Ship to Shore: Steamers and Hotelware of Muskoka’s Golden Age
his summer the RMS Segwun turns 125. She still sails the Muskoka Lakes, the last reminder of what was once the largest inland navigation fleet in Canada. Steam navigation on the Muskoka Lakes began with the launching of the Wenonah by Alexander Peter Cockburn in 1866. Considered by many to be the father of Muskoka tourism through his entrepreneurship and devotion to the cause, he identified the tourist potential of the lakes early on and then set out to build a tourist industry with his fleet of steamers at its core.
Cockburn’s tireless efforts to promote the district coincided with a new movement and attitude toward wilderness destinations. In the mid- to late nineteenth century, many North Americans had grown critical of the materialism of life in the so-called Gilded Age and had begun to seek retreat and spiritual regeneration through closer contact with nature. Resorts throughout North America developed and expanded to meet the demands of visitors seeking to escape city life and venture into the wilderness, to a spa or to the seashore, in order to enjoy the great outdoors.
Muskoka was ideally situated to take advantage of this new desire for a recuperative holiday. Located within a day’s travel from the urban centre of Toronto and connected to it by the Grand Trunk Railway, Muskoka’s popularity grew immensely. As trade increased, Cockburn added to his fleet, including the Nipissing, now Segwun, in 1887, a replacement for an earlier vessel lost to fire. By 1900 the Muskoka Lakes had become one of Canada’s leading summer destinations, attracting thousands of tourists each season to the Canadian Shield region of Ontario.
In the era before automobiles, the steamboats of Muskoka were the primary means of transport throughout the district. Prior to 1900 one took the Grand Trunk Railway from Toronto to the Muskoka Wharf station on Muskoka Bay in Gravenhurst. A long pier allowed boats to pull up beside the train and passengers disembarked directly into the stately steamers of the Muskoka Navigation Company to travel to their cottage or one of the over one hundred summer hotels in the region.
In keeping with the ideals of getting back to nature and experiencing the wilderness first-hand, activities and accommodations were often rustic and offered few amenities other than a hearty meal and a bed. It was mostly settlers, who began taking in hunters and sportsmen as lodgers during the summer months, who started many of the nineteenth-century summer hotels. As extra rooms were added to existing dwellings some grew haphazardly into relatively imposing structures.
These years were a time of great optimism for the future. The promoters of the Muskoka Navigation Company and the tourist industry revelled in the region’s image as a destination where a simpler way of life could be found. By the late 1890s, however, it was obvious that if Muskoka were to continue as a favoured destination it needed to cater to a fashionable clientele by providing first-class services. The Navigation Company led the way with construction of the Royal Muskoka Hotel on Lake Rosseau in 1901. It was like nothing the area had seen before. Palatial in size, with all the modern amenities from electric lights, ensuite accommodations, and steam heating, the Royal Muskoka was instantly regarded as the finest summer hotel in Canada, attracting a clientele composed of the leading members of Canadian society as well as a number of wealthy Americans.
Guests at the Royal would arrive for the season, servants in tow, along with steamer trunks, sporting equipment and even household objects to personalize their rooms. Summer days were filled with regattas, sports and gossip, while evenings consisted of elaborate meals, concerts, masquerades and dances. It was a formal vacation environment that contrasted starkly with the simpler pursuits of the early tourists to Muskoka.
The Muskoka Navigation Company reorganized itself and adopted a new name and enterprise, the Muskoka Lakes Navigation and Hotel Company Limited. With a new name, confidence and optimism, the company commissioned monogrammed dinnerware for its steamers and hotel. Manufactured by Wood & Sons in England and supplied by Gowans Kent & Company of Toronto, the heavy, vitrified restaurantware of the company china featured a simple design of three green bands with a crest. The logo displayed a circlet with the company’s name written within it, surrounding an Indianhead. The Indianhead, and Indian imagery generally, which had become a popular emblem of Muskoka in early twentieth-century advertising, connected an historical image of Muskoka and romanticized nineteenth-century notions of “Indianness” to contemporary consumer associations with qualities such as bravery, physical prowess and natural virtue. These particular pieces were used in the dining salons of the steamers where passengers could lunch, take afternoon tea or dine while en route to their destination.
While it was customary for transportation companies to use the same pattern of hotelware in both their hotels and steamers, the operators of the Muskoka Lakes Navigation and Hotel Company Limited instead commissioned separate wares for the Royal Muskoka Hotel. To match the prestigious image it emanated, the hotel’s dinnerware featured the same green-banding of its parent company’s pieces but replaced the Indianhead with a coat of arms. The Royal Muskoka crest contained several images related to the region’s history, from the bow and arrow of the Native at its centre to the sailing ship of the European settlers, the beaver so important to the fur trade, and various animals such as deer and a lion all surmounted by a crown. The Royal crest itself (see page 8) provided a powerful marketing image, with the crown and heraldic content playing into the regal image that the hotel’s owners wished to project.
The adoption of crested dinnerware for its boats and hotel started a trend in Muskoka for summer hotels both large and small, as they also adopted customized hotelware. The region’s second largest hotel, Elgin House, used a blue-banded set of dishes featuring a crest complete with a hound surrounded by a circlet containing the motto “vive ut post ea vivas” (live so you may live hereafter). Other hotels were less creative, often using ready-made images to create their logos. Popular designs included sash and buckles with the hotel’s name around the outside and Muskoka written in the middle, such as those used by Paignton and Thorel House, speaking to the British ancestry of the hotel’s owners.
Like the navigation pieces, most hotel china was supplied through Gowans Kent and manufactured by Wood & Sons, or W. H. Grindley and John Maddock & Sons. Dining services were extensive with a multitude of differently shaped and sized pieces of dinnerware from mustard pots and sugar bowls, to scalloped bone dishes and compotes as well as the more standard plates, soup bowls, and jugs. These customized pieces were not confined to the dining room; they also appeared in guest rooms. The Windermere House toothbrush holder is one such piece that along with chamber pot, slop jar, pitcher, and washbasin would have been a standard room fixture.
After the First World War the use of customized hotelware declined as older patterns began to be replaced by generic china patterns at all but the largest resorts, until what had once been a characteristic element of the Muskoka travel experience was no more. The navigation company itself switched to generic dishes by the Second World War, while the Royal Muskoka abandoned the use of its crest on dinnerware by 1947. After the loss of the hotel to fire in 1952, the navigation company continued on for another five seasons before ceasing operations at the end of the 1957 season. The Segwun was one of the two last boats operated by the company and after her retirement was turned into a floating museum moored in Gravenhurst in the 1960s where she lingered, awaiting her ultimate fate.
Unlike her sister ships, however, the Segwun would survive until, in the mid-1970s, she was restored and returned to service for the 1981 season, instantly becoming a tourist icon for the region. With this rebirth to service the decision was made to have her own new crested dinnerware produced by Buffalo China in keeping with the old monogrammed dishes that once graced the dining salon in the days of the Nipissing. It was a subtle way to connect the late-twentieth century with the sailing generations of the past. As for the older pieces, those not broken or discarded have become highly sought after artifacts, their logos and crests still speaking to the modern collectors of Canada’s tourist history in the “wilds” of Muskoka.
Geoffrey Shifflett is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo and an avid collector of Muskoka’s material past.
Royal Muskoka Hotel,
H. 10 cm x D. 18 cm