from “News ‘n Views” Vol XII No I, May 1973
- Created by: News ‘n Views, a City of Toronto Employee Union publication
- Date: 1973-05-01
- Provenance: From the collection of Ted English, digitized by Eric Zhelka
Barnacle William Bill Durnan
In the early eighteen-thirties, 1830s, James Durnan took up residence and ran the , Hanlan’s Point Lighthouse on Gibraltar Point at the south west corner of Toronto Island. James fathered a family famous in the Lake Life of Toronto Harbour. Today James’s great-great-grandson Bill is a member of Local 79 and is working Metro Roads and Traffic Department.
For the past several decades Bill has led a marine life; he’s a lean fit man in his middle years.
During the war, he and a couple of his Toronto buddies signed on with an American freighter before the days of the convoy system. His ship sailed alone through U-boat infested waters. On one trip to Rio de Janeiro, he counted seventeen wrecks that had been torpedoed and rested on the shoals off the U.S. Coast. “They seemed to hit the tankers worse than anything,” Bill told me, “I saw one tanker go down and there was an oil spill over the ocean a mile in diameter.” In the past two and a half decades Bill spent a dozen or so years operating a water-taxi in the harbour. One event which he will never forget happened in 1949. He was headed out toward the Western Gap carrying four passengers when he saw a red glow coming from the centre mainland. It turned out to be the passenger steamer S.S. Noronic which caught fire at Pier 9 at the foot of Yonge Street. Bill and his passengers turned and raced to the stricken vessel to aid in the rescue operations.
“It was an eerie scene, the sky was all red and you could hear the sirens from way off. Over a hundred and twenty people were burned to death; many were lucky enough to be able to jump overboard and we picked up nine of them all cold and shivering. It was really grim.”
Bill lives in an attractive cottage on a lagoon on Ward’s Island. Late last summer he invited Mo Todd and me over, and dined us on great big turkey legs and Scotch. It was a very enjoyable and relaxing evening. The cottage is filled with mementos from the past; collectors would drool over them; among them a ship’s compass from a Great Lakes sailing vessel, a nautical painting by his mother, inserted into a porthole. A collection of old rifles, pistols and bayonets covers the wall over the fireplace.
Bill let us browse through many other interesting things. I glanced through a ‘Handbook for Masters’; a book on Nautical Mathematics; and another book on his lineal descendants from 1800. The souvenirs are endless, life preservers from the Noronic and the Bluebell, a machine gun from a Hawker Hurricane, a clipping from the early nineteen hundreds honouring his grandfather George who ran the lighthouse for over half a century; and another news item with a picture of his cousin, Eddie Durnan, who became the American Sculling Champion in 1907.
After dinner we walked across the road to the dock where Bill keeps his two boats. He showed us over his tug, ‘The Chuckie Joe’, and then we sat and had a drink on board his shipshape little cabin cruiser, ‘The Sandra Sue’.
Bill loves animals and is quite an animal trainer. He has a cat named Spider. Spider eats and performs his duties to a miniature ship’s bell which hangs in the kitchen. On one bell Spider walks like clockwork to his plate; there he stands at attention until two bells, at which time he commences eating.
Bill also had a dog named Mike. Mike unfortunately got drowned in the lagoon a while ago. When he was alive, Mike had the honour of being the only dog allowed into the Queen City Yacht Club. He had this honour because he could play the piano. Bill had taught him. Mike, a mixture of German Shepherd and Spaniel, sat on the piano stool and banged away as long as members kept his bowl filled with beer.
Some of Bill’s relatives still have a boathouse on Hanlan’s Point: they rent boats and run water-taxis. The business dates back a hundred years. It was started before the time Bill’s grandfather George found the bones of the first lighthouse keeper buried in a box in the sand at the water’s edge. He was a friendly old German by the name of Muller. It is said that he was brutally murdered by some drunken soldiers from the blockhouse a mile north of the point. To this day, Muller’s ghost, it is claimed, can be heard at night climbing the stairs to light the lamp.
I asked Bill about the tale and he told me it was a lot of nonsense; I was hoping for a confirmation of the ghost tale, and I can’t help wishing that Bill had spun me a bit of a yarn.
It is a pleasant experience to work with Bill Durnan. Mo. Todd and I often
have lunch together; all who know him find him a very colourful man.