Crowds sought relief in Lake Ontario’s cool waters at Balmy Beach in the east end. Thousands boarded the ferry to Toronto Island, with a record set on July 7, 1936, with 22,293 passengers, compared to 13,302 the same day the previous year. Extra streetcars were added to transport the hot and sweating to the lakeshore.
Torontonians had always had the opportunity to cool off at beaches around Lake Ontario and the Toronto Islands, as well as the Don River. They also found relief at Sunnyside pool, which opened in 1925, and the High Park Mineral Baths, in operation from 1914 until 1962.
Back in the 1920s, it was the cold rather than the heat that inspired the creation of Sunnyside’s Olympic-sized pool. Both Sunnyside Amusement Park and the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion debuted in 1922 at the foot of Roncesvalles Ave. on the shores of Humber Bay.
But two chilly summers, which left bathers blue-lipped and shivering, prompted the Sunnyside Amusement Company to quickly construct the $ 75,000, above-ground Sunnyside pool.
On July 29, 1925, T.L. Church, the MP for Broadview-Toronto, formally opened “the magnificent new Sunnyside bathing pool,” along with George Young, a Canadian marathon swimmer, the Toronto Daily Star reported the next day.
Patrons found themselves swimming in the lap of luxury in the Sunnyside Outdoor Natatorium, affectionately known as the “Tank.” It offered heated, filtered and chlorinated water, with a view of Lake Ontario. The 91-metre-long by 23-metre-wide space — which held three million litres of water and could accommodate 2,000 bathers — made it the largest pool in the world at the time.
An estimated 25,000 visitors who hadn’t arrived early enough to pay the 35-cent fee to the grand opening, were held outside by police to witness “the high diving exhibition that was well worth their patience,” reported the Star.
Swimming in the Tank — as well as frequenting the beach, rides and boardwalk at “Toronto’s Lake Shore Playground” — were popular pastimes over the years.
Those who wanted some “healthy” benefits, as well as a place to cool off, headed to their version of a modern-day spa: the High Park Mineral Baths.
The mineral baths, known as the “Minnies,” were part of the High Park Sanitarium, run by Dr. William J. McCormick. The sanitarium, at 32 Gothic Ave., catered to those suffering from medical conditions, including diabetes and heart disease. An outdoor pool used for hydrotherapy was not installed on the sanitarium grounds until 1913. The previous year, the Globe reported that a well had been built on-site, providing “pure, cold, spring water with beneficent mineral properties.”
The Minnies even hosted Olympic swimming and diving trials in 1924 and remained a sought-after venue for competitive and recreational swimmers in the next few decades. In the years following their inception, a second pool was added and its unsteady diving board was replaced with multiple ones. The good doctor later opted to fill the pools with city water instead of well water.
In June 1946, McCormick, who still offered his pool for public swimming, extolled the virtues of the outdoor pool and his mineral baths, as opposed to indoor “tanks.”
“The outdoor pool has the advantages of fresh air and sunlight, which gives swimmers a chance to dry off and warm up,” he told the Star. “As a result, most children can stand the water better. Besides, there’s more freedom of movement, particularly if there’s a sand beach for games and sports.”
The Minnies closed in 1962, to make way for the Bloor-Danforth subway line.
During the 1930s, swimmers had to be mindful of what they wore when cooling off. Male swimmers in particular risked running afoul of a 1930s bylaw regarding public displays. In 1934 the Toronto Harbour Commission passed its own bylaw requiring men to wear tops when swimming on public beaches. Lifeguards had the authority to judge and enforce the bylaw.
Hilliard Lang, superintendent of the Toronto lifesaving department, told the Star in June 1934 that he was more concerned about men’s rather than women’s bathing suits. “It’s those filthy men who go around with just trunks on, leaving the whole of their ugly, hairy bodies exposed to women and children … We just won’t allow it,” he said.
Thanks to a legal challenge, repeal of the Harbour Commission’s bylaw and the passage of time, most bathing suits sold to men by the 1940s were trunks only.
A decade later, during a hot spell in July 1955, the Star lamented the lack of swimming pools around the city. There was Sunnyside, the newly built pool in Willowvale Park (now Christie Pits) and the small Weston pool, which wasn’t easily accessible and already crowded.
“In 1946, the parks committee recommended building a minimum of five outdoor pools … In the intervening nine years only one of these was built, at Willowvale …,” the Star said of the swimming spot, later to be named the Alex Duff Memorial Pool.
The paper decried the city’s low bid to purchase the Oakwood pool, “where Marilyn Bell learned to swim.” Instead, a private purchaser filled it in for a used car lot.
But the queen of them all, the Sunnyside pool, survived. In 1980 the bathing pavilion was renovated and Sunnyside pool was renamed the Gus Ryder Pool, in honour of Marilyn Bell’s swimming coach.
Today, Torontonians have 57 outdoor pools around Metro Toronto to beat the heat, as well as beaches and the Toronto Islands.
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