The past half century has brought with it many changes, as all such periods of time must do, and, perhaps, nowhere are these more manifest or a greater metamorphosis exhibited than in that part of St. George's ward in the City of Toronto, known as the "Island."
Where palatial residences, as well as those of less pretentious aspect, but probably with equal interior comfort, now stand, only forty years ago was a waste of sand and shingle, unrelieved as now by houses with gay gardens and joyous residents.
There were in 1843 three houses only on the Island. With the exception of the few very primitive dwellings, these were mere cabins, used by the fisher folks. Strictly speaking, the "Island" was nor an island at all but a peninsula. It was not until 1857 or 1858 that the inroads of the waters of the Lake during a great storm caused what is now known as the Eastern gap, and converted the peninsula into an actual island. The first steamer that passed through this gap was the Bowmanville, on April 19th, 1859. Of the houses on the Island, the principal was a large partly brick three-storey dwelling erected by Lord Sydenham, in 1839 as a summer residence, for himself, in consequence of Toronto at the time suffering from a visitation of that dread pest, cholera. This house. 50 x 40 feet, and of which an illustration is given, was built upon a layer of four-inch planks sunk about two feet in the sand, it being impossible from the nature of the soil to build a brick foundation. The lower storey was of brick ; the second and upper one were of wood. To the east of it was another small dwelling, occupied by the keeper of the lighthouse, James Durning, while about one hundred yards to the west was a third house, known afterwards as Parkinson's Hotel. These, the huts we have before mentioned, and the lighthouse, were, until 1853, the only dwellings upon the Island. Between where now is Island Park, and the Eastern gap, were a great many trees, chiefly pines and Balm of Gilead. Exactly opposite the present Alert House is one of each of these trees, and this spot was a favorite rendezvous for picnic parties. To the east are several other scattered pines, much the same now as then, and from them one of the adjacent villas takes the very appropriate name of "The Pines."
In 1843 Louis Privat (always, though erroneously pronounced Prevs), took up his residence in the house built by Lord Sydenham, and opened it as an hotel. He was joined there in 1844 by his brother, Louis Joseph Privat, with his family. These brothers, as may be inferred from their name, were of French extraction, though they came to Canada from the United States, where they had resided since their departure from Germany and arrival there in 1837. They were descendants of one Louis Privat, who at the time of the revocation of the edict of Nantes lived in the province of Languedoc, in France, and to escape the consequences of that infamous "revocation" fled to Friedrichsdorf, in Germany, some few miles from Frankfort-on-the-Main, one of the four Hans towns. It will probably strike readers as somewhat singular that both brothers should bear the same Christian name of Louis. As a matter of fact Louis Joseph was the only one who was at his christening given the first of these two names. The real baptismal name of the other brother was Peter. He in his earlier days was employed by a French nobleman, an adherent of the Bourbon dynasty, Count Duchatel, as a valet. Among the Count's numerous retinue of servants was another man also in close attendance upon his master, who was likewise called Peter. To avoid confusion, it was decided that Privat should be known as Louis, and so he was, becoming accustomed to the name. On leaving his master's service he did not discard it, but continued its use so long as he lived. He, with his family, left Toronto in 1853, removing to the village of Durham, County Grey, where he kept another hotel until his death, which occurred on April 28th, 1860, in his 61st year.
But it was one thing to open an hotel; it was another to make it pay. So the two brothers decided that the one should "run" the hotel, while the other should devote his energies, and these were by no means inconsiderable, to obtaining visitors and customers to the same.
The Block House stood at Hanlan's Point, a few hundred feet north-east of the present hotel, and was dismantled after the war of 1815. Mr. Bloor, of Bloor's brewery, and George Cooper, who lived on the Davenport Hill, took part, by instruction of the Government, in dismantling the old house. There were two large guns, which they hauled around the Island from what is now Hanlan's Point, along the road by The Lakeside Home, and then over to the main land, via the Big and Little Don These were then shipped finally on schooners belonging to the Mackintosh brothers, of whom there were five, John, Charles,James, Robert and Daniel. The guns were sent to Prescott and then transshipped on what was known as Durham boats to Quebec.
The Island afforded its visitors many other attractions besides the journey there, which, by the way, generally occupied thirty and sometimes forty minutes. Opposite the hotel was a merry-go-round and two large swings, the one to the east, the other to the west of the merry-go-round. The first was eighty feet high, the second but thirty, and all three were largely patronized by the younger portion of the Island's visitors. For the elders there was a bowling alley, known as "Ten Pin Alley." while to ensure instruction as well as amusement there was a small zoological collection consisting of a bear, wolf, a white deer, several raccoons and two or three eagles. There was also a good deal of amusement of a somewhat miscellaneous nature. Every Queen's Birthday many of the sportsmen of Toronto journeyed to the Island for blackheart shooting. These were birds of passage of the plover tribe, who invariably were making their annual migration at this period of the year.
Besides these contests to test the prowess of marksmen, there was turkey shooting. This it must be confessed was very sorry sport. A turkey was tied and placed on an elevation about fifty yards from where the sportsmen (?) stood. Everyone who chose to enter, and pay a York shilling for each shot, was allowed to fire at the poor bird ; the first who hit it became possessor of the turkey. This amiable pastime continued until the supply of turkeys was exhausted. There was yet one other occasional diversion, equally reprehensible but perhaps not quite so cruel as the one just mentioned, this was shooting a bear with a candle. A bear was purchased, and forty years ago these were not difficult to obtain, and a man resident in Toronto used to give an exhibition of shooting this animal with a rifle ostensibly loaded only with an ordinary tallow candle. To see this performance a small sum was charged and those who witnessed it went away believing the bear had met his quietus solely through the force of the candle striking him. They were not told, and probably would not have believed it had they been so, that when the candle was put in the rifle a bullet had preceded it, nevertheless such was the case. This "sport" always took place in the winter and there was from time to time an occasional fox hunt also, a fox being let loose the night before to furnish the sport and a very exhilarating amusement was the result.
When the Privat brothers left the Island, they were succeeded by John Quinn. Where their house stood is now covered by the waters of the lake The exact spot is about 200 yards to the west of where the red buoy now rides, marking the proposed crib work which will extend to the point where forty years ago was dry land. Another 100 yards to the west is the place where the sunken boiler of the steamer Monarch lies, which was wrecked in 1856 and where several years later was also wrecked the steamer Southern Belle.
There is not much more to relate respecting the old Island. Among the fishermen who lived there were David Ward and William Strowger, who were partners. David Ward was succeeded by his son William, who was born on the Island in 1848 and still resides there, having a sort of general charge. William Geddes and John Jordan were also well-known fishermen. They, like the beach upon they often hauled up their nets, have gone elsewhere never to return. To return for a few moments to Louis Joseph Privat. During the time he lived on the Island two of his family were born ; one of these fought on the Federal side all through the War of Secession, being twice wounded, once most severely. He still lives, though in somewhat shattered health. L. J. Privat was as humane a man as he was enterprising, and on several occasions saved the lives of careless boatmen. Among others so rescued were two brothers named Martin, Thomas Carfrae and two young men named Haigh and Osier. Of Privat it may be said with safety that he was revered by his family and respected for his integrity and kindhearted ness by all who knew him, and if some of the amusements in his day were somewhat out of unison with the feelings of to-day one can reply by quoting the French proverb, "autres temps autres moeurs."
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This electronic edition is based on the original in the collection of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston.