Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre
A trip to Gravenhurst in Ontario’s wonderfully picturesque cottage country simply isn’t complete without a visit to the fantastically fun Muskoka Steamships and Discovery Centre. The town borders on two breathtaking bodies of water: Lake Muskoka, which is the largest lake in the Muskoka Region, and Gull Lake, a smaller cottage-bordered lake with a number of other lakes and rivers nearby.
The Muskoka Steamship & Historical Society is a membership-based not for profit registered charity. Founded in 1973, the Society owns the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Segwun, Wenonah II, and Wanda III, as well being the operators of the Muskoka Discovery Centre. This summer marks the 150th anniversary of when the steamship Wenonah first began servicing Lake Muskoka in 1866.
The original importance of the steamship as a transportation vehicle was to provide people with access to the lakes. They would haul passengers, freight, mail and cattle and everything imaginable to the various ports and continue those runs for many years. Nowadays, the importance is highlighted by the rich history of the vessels and most notably the famous 129-year-old RMS Segwun, which is the oldest operational steamship in North America and seventh-oldest in the world. Tourists can travel to Muskoka and literally get on the same ship and navigate the routes and ports that visitors to the area did well over a century ago.
The last steamship went out of service in 1958 and it was mostly for economic reasons. By that time automobiles and roads were well established as a much faster mode of transportation. In the 1970s Segwun was sitting idly in Gravenhurst at the dock and being used as a floating museum and certainly not seaworthy. That’s when a small group of dedicated people decided to restore Segwun and bring her back to original condition and then start to offer cruises in an ambitious project that took almost a decade to complete.
“With the exception of the hull, they built her back up again including the restoration of the engine and the woodwork, all the operating systems, steering and other parts had to be replaced,” says John Miller, President of Muskoka Steamships and Discovery Centre. “It really started from the ground up and obviously kept all the parts they could but did a great job and made it look as if you know she’d never been out of service.”
“It was a big endeavor and the Ontario Roadbuilders Association led the project in terms of being the biggest contributors because someone perhaps pitched them on the idea that they were the ones that put the Segwun out of business in the first place back in 1958,” Miller laughs. “The project never would have happened without their support.”
Other local businesses and individuals were integral in supporting the relaunch of steamships for tourism. In 1987 Canada Post honoured the Segwun with a commemorative 36-cent stamp. Now stamps can be made for any number of occasions but back then there were very few events or historical artifacts being honoured.
The season begins around June 1, depending on pre-booked events and reservations. Private charters are available for large corporate affairs. The season ends on Thanksgiving Monday in October. Miller says he and the staff keep track of their passengers or customers as best they can with tourists coming from all over the world. “I would say I would say at least 50% of our clientele know about the Segwun even prior to arriving here. We have a large number of repeat visitors that come back each year just because it’s an annual celebration or it’s just one of those things you do on an annual basis.”
As a charitable, non-profit organization, all the money goes back into the ships and their upkeep for current and future generations to enjoy. There are two other steamships in the fleet. Wanda III is in restoration but the Wenonah II is a $5 million vessel that was launched in 2002. Wenonah has a capacity of 216 passengers, significantly more than Segwun’s maximum of 97.
“It was quite a large undertaking for a small company such as ours and we raised $3 million to build the Segwun. But then 9/11 happened and we stopped fundraising immediately because it just didn’t feel right, so we went and got a loan for $2 million for the remainder and we paid that loan off in 2012,” Miller says.
Both steamships offer lunch and dinner cruises throughout the season as well as sightseeing tours. About 40 to 50 weddings are held on board each year along with social receptions, fundraisers and other corporate gala occasions. Additionally, the plentiful number of hotels and resorts mean companies will often spend three or four days at a staff retreat or conduct seminars but then as a form of relaxation they’ll hire one of the ships and go out for a cruise on the lake.
Due to the immense popularity of the steamships, Miller always advises to book ahead whenever possible. Nothing is more disappointing than to show up and realize that nothing is available. “I would always advise whenever you have a date in mind or whatever, give us a call or go online and book it. Usually in the height of the summer and on weekends our cruises get sold out. All the food cruises that require meal service, require advanced booking.”
Muskoka Discovery Centre
The Muskoka Discovery Centre is a state of the art entertainment, attraction and education facility, located across the bay from the steamships at the Muskoka Wharf. The main attraction within the Discovery Center is the antique and classic wooden boat display. The centre is celebrating its 10th anniversary and has been featuring a new exhibit called the Canadian Waterscapes from Ottawa’s Museum of Nature.
“We have a five-slip boathouse so you can come and see the antique and classic boats that Muskoka is famous for, sitting in the water,” Miller says. “It’s a rare opportunity because normally you do not see these boats. But here see them in their natural environment in the water and a volunteer can describe to you what they are and when they were built and all sorts of history that pertains to them. It is the most popular exhibit within the Discovery Centre.”
Miller says he is currently seeking funding to do a major revitalization within the Discovery Centre, which would include new technology and an introductory object theatre. Property has been purchased adjacent to the Discovery Center, creating the possibility of expansion.
“We’re not going to build another boat anytime soon but we certainly have plans for the future,” Miller confirms.
It’s a very unique opportunity in Ontario to be able to sail on such historic vessels on some of the most beautiful lakes in the world. There are also very limited opportunities to witness the lakes first-hand due to the amount of private development and so one of the best ways to do it is on the Muskoka Steamships.
“It’s great experience and that’s why we have a high rate of return. We are looking forward to building our audience and bringing more people to Muskoka,” Miller concludes.