A 90-year old piece of Beaches history just resurfaced on Kew Beach

Published on Tuesday, 30th Oct, 2018 at 6:00am


The remains of a wooden groyne (a structure used to trap and retain beach sand) from 1929 reappears briefly from beneath the waves at Kew Beach, in this photo from October 14, 2018.

Photo: Beachify

The remains of a wooden groyne (a structure used to trap and retain beach sand) from 1929 reappears briefly from beneath the waves at Kew Beach, in this photo from October 14, 2018.


Earlier this month the remains of a wooden groyne from 1929 reappeared briefly from beneath the sand at Kew Beach. While it might not look all that impressive, the structure is a reminder of a nearly forgotten chapter in Beaches history, when houses lined the beach and the Lake threatened to sweep it all away.

People have always wanted to live near the water, so it’s no surprise that tents and cottages began springing up along our shoreline as early as the 1870’s. By the early 1900’s, permanent homes and businesses stood along shore of Lake Ontario from west of Woodbine all the way to Kew Gardens, and again from Lee Ave east to Scarboro Beach. Known simply as Lake Front, the homes fronted onto a boardwalk and a narrow stretch of beach.

Early beach-front homes in 1909, west of Woodbine Beach. When the buildings were first constructed, they stood back some distance from the shoreline.

Image: Toronto Archives

Early beach-front homes in 1909, west of Woodbine Beach. When the buildings were first constructed, they stood back some distance from the shoreline.

Woodbine beach in 1918.

Image: Toronto Archives

Woodbine beach in 1918.

Erosion and flooding have always been a problem along our shoreline. In years when the lake level is high, spring storms tend to flood large stretches of the beach and cause heavy erosion, as they did in 2017. Today the beach floodplain is largely parkland, but a century ago the shoreline was lined with private homes and businesses. By 1918 erosion had become a serious problem.

Kew Beach at the foot of Lee Ave, looking west. By 1918 erosion had become a serious problem.

Image: Toronto Archives

Kew Beach at the foot of Lee Ave, looking west. By 1918 erosion had become a serious problem.

The foot of Kenilworth Ave, looking east, 1918. High water and spring storms threaten to wash away a boathouse along this densely populated stretch of beach.

Image: Toronto Archives

The foot of Kenilworth Ave, looking east, 1918. High water and spring storms threaten to wash away a boathouse along this densely populated stretch of beach.

In 1929, a literal perfect storm would come together to change the Beach forever. It was unusually hot at the beginning of April 1929, with temperatures reaching 22° C (72° F). Heavy rains had pushed Lake Ontario up to 75.6 m (248 feet), only a few centimeters below the flood levels of 2017. Then, on April 1, 1929 a powerful storm blew up from the south. The Globe (later Globe & Mail) reported that Toronto Mayor Sam McBride spent several hours during the height of the storm at the beaches. "I never saw anything like it", Mayor McBride told the Globe. "I have seen some bad storms down there, but never one like this. Straight north rollers rode up on the shore. They seemed to swirl north of the houses into people’s backyards, filling the cellars as they receded. I was in houses where the water was right on a level with the living-room floor, and the cellar below was flooded".


The Toronto Star from April 1st, 1929, describing the damage and flooding from the powerful storm.

Image: TPL

The Toronto Star from April 1st, 1929, describing the damage and flooding from the powerful storm.

Storm surge from the April 1929 gales.

Image: Toronto Archives

Storm surge from the April 1929 gales.

As bad as the flooding and storm damage were on April 1st, the worst was yet to come. Just five days later on April 5, 1929 what the Globe called "Ontario’s worst flood" slammed Toronto and Southern Ontario, claiming 8 lives and causing more than $1,000,000 ($14.5 M in 2018 dollars) in property damage. The storm exacerbated the damage along Beach Front.

Woodbine Beach after the April 1 storm. A temporary wooden barricade is erected to stem the waves, as broken sidewalks litter the beachfront.

Image: Toronto Archives

Woodbine Beach after the April 1 storm. A temporary wooden barricade is erected to stem the waves, as broken sidewalks litter the beachfront.

The shoreline at Kenilworth, west of Kew Gardens, in May of 1929. Even on a calm day the waves lapped nearly to the doorsteps.

Image: Toronto Archives

The shoreline at Kenilworth, west of Kew Gardens, in May of 1929. Even on a calm day the waves lapped nearly to the doorsteps.

The foot of Lee Ave after the spring storms of 1929, looking east.

Image: Toronto Archives

The foot of Lee Ave after the spring storms of 1929, looking east.

The April 1929 storms were the final straw for the City. Unable to protect the homes from further flooding, and frustrated by private property blocking access to the beach, Mayor McBride and City Council decided to expropriate the land, tear down the houses, and create public parkland all along the beach front. The City also made plans to stabilize the rapidly eroding beach by erecting a series of groynes, structures built along the shoreline that interrupt water flow and limit the movement of sediment. Groynes create beaches or prevent them being washed away by wave action and longshore drift.

Within weeks of the April 1929 storms construction of the groynes had begun, even as the City began negotiating the expropriation of the houses lining the shore. Crews use a pile driver to construct a groyne near the foot of Kenilworth Ave in this photo from May 1929.

Image: Toronto Archives

Within weeks of the April 1929 storms construction of the groynes had begun, even as the City began negotiating the expropriation of the houses lining the shore. Crews use a pile driver to construct a groyne near the foot of Kenilworth Ave in this photo from May 1929.

Kew Beach at the foot of Lee Ave, November 1929.

Image: Toronto Archives

Kew Beach at the foot of Lee Ave, November 1929.

The groyne field extended from Woodbine Beach all the way to Lee Avenue. Woodbine Beach west of Waverley Rd, November 1929.

Image: Toronto Archives

The groyne field extended from Woodbine Beach all the way to Lee Avenue. Woodbine Beach west of Waverley Rd, November 1929.

A newly-installed groyne at the foot of Kippendavie Ave, June 1929.

Image: Toronto Archives

A newly-installed groyne at the foot of Kippendavie Ave, June 1929.

The remains of a similar groyne which appeared briefly in October 2018 near the foot of Waverly Ave.

Image: Beachify

The remains of a similar groyne which appeared briefly in October 2018 near the foot of Waverly Ave.

Construction of the groyne fields was completed by November of 1929. By the following summer the City had begun tearing down the homes along the shoreline, and by 1931 the beach was transformed. In 1932 Beaches Park officially opened to the public.

Woodbine Beach west from the foot of Waverley Rd, March 1931. All of the houses have been demolished and groynes line the beach.

Image: Toronto Archives

Woodbine Beach west from the foot of Waverley Rd, March 1931. All of the houses have been demolished and groynes line the beach.

Beaches Park from Waverley Road, looking west, August 5, 1931. Just two years after the April 1928 storms, and the beach has been transformed into a landscape more familiar today.

Image: Toronto Archives

Beaches Park from Waverley Road, looking west, August 5, 1931. Just two years after the April 1928 storms, and the beach has been transformed into a landscape more familiar today.

Beaches Park from Waverley Road, looking east, August 5, 1931.

Image: Toronto Archives

Beaches Park from Waverley Road, looking east, August 5, 1931.

Over the years, the groynes have done their job and extended beach back out into the water. Additional break walls and stone revetments have been added since then, but erosion continues to be a problem. In 2017 record high lake levels coupled with spring storms again caused extensive flooding and millions of dollars in damage, including $200,000 to shore up the Leuty Lifeguard Station. But that same erosion briefly exposed a chapter of forgotten history that ultimately led to the beach we know today.