Saving Service patrollers on an iceboat equipped with a life preserver. A Harbour Patrol Iceboat of the City Life Saving Service in the 1920s. Toronto Harbour Commissioners Archives. PC 1/1/5801. in "The Coldest sport in the world," 39. 

  18. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World” 39; Snider, “Columbus 'Iceboat Irons.'” 

  19. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World’” 38; C.H.J. Snider, “When Street Cars Ran on Sleighs: Schooner Days CLXXI (171)” Maritime History of the Great Lakes. 

  20. Snider, “Columbus 'Iceboat Irons.'” 

  21. Plummer, “Historicist.” 

  22. Snider, “Columbus 'Iceboat Irons.'” 

  23. Snider, “When Street Cars Ran on Sleighs” 

  24. Michael Moir, “The Toronto Harbour Commission Archives.” Urban History Review 17, no. 2 (1988): 113–14.

  25. Plummer, “Historicist.” 

  26. Plummer, “Historicist.”; Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World,’” 39. 

  27. Summers, “‘The Coldest Sport in the World,’” 39; Robert McLeod, “Toronto Ice Yacht Club New Sport Organization.” The Globe and Mail. 1937. 

  28. Snider, “Columbus 'Iceboat Irons.'” 

  29. Micah J. Hewer, and William A. Gough. “Lake Ontario Ice Coverage: Past, Present and Future.” Journal of Great Lakes Research 45, no. 6 (2019): 1080–89.

  30. Tamar Harris, “'You Just Fly,' Says Islander as He Glides across Toronto Harbour in His Iceboat.” Toronto Star, January 4, 2018.