The 1887 Segwun Still Goes Chugging Across Muskoka’s Lakes

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Photo: The steamship Segwun, built in 1887, heads for the open sea – well, okay, for Lake Muskoka as it approaches the narrows at Gravenhurst Bay. (By Patrick Brennan)

By Patrick Brennan

It was good roads that brought R.M.S. Segwun back to life 25 years ago this summer.

And that’s appropriate; as it was good roads that killed off the Segwun and her sister steamships from the lakes of Muskoka nearly 50 years ago this summer.

Since her resurrection from the bone yard, the Segwun has become a principal icon for summer tourism in Ontario and one of Canada’s most popular tourist attractions. The 119-year-old vessel is the only passenger steamship still operating in North America.

It was the Ontario Road Builders Association that funded the millions needed for Segwun’s 10-year restoration program that started in 1971 after John Coulter, a young marine engineer from Toronto, spotted the ship tied to a pier in Gravenhurst as a floating museum and believed she could sail again as a passenger ship.

The ORBA felt somewhat responsible for her demise, as it was the building of roads into Muskoka that eventually put an end to the 10- ship fleet of steamships that had been the easiest method of summer transportation in Muskoka.

Today it’s the most fun method of touring the lakes of Muskoka.

The 125-foot-long Segwun was built as a paddlewheeler in 1887 and was one of 10 vessels in the Muskoka Navigation Company fleet that most ports and resorts relied on for freight, passengers and mail. She is still classified as a Royal Mail Ship and is an official floating post office.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sailed on the Segwun to visit the Muskoka cottage of Pittsburgh business tycoon Andrew Mellon. Pierre Trudeau was aboard for the Segwun’s second inaugural cruise in 1981.

Some of that fleet sank on their own, one burned at a dock and half were wiped out by the tragic Noronic fire in Toronto harbour in September 1949. The death of 119 passengers brought about many new regulations for wooden ships and half the Muskoka fleet couldn’t meet the requirements and were scrapped.

The steamship Nipissing burned to the waterline in 1886 when docked at Port Cockburn at the top of Lake Joseph. A new ship, made of iron, was built to replace her and it too was called Nipissing.

When Nipissing was converted from a paddlewheeler to propeller driven in 1924, it made such a change in her looks that it was decided she needed a new name too. She became Segwun, an Ojibwa name meaning “springtime.”

These days a blast from her steam whistle is the first sign of spring for many Muskoka cottagers.

The coal-fired Segwun carries a maximum 99 passengers and sails each day until Oct. 22, usually four times a day from the The Gravenhurst town dock.

There are supper cruises with dancing, family dinner cruises, lunch cruises, sunset cruises, morning and afternoon cruises. Cruises range in length from one hour to four hours.

Adult ticket prices range from $16 to $42 for cruises only and $9.50 to $32.75 for children.

Segwun’s successful second life has given birth to a new fleet for the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society. She has been joined on the lakes by the 200-passenger Wenonah ll, an exact replica of a 1907 steamship, but she was built in 2002 with all the modern conveniences, such as air conditioning and an elevator.

The home base is the $60 million Muskoka Wharf Village being created along the Gravenhurst waterfront on Lake Muskoka.

The village will be a year-round entertainment centre with more than 3,000 feet of waterfront boardwalk lined with shops, restaurants, museums, large picnic shelters, recreation facilities, a Marriott hotel and condominium residences priced at up to $700, 000.

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