Muskoka - Summer Fun with Canadian Flavour
New York has The Hamptons, Ontario has MuskokaCredit: wikipedia commons
What is it about the Muskoka region of Ontario with its rocky granite outcroppings, crystal clear lakes, towering white spruce, jack pines and poplar trees that has become synonomous with summer family fun bringing to mind those hot, lazy summer days of our youth that we all try to hang onto no matter what age we are.
The Muskoka region, situated about 200 kilometres north of Toronto, Canada encompasses the townships of Georgian Bay, the Muskoka Lakes, the Town of Huntsville, Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Lake of Bays and was first mentioned in 1615 when populated by the Huron
Credit: Google mapsand Algonquin Indian Tribes. Like many Canadian regions, the Muskokas were forged and created by settlers and their families intent on a better way of life and the promise of free land. Famous explorers like Sanuel de Champlain and John Graves Simcoe also viewed this rugged Canadian landscape as something special to be embraced.
The name Muskoka is an Indian term that comes from a Chippewa tribe chief Mesque Ukee (also written as Misquukkey) that means “not easily turned back in the day of battle” and it was he who created the treaty selling 250,000 acres of land to the Province. In 1868 the Free Land Grant and Homestead Act was created to encourage settling in this area and if a settler met the qualifications he was given his land after 5 years with the Province claiming all mineral rights, quarry rock and pine trees.
Lumber cutting was a huge and profitable business for those men granted licenses to cut wood on settler’s lands and the province collected dues which greatly fattened the government coffers. At this time the railways were built to enable tourists to come to the region.
Alexander Cockburn, often called the Father of Muskoka, was a reeve in Victoria County who explored thCredit: wikipedia commonse wild Muskoka region in 1865 and decided that this landscape dotted with lakes could benefit from a steamship. He created the Muskoka Navigation Company and promised a steamship on the lakes if the government would construct a lock at Port Carling to join Lake Muskoka and Lake Rosseau. He kept his part of the bargain and the Wenonah (meaning eldest daughter) steamship was launched in 1866.
In that same year a Benjamin Hardcastle Johnston built a house at Indian village beside the river rapids and this was to become the first post office in the area with Mr. Johnston as the first postmaster. He recognized that there was a need for a canal to connect Lake Rosseau and Lake Muskoka and petitioned the settlers in the area. With Mr. Cockburn as an ally, the petition went to the provincial government in Toronto and in 1871 - 1872 the canal was completed. The Muskoka region was on its way!
The Steamship Era on the Muskoka Lakes dates from 1893 to 1929, and his company operated 19 different steamers that sailed the Muskoka Lakes taking people, goods and mail to the various resorts and cottages from 1866 right until 1958. The original Wenonah was abandoned in 1886 to make way for newer vessels.
RMS Segwun - The Royal Mail Ship Segwun (meaning springtime in Ojibwa) Credit: segwun websitewas originally called the Nipissing II, built in Scotland in 1887 and moved to Gravenhurst for assembly as a wide-paddlewheel steamer She was the flagship for the Muskoka Lakes Navigation Company and her duties included carrying mail, passengers and supplies through the lakes after their arrival by train during this Golden Age of travel when comfort was paramount and graciousness abounded.
She was retired in 1958 along with RMS Sagamo and was a floating museum until 1968. The RMS Sagamo was burnt by fire in 1969. A dedicated group sought to restore the RMS Segwun her to her former glory; a challenge achieved by the Ontario Road Builders Association and completed in 1981. That same year, the Muskoka Lakes Navigation Company was revived to become a commercial operator for Segwun.
Today, the RMS Segwun once again sails from the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre at the Gravenhurst dock and, along with the the newly built Wenonah II, proudly escorts tourists and sightseers while offering dinner cruises and modern conveniences. The RMS Segwun remains to this day the oldest Royal Mail Ship in the world, one of only three left. She runs on coal brought all the way from Kentucky!
Credit: Segwun.comWanda III was commissioned and built for Mrs. Timothy Eaton of the Eaton department stores in 1915 . Her engine is of the same design as the engines built for the Canadian Navy Minesweepers during World War I, and her speed of 24 miles per hour was unparalleled at that time. Today she has been lovingly restored to peak condition and is available for private hire for up to 24 people. In August 1996, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien rededicated the Wanda III and the yacht once again began her trips and travels on the Muskoka Lakes.
RMS Segwun: The Life and Times of a Regal Queen
Muskoka Boathouses: Lakeside Guardians
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The Hotels: Denizens of the Domain
Credit: wikipedia commonsWith steamships in place, hotels like Rosseau, Royal Muskoka, Windermere, and Beaumaris began to spring up and by 1890 there were 19 hotels in the area, 57 by the turn of the century and 76 a few years later. The rough lumber and logging towns and shanties had been transformed and the tourists from Toronto, the USA and other countries flocked to this Canadian wilderness with just enough sophistication to tempt. Sadly, while some of these gracious denizens couldn't withstand financial crisis, fires or lack of patronage, others remain doing duty as guardians of the Muskoka lakes.
Windermere House as it stands today is a far cry Credit: By Bbadgett (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commonsfrom anything anybody could have imagined when young Thomas Aitken arrived from Scotland in 1860 to get over the grief of losing his young wife and child in childbirth. Aitken, like so many other settlers was lured to the Muskoka region with the promise of free land and a chance to make a fresh start. His first home was small but seeing a need for accomodation for travellers, by 1892 he had enlarged his home and had paying guests. Over the years it grew in size and by 1902 Windermere House could play host to over 200 guests and they spent the sunny summer days playing croquet, boating and playing board games on the long front porch. The hotel grew through the years and was managed by the family until 1981 when it was sold.
Tragedy struck this grande dame in 1996 when a fire broke out during the filming of A Long Kiss Goodnight and by morning there was nothing but smoke and ash left of this iconic landmark. One observer said that the fire was so hot that it even melted the porcelain sinks and toilets. Happily the hotel was rebuilt and kept just as it was with its stone pillars, massive white towers, striped awnings and red roof to stand proud alongside the Lake Rosseau waterfront. Today,Windermere House plays host to thousands who come to swim, boat, dine and enjoy a get-away with true Canadian laid back hospitality. And, for those guests who want a little something extra to enhance their stay, there is always the chance of connecting to the spirit of first owner Thomas Aitken whom, some say, has never left his beloved hotel and may be responsible for rocking chairs on windless porches, whispers, footsteps, a small vanishing child or a phone that rings from a non existent floor.
Credit: wikipedia commonsClevelands House, unlike so many of the other grand hotels that dotted the countless lakes, big and small, at the turn of the century, has managed to withstand the ups and downs of economic downturns, the ravages of fire and other disasters. When Charles Minett wanted to keep a small part of his British hometown heritage with him in 1883 with his hotel opening, he asked the printer to have the name Cleve Lands put on the register book. The printer made a mistake and printed Clevelands House instead and it has remained that way ever since. Charles Minett first built a small log house in 1869 putting his carpentry skills to good use. He began to enlarge it as more visitors arrived and once satisfied with those tasks, started on a boatbuilding enterprise. Because the Muskoka region was synonomous with water and water travel, the third story he built on his hotel with a mansard roof was created to look like a boat welcoming all who arrived by steamship, the only reliable transportation in the day.
Since 1969, the Cornell family has managed Clevelands House offering hospitality to thousands of tourists each season.
Credit: wikipedia commonsRosseau House, also known as Pratt's Hotel was, built by William H. Pratt and his wife Lucy in 1870 and is known as one of the first hotels on any of the Muskoka region Lakes to attract travellers and tourists. Sadly it burnt on October 6th, 1883 just 13 years after opening and was not rebuilt.
The Muskoka Mystique: Resistance is Futile
Star GazingCredit: By Muskokagirl (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cottage life, Muskoka style, has changed over the decades and has gone from the true wilderness camping and roughing-it-in-the bush existance in an almost unrecognizeable 360 degree turn. And, while many of the old family cottages remain, having been passed down through multiple generations, others have been sold and new "cottages" have been built with huge porches, restaurant quality kitchens, professional interior decorating and bedrooms aplenty have risen to take their place. Sadly, this boom in real estate has meant that many families who have owned property in this region for decades can no longer afford the increased taxes.
A Muskoka "cottage" is certainly a misnomer...mansion is the real word to describe these retreats where curb appeal really means waterfront appeal. And, while the houses are impressive, the boathouses, often filled with rare wooden speed boats, also boast kitchens, saunas, wet bars, living space and bedrooms to enjoy as you sit and watch the sunrise with the loons or the canoers glide bay at sunset.
Star gazing in the Muskokas isn't a new thing. As far back as the 1950's stars of the silver screen came for some steamboat cruising and to hang out at the Bigwun Hotel. Clark Gable, Carol Lombard were also guests and they might have danced to Duke Ellington or The Man himelf, Frank Sinatra. From 1941 to 1945 the Dutch Royal Family, including Queen Beatrix, summered there when they were in exile in Ottawa.Credit: By P199 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
In the 60's Americans Andrew Mellon and John D. Rockefeller and Canadian Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker all enjoyed their lakefront properties. Before that names like Eaton, Labatt and Bronfman were also "cottage" owners. Today barons of industry, dot.com magnates and sports stars aplenty all have homes on Lake Joseph in the Muskokas, now called Billionaires Row, its answer to Lake Muskoka's Millionaires Row.Credit: Photo by Larry Wright. Courtesy of Muskoka Tourismourtesy of Muskoka Tourism
Hollywood North In the past people like Steven Spielberg, Goldie Hawn, Bill Murray and Kate Hudson have been seen around and about along with Tom Cruise and former wife Katie Holmes, musician Kenny G and Cindy Crawford. Some own and some just come for a visit but over time, eventually the thrill dims and the stars are left alone in the restaurants, cafes and golf clubs. One restaurant even has a no autographs policy and some residents admit," We see them everywhere and nobody pays attention anymore."
Whether you get to the Muskoka region by driving north on the 400 highway from Toronto - a Thursday or Friday summer afternoon ritual for many - or arrive in your private Gulfsteam jet at the Muskoka airport - the Muskoka mystique and magic wrap its arms around you and resistance is futile.
However, the Muskoka region isn't just about summer fun; she has a few more tricks up her sleeve as the days shorten. In the autumn when the trees have dressed in their brightest red, yellow and orange finery, when the lakes are quieter and the roads less travelled, she takes on a new persona and shows off her more tranquil and placid side. Months later she transforms once again into a winter wonderland and her fir and pine boughs are elegant in mantles of heavy white draped like ermine shawls. She will remain like this until the warmth of March or April beckons her to re-awaken, come to life and get ready for her visitors once again.
The Ultimate Muskoka book
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Historical Fiction at its Best!
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