Steamship Era

A gentleman by the name of Alexander P. Cockburn is responsible for a good deal of what Muskoka is today. Mr. Cockburn was the founder of the Muskoka Navigation Company which at the time of his death, in 1905 was one of the largest in the country.

In the autumn of 1865 Mr. A.P. Cockburn then Reeve of Eldon township in Victoria County and his companions set about to explore Muskoka. The scenic beauty inspired him and set in motion the idea of bringing steam navigation to the area. Upon his return he sent his friend the Hon. Thomas D'Arcy McGee a report outlining this vision of the area. He had promised to place a steamship on the lakes if the government would improve navigation by building 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.

Mr. Cockburn went ahead with his plan and started construction of a steamship that was launched in 1866 and called the Wenonah which to Indigenous people means "eldest daughter". Mr. Cockburn became a political representative for the region as a member of the Provincial Legislature and the in the House of Commons.

Around the same time a gentleman by the name of Benjamin Hardcastle Johnston and his family settled in Muskoka in 1866 building a house at an Indigenous Village by the rapids on the river. The house became the first post office and Mr. Johnston its first postmaster. Mr. Johnston also saw the need for a canal to connect Lake Rosseau and Lake Muskoka. He took up a petition and had the settlers from around the lake sign it. He then took it to the provincial government in Toronto. Mr. Johnston had Mr. Cockburn as an ally in the government. The completion of the lock and canal occurred in 1871-72. Mr. Cockburn then expanded his fleet of steamships and wrote tourist pamphlets to generate interest in the area. Mr. Cockburn had a steamer in 1877 that was set a float from Port Sydney, it ran trips to Huntsville and also on Vernon, Fairy and Mary Lakes and in 1878 he had a boat called the Dean that ran out of Baysville.

Today's Boat Cruises

One of the original steamships is still running in the area. The Segwun was originally built in 1887 and was called the Nipissing II at which time she was used as a Royal Mail Ship. 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. By the mid 50's the Sagamo meaning "big chief" and the Segwun were the only two steamships still in service. In 1958 the steamships stopped running on the lakes. The Sagamo was sold in 1962 and turned into a restaurant which was docked on Muskoka Bay and later went up in flames on January 10th, 1969 when they were repainting her. The Segwun from 1962 to 1973 was used as a floating museum displaying memorabilia about the area including photographs, maps and more. The Segwun had deteriorated over time and in 1973 was in danger of sinking so it was restored and a new organization by the name Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society was created and took title to the Segwun. The Segwun began passenger cruises in 1981 and is still used today for taking passengers for scenic and romantic cruises around the lakes.

Another boat that cruises the lakes is the steam yacht WANDA III it was the fastest on the muskoka lakes. It was built in 1915 for Mrs. Margaret Eaton wife of Timothy Eaton the founder of Eaton department stores. She sold the boat to C.O. Shaw who used the boat for the Bigwin Inn on the Lake of Bays. In 1993 the Muskoka Steamboat and Historical Society retained ownership and refurbished the yacht, it began taking charters in 1996. There is also a more modern cruise ship launched in 1964 which is not a steamboat available for trips around the lakes named Lady Muskoka.


The steamboat service in the area encouraged an American, Mr. William H. Pratt to build the first Muskoka summer luxury wilderness resort known as Rosseau House at the top end of Lake Rosseau near the village of Hemsley, now know as Rosseau. Guests came from as far away as England and the southern United States. Soon others were building similar resorts around the lakes. Rosseau house burned in 1883 and was not rebuilt.

Windermere House started as the family home of Thomas Aitkens around 1869. He would put up sports men who came to the area. The small family home by 1890 had expanded so that the main house and surrounding cottages could hold over 200 guests. The cost was approximately $1.50 per day to stay at the resort. Windermere House remained in the family until 1981 when it was sold to a group of investors. In February 1996 the hotel was destroyed by fire during filming of the movie called "The Long Kiss Goodnight". Windermere House was rebuild to look exactly like the original one and reopened on May 31, 1997.


Clevelands House was built by Charles James Minett who took the government up on its free land grant in 1869. The house was originally called Cleeve Land after the name of the village Cleeve in England where he had come from. When the hotel was having its first register printed the name was misspelled and has been called Clevelands House ever since. The resort has been expanded and renovated over the years but still holds its traditional Muskoka charm today.

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. Realizing that visitors to Muskoka were increasing they expanded and Prospect House was built. By 1888 Prospect House could accommodate 300 people, offering tennis, ballroom, sandy beach and more to entertain its guests. The resort burned in the fall of 1916 and was not rebuilt.

In 1901 the Muskoka Navigation Company built the Royal Muskoka Hotel, a luxury resort on Royal Muskoka Island. The hotel was quite formal, guest were expected to be properly attired at all times, the hotel had its own golf course. Society types from around the lake would come to the hotel for an evening of dancing. The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1952 and not rebuilt. The land was divided into lots and sold. Cottages now are built on the grounds where this once 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 two guests, two years later they were turning people away. The resort today is a fully winterized facility offering accommodations and things to do all year round.

The Late 1920's and Onward

October 26th, 1929 the day the stock market crashed signaled the beginning of what is known as the Great Depression. During this period tourism and travel to the area dropped due to the fact people didn't have or want to spend money for fear things would only get worse not better.

World War II brought life back into the area. Factories closed because of the depression opened again to help the war effort creating jobs. People started to vacation in the Muskokas again because European vacations were not an option. They could travel to the area by train and take steamship cruises and not be effected by rations on oil and gas.

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 personal watercraft brought more and more people to the area bringing us to what Muskoka is today.