125 years ago, the primary mode of transportation to and from islands in the Muskokas was via steamship. The Segwun is the last surviving original steamship from the fleet of several dozen that served the county of Muskoka in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.
As a road network was built the steamships became less useful, and were either broken up, or not replaced when they were lost. The final two ships, the Segwun and the RMS Sagamo were retired in 1958. The Sagamo was destroyed by a fire in 1969. In 1972 volunteers started to restore the Segwun. In 1981 she started to carry sightseers on the lakes, and to host dinner cruises. She is the oldest steamship in North America.
RMS Segwun 1925 - Present
Here is an interesting fact: Did you know that the Segwun was the rebuilt S.S. Nipissing? The S.S. Nippissing was a paddle boat built in 1887 by the Muskoka Lakes Navagation Company and sailed until 1915. The 125' hull of the Nipissing was used in the construction of the RMS Segwun in 1925 when it was refitted from side paddle wheeler to steam. The RMS Segwun sailes today as the oldest operating steam driven vessel in North America and the seventh oldest in the world.
SS Kenozha 1883 - 1918
The Kenozha (meaning "pickerel" in Ojibway tongue) was 100' long, carried 250 passengers and was launched in Gravenhurst in 1883.
In 1908, near Beaumaris, while the Sagamo and the Kenozha were coming about after a passenger exchange, the Kenozha's bow struck the Sagamo's port side. The mate was blamed as he was drunk on duty. Captain Hansen had not noticed that he was drunk so both were fired. The Kenozha was out of commission for a season.
In Aug 1918, now the oldest ship in the fleet at 35 years, she caught fire while berthed overnight in the northern part of Lake Joseph. The crew of 14 barely had enough time to escape. The captain and purser were asleep at the time and jumped overboard, leaving all possessions behind. The ship was cut loose to burn and sink.
It is said that her skeleton is still visible under the water of Stanley Bay.
On July 14, 1887 (125 years to the date of our celebration) the Toronto 'World' carried an article that speaks of the Kenozha as the fastest ship on the lakes and capable of carrying 250 passengers. According to Richard Tatley's book 'The Steamship Era in the Muskokas', the Kenozha was given a special assignment of conducting the Govenor General, the Marquis of Lansdowne and his aides on a tour of Muskoka Lake in 1885.
SS Medora 1893 -
The Medora was launched at Gravenhurst in June 1893. She was referred to as "the most ocean-liner-like" of all the Muskoka steamers. The Medora was renovated in 1901-02. She was drydocked and cut in half and lengthened by 20' bringing her to 142.6 feet. Because of the revisions she was less able to steer and vibrated. Her crew called her "The Moose" because of the vibration and her booming whistle. After her servicing she became the flagship of the fleet. Her captain was George Bailey.
She sailed as part of the Nipissing, Islander, Medora and Kenozha fleet taking passengers on day cruises from the Muskoka Express running from Toronto to the Muskoka Wharf. Some interesting facts about the Medora are that she is lends her name to the lounge on the Wenonah II, a section of her stained glass is in the dining hall of the RMS Segwun, and she is the new steel bulkhead of the RMS Segwun. So I guess you can say that she still sails today.
In 1898 the then Governor General, The Earl and Countess of Aberdeen, sailed on the Medora landing at Gravenhurst, Beachgrove Island, Beaumaris, Port Keewaydin, and Port Carling, before making their way further by steamship to Lake Rosseau. Lady Aberdeen described the Muskoka Lakes as,
…these three Muskoka Lakes dotted with hundred of picturesque wooded islands, abounding with scenery of a quiet pretty type & giving infinite resources for boating, sailing, fishing & bathing. These islands were originally sold by the Government at a mere nominal rate of 50 cents an acre & any number of Toronto families possess one or part of one. Now they are nearly all taken up & it is hard to get one, but the other day one of 60 acres was sold for about $700.
Lady Aberdeen continues by saying,
I must not omit reference to our visit to Major Denison at his Buckgrove Island (Beachgrove) a pretty place where he lives in patriarchal Muskoka Style.
Having found this entry in Richard Tatley’s book, 'The Steamboat Era in the Muskokas' the event was corroborated by (Major) Septimus Denison, in his autobiography 'Memoirs'. He wrote,
It would, perhaps, be amiss to omit…a reference to Camp-fires and I will, therefore, give a short account of one held, at my request, for the entertainment of the Marquis and Marchioness of Aberdeen whom I prevailed upon to spend a few days in Muskoka during their last year at Government House…
An excellent programme had been arranged of recitations, glees, songs, and music from different instruments, such as mandolins, banjos, etc., from the abundant talent readily found among the guests…
After the programme was finished all joined in singing the National
Anthem, and the entertainment was brought to a close by, what I might
term, a "Muskoka free and easy supper."
Wenonah II 1992 - Present
The Wenonah II is a modern replica of the early 20th Century steamships that once dotted the Muskoka Lakes. The original Wenonah was a sidewheel steamship built by Alexander Cockburn in 1866. The new Wenonah is the first ship built in Muskoka Bay since RMS Cherokee in 1902. The whistle used aboard the Cherokee now has a home on the Wenonah II. The Wenonah is the same length as the Segwun, but visually appears larger, since it has an extra deck and two more dining rooms. The Wenonah II also has modern conveniences such as air conditioning and an elevator.
The ship's original investment was $5 million dollars, much of which was raised privately, and with federal and provincial funding. The $2 million dollar loan taken out to fund the additional investment is scheduled to be paid off in 2012. John Miller, general manager of The Real Muskoka Experience, said. "Wenonah was built so the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society would always have a revenue stream to support the Segwun, especially if she needed to be pulled out of service."
As impressive as the Wenonah II is, nothing can replace the sound, the smell, and the grace in the water of RMS Seqwun.