There was a time in the early 1900′s when the world’s elite travelled to the Muskoka Lakes (Ontario, Canada) in summertime to experience the beauty aboard majestic wooden steamships. The SS Bigwin is the last remaining steamship of the original fleet.
The history of the SS Bigwin is a storied one. In 1910, James Kuhn (an industrialist from Pittsburgh, PA) launched a steamship on Lake Muskoka which he named after his wife Ella Marie. They spent their summers on Belle Isle (recently destroyed) just north of Beaumaris on Lake Muskoka. Due to financial difficulty, the Ella Marie was sold some 15 years later and relocated to Lake of Bays where it was renamed the SS Bigwin.
For the next 45 years (starting in 1925) it served as the ferry boat for vacationers and golfers to the famous Bigwin Island Resort – one of the most spectacular summer resorts in North America. It carried guests such as Clark Gable, Louis Armstrong, Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo and many other famous people out to the luxurious Bigwin Inn on Bigwin Island.
With the decline of the resort half a century ago, the SS Bigwin fell into disrepair. After years of neglect, the boat sat partially submerged on the bottom of her slip at Bigwin Inn.
A coalition of Lake of Bays cottagers, residents and organizations conducted a massive fundraising and restoration project to return this precious part of lost heritage for residents and visitors to Lake of Bays.
In 1991, the SS Bigwin was purchased and after considerable volunteer effort was raised and floated to dry dock in South Portage with the assistance of the Dwight Fire Department. In 2002, the restoration began on a property in Port Cunnington. In 2004, the Lake of Bays Marine Museum and Navigation Society purchased the old Clayton property in Dorset, Ontario as a location for the restoration to continue. It now serves as a permanent docking facility.
On Saturday November 17th, 2012, at approximately 10:30 am, the SS Bigwin set sail on Lake of Bays and passed its preliminary engine tests. The Bigwin is 66′ in length, 6′ in depth, with an 11′ 8″ beam and a registered weight of 25 tons. The ship launched officially to the public in July 2013, and is available to be enjoyed by everyone today and future generations tomorrow. 2014 was the first full season of public and private cruises aboard the restored SS Bigwin.
In a country where unfortunately so little of our historical past has survived, the opportunity to salvage a piece of our heritage is overwhelmingly precious. Due to fire and neglect, much of the original tourist infrastructure of buildings and boats in Muskoka have sadly disappeared leaving us with only faded photographs and fading memories.
History of the old Clayton Property
The old Clayton property in Dorset, now the permanent home of the SS Bigwin, has a considerable marine history itself. The property, wharf, and building were used in the past by the Huntsville/Lake of Bays Navigation Company and the Bigwin Livery Company for selling tickets, and storing shipments and mail. The upstairs of the building was the sleeping quarters of the ship captains of the Mohawk Belle and the Iroquois steamships. The steamship operators used the wharf area since 1885 and the ticket office directly beside the wharf since approximately 1918 as the centre for steamship traffic across Lake of Bays.
The steamship companies were responsible for allowing settlers, farmers, trappers, tourists and others to come to this lake before roads were developed. The wharf, ticket office, and land served the Lake of Bays region and helped make it what it is today. Unfortunately this property has been neglected for over 10 years, and if not protected by our Marine Museum the building may be lost forever. It is the intention of the Lake of Bays Marine Museum and Navigation Society to restore the ticket office and wharf.