A brief look at the history of the Toronto Humber Yacht Club and the Humber River as told by I. Ross Trant.



past commodores1The Humber River has a long and interesting history, dating back to the days when our Native People ruled-the north shore of Lake Ontario and before the French and.British traders-even knew our lake and river existed. While its past is not so deeply rooted in antiquity as the river from which it gains its name, the Toronto Humber Yacht Club (THYC) also has a story to tell. The histories, so interwoven, of the Club and river are of special interest to residents of the area and members of the Club, but it is possible that others interest in history or boats or Canadiana or anything related thereto may find this little book a little amusing and perhaps slightly informative.

A simple look at history is the purpose of this work. Through its pages we hope to preserve some of the river’s story and as much as possible of the yacht club which graces its western bank.

It seems especially important at this time to set down as much as we can about our Club. All (or almostall) of the original records .on the Club were destroyed in the fire which razed the original century-old building. Because the year of incorporation is not too long past, we are fortunate to have many members and friends whose memories retain something of our story. Much of this information has-been gleaned through conversations and some through observation in. more recent times. Sadly many names are missing from anecdotes through human failings of memory and uncertainty. For this reason where names cannot be documented, they have been omitted to avoid controversy. However, through this history we hope to record -as much as possible of the days gone by.

Read it and enjoy the story! It's the story of a river and a club and the people who make them interesting.


To Etienne Brulé, and the Coulers du Bois who followed. The Mississauga Band who paddled and portaged nearby. To the names of Gamble and Cooper and Howland and Hicks. And to the names of Duck and Nurse and Skinner, all River Pioneers. To the-founders of the club,- and toall who enjoy the Humber, we dedicate this book.


It is not possible to name everyone who helped make this study possible, sad to say. However certain people have given assistance which is greatly appreciated. For many stories and anecdotes as well as historical facts, the author would like to thank the following: Olive Haslan, Jack Moran, Charles Shefflin, Ralph Davis, Gordon and Leta Russell, Trevor McKay, Jack Karn, Donald Brodie . and everyone else who told a story or helped to corroborate another. Thank you, to for your patience! If we have failed to record your name herein still accept our thanks, accorded to ___________ (!)

Historical Accuracy

Old MillEvery effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of material included herein. The sources for historical facts have included certain original documents, such as British Colonial Documents recording the events at York (Toronto) and in Upper a Canada (Ontario); the Jesuit Relations (to be seen at the University of Toronto); Champlain’s ‘Journals’ and a few contemporary publications. The major source of club material has been the older members who saw it happen, covering the period from 1946 until the fire. Two worthwhile source books which have proved useful were The Valley of the Humber - Lazers (privately published) which was supplied by ‘Ollie’ Haslam, and a Toronto Under  the French published by University of Toronto Press, and kindly suggested by Ruth Wilson. Also consulted was Butterfield’s Journeys of Etienne Brulé.

There has been no attempt here to quote sources in correct academic fashion (who cares?) but the above is given in case anyone wishes to seek further, or may be of an academic bent and thus concerned about historical documents.

Occasionally a story appears in history which is fascinating, romantic or exciting and captures every imagination. Research sometimes proved they never to have happened - a sad thing. Still such tales persist because we wish they were true. They. become legend and creep stealthily into grave historic works - and there they stay. Sometimes because the historian has a sense of humour or a sense of entertainment. Sometimes just because everyone wants to believe them.

While the author has every confidence in the veracity of the material which follows, it is possible that some of, the stories have been coloured in the telling and through the passing of the years. If that has made them more interesting, again who cares?

Good times, not pedantry, is the purpose of a club!

In the Beginning

BruleLong before the French traders, priests and explorers ever passed the rapids called Lachine, there were boaters on the Humber. Beginning in swampland near the shores of the water now called Lake Simcoe, a tiny streamrose, and grew, forming a river leading to Lake Ontario. Down this stream or along its neighbouring portage trails came the first boaters on the Humber.

Their boats were canoes of birch or elm. Their nations the Huron and the Mississauga. The Humber River formed a connection between Georgian Bay, the Severn and Lake Simcoe areas and Lake Ontario. it was the Carrying Place. At the mouth, where the Humber empties into Lake Ontario once stood the Indian village of Teiaiagon. Just east of this was the peninsula, which, as a result of a storm in the early part of the nineteenth century, became Toronto Islands.

It would appear that the indians who travelled the Humber's waters were the spiritual fathers of. the THYC’s present (and past) members. For the indians i found that life on ‘The island’ was most salubrious - all serious effort cessed and it became a place for fun and games - and relaxation. The Islands were a favourite resort for tired indians! Boaters with more sophisticated craft still gather therefor week-ends of fun and games!

The Humber and its portages also formed an essential trade route for the indians, and later became one for the white men who came and took the land as years passed by.

Boating forboth pleasure and trade on the Humber was well established by the time the year was 1615 happened. This was the year in which a French teen-ager who had grown up among the indians and thus qualified himself for duties as a guide and translator was given charge of his own expedition by Samule de Champlain...

This young lad who could neither read nor write, (like certain THYC members after Friday night at the Club - this writer as an example) set out to find Lake Frontenac, as the French were to call Lake Ontario. Along with his indian friends, the boy found the stream that rose in the marshes, and followed it southward to its end. Thus he became the European discoverer of both the Humber and Lake Ontario (Frontenac). His name of course was Etienne Brulé.

In very recent years his name has been given to the series of Metropolitan Toronto Parks which follows thecourse of the Humber.

RusselShould we dare to claim Brulé as founder and first Commodore of our Club? Certainly he was the first non-native person to travel that water route from the THYC’s dock site to Lake Ontario, then on to the Island, before returning to his base in Montreal. Should our claim be accepted in this matter, the THYC becomes themost venerable boating Club in all of Canada! (Well - we can’t dream can't we?)

The Humber, (then known as the St. Jean) remained in French hands until 3 the end of the Seven"Year War. St. Jean Rousseau (later know as simply St. Jean and still later St. John) built the first permanent private home on the river, near its mouth. With the arrival of Lt. Governor Simcoe, St. John adopted British ways and was allowed to remain upon his holdings. Sadly, however, the Colonial Government never saw fit to grant him letters patent and on his death the land reverted to the Crown and was granted to other families.

(By the way, as a matter of information, if not trivia, during the hundred and seventy-seven years between Brulé’s visit and Simcoe's~arrival, it should be noted that our predecessor, Etienne Brulé died. He was served for dinner at a council meeting of the Hurons in the year 1632.)

A Note on Land Grants

While Mr. St. John was never able to obtain full title to those Humber shores on which his home stood, there were others who did fair better!

mapAfter Col. Simcoe (never a Lord, by the way) returned to England, another gentlemen was appointed to act as Lt. Governor. His name Peter Russell. During his brief term of office, Peter Russell, a gentleman with some legal background, was frequently heard to dictate documents to his secretary. Many of these began with the following form: ”I Peter Russell convey to Peter Russell that parcel of land described as---”. By this means a fair portion of the Humber shoreline came into the hands of a family surnamed Russell!

Peter Russell did not keep all the Humber lands for himself, but rather spread his parcels of land over a wide area within what is now Metropolitan Toronto. As you have already seen, the price was certainly right! Some of the land he did not convey to Peter Russell included that occupied by St. John who had royally entertained Simcoe and Russell on many occasions. This land was later leased or sold to the Gamble family. Those other families whose names appear in the dedication of this booklet became landowners also between Lambton and the lake along the shore of the winding river.

As lands were granted sold or leased the forest was cleared. Farms were opened and mills were built. And as these changes came, the river changed.

With no more forests to control the water run-offs and with mill dams built without due ecological study, the Humber became a lesser stream. It became more as it is today. With the coming of spring it flooded, with heavy rains it grew turbulent and with drought it dropped. Such is progress!

And the Humber has its Bay

In the past, just as it does today, the Humber emptied into Humber Bay. In the past, just as today, Humber Bay was noted for its unpleasant slop. Many canoes were lost. Numerous paddlers were drowned. Even early ships were wrecked.

BoatGrounding and .drownings were the practice of the Bay.  In 1780 the schooner Ontario was wrecked, there were none to save her crew. In 1861 another schooner, unable to beat off the lee shore was driven aground and broken up. From this one the “Pacific” some survived. Names noted in the rescue.operation that year included Duck, Hicks and Nurse.

Since 1861 the marine disasters in the Humber Bay have been limited to smaller pleasure craft - at least until the early winter of 1975. It was Christmas Evewhen a large freighter carrying soy beans attempted. to come up the Humber. She grounded off the modern Seaway Towers motor hotel. This event was embarrassing rather then disastrous to those involved. (Question: Did another captian take command of this vessel in 1976?)


The section of Etienne Brulé park system in which the Toronto Humber Yacht Club stands is now identified as Kingsmill Park. One of Col. Simcoe’s first acts as Lt. Governor of Upper Canada was to organize a Royal saw mill system. A site was surveyed in 1793, the trees were cut and buildings raised. A water wheel provided power for the saws. The site? Almost exactly where Hick’s Boat House would some day stand and where a modern Yacht Club now has its facilities.

KingsmillBecause this was a Crown operation, Simcoe name his new mill the King's Mill. So it was known for some sixty years. The park still bears its name.

Timber from the King's Mill was used to build most of the public buildings in the new town of York. These included Fort York, St. James’ Church (the original foundation for the present great Cathedral) and the first legislative buildings.

Timber from the King’s Mill was also used for boat and ship building. Barges were made to carry grain from the mouth of the Humber to. the many mill sites farther up - the Old Mill and those beyond, as far as Lambton Mills. The first of a series of naval. vessels was built on this very site - the river was then deep enough to carry a draught of some seven to ten feet all the way to open water on- Lake Ontario. There were also no mast-limiting bridges at that early date. Still later, into the nineteenth century, the original King's Mill site was a yard used for the building of-schooners for the Lake Ontario trade, especially the ‘stone hookers’ – often rather barge-like vessels with schooner rig.

Sad to say dry rot (more politely known to owners of wooden boats as ‘the curse’ or ‘wood rust’) was known at THYC‘s site before 1812. It was noted that the schooner H.M.S. ‘Mississauga’ built only three years previously of green Humber timber was completely rotted and no longer seaworthy. (J.J. Taylor and Sons were not yet ready to do a complete re-build and plastic resins under various names were as yet unknown.)

By 1798 the Government had decided to depend more on the free enterprises system rather than having government control of all industry. Accordingly about that year the King's Mill and the site of the present Old Mill were leased to one Isiah Skinner. Skinner continued the various trades of shipwright, sawyer and grist miller and thus became one of the areas first commercial tycoons.

The site of the Old Mill has always been a lovely one. It is beautiful today, and it had its beauty in Skinner's day. His large white mansion the mill itself and the surrounding lush farm were known to local residents for almost a century as “The Garden of Eden” (Author’s note: I have been unable to find any documentary evidence of an apple tree, but snakes are still apart of the local scene.)

Much of the King's Mill site remained in productive use-until near the end of the nineteenth century. Then Hick’s Boat House and the WanitakTea Garden began to make their marks upon the social and recreational scene.

Early Boating on the River

Once the British founded their capital at York (Toronto) there was a rapid growth in navigation on the Humber. Barges plied the waters up and down from Gamble's Wharf (mouth of the Humber east side). Schooners came and went some newly launched, some returning for repairs.

BoatingAs land came into private hands the local residents began to use their own small craft - row-boats, skiffs, canoes and sailing craft - so pleasure boating began.

Then as now the river had its floods. About 1860 a bridge was built at the mouth, restricting vessel height. In 1880 it was washed out in a flood. One local remembered only as Protestant John attempted to cross the non-existing bridge on horseback, having been previously celebrating the 12 of the July! Rider and horse survived and continued on their way. Protestant John was likely in a more sober state.

That was the year that Col. Baby complained that his pleasure sailing craft could not pass under the new low bridge.

The Government was lacking in sympathy and wrote to the good colonel suggesting that the Humber, while navigable technically due to lumber operations was not suited for large pleasure craft. The bridge remained. So did Baby Point Road. We still have the bridge (now four of them, not just one) and Baby Point Road is not far away.

BoatingIn spite of the bridge and its successors, pleasure boating on the Humber refused to die. In fact it increased. With the coming of gasoline engines for boats, launches, mostly canopied double enders began to carry passengers from Gamble’s Wharf up as far as the Wanita. The Hicks family rented canoes and skiffs to the public and began to provide storage space for private boats. The local landowners continued their own use of the river. And so it went.

As the years passed, changes came. The mills were finally closed. By 1912 Gamble’s Wharf was in ruins and the barges gone. Launches sought another landing. Across from Gamble’s rose the Palace Pier of exalted memory. With natural and artificial land growth the shoreline changed. Brule Point from which the young French explorer saw Lake Ontario for the first time and claimed it for Champlain, and France disappeared. lt’s somewhere near the present Lackie’s Marina (east side of the north bridge), just north of the bridges on the west bank.

The course of the river itself from the Old Mill to Lake Ontario was slowly changed and ‘improved’. It took Hurricane Hazel to teach us the lesson that Nature really was a better designer of water courses. The river has now returned (almost) to its original bed, thanks to the efforts of the Conservation Authority.

ln any event, pleasure boaters continued to enjoy the river until activity was slowed by World War ll - not stopped, but slowed.

This brings our story to the year 1946, when the first real glimmerings of a private yacht club began. From this point in history we move from the story of a river to the founding of the Club.


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