The Durnans of Toronto Island: Over 170 years on Toronto Bay

by JaneFairburn on October 13, 2013

You might recall that I promised to provide you with more information on the Durnan family of Toronto Island, whose roots extend back to the earliest days of European habitation on the sandy strand, when the little town of York was a mere outpost on the fringe of a vast and imposing wilderness. The Durnan family, immigrants from Belfast, Ireland, found their way to the Island in 1830s. The patriarch of the clan, James, became the third keeper of the Toronto Island lighthouse in 1832 at a time when the Island, and by extension the Toronto shore, had by no means emerged from its pioneer period.

Toronto Island lighthouse, as it appeared c. 1907. Toronto Public Library, Owen Staples, JRR 472

Robertson’s Landmarks record the remembrances of James’s son George, who  became the fourth keeper of the light in 1853. He remained in that position for well over fifty years, relinquishing his post shortly before his death in 1908. George Durnan recalled that from 1834 to 1840, Aboriginal people still occasionally camped on the Island. As reported in the Landmarks, “these children of the forest were fond of milk, and often came to the light keeper’s door and asked for a pitcher full and were seldom refused, if there was milk to spare.” The nineteenth century Durnans were likely unaware that their Aboriginal neighbours, the Mississaugas, held the Island (in their language, Menecing)  to be a sacred place of healing ― a place to be born, and a place to die.

Toronto Island lighthouse keeper George Durnan, 1853 to 1905, being interviewed by publisher John Ross Robertson, June, 1907, at the Evening Telegram, the art room, July 6, 1907.

During the years of George Durnan’s tenure, Toronto Bay became a bustling hub of industry, commerce, and recreation. The Durnans and their kin were at the centre of all that. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Toronto Island produced several scullers of national and international renown, including the great four time world champion, Ned Hanlan. Hanlan’s sister, Emily, married ‘Boathouse John Durnan’, a son of the original lighthouse keeper James Durnan. Ned Hanlan’s nephew, master boat builder Eddie Durnan, was champion oarsman in America from 1912 until his death in 1928.

Here is Eddie Durnan’s daughter, Hester Durnan, in his hand-crafted iceboat, c. 1920s. Courtesy Ted English and John Durnan Hudson.

Eddie Durnan’s son, John Hanlan Durnan, was also a Canadian champion oarsman. The last proprietor of the fabled Durnan’s boathouse, he crafted his own canoes, rowboats, and punts in his boathouse workshop that overlooked the Lagoon. Most of these beautiful vessels were sadly lost when the Island community was decimated in the 1950s.

Below is a marvelous photograph of John Hanlan Durnan’s father Eddie in his prime at Hanlan’s Point. The image was generously shared with me by his grandson, John Durnan Hudson, and his grand-nephew, Ted English. I love the painterly quality of this young athlete out in the Bay on a summer’s day.

Eddie Durnan in racing shell, Toronto Bay, c. 1890s. Courtesy Ted English and John Durnan Hudson ©

Eddie Durnan, John Hanlan Durnan, and Ned Hanlan himself were by no means the only members of their large family group to achieve sporting excellence. Another cousin, also a Canadian champion sculler, was local Toronto osteopathic physician, “Doc” Durnan, who, in his late seventies, would entertain the regatta crowd, by pressing up into a headstand in his rowing shell on the water! Bill Ronald Durnan preferred icy, rather than liquid surfaces, tending net for the Montreal Canadiens from 1943 to 1950, and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1964.

Water, whether in its liquid or frozen form, has loomed large in the life of the Durnan family over the generations. The original ‘Boathouse John Durnan’, husband of Emily Hanlan, established Durnan’s boathouse on the edge of the Lagoon at Hanlan’s Point in 1870, according to great-grandson Ted English. Boathouse John drowned out in the Bay in 1874 ―  the circumstances of the drowning remain somewhat of a mystery. Many Durnans performed dramatic rescues in Toronto harbour, such as the incident in February 1922, when American champion Eddie Durnan, along with his son John, cut down the sheet rope of their iceboat and inched themselves over 400 feet of paper thin ice to rescue a man floundering in the icy waters. As the Evening Telegram reported, “As the drowning man was getting weaker and weaker, it was only by the presence of mind of the Durnans begging him to put the rope in a better position that they were able to get him on the ice. While the Durnans at this time were more or less exhausted and the man unconscious on the ice… he was dragged slowly foot by foot until the heavy ice was reached.” Both Durnans were awarded the Royal Humane Society’s award for lifesaving on that particular occasion.

With no means of transportation to the mainland in winter prior to the introduction of ice breaking tugs in the 1930s, many Durnans became expert iceboaters. American champion Eddie Durnan was one of Toronto’s premier iceboat builders. John Summers, in his article “The Coldest Sport in the World: Iceboating in Toronto Harbour, 1824-1941”, points out that Toronto retained its own unique style of steered from the stern, lateen-rigged iceboat, until the sport all but disappeared from the Bay in the 1940s. You can also read more about iceboating on the Bay and the remembrances of long time Islanders in Along the Shore.

With a scandalous lack of regard for the past, the City of Metropolitan Toronto succeeded in obliterating the Island communities on Hanlan’s Point and Centre Island by the mid-1950s. Along with the death of the communities came the wanton destruction of numerous heritage buildings and crumbling estates of Toronto’s wealthy elite of an earlier era. By the early 1960s, many former Islanders had been absorbed into the fabric of the city, but Durnan’s rustic boathouse, a landmark on the Island since 1870, remained on the edge of the Lagoon, though eerily silent. I’m told that a crane parked at Mugg’s Island, armed with a wrecking ball and threatening violence, slowly crossed the Lagoon to Durnan’s boathouse one morning in the early 1960s. Without further adieu, it ripped into and systematically dismembered one hundred and ten years of history, that now lie buried under the earth.

Durnan’s boathouse, 1932. Courtesy Ted English ©. City of Toronto Archives, F1232_it1154

The end of an era ― gone but not forgotten

Though the vast majority of Durnans had left Toronto Island before the destruction of the boathouse, Bill Durnan, great-grandson of the original Durnan lighthouse keeper James, opted to remain. His home was fitted out with all the accoutrements you might expect of a fellow with pioneer lineage and an impressive marine heritage that spanned almost two centuries: a Great Lakes ship’s compass, life preservers from long gone Island ferries and ship wrecks, and antique bayonets, muskets and rifles. When Bill died in 2003, it signaled the end of an era in the life of the Island. The Durnans had had a great run, but they had moved on. You can still go and visit Bill and all the Durnans with fond memories though ― his commemorative bench sits on Ward’s Island, overlooking the Bay.

Bill Durnan’s bench, Ward’s Island, Toronto Island. Courtesy Ted English ©

Many thanks to Ted English who assisted me with the preparation of this article.
M. Jane Fairburn ©, 2013

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew Copeman November 14, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Thank-you so much for this article.
I am Bill Durnans great-nephew…his younger brother, Gordon was my grandfather. I am so disappointed in the city of Toronto for not allowing uncle Bill’s house to remain in our famliy. I hope to take my girls to the Island one day and get a nice picture on the bench.

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james john durnan October 24, 2014 at 6:37 am

Hi my name is James John Durnan as you well know our name is not a common one. I’ve been trying to do the Durnan family tree, but not gotten very far. My grandad on the Durnan side. He died long before i was born. My father dosen’t know much about the family. I have traced as far back as Ireland. The other Durnans’ I have found, all have different ways of spelling the name. I would be most grateful for any assistance in my search for my family tree and history of past generations. Maybe in some way we are related?

Many kind regards

James John Durnan

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mary ann durnan April 3, 2017 at 6:41 pm

I am just now seeing this link. have you had any luck with your search? what are your father’s and grandfather’s names? there are Durnins around who aren’t directly related to us.

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Diane Durnan Jennings June 25, 2017 at 7:34 pm

please connect so we can discuss further- father was James Frederick Durnan 1906-1989 Toronto born and raised

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Linda Durnan Tenney January 4, 2018 at 12:09 am

Hello Mary Ann … I’m taking a chance that you’ll see this note someday soon. I’m hoping to connect with you to confirm my ancestry and connection to the Island Durnans. A recent DNA match indicates a surprising connection to two descendants of the Island Durnans but I need confirmation. Looking forward to chatting with you about the family and the missing link in my family tree. ~ Linda

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Sheila (Durnan) Walker Hartwell February 16, 2018 at 3:22 pm

Hello! I am a decendent of the Toronto Island Durnans and own a copy of the Lineal Descendants of James Durnan, recorded by a grandson, Walter W. Durnan in 1945. It begins with James Durnan (1880-1835) in County Derry, Ireland, ending with my brother Paul born in 1942 and me born in 1945.

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Linda Durnan Tenney March 10, 2018 at 7:10 pm

Hello Sheila … Thanks for getting in touch. Do you have any information earlier than that? I’m looking for a connection that will likely be pre-1800 and earlier. Specifically, I’m looking for the parents and siblings of James Durnan b. 1798. He was lightkeeper on Toronto Island and George Durnan’s father.

The last direct Durnan ancestor that I can find documentation for is my great-grandfather, Joseph Durnan b. 1845 in Ireland. The information I have is scant but the DNA match to two Island Durnan descendants is a clue. ~ Linda

JaneFairburn March 11, 2018 at 9:27 pm

Hello everyone! I’m so happy that you’ve all found each other through this Blog on the Durnans of Toronto Bay — another rich reward from having written Along the Shore.

Brian Clark February 27, 2015 at 11:02 am

I grew up on Hanlan’s Point. MY uncle, Jim Stewart was the Chief Engineer of the Filtration Plant at Gibraltar Point.
In my early teen years, I worked for both John Durnan and Bill Durnan.
I had a summer job at John’s Boathouse helping rent those wonderful boats as well as bicycles Monday to Friday. In between time John and I painted the entire boathouse with Marine Paint. I painted Bill’s picket fence at the home he used to live in on Hanlans Point on Hiawatha.
I often recall those two men who I greatly admired and taught me lessons that I still treasure to this day.

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Grant Austin April 30, 2017 at 10:00 pm

Hello,
I am the grandson of Helen Mary Durnan. Does anyone have any genealogy that mentions Helen or her sister Ruth Durnan, or her brothers Edward Durnan or Fred Durnan?
Thanks

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Diane Durnan Jennings June 25, 2017 at 7:32 pm

Please connect I too am a Durnan, my father was James Frederick Durnan 1906-1989. My dad was born and raised in Toronto as were his parents

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Linda Durnan Tenney March 10, 2018 at 7:20 pm

I’ve just clued into who you are referring to, Diane. I believe you must be my 2nd cousin!

– Your father, James Frederick Durnan, is my 1st cousin, 1x removed. Macie Sophia Bowyer was your mother. Correct?

– Your grandfather, Frederick Joseph Durnan, is my great uncle

– Your great-grandfather, Joseph Durnan, is also my great-grandfather.

Feel free to contact me directly via email – silkwing@shaw.ca

Linda

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Bill Matthews January 3, 2018 at 9:28 am

Just came across this after the article about the Gibraltar lighthouse in the CBC yesterday. My grandfather was Bill Durnan, the hockey player. Still a batch of us “mainlander” Durnans in town. 🙂 Ironically, I’m now on Queen’s Quay (near-islander?) and try to get out to the island at least once a season. I was there for the Durnan reunion that Mr. English helped put together a number of years ago now when then lighthouse was rededicated.

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Diane Durnan Jennings February 19, 2018 at 11:12 am

On cleaning out a cupboard this am (Family Day Feb.19/18) I came
across Jane’s wonderful article on the Durnans. My brother David &I
went over to Ireland a few years ago to Inniskillen(sp?) in the county
Fermanaugh and found the Durnan name in their book of records. Does
anyone else have connections to this group?.
I grew up in Mimico…why that pic of a Mimico Insane asylum?

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Kim March 26, 2018 at 9:30 pm

I am looking for info on my grandfathers sister, her name was Helen Julia Oliver but married a Gordon Durnan. If this sounds familiar to anyone please feel free to contact me. I have been searching for my grandfathers family for quite some time

Reply

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