Spotlight on: A Brief History of the Muskoka Region

October 26, 2021

The Muskoka region is known as one of, if not the most popular Canadian vacation destinations. More than that, spanning more than 2,500 square miles of nature and roughly 1600 lakes, the area is a beautiful place to call home. While we know it’s now one of the most popular places to buy a cottage in Ontario, less know of its beginnings. Where did it all start, and why is Muskoka important to Ontario?

The history of Muskoka is rich in its Canadian roots. Rocks in Muskoka have been found to date back 1.5 billion years. One of the first recorded mentions of the region dates to 1615, when the land was occupied by the Indigenous people like the Algonquin and Huron tribes. It’s thanks to these Indigenous people that we even have the name Muskoka.

What’s in a Name?

The name Muskoka is believed to be derived from an Ojibwe chief at the time, Mesqua Ukee, which translates to “not easily turned back in the day of battle.” It was Mesqua Ukee who signed treaties between the province and the first nations people that allowed for the sale of 250,000 acres of land.

The Free Land Grant and Homestead Act

Initially, the land was to be used to create a large indigenous reservation. However, these plans changed after the government realized the value of Muskoka’s timber supply and an influx of immigrating settlers into southern Ontario.

Getting land in the area was slightly different from hiring an experienced Muskoka real estate agency as you would today. Instead, to encourage settlers to come to the area, the Free Land Grant and Homestead Act were created in 1868. This act granted settlers 200 acres of land, more if the land was rocky. There were some conditions to be granted this land. For starters, applicants needed to be at least 18 years of age and needed to use the land for either settlement or cultivation.

Secondly, the settler needed to clear 15 acres of land and build a house at least sixteen by twenty feet. Third, they needed to live on the property at least six months out of the year over the next five years.

Lastly, it had to be understood that the province retained the rights to all minerals and trees within the area. Once these conditions were met, the settler could then apply for a patent and become the official owner of the estate.

A Tree Falls in the Woods

Muskoka is rich in forestry, so it’s no surprise that the logging industry was drawn to the area for its trees, such as pine, spruce, and balsam. The province granted licenses for loggers and lumbermen to cut trees in the area and build logging roads as they saw fit.

As the province retained the right to these trees via the Free Land Grant and Homestead Act, these loggers could chop down trees on any settler’s property without requiring their permission. While this industry was remarkably profitable, it grew too much too fast with not enough regulations in place. Eventually, the lumbermen put themselves out of business due to over deforestation.

Steamships and Tourism

Much of the Muskoka tourism history today is mainly due to the efforts of Alexander P. Cockburn. In 1865, Cockburn visited the region and was blown away by the lookouts and views in Muskoka and the area’s natural beauty. He felt others needed to see its beauty for themselves and became dedicated to bringing steam cruise ships to the area, founding the Muskoka Navigation Company.

He pled to the government to work with him to improve road conditions in the area and build locks to connect Port Carling to Lake Muskoka and Lake Rosseau. He also desired to build a canal at Port Sandfield to join Lake Rosseau and Lake Joseph.

The first steamship was launched just a year later, in 1866, and the lock and canal were completed by 1872; by this point, multiple steamships were running in this area, and one still runs to this day! The Segwun (which translates to Springtime) was built in 1887 and used as a mail ship. While steamships stopped running on the lakes by 1958, the Segwun was restored by the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society in the early ’70s. Since 1981, the Segwun has taken passengers for romantic and scenic cruises in the area.

Rise, Decline and Resurgence

Increased tourism from these steamships led to an increase in resort creation. These resorts continued to thrive until the stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression took its hold. During this time, people were not spending money loosely, and that included unnecessary travel. This led to a dramatic decrease in tourism to the area. However, World War II brought a resurgence to the business in the area; and closed factories once again opened and thrived on creating jobs supporting the war effort. As areas in Europe became off-limits for those looking to travel, tourism once again began to thrive within the Muskoka region and has continued to thrive to this very day.

Muskoka Chair History

We would be remiss if we talked about Muskoka history if we didn’t talk about Muskoka chair history.

Some of the greatest memories are made in these chairs, whether it’s sitting back with a drink, relaxing with a good book, or gathering with friends. Rare is the day you see cottages in Muskoka for sale without these chairs somewhere on the property.

But the origins of this chair are a slightly controversial one. For starters, Muskoka chairs may not have come from Muskoka at all.

It’s believed the chair was first created in 1903 by Thomas Lee while visiting the Adirondack Mountains in Westport, New York. Lee nailed boards together to create a chair that featured wide armrests and a sloped backing. Meant initially for himself and his family, Lee later made these chairs for a friend, Harry C. Bunnell, to sell in his local store. The chairs became a huge hit, and Bunnell secretly went on to patent the “Westport Chair” without Lee’s knowledge and profited off them over the next 25 years. Over time, the name became known as the “Adirondack chair” due to the mountains in the area. By 1938, a man named Irving Wolpin patented a design of this chair, featuring the seat and back shape we know today.

But how did the “Adirondack chair” become the “Muskoka chair”? Legends say that as the tourism industry thrived in Muskoka, many Americans began bringing these wooden chairs. Their popularity grew, and local artisans began to make their own to supply the demand.

As for the name, it’s a similar story about how the Westport chair became known as the Adirondack chair due to its regional proximity to the mountain. Those visiting Muskoka began to associate the chairs with the region, and thus they became regionally known as “Muskoka chairs.”

While Muskoka history may not be able to claim to have created the very first Muskoka chair, we can, however, the history of Muskoka can claim to have the world’s largest one. Built in 2010 and standing at 21 feet high, the record-breaking chair stands as a warm welcome to those visiting Gravenhurst.