The History of Muskoka, Ontario, Canada
The Muskoka District is located in Ontario, Canada. It is compromised of the townships of Georgian Bay, Muskoka Lakes, Town of Huntsville, Town of Bracebridge, Town of Gravenhurst, and Lake Of Bays. The Muskoka region and its tourism has in part thrived due to its amazing collection of rocky and rugged landscapes. The rocky base of the Canadian Shield is a visible exposure of the earth’s early formation revealed during the last ice age. Rock in the Muskokas has been dated back as far back as 1.5 billion years, it is part of the initial crust of the Earth.
The Muskoka region with its Canadian Shield is rich in its the natural beauty of lakes, vast forests and breathtaking views. The trees include black spruce, white spruce, jack pine, tamarack, poplar, white birch and balsam. There are over 1,600 beautiful fresh water glistening lakes making Muskoka a one of the most popular tourists destinations in the world.
The term Muskoka was first mentioned in records in 1615. The territory was mainly occupied by Algonquin and Huron tribes Indians. One of the earliest explorers to the region was Samuel De Champlain. The name Muskoka is assumed to come from the name of a Chippawa tribe chief called “Mesqua Ukee” which means “not easily turned back in the day of battle”. Mesqua Ukee signed the Muskoka area treaties between the Indians and Province of Canada.
In the beginning it was considered turning Muskoka into a large Indian reserve. However, Muskoka’s substantial forestry potential and the need to find locations for the large number of settlers in southern Ontario altered the idea. The Province of Ontario then started encouraging settlers to locate into Muskoka with the Free Land Grant and Homestead Act of 1868.
The Free Land Grand and Homestead Act transferred 200 acres of Muskoka land to families if they meet the following conditions. The party had to be 18 years or older, they wanted to use the land for settlement and cultivation. The settler would have to clear 15 acres of the land, build a 16″ by 20″ or greater house, live on the property for at least 6 months of a year for 5 years. Once the party did this, they would apply for a land patent and become the owner of the property. The Province of Ontario retained all mineral rights to the property, including trees and quarry stones.
The Province granted timber licenses to lumbermen on a settler’s land. The logger could then cut trees and build logging roads across a settler’s property. The Province of Ontario collected timber dues on all timber taken down in the area, even the settlers were charged this due if they cut down more timber than their allowance. This was so profitable for the Government of Ontario that the dues collected paid all the administration costs for the Province. The railway provided transportation for industry, lumber and shingle mills opened up, there were so many that 13 were located on Muskoka Bay alone. At a point, eventually the lumbermen cut down all the trees and put themselves out of business.
The railway reached Gravenhurst in 1875, then Bracebridge and finally reached Bala in 1907. Fortunately with the railways came easier access into the region for tourists.
As founder of the Muskoka Navigation Company, Alexander Cockburn played a large roll in the transformation of Muskoka into what it is today. At his death in 1905, it was one of the largest shipping companies in the country.
Cockburn in 1865, then Reeve of Eldon township in Victoria County, went for an excursion in Muskoka. He was awestruck be the scenic beauty of the region, and got the idea of a setting up cruises for the area. Cockburn approached the Government and asked that they build a lock at Port Carling to join Lake Muskoka and Lake Rosseau and a canal at Port Sanfield joining Lake Rosseau and Lake Joseph. He also wanted roads improved and built to the area. And if they did he would set up a Steamship to navigate the area.
By 1866, Cockburn had launched a steamship. He called it the Wenonah which in native Indian means “eldest daughter”. Cockburn also became a political representative for the region as a member of the Provincial Legislature and the in the House of Commons.
Also in 1866, Benjamin Johnston and his family settled in Muskoka. They built a house at Indian Village by the rapids on the river, which became the first post office in the region. Johnston also believed a canal to connect Lake Rosseau and Lake Muskoka would be good for the region. He set up a petition and had it signed by the area residents and took it to the Ontario Provincial Government. With his support of Cockburn, the completion of the lock and canal was completed in 1872. Cockburn then expanded his fleet of steamships and wrote tourist pamphlets to generate interest in the area.
One of the original steamships is still running in Muskoka. Originally built in 1887, in 1925 the ship was remodeled and renamed the Segwun which means “springtime” in Ojibway. In the late 40’s business continued to decline, the Segwun continued on but its run to Bracebridge and northern Lake Joseph were discontinued. In 1958 the steamships stopped running on the lakes. From 1962 to 1973 the Seqwun was used as a floating museum. The Segwun had run into ill repair and in 1973 was in danger of sinking and was restored by an organization called the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society. The Segwun once again began passenger cruises in 1981 and is still offering scenic cruises around the lakes.
The steamboat service in the area encouraged an American, William Pratt to build the first Muskoka luxury wilderness resort called Rosseau House on Lake Rosseau near the village of Hemsley, now called Rosseau. Vacationers came from across the world to visit the now famous Muskoka region, soon more resorts opened up. Rosseau House burned down in 1883 and was not restablished.
Windermere House started as the family home of Thomas Aitkens around 1869 and by 1890 had expanded to hold over 200 guests. Windermere House remained in the family until 1981 when it was sold to an investor group. In 1996 the hotel was destroyed by fire during filming of the movie “The Long Kiss Goodnight”. The new Windermere House was rebuild to look exactly like the original one and reopened in 1997.
Clevelands House was built by Charles Minett who acquired a free land grant in 1869. The house was originally called Cleeve Land after the name of the village Cleeve in England where he was from. When the hotel was having its first register the name was misspelled and has been called Clevelands House since. Still here today, the charming resort has been expanded and renovated over the years.
Enoch Cox and his family built a boarding house which could accommodate 30 guests in 1881 on land he purchased between Lake Joseph and Lake Rosseau at Port Sanfield. Seeing that visitors to Muskoka were increasing, they expanded and built Prospect House. By 1888 Prospect House could accommodate 300 people. Prospect House burned down in 1916 and was not rebuilt.
In 1901 the Muskoka Navigation Company built a luxury resort on Royal Muskoka Island called the Royal Muskoka Hotel. The hotel was very formal, guest were expected to be properly attired at all time. The elite from the area would come to the hotel for an evening of dancing or enjoy its fine golf course. The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1952 and not rebuilt. Land lots were sold and Cottages now are built on the grounds where this luxurious resort stood.
Deerhurst Inn was built in 1896 by Charles Waterhouse. At the time the only way you could reach the resort was by steamship. In its first year of operation the resort had only a couple guests, a few years later they were turning people away. The resort today is a year around resort offering accommodations and activities round.
With the stock market crash in 1929 and the resulting Great Depression tourism and travel to the Muskoka area dropped significantly due the loss of wealth for many and the concern that things would only get worse not better. Fortunately for the Muskoka area, World War II brought life back to the region. Businesses closed because of the depression opened again to help the war effort creating jobs. With these jobs, people started to vacation in the Muskokas again.
The area continued to grow in the years after the war. Improvements to roads made traveling to the area easy and the ability of people to afford their own boats to travel the area brought in more people leading us to Muskoka today.