5 Things for History Lovers to See and Do at the Muskoka Wharf

Posted On Monday July 13, 2020

This beautiful lakeside area in Gravenhurst is the perfect place to stroll the boardwalk, shop for unique gifts or enjoy a meal with a spectacular view of Lake Muskoka. But if you take a closer look you’ll uncover the hidden history that tells the real story of the Muskoka Wharf. So if you have a serious penchant for the past, or you’re just an occasional history buff, grab your friends and check out these cool historical experiences:    

  1. 1.     Cruise on a Steamship Built in 1887

That’s right, the RMS Segwun is over 130 years old and you can step into the past on a sightseeing cruise aboard this beautiful historical vessel. North American’s oldest operating royal mail steamship, this ship started life as a paddlewheel steamer named the Nipissing II. In 1924 the ship was rebuilt as a steamship and given the name Segwun, Ojibwa for “springtime”. The ship originally served to transport passengers, mail and freight from the Muskoka Wharf to cottages and resorts on the lakes. With the expansion of highways and increase in private automobiles after WWII, there was a steady decline in the need for steamboat transportation and the Segwun was officially decommissioned in 1958. Fortunately, this elegant vessel avoided deconstruction by being converted into a floating museum, and thanks to the efforts of steamship enthusiasts, the RMS Segwun now cruises the beautiful waters of Lake Muskoka.

Admire the gleaming woodwork and exquisite dining rooms on board and make sure to look up for a glimpse of the carved phoenix atop the pilothouse. This is a replica of the statue from the 1925 version of the Segwun. Listen for the long, low whistle and let your journey begin!

The Muskoka Steamships offer lots of cruising options on both the Segwun and her sister ship the Wenonah II. For a special treat book a mid-afternoon cruise narrated by a local historian accompanied by a delectable high tea served by the Blue Willow Tea Shop.

When you’re back on dry land, follow the boardwalk to find an Ontario Heritage Plaque commemorating the history of steamboating in Muskoka. [plaque image]

  1. 2.     Watch Volunteers Restore Wooden Boats

Since the 1860s the shoreline of Muskoka Bay has been the site of Gravenhurst’s storied nautical history. In addition to the hard-working steamships, two of the most significant boat building operations in Muskoka were located here: Ditchburn Boats and Greavette Boatworks. From pleasure boats and custom-designed racing boats, to livery boats that would whisk passengers around the lakes, boat manufacturing was big business at the Wharf. Today, if you stop by the Heritage Boatworks (located beside the Steamship ticket office), you can watch as a group of dedicated volunteers restore a variety of wooden boats and canoes. The beauty and craftsmanship of these antique wooden boats is celebrated every year at the Muskoka Wharf at the Antique & Classic Boat Show (hopefully returning in 2021).

Want more boats? Follow the boardwalk to the Discovery Centre and ogle the sleek and polished vessels on view at the Murrary Walker Grace and Speed Boathouse. The boathouse is home to North America’s largest in-water collection of antique and classic wooden boats.  

Although the boat manufacturers have long ceased to operate at the Wharf, their legacy lives on in many ways. On your way to the Discovery Centre, take a gander at the bright blue and yellow condos. These building are named “Ditchburn” and “Greavette” as a nod to the boat building history of the site.   

  1. 3.     Learn about A.P. Cockburn

The centre of activity at the Muskoka Wharf today is Cockburn Square. With its grand gazebo, spectacular view of the lake and nearby shops and restaurants, this is the place to be! But who is A.P. Cockburn? Alexander Peter Cockburn was one of our community’s most significant citizens. (Make sure to pronounce it “Co-burn” to avoid embarrassment and impress other history nerds!) He played an important role in the development of Gravenhurst and Muskoka through his many achievements in transportation, settlement, commerce, governance, and tourism. The re-naming of the square took place in June 2016 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the launch of Cockburn's first steamship, the Wenonah.

Now is probably a good time to grab a Starbucks from the Wheelhouse Café in the Shipyards Muskoka Marketplace or an ice-cream treat from PolarDip Ice Cream Shoppe and contemplate what the Wharf would have looked like when Cockburn first visited Gravenhurst in 1865. He was so delighted with the scenery and convinced of the region’s potential that he became a zealous champion of the North. He may have been on to something!

  1. 4.     Discover Indigenous History

Years before the first explorers came to the area, this was the traditional hunting and fishing territory of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation. In fact, it is generally believed that “Muskoka” is named after the Ojibwe Chief Musquakie (also known as William Yellowhead). Yet, the history of Indigenous people in Muskoka has not received much focus. This is changing. The Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre is developing new exhibitions and galleries to tell the Indigenous story – told by Indigenous people. The first new exhibit is called Water is Life. Led by the Chippewas of Rama, this is a collaboration between eight Indigenous groups that have a historical connection to Muskoka and the Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre. In addition, the new Stanley Meek Gallery will pay tribute to the steam era and will include a special Indigenous display celebrating the life and traditions of First Nations people during the period of 1830 to 1930.   

The Discovery Centre is open year-round and features exhibits about the early settlers and resorts of Muskoka, Watershed Wonders, a KidZone and is available for private events. You’ll also get a discount if you purchase a cruise ticket on the Steamships!

  1. 5.     Walk the Original Railway Line

Yes, there was a train too! Throughout its history the Wharf has been an incredibly busy hub of industry, manufacturing and transportation. The railway reached Gravenhurst in 1875 and shortly after a spur line was built to the lakeshore. Rail transportation brought visitors and cottage dwellers to the docks where they could board the steamships to take them to their destinations. Rail connection also supported the lumber industry as logs were flowed down the Muskoka River into Lake Muskoka, towed to the mills in Gravenhurst and then loaded on rail cars to be transported. By 1880 there were at least fourteen mills operating around Muskoka Bay. No surprise Gravenhurst became known as “Sawdust City”.

Pause near the public boat launch beside the Marriott Residence Inn and imagine the sights and sounds and bustle of activity at this historic port.

[image] Caption: Muskoka Wharf Station, built 1896

Now head to the Leo Heritage Trail which follows the former rail line between the Wharf and downtown. There may not be a train anymore, but you can take the same route on this lovely walk through forested areas on flat terrain. Check out all the great shops and restaurants in Historic Downtown Gravenhurst and if you’ve still got a hankering for more history be sure to see the sights on the Gravenhurst Heritage Walking Tour and learn about Norman Bethune at the world renowned Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site