Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Columbus 'Iceboat Irons' on Toronto Bay: Schooner Days DCCCXXXV (835)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 21 Feb 1948
Full Text
Columbus 'Iceboat Irons' on Toronto Bay
Schooner Days DCCCXXXV (835)

by C. H. J. Snider


"Isaac Columbus . . . who during the war of 1812 was employed as armourer to the militia stationed at the Garrison in 1824 set up his shop in what had been Secretary Jarvis' white mansion at Duke and Sherbourne sts. He was equally at home whether required to make a service of plate, pull a tooth, make and insert a new set of teeth, edge the battered axe of a woodsman, make skate blades, or the irons of an iceboat."

"IRONS OF AN ICEBOAT"—the bright eyes of Connie Stevenson, of Stevenson's Landing, Hanlan's Point, fell on this in Vol 1 of Robertson's Landmarks of Toronto (selling now at $25), and she was moved to write something for her fellow islanders in her bright paper, the Icebreaker. Like this:

"You lucky people you—with your jolly card parties, steam-heated tugs, formal dances with 12-piece orchestras and other gay affairs in the attractive clubhouse—and all things that make up a Hanlan's Island winter of 1948. What a contrast to the winters of long ago! But there were compensations, and not the least of these was the joy of iceboating. This sport was at its zenith on Toronto Bay 30 to 35 years ago. Such islanders as then wintered there didn't worry about tug schedules. There was no service after the Bay froze over. Sleighs and iceboats replaced ferries. Early Hanlan's iceboats for pleasure and convenience were Wm. McKay's Reindeer, Wesley Durnan's Comet, Bill Stevenson's Canuck, Joe Humphrey's boat, and Sam Stevenson's Dash.


Eddie Durnan's commercial fleet at the boathouse was a profitable business with the Jack Frost and Beaver, Jessica, Erl King, Royal Alexandra, Stormy Day and Islander, sailed by Eddie and John Durnan, "Bull Mulaney, Capt. Jim Quinn (of RCYC ferries and yachts and the schooner Snow Bird), Topsy Walker and others. Additions to Hanlan's Island fleet were those in later years owned by the Jolley twins and Tom Brand (of the Sandbar), Bill Allen (wireless station), Nick Orr (watchman at the Point), and Sam Beatty. There were also a few midget types sailed on the lagoon and to school by Hanlan's children.

Convenient, as we find the summer water taxis today, imagine how those Islanders appreciated the ice taxis, flying contraptions which would skim and swoop to town at lightning speed. Through the week several of these boats would wait at the foot of John st. in the mornings and at Blockhouse Bay in the afternoons and taxi employees to and from the filtration plant. And fast trips they were!

Durnan's Jessica, skippered by Eddy Durnan, with a crew of Lou Scholes (famous oarsman), Quinn, Walker, Lavis and Sam Stevenson, once claimed the speed of 120 m.p.h. said to be clocked during a race with Zoraya. This was on the Ward's Island to York st. leg with an E.-N.E. gale blowing. When racing in a heavy wind it was a practice for one or two of the crew to ride the running board of the windward skate, to keep the boat from upsetting. On turning a buoy, these men would have to shift from one side to the other, a hazardous feat when the iceboats were traveling at such terrific speed. These men were frequently thrown. It didn't hurt if the ice was smooth enough, but hitting a block at a mile a minute meant a broken neck. The late Lou Marsh, well-known sports editor, was one of the Zoraya's crew for this particular race and incidents of these affairs are stories in themselves.


Hanlan's lads, with their pleasure boats, would pile on islanders for the mainland to fetch doctors when necessary. Dr. Sheard, civic MOH of Tullamore "flew" to islanders' assistance by this means when needed. They also used their boats for various neighborly chores—such as' shopping at the conveniently located grocery stores of Coulter's and Sommers', and Josh Clayton's butcher shop, at King and John in the city, They used their boats to fetch the day's newspapers, to transport islanders' milk in gallon cans, and for racing and taking their summer island friends for a winter afternoon sail.

Many adventurous summer islanders would, on Saturdays and Sundays, walk over the old York st. bridge to the waterfront, which was then at Fleet st., usually being way-laid by aggressive salesmen for the commercial iceboats. And these fellows literally battled for trade. Sometimes with fists. In addition to our Durnan friends, with their busy fleet, the commercial skippers were numerous and picturesque. There were Possum Mercer and Berry Lavis (stonehooker sailors), "Slabsy" McGuire, waterfront pugilist, Bill Fisher, captain of Gooderham yachts in unfrozen waters, "Mait" Ackroyd, one of the Ackroyd Bros., boat builders whose dinghys were world-famous. And there was "Hec" McDonald, one of the original Fisherman's Island settlers. You know his son Dune on the tug Stewart—his motorboat Victory gathers the harbor debris in the summer.

Capt. Joe Goodwin, Jr., owned the very fast Zoraya, the Ramsay Bros of Fisherman's Island their Tipperary and Tom Longboat. There was Frank Ward of the original Ward's islanders, and many others less well-known.


At the foot of York st. there would be seen parked—waiting for customers—perhaps as many as fifty iceboats pointed into the wind, with stern skates crossed, and their large triangular sails fluttering in the breeze. Perhaps a thousand people would be walking, skating or sledding among the boats, or pushing their way to the "weiner man."

This vendor named Joe, did a land office business while his stock lasted. His stove was a boiler, fastened around his shoulders by straps, heated by a spirit stove.

When business was brisk the activity was amazing. The boats would sail in and out of the narrow frozen slips between the aquatic clubs' wharves with crews shouting warnings to the crowds to keep clear. It was surprising how few accidents occurred despite the hazard of these boats weaving their way through dense spectators. These winter yachtsmen made their own rules and regulations governing sailing according to prevailing conditions.

The pleasure boats were a delight to see, racing at great rates of speed with one skate high in the air much the same effect as a summer yacht heeled over to the rail. The glistening varnished bodies, black-enameled skates, gleaming white sails and many-coloured flags flying from the stays and yards was an unforgettable sight against the blue ice and dazzling snow.

Newspapers printed pictures recently of iceboating on Hamilton Bay. Very few of the old boats here were as small as these fast single seaters, some on Toronto Bay having sail areas many times larger than those at Hamilton.

Oldtimers remember when with three of a crew, Toronto boats would carry twelve passengers, comfortably, and at times pack on twenty. The largest boat remembered was Art Baldwin's. Its triangular sail measured approximately 40 x 40 x 40 feet, and so heavy were the spars and canvas it took three men to hoist the sail. The passengers on these large boats would lie on mattresses in the box-like cockpits, covered with blankets and fur robes.


It wasn't "all smooth sailing!" One of the hazards was large air holes in the ice, filled with drifting snow, making what was known as "slush holes." Striking these at terrific speed was much like running into stone wall, and generally resulted in a wrecked boat.

And there were the deep snow-drifts! Hitting one of these, the boat came to an abrupt stop with passengers and crew tossed into the snow. Shovels were carried for such an event, the boat freed, then whoops—off they zipped again!

When the Bay was frozen from Eastern to Western Gap and from shore to shore, the ice would shove up in some places and depress in others creating large pools of water, often as deep as four feet. Boats hitting these really gave their occupants a cold bath! In later years all the discarded Christmas trees were carted to the waterfront and lifesavers and sailors used these to mark dangerous spots.

Toronto Bay "never was the same" for iceboating after the new wide western channel was cut a thousand feet south of the old one, because the ice could not form in the same way, nor last as long, and the harbor improvements completed in 1920 both restricted the area and broke that area up by the traffic of winter-storage vessels being shifted by tugs.

In 1910, William Buckland, a Toronto artist and iceboating enthusiast, applied for permission to sue the Ottawa Government because, they had "deliberately destroyed Toronto's finest winter pastime—iceboating on our Bay."

Mr. Buckland pointed out that the Ottawa action in moving and enlarging the western gap created currents which periodically broke up the ice in the Bay and made ice-boating dangerous or impossible.

Ottawa refused him permission to proceed with his suit and the result was that during the rest of his life-time, when he encountered an unlucky politician in the street, he would shake the umbrella, which he constantly carried, in the face of that unhappy gentleman and storm:

"I see we still have no iceboating on the Bay, so I presume, sir, you are still in the hire of the pool-rooms."

The advent of the Ned Hanlan and the icebreaker, and fire tug Rouille (larger and twice as powerful as the Hanlan) rang down the curtain on Toronto iceboating, though some of the modern type did have a successful try for it as late as 1940 which is "quite a ways" from Isaac Columbus and his ice boat irons of 1824.


CHIEF JUSTICE ROBINSON" (note the ploughshare bow) LANDING HER PASSENGERS ON THE ICE IN TORONTO BAY IN 1852. —From an Armstrong water color in the John Ross Robertson collection, Toronto Public Library.


Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
Date of Publication
21 Feb 1948
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.6322212757901 Longitude: -79.3691670898438
Richard Palmer
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by [more details]
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Columbus 'Iceboat Irons' on Toronto Bay: Schooner Days DCCCXXXV (835)