Muskoka Ontario’s Lake Of Bays Region: A Fascinating History

In addition to the shear beauty of its nature landscape of forest, lakes and wetlands, the Lake of Bays region of North Muskoka, Ontario Canada has a rich and fascinating history. Two dedicated, local organizations understood the importance of preserving the area’s history. The Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society and the Muskoka Pioneer Village joined forces to preserve a valuable piece of the Lake of Bays unique past.

Stretching east from Huntsville all the way through to the southwest boundary of Algonquin Park and encompassing the communities of Baysville, Dwight, and Dorset, the Lake of Bays region was originally occupied by the Algonquin and Huron tribes. In the 1600s, early explorers such as Samuel Champlain passed through the area and were followed by missionaries and later, the first European settlers. To help encourage settlement, the Free Land Grant and Homestead Act of 1868 was created, which offered 200 acres of land, free of charge to settlers willing to clear land and build a home. Ultimately, logging became the dominant industry of the area, necessitating the construction of a transportation network that included both rail and water. It didn’t take too long before the lumbermen cut down all the trees and moved on, leaving behind a substantial infrastructure, a large pool of willing workers, along with a transportation system that enabled the Lake of Bays Ontario economy to morph from lumber-based to tourism-based.

Muskoka Lake of Bays sported the first wilderness” resorts, sometimes as basic as a spare room in someone’s modest farmhouse. As the tourists began to flock to the area, a variety of inns and lodges started to dot the Lake of Bays waterfront. Large, multi-room luxury resorts, such as the Bigwin Inn, were built to cater to the ballooning Muskoka tourism industry.

In the early 1900s, Huntsville tycoon C.O. Shaw purchased both Bigwin Island and the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway. The railway provided a transportation link between Huntsville and Lake of Bays and was billed the smallest commercially operated railway in the world” It became known as the Portage Flyer”. Shaw understood that with steamboats and a railway line he could transport huge numbers of tourists from the south. On Bigwin Island, he set out to build the finest resort on the continent. During the area’s Golden Era”, from the 1920s through the 1940s, Bigwin’s guests traveled by rail and then by steamer directly to the resort’s dock. Prime ministers, movie stars, famous writers and the like were accommodated and entertained in the lap of luxury. By the end of the 1950s, with the development of roads and the increasing use of cars and trucks, the railway became less popular and therefore less profitable. Consequently, the railway and the Bigwin Inn were shut down.

In 1984, the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway Society purchased the Portage Flyer” and in partnership with Muskoka Pioneer Village, started to realize their long-term goal of bringing back to the region an operating stream railway and steamboat. In 1999 a train shed and train station was erected and some 1500 feet of track was installed. The Portage Flyer” returned to service in 2000.

Today’s visitors to the Lake of Bays can get a taste of what it was like back in the Golden Days” of stream travel, thanks to the efforts these very dedicated organizations.
Visitors can now enjoy the newly restored Fairy Lake Station and have the opportunity to ride the Portage Flyer” for miles along one of the most scenic routes in the area. They can also watch the locomotive being turned on two manually operated turntables. The past just might hold the key to this well loved vacation area’s economic and cultural future.

There are many fine full-service Lake of Bay resorts and cottage rental resorts that offer year-round accommodations to those that might want to tour the area and learn more about the past as well as the role Lake of Bays has played as a major North American tourist destination. Muskoka’s Lake of Bays is also right next door to Ontario’s famous Algonquin Provincial Park, which also boasts a rich history.

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