Looking out across the waters of Lake Ontario never fails to fill me with a sense of calm and happiness. Something about the timelessness of the lake is appeasing; it is soothing to think of the lake as a constant in an ever-changing world. But the lake is not as constant as it seems - it has undergone many changes over the years as species have come and gone from its waters and people have moved along its shores. But, perhaps the most notable changes are those in our interactions with the lake over time.
Walking along the waterfront pathway at Breakwater Park, with the sun shining down on crowds of swimmers and sunbathers, it’s hard to image that swimming during the day was once illegal in Kingston. But an entry in the British Whig Newspaper stated that, according to a City Council ruling on June 27th, 1893, “public bathing should only be permitted from 5 to 7 o’clock in the morning and after 8:30 in the evening”. The newspaper also warned bathers to wear “a collar”, so as not to attract attention from those “prudish people who use a spyglass to watch bathers.”
Attitudes eventually changed and the lake became a popular place for Kingstonians to gather with family and friends. By the 1950s, Richardson Beach was one of the hottest swimming holes in town. People of all ages would flock to the water on a hot day to enjoy the lake and have a cold drink from the snack bar that was once housed in the limestone building by the beach.
In the 1970s, crowds at Richardson Beach began to dwindle as backyard swimming pools became more popular and people began to doubt the water quality in the lake. Nearly four decades later, the beach is starting to become more popular again and is soon to undergo a revitalization that will help return it to its former glory.
It’s hard to imagine that our attitudes towards Lake Ontario have changed so much over the years, but it’s important to recognize how our interactions with the lake shape our communities, and how our communities have grown with and around the lake. Knowing the history of our waterfront allows us to understand the impact Lake Ontario has had - and continues to have, on us.
This week Waterkeeper’s Kingston and Wolfe Island Culture Festival is hosting events that give you the chance to connect with the history of your great Lake Ontario.
Come out and learn something new - something spooky - something ancient - about our lake’s history. Because, how does that saying go - something about those who don’t know their history…?
Hannah McDonald is a Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Summer Student living in Kingston, Ontario. Visit www.waterkeeper.ca/culturefestival for more details on the Kingston and Wolfe Island Culture Festival events. The Wolfe Island Culture Festival is a celebration of Great Lakes Voices told through story and song. Events run from June 23 - August 12