Our History - Town of Gravenhurst

old photo of main street

Our History

Gravenhurst's heritage runs deep, dating back to the 19th century. With lumber being high in demand, settlers began coming to Muskoka for the bountiful forests. Lumberyards and railways were built around 1875 to transport lumber to other parts of the province.

Eventually, lumber mills were flourishing along the shorelines of the lake, and the railway started carrying passengers traveling into Gravenhurst and Muskoka to enjoy the tranquil lakes and forests of the region. Hotels and resorts were built throughout the lakes and a booming tourist trade developed. To transfer guests to and from these resorts, a huge boat building industry began.

Muskoka Wharf is the homeport of the R.M.S. Segwun. Built in 1887, it is the oldest operating steamship in North America. The Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre is also located at the wharf, chronicling and showcasing the history of development in the area. Antique boats are also on display, featured in the Grace and Speed boathouse.

In 1887, fire destroyed most of Gravenhurst's buildings in the center of town. Most of the older buildings that remain today were built after this time. In the same year, Gravenhurst was incorporated as a town. A plaque, listing all the reeves and 24 mayors of Gravenhurst since incorporation, is mounted on a large granite boulder in the Mayor's Garden at the current municipal office building.

In 1896, Gravenhurst became a haven for tuberculosis patients. As doctors prescribed plenty of fresh air and quiet relaxation, several hospitals and sanatoriums were built along the shore of Lake Muskoka.

On the ground of the Ontario Fire College, remains Scott Memorial Hall. Built in 1915, the building was originally called Massey Hall after the family that donated much of the money to see it built.  It was renamed Scott Hall when the property was acquired by the Ontario Fire Service, in honour of  W.J. Scott, the Fire Marshal of Ontario who first had "a fire college" enshrined in legislation in this province in 1949.

In 1901, the Opera House was built to house the town offices and council chambers, as well as the Magistrates Court and provide a venue for live entertainment. Today, it is the home of live theatre and concerts, dance recitals, meetings and weddings.

In 1922, the Carnegie Library was built with funds from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation. Until this time, the Library Association stored books above various stores on the main street. Our current library, built in 2000 and located on the same property, houses the Gravenhurst Archives. The archives are accessible to the public and staffed by six volunteers. The former Carnegie Library is now the Carnegie Arts Centre, and is home to fitness classes, art classes, children's drama camp and other Town-run programs.

Built in the 1880's, the house at the corner of John St. and Hughson St. was the manse for the Presbyterian Church. Reverend Bethune's son Norman was born here in 1890. Norman Bethune went on to become a surgeon and achieved great recognition for his achievements in the medical world for his invention of medical tools and mobile blood transfusion units. For his pioneering ways, Bethune was hailed as a hero, especially in China.

The Government of Canada bought the church manse in 1973 and restored to its 1890 appearance, and declared it a National Historic Site. It is operated today by Parks Canada with a Visitor Centre, artifacts such as some of the instruments invented by Bethune, displays and documentary films in three languages. Visitors can tour the house, decorated and furnished, as it would have been in the late 19th century, complete with articles owned by the Bethune family.

Several of the original churches, homes and downtown buildings still remain in Gravenhurst today. Many are designated as historic buildings and maintained to their former glory. Buildings such as the train station, the post office, the Albion, St. James Anglican and Knox Presbyterian churches, buildings in the downtown core and the homes along Bay St. are evident reminders to residents and visitors of the history of Gravenhurst.

The jurisdictional boundaries and municipal names of the Town of Gravenhurst have changed and amalgamated over time. For example, on January 1, 1885, the United Townships of Morrison and Muskoka was incorporated through Simcoe County By-law 139. The townships were separated under County By-law 170 passed on June 19, 1868. However, the Township remained part of Simcoe County until 1888 when it became part of the District of Muskoka under Ontario Statutes 1888, Chapter 13. In 1970, the Township of Muskoka was dissolved and annexed to the Town of Gravenhurst and the Town of Bracebridge under the District Municipality of Muskoka Act, Ontario Statutes 1970, Chapter 32. (Source: Archives of Ontario)