From the introduction of railway service that opened up homesteading and tourism, to the steamship era that created our resort destination heritage, from logging establishing a major industry in the region to WWII pilots training in Muskoka, there is much to discover about days gone by in the wilderness north of Toronto. If you are fascinated by tales of yore and how cottage country evolved to what it is in modern times, grab your cameras and your desire to learn, and head to the region this summer. Here are just a few spots you won’t want to miss:
Established in 1893, Algonquin is Canada’s oldest provincial park and it is steeped in history. The perfect place to start is the Algonquin Logging Museum, which features a 1.5 km walking trail that includes a recreated logging camp and a steam-powered amphibious “alligator tug”.
Next head to the Algonquin Visitor Centre, where you will find original artefacts, displays and multimedia presentations that document the park’s natural and human history. Kids and adults alike will wonder at the wildlife dioramas and displays.
2017 marked the 100-year anniversary of the death of Canada’s iconic artist Tom Thomson, who disappeared while paddling Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. There are several points around the lake where you can explore some of Thomson’s history, including a commemorative cairn, the ruins of the town of Mowat where Thomson resided, and even the cemetery where his remains may rest (one of the region’s most popular mysteries!) Algonquin Outfitters can rent you a canoe or kayak and all the equipment you will need to paddle the lake and discover the sights for yourself. You can also gear up at The Portage Store, located at the Canoe Lake access point. For a fascinating look at the Group of Seven painters – who were all inspired by Tom Thomson and Algonquin – consider taking the Group of Seven Outdoor Gallery’s self-guided mobile tour, which includes stops in the park.
The history of the towns and communities across the Almaguin Highlands is a story of determination and grit. The area was accessed first by the Nipissing Road, a land route that stretched from the town of Rosseau at the north end of Lake Rosseau, all the way to Nipissing township, just south of North Bay. Many sections of the old road are still used, and there are remnants of several ghost towns which can be explored along the route.
Steamships came next, with several being built to service towns such as Burk’s Falls, Magnetawan and Ahmic Harbour. Dams and locks were built to make the trip easier. Visitors can travel to the locks in Magnetawan, which are still hand operated, and visit the Heritage Centre on site for more of the area’s history. The nearby Burk’s Falls and District Heritage Centres are comprised of two separate buildings that depict the pioneer history of the region, including farming and logging. The Discovery Routes Trails Organization has created and maintained trails throughout the Almaguin Highlands that showcase the region’s natural and historical significance. Explore the trails on foot, by bike or by using skis or snowshoes in the winter to discover more of the local history first hand.
The town of Commanda in the Loring-Restoule region
was a central stop along the Nipissing Road. The Commanda General Store Museum is housed in the original building, which was erected in 1885. The museum maintains original floors, counters and even goods from 1885-1934, and features seasonal displays. The region also contains two provincial parks: Restoule and Grundy Lake. In the summer months, both parks provide natural heritage education programming where you can learn about local wildlife and the history of the parks. The town of Port Loring, located on the Pickerel River system, traces its history back to the pioneering days of early settler life and the logging industry.
The history of Muskoka is tied directly to the history of the many steamships that plowed the waters of the “big three lakes”: Muskoka, Joseph and Rosseau. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Muskoka’s first steamship, the Wenonah, embarking across the lakes. Visit the Muskoka Steamships and Discovery Centre located at the historic Gravenhurst Wharf to discover more about the Wenonah and the many steamships that followed her, and take a cruise aboard the stunning Wenonah II and the RMS Segwun. The centre has a wealth of original artefacts and displays, as well as the KidZone area that features unique exhibits. It is also home to Canada’s largest in-water museum, allowing you to get up close and personal with the stunning wooden boats the region is known for.
Historic boat tours are also not to be missed on the SS Bigwin out of Dorset on Lake of Bays, and on the Peerless II by Sunset Cruises – a 1940s era delivery boat that now tours lakes Muskoka and Rosseau (with awesome commentary by Captain Potts).
Huntsville’s Muskoka Heritage Place is a popular destination for history enthusiasts. The site consists of the Muskoka Museum, the Muskoka Pioneer Village and the Portage Flyer Train. The museum has a great collection of artefacts on display and takes visitors through a chronological history of the region. The Pioneer Village consists of 20 genuine settlement dwellings situated on 90 acres overlooking Cann Lake. While at Muskoka Heritage Place, be sure to take a ride aboard the Portage Flyer steam train. The train has been lovingly restored after being retired from the world’s smallest commercial railroad in the nearby town of Dwight.
Located in Port Carling, the Muskoka Lakes Museum has become well known for its fun and educational children’s programming. Other displays to see include the Cottage Room full of tools and artefacts used by early pioneers, the recreated Pioneer Log Cabin and the Resort Room depicting early tourist resort life.
Be sure to visit Gravenhurst’s Bethune Memorial House, the spot where Dr. Norman Bethune was born and a tribute to his considerable medical contributions. A cultural icon in China, Bethune was a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. He was most famous for his humanitarian activities in China during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War. The onsite Visitor Centre offers tours and displays in both English and Mandarin, and in 2021, be sure to check out the WWI tench exhibit.
Gravenhurst is also home to a memorial for Norwegian pilots who trained at the Muskoka Airport during WWII. Visit the airport terminal to learn more about this important chapter in military history.
Loop around the Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst to Bala to take in a concert at the legendary music pavilion – The Kee – which is celebrating its 80th season in 2021. Hundreds of brilliant performers have graced its stage, from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, to Kim Mitchell and Snoop Dogg. And no trip to the region is complete without stopping in at Bala’s Museum. Enjoy this loving tribute to the Lucy Maud Montgomery era, and what life was like when the famous author of Anne of Green Gables visited the village in 1922.
Are you a sports history fan? Parry Sound is the birthplace of hockey legend Bobby Orr, and home of the Bobby Orr Hall of Fame. Bobby Orr has been widely acknowledged as one of the best hockey players to ever lace up skates. The Hall of Fame is located within the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts. There are interactive displays, memorabilia and videos to take visitors through all the stages of Orr’s career. Not to be missed are the many interactive games for kids young and old that will test your skill and accuracy with a stick.
The West Parry Sound District Museum located in downtown Parry Sound has displays and artefacts detailing the history of the town and the importance of Georgian Bay to its growth. No trip is complete without climbing the 30-metre tall observation tower that was built on the site of the original fire tower. The tower provides 360-degree vistas of Parry Sound Harbour, which is busy throughout the summer season as the Island Queen and the MV Chippewa III take tourists out to explore the 30,000 Islands, and as passengers on one of Georgian Bay Airways float plane tours take in the view from above. (The tower also provides a bird’s eye view of the town’s iconic rail trestle bridge.)
North of Parry Sound, the French River runs 105 km from Lake Nipissing into Georgian Bay. The river was the first to be designated as a Canadian Heritage River, with lakes, gorges and rapids all interconnected along its route. The river was used as a major trade thoroughfare in the 1800s, with large canoes carrying goods and furs along its length. The river is managed by French River Provincial Park. The park’s Visitor Centre showcases the rich history of the region and the First Nations, French and English settlers who travelled the river. While there, cross the French River Gorge on the park’s amazing suspension bridge.
With so much history preserved and protected throughout the region, book an extended getaway to explore and experience cottage country’s fascinating past. There’s much to learn.
For a listing of more great attractions throughout the region, click here.
To plan your stay in the region, click here.