Grimsby Beach is a place that brings a huge grin to my face. It’s a true Ontario travel “secret”. It’s not a major tourist attraction by any means, and you won’t find any road signs to help you get there, either, but you’ll know you’ve arrived when you spot the flamboyantly coloured cottages that look like something out of a child’s painting.
A curious little neighbourhood on the shores of Lake Ontario boasts an intriguing past.
If you like gingerbread – the architectural kind that is, not the edible type – then you might want to take a detour the next time you’re rocketing down the highway between Toronto and Niagara Falls.
The detour you’re looking for is at Grimsby Ontario, a city of about 25,000 souls about halfway between Hamilton and the Falls. You should take exit 68 (Bartlett Avenue North) and head toward the lake. Turn left onto Lake and then right onto Betts. Here you'll find a series of narrow lanes like Temple Lane and Auditorium circle with a collection of the cutest little Victorian gingerbread cottages north of Cape Cod.
The cottages at Grimsby Beach come in a rainbow of colours, including pink, green, yellow, blue and purple – sometimes all of them on the same house. The buildings date back to the late 1800s when they were first used as summer cottages.
The history of Grimsby Beach goes way back to the mid-1800s when a group of Methodists started holding week-long religious revivals here in the summer. The area was known then as the Ontario Methodist Camp Meeting Ground and people would come and stay in tents on the grounds overnight and listen to preachers during the day.
As the event became more popular, and the revival grew to fill more weeks of the summer, the camp’s organizers saw the need for more comfortable housing. In 1875 they began replacing the tents with cute little board-and-batten cottages.
In 1888, the organizers erected a large auditorium or temple in the centre of the park. It could seat 7,000 people at a time, which gives you some idea of the popularity of the camp.
By this time, however, even non-Methodists were coming out to visit Grimbsy Beach, just to enjoy a day of picnicking and sport at the park. Grimsby Park (as it was also called) was becoming a popular beauty spot and summer day trip destination. Vacationers came by train, streetcar and ferries from Toronto, Hamilton and all over the Niagara Region to picnic and play along the shore of Lake Ontario. One of the biggest group picnics took place in 1906 when a large Emanicipation Day celebration was held in the park honouring the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
Grimsby Beach witnessed many new attractions over the years: two hotels, a restaurant, a heart-shaped garden, tennis courts, a sports field for football, lacrosse, quoits, and exercise programs. A professional photographer was on hand to take photos of guests for a fee. New speakers came too, not all of them religious, offering lectures on the arts, science and even self-help topics. People started calling it “the Chautauqua of Canada” after the American adult education movement of the late 1800s.
However, in 1909 Grimsby Park faced a crisis. The Methodist group managing the park went bankrupt.
Popular amusement for the masses
Almost immediately, however, the park was taken over by a new owner, an American who turned it into an amusement area for the masses. Harry Wylie added a midway, merry-go-rounds, a large roller coast and dance hall and casino. He even brought movies and live theatre to the park. The early Methodists must have been rolling in their graves.
However, Wylie’s success was fairly short-lived, because by the 1920s, Grimsby Beach was going downhill again and the crowds were heading elsewhere. Then a terrible fire in 1927 destroyed about 30 cottages. Around the early 1930s local residents (the Cottages’ Association) took over the park. The casino saw a bit of a revival during the big band era of the 1930s and 40s, though. Many of the other attractions shut down eventually but people still came to enjoy the natural scenery of Lake Ontario:
In 1959, this memorial cairn was placed in Auditorium Circle to mark the spot where the great temple had stood. It says: "The First Methodist Camp Meeting was held here in 1859."
When the Queen Elizabeth Highway bulldozed its way through the region it swallowed up a big chunk of the former park. It also effectively split Grimsby into two: the area north of the highway and the area south of the highway.
In the 1940s people started insulating their cottages and turning them into year-round homes. From then up until the 1980s the area went into decline. Several fires destroyed more of the fragile wooden cottages. It was only during the last couple of decades that people have started sprucing up the remaining buildings again.
Today Grimsby Beach is a quiet residential neighbourhood, in stark contrast to what it must have been like during its chaotic amusement-park days. Only a few memorials (a cairn, a bell) and these charming historic cottages remain to recall a very colourful past.
For more information
There’s a wonderful book called “Greetings from Grimsby Park: The Chautauqua of Canada” by Dorothy Turcotte that was published in 1985. It contains more about the Grimsby Beach story including many historic photographs.