This article was originally published in Invest In Style Magazine.
Like the windswept pine or the iconic Muskoka chair, few things conjure up the image of the Muskoka region like the area’s historic steamships. Despite being constructed more than a century ago, some of those watercraft continue to ply the waters of the region to this day.
Perhaps the most iconic of the steamships is the RMS Segwun, which still offers regular cruises to the public from its home port at the Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst.
The Segwun was constructed in 1887 in Glasgow, Scotland, before being shipped across the Atlantic and re-assembled in Gravenhurst.
The oldest operating mail steamship in North America, the Segwun holds just under 100 people. It burns through roughly 250 tons of coal (imported from Seward, Pennsylvania) during a sailing season of just under five months.
The craft was originally used as a side paddlewheel steamer and sailed under the name of Nipissing II. She was primarily used to transport people, freight and mail from her home port at the Muskoka Wharf to locations throughout the Muskoka lakes, including the resorts which were beginning to proliferate in the region at the time.
Upgraded with new engines following the First World War, the ship was re-named Segwun – the Ojibwa word for “spring”.
As the road system in Muskoka improved over the years, the mail was increasingly delivered by land routes. By the 1960s, the Segwun was decommissioned and became a floating maritime museum at the Gravenhurst Wharf.
Interest in the vintage vessel eventually led to a restoration project by the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society and the Ontario Road Builders. The Segwun was officially re-launched by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and by 1981, she began her newest incarnation as a cruise ship.
These days she offers everything from sightseeing cruises of “Millionaires Row”, to dinner cruises and floating concerts. Typically, one can find her sister ship – the Wenonah II – sitting next to her at the Wharf. Built in the style of a 1907 Muskoka steamship, the Wenonah was actually constructed in 2002 and is much larger than the Segwun – holding up to 216 passengers plus crew. The Wenonah sails all three of the big Muskoka lakes and has a large dining room and three decks with panoramic lake views.
Muskoka Bay in Gravenhurst is also home to the 103-year-old Wanda III.
Commissioned by Timothy Eaton, of Eaton’s department store fame, the vessel was the fastest on the lakes in its day. A steam yacht, the Wanda III is currently undergoing renovations and is docked beside the Muskoka Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst.
More intimate public cruises are offered aboard the Peerless II, sailing out of Port Carling.
For nearly 50 years the Peerless II was a working boat, transporting oil and gasoline to customers throughout the Muskoka Lakes. It was originally built in 1946 in Bronte, Ontario and sent to Muskoka to join her sister ship, the smaller, wooden Peerless. Together, the pair delivered gasoline and home heating oil throughout the region for the B/A Oil Company. Within a few years, the larger Peerless II was handling all of the deliveries, and the original Peerless was retired. The Peerless II would continue to ply her trade throughout the lakes of Muskoka under several different oil and gas companies right up until 1994. It was then that the vessel stopped her deliveries and was taken out of service. In 2003 it was purchased by Sunset Cruises and, after significant restoration, she now offers cruises to the public out of her home in Port Carling.
On the eastern edge of Muskoka, the SS Bigwin still offers cruises on Lake of Bays, much as it did to the likes of Winston Churchill, Louis Armstrong and Clark Gables decades ago. The ship was originally named the Elle Maria, after the wife of Pittsburgh industrialist James Kuhn, who commissioned it. Built in 1910, the ship sailed Lake Muskoka for 15 years, before being sold and moved to Dorset on Lake of Bays. Renamed the SS Bigwin, the ship spent the next 45 years ferrying guests back and forth to the prestigious Bigwin Island Resort – one of the most spectacular summer resorts in all of North America, and a draw for many famous guests.
However, as the resort declined, so too did the ship and eventually, she sat half sunk at her slip on the island. In 1991 the old ship was purchased and restoration work began in earnest in 2002. After nearly a decade of the work, the SS Bigwin was finally ready to sail again on November 17, 2012. These days, the Bigwin offers regular public cruises around Lake of Bays from her home port in Dorset.
Written by reporter/editor, Matt Driscoll
Matt Driscoll is a freelance writer based out of Bracebridge, Ontario. He was a former editor with Muskoka Magazine and former photojournalist with the Bracebridge Examiner and Sioux Lookout Bulletin. Matt worked for several years in the museum’s eld, both in Canada and internationally, before moving into full-time journalism more than a decade ago.