In 1860, following the extensions of the Muskoka Colonization Road to the future site of the town of Gravenhurst, development of various types from farming to lumbering commenced in earnest in Muskoka. Along with the first intrepid settlers and adventurers came the first documented “tourists,” two young men from Toronto named John Campbell and James Bain. Their trip to Muskoka was arduous to say the least. Travelling by train and then by steamboat up Lake Simcoe to Orillia, the duo then rowed to Washago and walked the rest of the way to the Gravenhurst area.
Campbell and Bain were undaunted by hardships that they faced and were so invigorated by the beauty and wilderness of Muskoka that they returned year after year, bringing with them more and more friends to explore and camp around the Muskoka lakes.
Remarkedly, within five years, the Toronto Globe newspaper published a report that Sparrow Lake had already become a favourite fishing spot. Fishermen who were also members of the Canadian Press Association began making yearly trips to Muskoka. Their glowing accounts prompted more and more hunters and anglers to visit the area.
When the Toronto, Simcoe and Muskoka Junction Railway reached Gravenhurst in 1875, Muskoka’s outdoors was truly opened to the world from the south. Much credit goes to A. P. Cockburn who began promoting Muskoka as a “a giant wilderness area.” But fishing clubs existed long before then. The Muskoka Club was launched in 1864, with seven members. Although not a true fishing club, it did much to promote the benefits of summers spent in outdoor pursuits. The club was very progressive for the times, allowing women to partake in some activities. It helped to spawn an emerging resort industry and, eventually, the concept of summer cottages, all of which encouraged more visitors to Muskoka.
The American ClubsUntil 1875, the promotion of Muskoka as an outdoor destination was primarily limited to Southern Ontario, but by the following year and for the next five years, various American publications ran articles which praised the fishing on the Severn River and Sparrow Lake.
At the same time, both the transportation system and the variety of accommodations improved. The articles seemed to resonate particularly with sportsmen from the Pittsburgh area. From the mid 1870s to the end of the World War I, a dozen hunting, and fishing clubs made yearly excursions to Sparrow Lake and the Severn River out to Georgian Bay.
The Iron City Fishing Club was the one of oldest American fishing club in Canada. Membership was composed initially of men but eventually their families also made the trip north. Quite a number of clergymen were members, and this may explain the more liberal approach to having families included.
While the men stayed in camps, family members were housed at local farms or wherever they could find other suitable accommodations, in turn providing much needed income to the local economy.
At least four other clubs from the Pittsburgh area made the yearly trip to the Sparrow Lake area or camped on the Severn River. The Keystone, Maddingtown, Welkerly, and United States Steel Hunting and Fishing Clubs were solely comprised of men who felt free to enjoy a libation or two along with their outdoor pursuits.
Other clubs also came from the Pittsburgh area. Members of the Allegheny, Bobaire, Buckey, Excelsior, and Menaca clubs even chartered railway cars and stayed for about three weeks each summer.
One exclusive club from Pittsburgh, the Mordolph Club, was located at the western end of the Severn River at Waubaushene. Unlike other clubs which had some common affiliations among their members, this club was open to anyone who had money and a desire to fish.
One more prominent club, although primarily a hunting club, is worth mentioning. The Buckskin Club was composed mainly of physicians from Pittsburgh with one notable exception. Canadian photographer W. J. Topley photographed many of the club’s activities as well as the landscapes of the Severn River. His early images have been preserved in the National Archives of Canada.
Further north, the first tourists who began visiting Beaumaris in the 1870s were members of fishing clubs from Toronto, Hamilton and western Pennsylvania.
One of these clubs, The Garfield Club from Pittsburgh, camped near Balla Falls with as many as 140 members making their trip north over the course of each summer. Initially the camps were made up of walled tents, but eventually many built more permanent structures. Their documented activities are likely typical of what a normal day looked like for most of these clubs.
Breakfast included boiled trout, roasted porcupine, venison steaks and stewed duck, along with bread and coffee. After that, anglers would launch their skiffs and row out to their favourite fishing grounds for the day. In some cases, local outfitters would take their clients further afield while towing a number of boats behind their steam-powered vessel. Fishermen would spend all day on the water and then would be picked up before dusk.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the lakes in Muskoka afforded relatively easy access to wilderness due to the improved railway and water transportation systems. Although the trip from New York or Pennsylvania took at least two days, the fresh air and outdoor activities for those who could afford it were an escape from polluted air caused by concentrated industrialization.
For example, Pittsburgh was booming with the production of steel, iron and glass, which made the city famous for its thick sooty smog. In 1868, biographer James Parton wrote “Every street appears to end in a thick black cloud. By day, smoke is everywhere and by night, hell with the lid taken off.”
By the 1880s trains were comfortable and easy connections could be made at Erie, Buffalo or Niagara Falls. Travellers stopped overnight in Toronto before taking the train to Gravenhurst’s Muskoka Wharf where they boarded steamships for the various Muskoka destinations.
Visitors were further enticed to come to Muskoka by more advertising. For instance, an Ontario Ministry of Agriculture publication from 1884 boasted of the health benefits of Muskoka, citing members of the Allegheny Club whose glowing health and robust condition was verified by a doctor. He declared that not a symptom, or even low spirit, was to be found in the camp.
Not satisfied with visiting for a few weeks each summer, some of the groups began to buy property. Members of the Solid Comfort Camp of Mercer Pennsylvania were the first Americans to purchase property on Tondern Island, Lake Rosseau. Initially they camped on Gibraltar Island in Lake Muskoka, and then built their permanent camp at Beaumaris, where they purchased four acres to house forty men in large tents and one permanent cottage. A few years later, ironically, Beaumaris became too crowded and the call of the wild could no longer be satisfied. The club then moved to the French River. Members of the Sharon Social Fishing Club from Sharon, Pennsylvania also came to Beaumaris, and eventually purchased property and built permanent quarters. One early photograph shows ten men side by side in one large bed. The fishing must have been worth it!
By the 1890s Muskoka was on the map as the outdoor destination for many, thanks in part to many of the early outdoor clubs.
Commercial FishingAt the turn of the 19th century there were two commercial fishing operations licensed in Muskoka. They netted lake trout almost exclusively for sale in Toronto.
Barge loads of these trout were soon going through the Port Carling lock. The harvest only lasted for two years, though: after that, fishing was so badly depleted that it ceased.
Commercial operations on a large scale also took place all along Georgian Bay, including the portion that is part of Muskoka. Initially, small sailing skiffs were used. A typical skiff was sharp-sterned and fitted with a centre board. They were rigged as ketches, with a mizzen mast shorter than the main mast. By the 1880s, the boats and their ketch rigs became longer, averaging 10 metres in length and powered by small sails.
The design of these boats came from boat builder William Watts of Collingwood, but as these boats went further afield in the upper Great Lakes, the design was copied by other builders on the American side and the general form became known as a Mackinaw boat.
Steam tugs began encroaching on the sail boats by the end of the 19th century. The sight of dozens of beautiful sailboats on the Georgian Bay waters came to an end, although some were rescued and used by summer residents well into the 1930s.
The harvest of fish was impressive. Lake trout weighing 40 lbs. were not uncommon, as were large catches of sturgeon, walleye and perch.
Like the lumber industry, which decimated the forest, the fishing industry eventually suffered the same fate. Government regulations to protect the fishery were put in place and a constant balance had to be found between the supply of fish and the number of fishermen who could still be employed.
To supplement their income, some fishermen turned to guiding visiting fishers. The added income helped to sustain their families through the long winters of unemployment. Even into the 1930s, sport fishing was considered excellent and parties of fishermen returned year after year to be guided by the same person.
By the end of World War II, more leisure time and a stronger economic outlook led to more fishing pressure as more people owned their own boats. The fishing for lake trout was further affected by the arrival of the lamprey eel in the Great Lakes.
Commercial fishing and fishing camps continue to this day, but they are governed by strict environmental and conservation laws. Unfortunately, the glory days of fishing are no more.
TEXT Bob Winter