A Major Milestone in the History of Toronto Tourism

A Major Milestone in the History of Toronto Tourism:

The Efficient, Sustainable, and Popular Toronto Horse Boat

Isaiah Carducci

Toronto - 2023

Horse powered ferries were once very common around the world. Their historic design goes back to the Romans of 1700 where the Roman ox boat was an early war vessel propelled by a team of oxen. Eventually, boats propelled by horses were found on many rivers and canals around Europe.1 While European technology evolved their transportation mechanics, western views upon the horse boat's efficiency was slowly overlooked, being considered old technology. Toronto heavily depended on the function of the horse boat for much of the early to mid-1800s, as its sustainability strengthened port businesses' incomes, and enabled less expensive and reliable aquatic transportation.2 Therefore, the question must be asked if Michael O’Connor made the correct decision in holding off on implementing the steamboat in a growing Toronto society and continuing the implementation of horse boats. The horse boats provided reliable and affordable transportation to and from the Toronto peninsula and the Toronto port. Horse boats were also easily maintained and repaired as there were more people in Toronto that were familiar with woodworking, making it more cost effective to repair than a steamboat. Finally, the horse boats provided residents and visitors alike with a nostalgic experience that they could share with their families and friends. Despite much of the Toronto society urging for an advancement in European technology and overlooking the horse boats viability, the Toronto Peninsula continued to positively implement horse boats to sustainably allow businesses to gain income. 

Horse boats were a form of aquatic transportation that were primarily used on calm waters from the eighteenth to nineteenth century.3 These boats were usually sixty feet long and constructed with a wooden foundation.4 Depending on the specific horse boat, they typically contained approximately two to five horses. The horses would function as the slow motor mechanism, making excursions take longer periods of time. Since each horse would walk on the treadmill that was embedded within the ship deck, propulsion was ultimately based on the horses walking speed.5 The horses were harnessed and would look in opposite directions. While one horse would face the bow, the other would face the stern. This was due to the embedded treadmill mechanics. Underneath the ship deck, the horse's walking motion would enable the massive circular treadmill to twist in a clockwise direction.6 While the interior treadmill was connected to rotating beams, the overall motion would cause the connecting paddles to move the boat forward. The most complex portion of the horse boat was located within the interior engineering mechanics (see Figure 1).7 However, the Conductor of the horse boat was responsible for each horse’s speed, physically directing the boat with a long stern located at the back of the ferry. Once each horse started walking on the treadmill, their motion was then in control of the Conductor. To prevent collisions, Conductors had to ensure that each horse maintained the same speed. The horse's pace was crucial to the proper function of the boat since the side paddles were entirely dependent on the horse’s speed.

Figure 1: Horse boat and its inner workings.

Along the Toronto shoreline, horse boat rides took approximately thirty to forty minutes to reach the Toronto Peninsula. The walking speeds of the horses along the aquatic route (see Figure 2) were very slow, allowing passengers to embrace a very calm boating experience.8 Furthermore, the initial purpose of these horse boat rides was to take passengers to the Toronto Peninsula hotel, referred to as Retreat on the Peninsula. However, other tourist attractions were built beside the hotel such as an amusement park and petting zoo (see Figure 3).9 Since the hotel and tourist attractions were well known in a growing Toronto, each business was able to achieve success independently. This was due to the horse boats' low cost for passengers as most of Toronto residents were only able to afford cheap prices.

Figure 2: Map of the Toronto Islands, Horse boat routes.

This was due to the economic belief that horse technology was more dependable and affordable compared to a modern mechanical steamboat.10 Without the use of horse boats in Toronto, the implementation of modern steamboats would have reduced the number of tourists and residents of Toronto that could visit the Toronto Peninsula. While steamboats were modern, the more expensive prices for passengers would have caused many businesses to close as more Torontonians would not have been able to afford to travel to the Toronto Peninsula and participate in the attractions. As the horse boat was quite inexpensive for travelers, attending the Toronto Peninsula area allowed effortless access to other landmarks. The horse boat was the foundation for many Toronto Peninsula businesses as all perspectives of affordability caused the Peninsula tourist attractions to succeed. Without the recognition that the horse boat was a more sustainable transportation option, many businesses would not have succeeded. 

Figure 3: The Peninsula Hotel and other attractions.

Secondly, the horse boat’s success revolved around its treadmill mechanics and primarily wooden structure. Throughout the eighteen hundreds, many North Americans did not quite fully understand the engineering behind modern European mechanics.11 While European mechanics utilized steamboats, Michael O’Connor chose to continue implementing horse boats in Toronto for much longer as its wooden structure was socially convenient. When mechanical incidents occurred in horse boats, society members who were familiar with wooden mechanics were easier and more affordable to find.12 Quicker potential fixes were very probable compared to fixing a steamboat, as locating a mechanic in Toronto’s growing population was less likely. Overall, the horse boat served a more sustainable purpose as society members were more familiar with wooden mechanics. 

Lastly, the evolution of Toronto’s horse boats provided passengers with a nostalgic experience. The horse boats were not only affordable and practical, but they also drew on passengers a nostalgia, as passengers got to experience the boats that they grew up with in Europe. However, this nostalgic experience was constantly transformed. Passenger’s experiences were constantly improving as more treadmills and horses were implemented, which made excursions more desirable. On these excursions, many memories were formed, and as upgrades developed, they enhanced the nostalgic experience of passengers.13 Although this was not the desired experience of all Torontonians, as many disregarded the horse boats nostalgia and felt as though they could have gotten a better experience on a steamboat. While many individuals worked lower wage jobs, they would not have been able to afford steamboat prices and enjoy the nostalgia steamboats provide. The overall nostalgic experience the horse boat provided, granted individuals with an enjoyable excursion. As the Toronto horse boat economically succeeded due to its abundant factors, the presence of European technology in the mid-1800s threatened the horse boat without acknowledging its sustainable function. The implementation of horse boats was the best choice made by Michael O’Connor, even though this decision went against other western opinions, it allowed for the best possible outcome in terms of affordability for passengers, upkeep and repairs.

While many waterfront towns in Canada and the United States began purchasing steamboats and integrating them within their societies in the 1800s, Michael O’Connor disregarded societies' revolutionary urges and proceeded using horse boats.14 This was due to Toronto’s understanding that Toronto was a slow growing society, and they did not yet need a steamboat for amusement purposes.15 Horse boats were used for a long period of time since they were considered more reliable and cost-efficient modes of transportation. It was inexpensive for travelers, allowing them to attend the Toronto Peninsula where they could then access other attractions. Nonetheless, this customer-friendly excursion would eventually become the foundation for Toronto’s aquatic transportation. The decision to continue implementing horse technology helped sustain the Toronto Peninsula. 

Figure 4: The first horse-propelled vessel built in Toronto, *Peninsula Packet*.

The first Canadian horse-propelled vessel was built in Toronto by brothers Louis Joseph and Peter Louis Privat, and it was called the Peninsula Packet (see Figure 4).16 However, it was Michael O’Connor who first utilised horse boats for business purposes, creating a popular excursion that many desired to experience. His horse boat was named the Sir John of the Peninsula (see Figure 5) and it was the first passenger ferry to cross Toronto’s shore.17 Michael O’Connor took into consideration that as immigrants were arriving in Canada, they could not afford to spend their money on luxuries. The affordability of the horse boat was designed to thus accommodate both the locals and the new immigrants as they integrate into Canadian society and form Canadian identities.18 Where spending money on leisure was not yet too common, the Sir John of the Peninsula’s affordability made the excursion even more attractive. A budget friendly price Michael O’Connor decided upon was making the excursions cost seven and a half pence.19 This was deemed an appropriate price to charge passengers as not only was it accessible to those of various financial statuses, but also because of its material composition. 

Figure 5: First horse-propelled vessel to be used as a passenger ferry in Toronto, *Sir John of the Peninsula*.

While the horses were considered the motor mechanism and the material of the horse boat was wood, its overall composition allowed the boat to function cheaply.20 Therefore, Michael O’Connor also felt that it was unethical to charge passengers expensive riding prices, similar to those of the steamboat in other cities. However, since Torontonians urged for steamboats, Michael O’Connor took it upon himself to build a horse boat. While horse boats did not quite satisfy the some of the residents of Toronto’s desires, both Toronto and Peninsula businesses benefited from O’Connor’s horse boat. The horse boat's wooden build allowed for convenient and affordable ticket prices.

As Toronto continued to grow as a city in the early to mid-eighteen hundreds, it attracted many more job seeking European immigrants. During this period, both European and Western societies were very familiar with wooden frameworks, as wood was the primary building source for various structures.21 This productive stream of labour was considered the foundation of construction as many job seeking immigrants sought out and worked wood labour jobs. Through carpentry, cutting down trees, and other woodworking professions, these careers have been well understood for centuries. When interior and exterior setbacks occurred in a horse boat, issues were easily resolved because there was an abundance of people familiar with woodworking and fixing horse boats, as they were educated in woodworking.22 Overall, society was very in tune with woodworking which allowed quick repairs, allowing for convenient and reliable travel to and from the Peninsula businesses using horse ferries.

Often considered a simple structure, the horse boats' wooden foundation and treadmill mechanics were easily understood amongst Torontonian society. However, word of steamboat technology threatened the horse boat with their revolutionary mechanics. While society members pushed for a revolutionary change, one objective was to eliminate horse boats as they were seen as outdated technology. However, if implementations of steamboats replaced horse boats, very few individuals would have been familiar with the modernized technology in steamboats.23 It would have been more challenging to locate a mechanic for a steamboat in Toronto compared to the relative ease to find a mechanic for the horse boats. Steamboat mechanics would have also been more expensive compared to the relatively inexpensive horse boat mechanics and woodworkers. Therefore, the decision to continue to produce and operate horse boats was made and the more modern European transportation technologies, steamboats, were much too expensive for a still growing Toronto. O’Connor analysed the maintenance and repair costs of newer European steamboats as well as considered new labour costs.24 Due to their new design, their mechanics came with a new set of knowledge and techniques within their structural components and operations. Ultimately, if Toronto officials decided to go this route, riding prices would have been notably higher than those of the horse boat. Toronto residents would not have been able to afford these riding prices and would have possibly resulted in business failures. Toronto residents were quite oblivious to their desires. They did not recognize that revolution is expensive and that for steamboats to succeed, society would have needed to be wealthy. 

By combining the experiences that different cultures had with wood within Toronto, it provided stability when managing the physicality of the horse ferries. When attachments would break and interior repairs were required, it was easy to find individuals who would fix them at an inexpensive cost.25 In regard to their financial benefit, horse boats were quite profitable as the income obtained through their operation was hardly impacted by their low maintenance costs. This kept horse ferries present for decades. Despite horse boats' adequate well-being, society threatened the horse boat by overlooking its social contribution and nostalgic perception. 

Toronto horse boats became a popular tourist attraction for families as they were family-friendly, which allowed families to take part in new and exciting leisure activities.26 Horse boats had become a place where groups of families and friends united to enjoy the scenery and fresh air the excursion provided. Toronto based immigrants wanted to get the most of their Canadian experience and do fun activities with family and friends. As horse boats were one of few activities in Toronto, riding the ferries themselves became a nostalgic experience that individuals desired participate in. Due to the positive reputation built and shared by previous passengers, Torontonians took advantage of these excursions and made the most of their experience with loved ones. When passengers would board the horse boat, their nostalgic perception conveyed the fact that it was the beginning of a joyful day.27 Therefore, the Sir John of the Peninsula was considered an entertaining and pleasurable activity that ordinary civilians could take part in without spending a fortune or disturbing their budgets. While the horse boat was a part of people’s Toronto Peninsula experience, it was also their only option for transportation.

Some Torontonians overlooked the meaning of horse boats to the residents and visitors of Toronto’s harbour, as they wanted to get rid of horse boats and replace them with steamboats. Children had memories of boarding the horse boat and witnessing its slower and calm presence, on their way to the different attractions on the Toronto Peninsula with their families and friends. Some Torontonians had the idea that their city should improve and change to keep up with the times, regardless of whether their system was working properly already. For one’s own benefit, society tends to want the most advanced technology to prove to other populations that they, too, are socially educated. This was the case for many Torontonians as they wanted a better form of aquatic transportation that would provide a new form of enjoyment and nostalgia. If Michael O’Connor decided to implement steamboats, this nostalgic urge would not have been met as only few individuals would be able to afford steamboat riding prices. 

Toronto horse ferries flourished throughout the mid-eighteen hundreds as their fascinating structure captured the attention of many individuals. While the horse boat's design was overlooked by much of society, it was the foundation of leisure and pleasure in Toronto. In comparison to other western waterfront towns, Toronto used horse boats for a longer period of time. This was due to Michael O’Connor’s educated decision that horse technology was more dependable and less expensive than a modern steamboat. Thus, the wooden foundation of horse boats and treadmill mechanics were well understood amongst society. This enabled effortless fixes for inexpensive prices as immigrants in Toronto came from generations of woodworking careers. O’Connor argued that horse boats were much more sustainable for Toronto, as it would preserve the success of Toronto Peninsula businesses and societies moral values. Also, many Toronto residents rode the horse boat for its nostalgia. At a cheaper price, individuals were able to feel more complete as they could make wholesome memories with friends and family. However, the Toronto horse boat was constantly referred to as outdated technology and was on the verge of moral extinction because steamboats became more popular in surrounding waterfront towns. Overall, the horse boat was greatly sustainable and was convenient for society, businesses, and its own success.

  1. Elaine Weeks, “Horses of the River,” Windsor then Windsor now, July 14, 2011. https://windsorthenwindsornow.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/horses-of-the-river/ 

  2. Jim Kennard, “Horse Powered Ferry Boat Discovered in Lake Champlain.” Shipwreck World, https://www.shipwreckworld.com/articles/horse-powered-ferry-boat-discovered-in-lake-champlain 

  3. Timothy J. Leacin, “When Horses Walked on Water: Horse-Powered Ferries in Nineteenth Century America,” JSTOR, October 4, 1999. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25147427 

  4. “Toronto Harbour Horse Ferry.” Toronto Cruises. https://www.torontoharbour.com/toronto-boat-cruises/horse-boat-ferry.php 

  5. Chris Bateman, “The History of Toronto’s first Island Ferries,” blog TO, July 30, 2020. https://www.blogto.com/city/2013/05/a_brief_history_of_torontos_first_island_ferries/ 

  6. Kennard, “Horse Powered Ferry Boat Discovered in Lake Champlain.” 

  7. Figure 1: Horse boat and its inner workings. “Horse Powered Ferry Boat,” Horse powered Ferry Boat, image. (n.d.) https://www.shipwreckworld.com/articles/gallery/20/81; Kennard, “Horse Powered Ferry Boat Discovered in Lake Champlain.” 

  8. Figure 2: Map of the Toronto Islands, Horse boat routes. Bateman, “The history of Toronto’s first Island Ferries.” 

  9. Figure 3: The Peninsula Hotel and other attractions. Bateman, “The history of Toronto’s first Island Ferries”; Elaine Weeks, “Horses of the River.” 

  10. “Water Transportation Services, Not Elsewhere Classified.” Sic 4482 Ferries, March 5, 2013. https://www.referenceforbusiness.com/industries/Transportation-Communications-Utilities/Ferries.html

  11. Leacin, “When Horses Walked on Water.” 

  12. Leacin, “When Horses Walked on Water.” 

  13. Larry Partridge, “The Toronto Island Ferry Service.” Toronto island ferry history: The beginning, March 4, 1976. https://www.angelfire.com/ca/TORONTO/history/islandbegin.html

  14. Partridge, “The Toronto Island Ferry Service.” 

  15. Leacin, “When Horses Walked on Water.” 

  16. Figure 4: First horse-propelled vessel built in Toronto, Peninsula Packet. William James Thomson, Drawing of the First Horse-Drawn Ferry Boat Built in Toronto, (January 1, 1893). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peninsula-packet.jpg; Massimo Corradi, “Boats propelled by paddle wheels and animal propulsion: a curious history” Dipartimento Architetture e Design, Universita di Genova.


  17. Figure 5: First horse-propelled vessel to be used as a passenger ferry in Toronto, Sir John of the Peninsula. Joel Levy (2016), Vintage photographs from the Toronto Islands (1845). Toronto Guardian. https://torontoguardian.com/2016/05/vintage-photographs-toronto-islands/; Partridge, “The Toronto Island Ferry Service.” 

  18. William J. Thomson, “The Second Horse Boat”, Digital Archive


  19. Partridge, “The Toronto Island Ferry Service.” 

  20. Leacin, “When Horses Walked on Water: Horse-Powered Ferries in Nineteenth Century America.” 

  21. “Water Transportation Services, Not Elsewhere Classified.” 

  22. Walker Miller, Marine Engineering, Volume 1 (Google Books: Stanford University Libraries, 1896). 

  23. Partridge, “The Toronto Island Ferry Service.” 

  24. Leacin, “When Horses Walked on Water.” 

  25. “Toronto Harbour Horse Ferry.” Toronto Cruises. 

  26. “Toronto Harbour Horse Ferry.” Toronto Cruises. 

  27. “Ferries: Transportation during the Cherokee Removal 1837.” National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/ferries-transportation-during-the-cherokee-removal-1837-1839.htm