History of Muskoka

Toll Free: 1-800-668-2333

History of Muskoka

Muskoka is a regional municipality in Central Ontario that extends from Georgian Bay in the west, to the northern tip of Lake Couchiching in the south, to the western borders of Algonquin Provincial Park in the east. It has a total footprint of 6475 KM2. Muskoka is commonly referred to as cottage country and features many resorts, country clubs, golf courses and marinas. The region was the number 1 searched Canadian destination for vacation rentals in 2017 as well as being ranked number 1 for best trips in 2011 by National Geographic.  


              The name of the municipality derives from a First Nations chief of the 1850’s. Lake Muskoka was then the hunting grounds of a troop led by Chief Yellowhead or Mesqua Ukie or Musquakie. Muskoka has 60,000 permanent residents, but an additional 100,000 seasonal property owners. Many of these seasonal properties are large mansion-like summer estates, some of which have been passed down through families from generation to generation. Most of these expensive properties can be found along the shores of Muskoka’s three major lakes, Muskoka, Joseph, and Rosseau. In recent years various, celebrities and sports stars have also built retreats in Muskoka. There are also a litany of summer camps in the area which take advantage of the multitude of lakes. These provide opportunities for canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, waterskiing and other water activities. 


            The history of the Muskoka region has been predominantly driven by geography. The land offers an abundance of fishing, hunting, and trapping but was poorly suited to farming. Largely the land of the Ojibwa people, European inhabitants ignored it while settling what they thought were more promising area south of the Severn River. The Ojibwa leader, “Mesqua Ukie” was well liked by the European Canadians, the tribe lived south of the region near present day Orillia, and used Muskoka as their hunting ground. Another Ojibwa tribe lived in the area of Port Carling, then called “Obajewanung”. This tribe moved to Parry Sound around 1886. Today there are 4 First Nations reserves in Muskoka: 

  • Wahta Mohawk Territory – an area used for hunting and fishing by Mohawk from the independent Kanesatake and Kahnewake reserves. 

  • Indian River – shared between the Wahta and the Chippewas of Rama First Nations 

  • Moose Point 79 

  • Chippewa Island – shared between the Beausoleil First Nation, the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation and the Chippewas of Rama First Nation 

           Until the late 1760’s, the European presence in the region was largely limited to seasonal fur trappers. Following the American War of independence, the British North America government feared invasion from its new neighbour to the south. In 1826, Lieutenant Henry Briscoe became the first European man known to have crossed the middle of Muskoka. The explorer David Thompson drew the first maps of the area in 1837 and possibly camped near present-day Beaumaris. 

           Canada experienced heavy immigration from the United Kingdom, and to a lesser extent, Germany during the 19th century. As the land south of the Severn was settled, the government planned to open the Muskoka region further north to settlement. Logging licences were issued in 1866 which opened Monck Township to logging. 


           The lumber industry expanded rapidly, decimating huge tracts of the area. Road and water transportation was developed and used later to facilitate town settlement. The Muskoka Colonization Road began construction in 1858 reaching Bracebridge in 1861. The road was roughly cut through from the woods and was of corduroy construction with logs placed perpendicular to the route to keep carriages from sinking in the mud and swamps. 

           The railroad pushed north to support the industry, reaching Gravenhurst in 1875 and Bracebridge in 1885. The lumbering industry spawned a number of ancillary developments, with settlements springing up to supply workers. Bracebridge (formerly North Falls) saw some leather-tanning businesses develop. Tanners used the bark from lumber to tan hides, turning what would otherwise be a waste product to effective use. 

           Passage of the Free Grants and Homestead Act of 1868 meant that settlers could receive free land if they agreed to clear the land, have at least 15 acres under cultivation, and build a 16ft x 20ft house. These settlers however found the going very hard, as clearing 15 acres of forest is an enormous task. Once the land was clear, settlers had to attack Muskoka’s signature rocks, which also had to be cleared. Consisting largely of dense clay, the soil in the region turned out to be poorly suited to farming. Due to these difficult conditions Muskoka began to falter. However, development of the steamship revived industry. In a time when the railroads had not yet arrived and road travel was notoriously unreliable and uncomfortable, the transportation king was the steamship. Once a land connection was made to the southern part of the lake in Gravenhurst, the logging companies could harvest trees along the entire lakefront with relative ease. Steamships gave them the way to ship the harvest back to the sawmill’s in Gravenhurst. 


           Sometimes called the father of Muskoka, Alexander Cockburn was responsible for placing many steamers on the Lake Muskoka. His first was the Wenonah, Ojibwa for “first daughter”. In 1866 Cockburn pressured the government to open the entire Muskoka lake system to navigation. He urged installing locks in Port carling, and opening a cut between Lake Rosseau and Lake Joseph at Port Sanfield. Due to the faltering agricultural plan the government was eager to reinforce development in the area and built the big locks in port Carling in 1871. Steamers now had access to the entire lake system, and when he died in 1905, Cockburn’s Muskoka Navigation Company was the largest of its kind in Canada. 

           After the arrival of Steamships another industry began to develop. In 1860 two young men, John Campbell and James Bain Jr, made a journey that marked them as perhaps the first tourists in the Muskoka region. They took the Northern Railway to Lake Simcoe, then took the steamer Emily May up the lake to Orillia, then rowed across Lake Couchiching. They continued to walk up the Colonization Road to Gravenhurst, where they vacationed. They continued to repeat this journey every year, bringing friends and relatives, thus increasing demand for transport services in the region. People were drawn by many of the same things they are drawn by today, fishing, natural environment, and an air free of ragweed, providing relief for hay fever sufferers. 

           Early tourists built camps, but were joined by others desiring better accommodations. Farmers struggling with the rocky soil soon found demand for overnight accommodations arriving on their doorsteps, and some made the switch quickly and converted to boarding houses and hotels. The first wilderness hotel, called Rosseau house, was built at the head of lake Rosseau in 1870. The idea caught on and the number of tourists increased, establishing the tourist industry as the up-and-coming money earner in the 1880s. 

           The steamship era gave rise to the area’s great hotels: Rosseau, Royal Muskoka, Windermere, Clevelands House, Beaumaris, and many more. With the railroad having reached Gravenhurst in 1875, the area grew rapidly, making travel from Toronto, Pittsburgh and New York City more a matter of expenditure than endurance. Travellers and their luggage would be transferred from the trains onto the great steamers of the Muskoka Navigation Company, such as the Sagmo. From these larger sips tourists could transfer to smaller ships such as the Islander which allowed access to smaller ports. Improving transportation links opened the upper Muskoka lakes (Fairy, Vernon, Mary, Peninsula, and Lake of Bays) to tourism around the turn of the 20th century, with steamers out of Huntsville servicing hotels like Deerhurst on Peninsula Lake. The Portage Railway between Peninsula and Lake of Bays enabled easy access to Lake of Bays resulting in the blossoming of tourism on the Lake. Approximately 21 hotels sprung up on the lake, among them notably the Wawa and Britannia perhaps culminating in the Bigwin Inn. 

           These hotels became the centres of wealthy vacationers’ lives, and families conducted extended stays that could stretch for weeks or months in the summer. As these families became seasonally established, they began building cottages neat the hotels; at first simple affairs replicating the rustic environment of the early camps, later they built grander homes, including in some cases, housing for significant domestic staff. In the era of the steam and gasoline launch, tourists relied less on muscle power and more on motors. This allowed the wealthier summer people to build boathouses, often elaborate structures in their own right, in many cases designed with the look and feel of the main “cottage”. 

           In 1877, the Nipissing II was built in Glasgow, Scotland and assembled in Gravenhurst, Ontario. This steamship plied the lakes of Muskoka for decades before it was decommissioned in 1914. In 1924, the vessel was outfitted with twin propeller engines and in 1925 was relaunched with an Ojibwe name, Segwun, meaning “springtime”. The Royal Mail Ship Segwun is still in operation today in Gravenhurst. 

           World War 1 caused a significant dip in the tourist activity of the area and consequently the economy. Post war significant advances in the automobile brought increased demand for paved roads. With motorboats and private cars, greater development to the area was available due to the lack of reliance on major landings. Freed from the ports of call of the steamships, people built cottages farther afield. 

           Demand also increased for air transportation. The earliest runways of Muskoka Airport were laid out in 1933, with the airport being intermittently upgraded. It was strategically used during World War 2 as a training field for the Norwegian Air Force after the Nazi occupation of Norway. Wartime shortages kept many Americans at home and many Canadians were engaged in war activities. The prosperity associated with post war North America brought another boom based around the availability of the automobile, improved roads, and the newly affordable fiberglass boat. This allowed owning a cottage for the middle class as well. They travelled by private automobile causing the steamship companies to retire their ships one by one until the last sailing in the 1950s. 

           The District of Muskoka was formed from unorganized territory which was only partially surveyed into geographic townships by 1868. Surveying was completed in the coming years, and most, but not all, townships became organized municipally. The first townships were organized in 1869. In 1970, four geographic townships still existed in the district. In 1873, the organized townships were formed into a municipality similar to a county, known as the “Municipal Corporation of the District of Muskoka”. The District, unlike a county in Ontario, did not initially have the status of being a separate judicial district. This persisted until 1888 when it became part of the “United Provisional Judicial District of Muskoka and Parry Sound”, but it did have its own District Court and Surrogate Court. This would continue until 1899, when Muskoka and Parry Sound were divided into separate provisional judicial districts. The present day district was formerly established as an upper-tier municipality in 1971 consisting of the following municipalities: 

  • Town of Bracebridge 

  • Town of Gravenhurst 

  • Town of Huntsville 

  • Township of Georgian bay 

  • Township of Lake of Bays 

  • Township of Muskoka Lakes 


           We at HRC Insurance hope that with this blog we have provided you with a brief history of the Muskoka region. The region is one of the most visited in Canada and also one of the most beautiful. We hope that you enjoy your time here in Muskoka and learn to love it as much as we do! 


Recent News

Feb, 2021
Failing to properly insure your cottage or vacation property may turn out to be a rather costly, should you not be properly protected.
Sep, 2019
We at HRC Insurance thought we should inform you that you may not need this coverage and you might be able to save some money by dropping one.
Sep, 2019
Do I need Tenant Insurance for Students? As always be proactive and stay safe! Good Luck at School! Hutcheson, Reynolds & Caswell.