A century ago it took the best part of a day to travel from Toronto to a cottage (summer home) in the Muskoka Lakes District of Ontario about 100 miles to the north. People boarded a train in the city with all their summer baggage, including chests of silver and china, pianos, and even cows, then transferred to one of the large lake steamers at the wharf in Gravenhurst, and were dropped off at their cottage or one of the many resorts on the three major lakes. Wealthy Americans often arrived at the pier aboard their private Pullman coaches with a bevy of servants in tow. This was the “Age of Elegance” in the Muskokas.
Once at the cottage, you could signal the steamships to stop by to pick up passengers by raising a white flag.
You can experience some of this today by taking a cruise on the R.M.S. (Royal Mail Ship) Segwun - the oldest operating steamship in North America. The much larger Wenonah II is an authentic replica of a steamship of that era, and the Wanda III is the restored private steam yacht, built in 1915, that once belonged to the mercantile Eaton family. All are run by the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society.
On some excursions, they take you past “Millionaires' Row” - millionaires from a century ago, that is. There were plenty on the lakes - a tradition that continues today, with Hollywood celebrities among them.
We enjoyed a magical sunset dinner cruise aboard the Segwun last Friday. How easy it is to imagine yourself in a less hectic time, to completely relax and appreciate the beautiful scenery slip past. Not so romantic are the clouds of black smoke spewing from the coal-fired boilers, so I can imagine how it must have been when dozens of steamers plied the lakes. Apparently the maids at cottages would rush out to take the washing off the line whenever a steamship was spotted approaching, otherwise the soot would foul the laundry.
Nonetheless, the steamships were beloved on the lakes, and ran until 1958. The Segwun - the last survivor of a once grand fleet - was restored and began excursions again in 1981. Cottagers now come down to their docks to wave as she sails by. Motorboats flit alongside, tooting their horns to elicit a throaty blast from the Segwun in response. It seems so fitting to have this graceful steamer once again glide among the islands and past century-old cottages where she once dropped off passengers.
It also inspires me to work on Book 3 in my Muskoka Novels series, which takes place during the Roaring 20s, and is never far from my thoughts!
The photo above shows the Segwun in the distance.