Reviving Muskoka’s ghost ships

There was a time when the hearts of Muskoka belonged, in part, to the great white steamboats that plied lakes Rosseau, Joseph and Muskoka. People raced to their docks when they heard the throaty blast of a steamboat whistle. They watched faithfully until the tantalizing whisper of orchestra music faded and the plume of smoke disappeared from sight.

The ships were a part of the family, a hallmark of summer life. Sadly, these legendary vessels (there were 140 in Muskoka alone) came to a rather ignoble end. Many, in fact, were stripped for salvage then buried unceremoniously at the bottom of the lake.

Now it’s up to the R.M.S. Segwun, the last fully operational coal-fired steamboat of the fleet, to continue the tradition of steam in Muskoka. The Segwun escaped the fate of her sister ships by a massive restoration project that breathed life into a vessel that had been sitting idle for 22 years. The ship returned to active service in 1981, and has been going strong ever since.

An innovative marketing plan has made the Segwun a premier tourist attraction that generates enough revenue to offset maintenance and operational costs. By the year 2000, the Seun can proudly claim to have sailed through three centuries.

And that’s just the problem. At 111 years of age, the Segwun is working harder than ever, carrying more people and making more trips from her home port of Gravenhurst than she did as a youngster. Last year alone the ship carried 37,500 passengers in a short 135-day sailing season. Simply put, the Segwun is in danger of being put out of work by her own popularity.

The Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society, which owns the Segwun, decided it was time the ship had some help. While the Society won’t exactly be raising one of her sister ships from the floor of the lake, it will be doing the next best thing. The group plans to build a modern version of a traditional Muskoka steamship to operate along with the Segwun. The new ship will be christened Wenonah, after the very first steamboat built by the Muskoka Navigation Company in 1866.

“The name seemed entirely appropriate for a new ship for the new millennium,” says Stan Meek, president of the Muskoka Lakes Navigation Company, which runs the Segwun. The word Wenonah means “first born daughter” in Ojibwa.

The new ship will most likely be patterned after the Cherokee, “probably the best-looking boat in the Navigation Company’s fleet,” says Meek.

The Wenonah will permit a less intensive use of the Segwun, thereby extending the ship’s life. It will also accommodate both large bus tours and charter groups and provide more comfortable indoor seating in inclement weather.

In addition, the new ship will travel at a fair clip, allowing it to zip from Lake Muskoka to neighbouring lakes Rosseau and Joseph on a regular basis. At present, it takes the Segwun a full day to steam from Lake Muskoka to the neighbouring lakes and back.

To kick off the fundraising campaign this year, Dr. Gordon C. Shaw, president of the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society, pledged a quarter of a million dollars to the project. The new vessel is expected to cost $1.75 million and could be launched in the year 2000.

The Wenonah will look like a traditional steamboat, but be modern in every way, including a diesel-powered engine that runs “whisper quiet” – an important factor when you’re trying to recreate the magical silence of steam travel.

While work proceeds on the Segwun‘s new sister ship, the Steamship and Historical Society continues to expand the heritage theme at Gravenhurst Bay, where an interpretive centre, built as a replica of the old Muskoka Wharf rail terminus, documents the history of Muskoka steam travel.

In addition to the Segwun, the society operates the Wanda III, a 94-foot steam launch built for Mrs. Margaret Eaton, wife of department store magnate Timothy Eaton. Launched in 1915, the Wanda III was the fastest steam yacht on the Muskoka lakes. By 1993, however, it was sadly in need of repair. After acquiring the yacht, the Society spent $700,000 refurbishing it. Now they’re faced with the problem of protecting all that gleaming mahogany from the blistering sun and the winter snow.

“The Wanda doesn’t weather very well,” Meek explains. “We need a boathouse to preserve it, but preferably one which will help generate revenue.”

With some assistance from the Town of Gravenhurst, the Society is looking for land on Gravenhurst Bay to construct a boathouse large enough to house the Wanda and other antique boats.

Following in the footsteps of the town of Mystic, Connecticut, the group hopes to establish the Muskoka Boathouse School of Antique Boat Construction. Some of the best master boat builders in Canada will provide instruction on the time-honoured craft of boat sailing. The Antique and Classic Boat Society (Toronto) has already pledged $10,000 to the project.

The two projects are key pieces in a plan to ensure the steamboat era will not be forgotten. “Laying the keel for a second century of Muskoka steamship travel will not be complete until we have a replica of the Segwun,” says Dr. Shaw. “With patience and perseverance, we can make that dream a reality.”

When the Segwun and her modern sister ship glide into the new millennium, they’ll carry with them the legacy of their predecessors, those ghosts now buried beneath the waves.

For information about the Segwun, the Wanda III or the millennium projects, contact Russ Brown, manager of the Segwun at (705) 687-6667.