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The District Municipality of Muskoka, more generally referred to as the District of Muskoka, or simply Muskoka, is a Regional Municipality located in Central Ontario, Canada. Muskoka extends from Georgian Baymarker in the west, to the northern tip of Lake Couchichingmarker in the south, to the western border of Algonquin Provincial Parkmarker in the east. Located approximately two hours north of Torontomarker, Muskoka spans 2,500 square miles (6,475 km²). Muskoka has some 1,600 lakes, making it a popular resort destination. Indeed, this region, which, along with Haliburtonmarker and Kawartha Lakesmarker, is referred to as "cottage country", sees over 2.1 million visitors annually. Muskoka is a scenic area sprinkled with picturesque villages and towns, farming communities, and lakeside vacation hotels and resorts near to golf courses, country clubs, and marinas. The regional government seat is Bracebridgemarker. This area encompases Lake of Bays township, Georgian Bay township, Muskoka Lakes township and the towns of Huntsville, Bracebridge and Gravenhurst.

The name of the municipality derives from a native chief in the 1850s. Lake Muskoka was then the hunting grounds of a band led by Chief Yellowhead or Mesqua Ukie.

Peninsula Lake, near Huntsville in Muskoka
Muskoka has just over 50,000 permanent residents, but an additional 100,000 seasonal property owners spend their summers in the region every year, making this a major summer colony. Many of the seasonal properties are large mansion-like summer estates, some of which have been passed down through families from generation to generation. Most of these expensive properties can be found along the shores of Muskoka's three major lakes, Lake Muskokamarker, Lake Rosseaumarker, and Lake Josephmarker. In recent years, various Hollywood and sports stars have built their retreats in Muskoka, including Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Mike Weir, Martin Short, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.

The soap opera Paradise Falls, about a fictitious cottage community, was shot partly on location here, to take advantage of the scenic background. Many summer camps are located in the region, to take advantage of the lakes there, which offer opportunities for canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, waterskiing, and other water activities, and to provide a refuge from hot, smoggy cities during the summer months.

The Teletoon animated reality show Total Drama Island takes place in fictitious Camp Wawanakwa, an island summer camp located "somewhere" in Muskoka.

There are six municipalities in Muskoka: the towns of Bracebridgemarker, Gravenhurstmarker, and Huntsvillemarker; and the townships of Georgian Baymarker, Lake of Baysmarker, and Muskoka Lakesmarker. The Wahta Mohawk Territorymarker and Moose Point 79 are also in the district.


Native people

Geography drove history in the Muskoka region. Studded with lakes and abundant with rocks the land offered an abundance of fishing, hunting, and trapping, but was poorly suited to farming. Largely the land of the Ojibwa people, European inhabitants ignored it while settling the more promising area south of the Severn River. The Ojibwa leader associated with the area was Mesqua Ukie for whom the land was probably named. The tribe lived south of the region, near present day Orilliamarker and used Muskoka as their hunting grounds. Another Ojibwa tribe lived in the area of Port Carling which was called Obajewanung. The tribe moved to Parry Sound around 1866

European arrival

Largely unsettled until the late 1760s the European presence in the region was largely limited to seasonal fur trapping, but no significant trading settlements were established. Canadian government interest increased following the American Revolution when, fearing invasion from its new neighbor to the south the government began exploring the region in hopes of finding travel lanes between Lake Ontario and Georgian Bay In 1826 Lieutenant Henry Briscoe became the first white man known to have crossed the middle of Muskoka. The great explorer, David Thompson, drew the first maps of the area in 1837 and possibly camped near present day Beaumaris. He was 67 years old when the government sent him to investigate the area. His route from Georgian Bay was through Go Home Lakemarker, across Lake Muskokamarker, up the south branch of Muskoka River and across the Lake of Bays. He eventually reached Madawaska and continued on to the Ottawa River.

Canada experienced heavy European immigration in the mid 1800's, especially from Ireland which experienced famine in the 1840s. As the land south of the Severn was settled, the government planned to open the Muskoka region further north to settlement. Logging licenses were issued in 1866 which opened Monck Township to logging. The lumber industry expanded rapidly denuding huge tracts of the area, but also prompting the development of road and water transportation. The railroad pushed north to support the industry, reaching Gravenhurst in 1875 and Bracebridge in 1885. Road transportation took the form of the Muskoka Colonization Road, begun in 1858 and reaching Bracebridge in 1861. The road was roughly hewn from the woods and was of corduroy construction, meaning logs were placed perpendicular to the route of travel to keep carriages from sinking in the mud and swamps. Needless to say this made for extremely rugged travel. The lumbering industry spawned a number of ancillary developments, including as mentioned, transport, but also settlements began springing up to supply the workers and Bracebridge, (formerly North Falls) saw some leather tanning businesses develop. Tanners used the bark from lumber to tan hides thereby using what otherwise would be a waste product.

The passages of the Free Grants and Homestead Act of 1868 brought opened the era of widespread settlement to Muskoka. Settlers could receive free land if they agreed to clear the land, have at least under cultivation, and build a 16 by house. Settlers under the Homestead Act, however, found the going hard. Clearing of dense forest is a huge task, but once the land was clear they were greeted with Muskoka's ubiquitous rocks, which themselves had to be cleared. The soil in the region turned out to be poorly suited to farming consisting largely of a dense clay. As news of the difficult conditions spread back to the south it looked as though development in Muskoka might falter but for a fortuitous development. In a time when the railroads had not yet arrived and road travel was notoriously unreliably and uncomfortable, the transportation king was the steamship. Once a land connection was made to the southern part of the lake in Gravenhurst the logging companies could harvest trees along the entire lakefront with relative ease, so long as they had the means of powering the harvest back to the sawmills in Gravenhurst.

The steamship era

Alexander Cockburn answered the call. Sometimes called the Father of Muskoka, Cockburn began placing steamers on the lake. Starting with the Wenonah, Ojibwa for first daughter, in 1866 Cockburn pressed the government to open the entire Muskoka lake system to navigation by installing locks in Port Carling and opening a cut between Lake Rosseau and Lake Joseph at Port Sanfield. The government responded to the call, eager to reinforce development in light of the faltering agricultural plan, and built the big locks in Port Carling in 1871. Now Cockburn's steamers had access to the entire lake system. Through the years he added more ships and when he died in 1905 his Muskoka Navigation Company was the largest of its kind in Canada.

Shortly after the arrival of the steamships the seeds were planted which would grow in the rocky soil as agriculture never would. In 1860 two young men, John Campbell and James Bain Jr made a journey that marked them as perhaps the first tourists in the region. Taking the Northern Railway to lake Simcoe, they took the steamer Emily May up the lake to Orillia, rowed across Lake Couchiching they walked up the Colonization Road to Gravenhurst where they vacationed. They liked what they saw and repeated the journey every year bringing friends and relatives. These early tourist pioneers increased demand for transport services in the region, drawn by excellent fishing, natural beauty, and an air completely free of ragweed providing relief for hay fever sufferers. Early tourists built camps, but were joined by others desiring better accommodations. Farmers who were barely scratching a living from the rocky soil soon found demand for overnight accommodations literally arriving on their doorsteps. Some made the switch quickly and converted to boarding houses and hotels. The first wilderness hotel was built at the head of Lake Rosseau in 1870, called Rosseau House. It was owned by New Yorker W.H. Pratt. The idea caught on and tourists came establishing the tourist industry as the up-and-coming money earner in the 1880s.

The steamship era gave rise to the area's great hotels; Rosseau, Royal Muskoka, Windemere, and Beaumaris. When the railroad reached Gravenhurst in 1875 the area grew rapidly. Travel from Toronto, Pittsburgh, and New York became less a matter of endurance than expenditure. Trains regularly made the run from Toronto to Gravenhurst where travellers and their luggage were transferred to the great steamers of the Muskoka Navigation Co such as the Sagamo. Making regular stops up the lakes, including Bracebridge, Beaumaris, and Port Carling, tourists there could transfer to smaller ships such as the Islander which could reach into smaller ports. The hotels became the centers of vacationers lives which could stretch for weeks or even months in the summer. As families became seasonally established they began building cottages near the hotels; at first simple affairs replicating the rustic environment of the early camps, but later grander including in some cases housing for significant staff. Initially cottagers relied on rowboats and canoes for daily transport and would sometimes row substantial distances. Eventually the era of the steam and gasoline launch came and people relied less on muscle power and more on motors. With the boats came the boathouses, often elaborate structures in their own right mimicking in many cases the look and feel of the main cottage.

The coming of the car

World War I caused a significant dip in the tourist activity for the area and hence the economy. After the war, however, significant advances in the automobile brought demand for improved (paved) roads. These two developments, motorboats and private cars brought greater overall development of the area and spread development out over the lakes. Freed from the ports of call of the steamships, people built cottages farther afield. Demand began dropping for the steamship lines. World War II caused another decline as wartime shortages kept many Americans at home and many Canadians were engaged in war activities. Postwar prosperity brought another boom based around the automobile and the newly affordable fiberglass boat. Suddenly owning a summer cottage became possible not only for the adventurous or the wealthy, but for many in the middle class. The steamship companies retired their boats one by one until the last sailing in the late 1950s.

Census subdivisions

Senior administrators

Historic townships

Aneda Township named for Aneda Dingwell, the wife of MP Derek Johnson during 1890's.

Baxter township named for the Honourable Jacob Baxter, MPP for Haldimand County, Ontario from 1887 to 1898 and was Speaker of the Ontario Legislature from 1887 to 1891.

Brunel Township named for noted civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Engineer-in-Chief to the Great Western Railway of England. Known in Canada for constructing the steamship Great Western

Cardwell township named for Viscount Cardwell, Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1864 to 1866.

Chaffey Township named for a relative of Hon. Stephen Richards, Benjamin Chaffey, a Brockvillemarker contractor who helped build the St. Lawrence canals. Chaffey's sister was the wife of Hon. Stephen Richards.

Draper Township named for judge Hon. William Henry Draper, Solicitor General of Upper Canada in 1837 and Attorney General of Upper Canada in 1840

Franklin township named for Arctic explorer Admiral Sir John Franklin.

Freeman township named for John Bailey Freeman, MPP for the North riding of Norfolk County from 1879 to 1890.

Gibson township named for Thomas Gibson MPP for a Huron riding from 1867 to 1898.

Little Jenkins township named for Lord Jenkins, a British judge that visited the area in 1924.

Macaulay township named for Chief Justice of the Common Pleas Sir James Buchanan Macaulay (1793 – 1859), veteran of the War of 1812.

McLean township named for Archibald McLean (1791 – 1865) a veteran of the War of 1812 he became Chief Justice of Upper Canada.

Medora township named for Mrs. Medora Cameron wife of a Toronto lawyer. She was also a niece of Hon. Stephen Richards, Commissioner of Crown Lands, hence the honour she received.

Monck township named for Viscount Monck, Lord of the Treasury in the Palmerston government in Great Britain from 1855 to 1857 and governor-general of British North America form 1861 to 1868.

Morrison township named for Mr. Angus Morrison who represented the North riding of Simcoe County from 1854 to 1863. Morrison was also a director of the old Northern Railway of Canada, Muskoka's pioneer railway, the terminus of which was Gravenhurstmarker. Morrison was also Mayor of Toronto from 1876 to 1878.

Muskoka township and district and lake are named for one of the principal Chief of the Chippawa Nation. In 1815 he signed the treaty which the Indian title to a vast territory was surrendered to the Crown. The name means "Red Ground".

Oakley township named for one (which one is uncertain) of 13 villages of the name in Great Britain, 12 of which are in England, one in Scotland.

Ridout township named for the Ridout family, a very prominent Toronto family. They came from Sherborne in Dorsetshire, England, hence the name of Sherborne township, Haliburton County, which adjoined Ridout township on the East and hence also Dorset, a village in the township. Thomas Ridout was Surveyor-General of Upper Canada.

Ryde township named for the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wightmarker.

Sinclair township, named for Donald Sinclair MPP for the North Riding of Bruce County from 1867 to 1883.

Stephenson township named for Robert Stephenson, son of George Stephenson of locomotive fame, Robert Stephenson designed the Victoria Tubular Bridge at Montreal, then the greatest Canadian bridge.

Stisted township name for Major General Henry William Stisted, Lieutenant-Governor Ontario from Confederation, July 1, 1867 to 1868.

Watt Township name for James Watt of steam engine fame.

Wood township named for Hon. Edmund Burke Wood, Provincial Treasure in the John Sandfield Macdonald Government. In 1874, appointed Chief Justice of Manitoba.


Bracebridge Gazette, November 11, 1937, an address by Redmond Thomas, Assistant Editor of the Bracebridge Gazette, delivered to a meeting of the Men Teachers' Federation of Muskoka.

  1. Ahlbrandt p 16
  2. Ahlbrandt p 21
  3. Ahlbrandt p35

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