On Wednesday, July 14, 2004, the Ontario Heritage Foundation and the Township of Muskoka Lakes unveiled a provincial plaque to commemorate the settlement of Windermere. The bilingual text reads as follows:


    In the early 1860s, the government promoted agricultural settlement in Muskoka. Newcomers, including the Fife, Aitken and Forge families, settled near Lake Rosseau, working at farming and lumbering. In 1868, Windermere post office opened at the mouth of the Dee River to the north, but shortly afterwards moved nearby to the house of Thomas Aitken. Like others, Aitken boarded tourists in his home, at first informally. Once the railway reached the steamboat port of Gravenhurst in 1875, people poured into the Muskoka lakes for restorative wilderness holidays. In response, Aitken developed his famous Windermere House in the 1880s. That resort, representative of the region’s lakeside hotels, served as the focal point for Windermere’s evolution into a well-loved vacation destination.


    Au début des années 1860, le gouvernement voulut promouvoir la colonisation agricole de la région de Muskoka. De nouveaux venus, dont les familles Fife, Aitken et Forge, s’installèrent près du lac Rosseau, cultivant les terres et travaillant dans l’industrie forestière. En 1868, le bureau de poste de Windermere ouvrit ses portes à l’embouchure de la rivière Dee, au nord; le bureau s’installa cependant peu après dans la résidence de Thomas Aitken. Comme d’autres personnes, M. Aitken accueillit des touristes chez lui, d’abord à l’amiable. Une fois que le chemin de fer atteignit le port pour bateaux à vapeur de Gravenhurst, en 1875, les visiteurs affluèrent dans la région des lacs Muskoka pour y prendre des vacances reposantes. Profitant de l’occasion, M. Aitken construisit la célèbre maison Windermere dans les années 1880. Ce centre de villégiature représentatif des hôtels qui bordent les lacs de la région, devint le point focal de la transformation de Windermere en destination de vacances recherchée.

Historical background

Muskoka, a beautiful area rich in lakes and forests, lies east of Georgian Bay within the southern boundary of the Canadian Shield. It typically consists of shallow soil lying on granite bedrock, which regularly punctures the surface and gives the region much of its scenic charm. Within Muskoka, the village of Windermere — and the recently rebuilt Windermere House — sits on the east side of Lake Rosseau. In many ways, this small village is representative of the lakeside communities that formed in the region during the Victorian era and that turned to tourism at an early date as a primary source of economic stability.

Agricultural settlement in Muskoka

Muskoka became the focus of agricultural settlement after most of the good farmland south of the Canadian Shield had been settled by the middle of the 19th century. The government of the Province of Canada1 decided to open the Ottawa-Huron Tract (between the Ottawa River and Georgian Bay). Muskoka, at the western end of the tract, became the first area targeted for settlement.2 For the most part, the area was unsuitable for farming, but the government was influenced by the need to find settlement lands and by the large number of reports positively describing the region’s agricultural potential, which were written during the 19th century by optimistic surveyors and others who often mistook the presence of dense forest as a sign of fertility. To help achieve its settlement objectives, the province-built colonization roads to link the region with the south, beginning in 1858 with the Muskoka Road, which ran a short distance north of Bracebridge when completed. Soon afterwards, settlers began to appear in the townships to the south of the future site of Windermere. Newcomers took up lots, cleared the bush, and built shelters. However, after encountering the cruel realities of the local soil conditions and climate, as well as a variety of other problems, many moved away soon after taking up their property.3

As settlers began to farm the region, lumbermen also entered Muskoka to harvest pine and other trees for boards, shingles, and other products. In the early 1900s, the forestry industry largely abandoned Muskoka after exhausting the region’s supply of commercial timber.4

Founding of Windermere

In 1863, David Fife, his wife Ellen (Aitken), and their children moved to Muskoka from Peterborough County to settle by the shore of a small bay on Lake Rosseau in what now is the heart of Windermere. The Fifes cleared land, farmed, logged, and later sold firewood to the small steamships that tied the Muskoka lakes to the outside world. Thomas Aitken, another Peterborough County resident and recent immigrant from the Shetland Islands, arrived about the same time. He may have cleared land during the winter and worked as a sailor on the Great Lakes during the shipping season until 1868 when he took up year-round residence. His sister, Elizabeth Aitken, joined him and in 1872 he married Mary Traill. Other newcomers in the early 1860s included Francis Forge from York County, his wife Elizabeth (Dawson), their son, and Francis’ brother- and sister-in-law, William and Rachel Dawson. A short distance north at the mouth of the Dee River, Archibald Taylor built a sawmill. It was at Taylor’s establishment in 1868 that a post office named Windermere opened. Shortly afterwards, it moved to the Aitken home and in 1870 Thomas Aitken officially became the postmaster.5

At this time, the post-confederation government of Ontario passed the Free Grant and Homesteads Act of 1868 to address a general failure to attract significant numbers of farmers to Muskoka. The province gave 100 acres (40.5 hectares) to individuals over the age of 18 in return for clearing and cultivating their grants. In subsequent years, the government improved its settlement offer to attract more people.6 One consequence was that Watt Township, which included the site of Windermere, formally opened for settlement. Within a decade, most of the township’s land had been claimed, although much of it remained unsettled.7

In the early 1870s, locks were constructed at Port Carling and a canal was cut at Port Sandfield. These initiatives allowed vessels to sail between lakes Muskoka, Rosseau, and Joseph with comparative ease. Thomas Aitken, who farmed and raised livestock in Windermere in addition to serving as postmaster, wanted steamboats to call at his community rather than at the nearby settlement of Portage Bay. He built a wharf and apparently promised to supply cordwood in order to attract vessels. At about the same point that Lake Rosseau became more accessible by water, a road opened to connect Windermere with the Parry Sound Road (which joined the Muskoka Road). Nevertheless, the size of the community remained small during those years.8

Transforming Windermere into a tourism centre

Muskoka tourism emerged in the 1860s when recreational hunters, fishers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts appeared in the region in small parties. They asked for directions to the best spots for their holiday activities, hired boats and guides, purchased food, and rented beds from the locals. Realizing that there was little hope for prosperity in farming Muskoka’s thin soils and seeing opportunities in serving these visitors, people promoted Muskoka as a holiday destination, and the region’s first resort, the purpose-built Rosseau House, opened in 1870. During this time, many individuals welcomed visitors to their homes, offering them bed and board in return for payment. In 1875, the railway line to Gravenhurst was completed, connecting the town and its lake steamers to the population centres of the south and attracting increasing numbers of vacationers to the region. Soon, tourism would grow to become the basis of the economy of Muskoka in general and of Windermere in particular. With this growth, some of the boarding houses evolved into resorts, such as Clevelands House across Lake Rosseau from Windermere, which made the transition in the early 1880s. The construction of comfortable resorts attracted large numbers of women and children to Muskoka, although many male holidaymakers continued to “rough it” in the bush. In fact, the vast majority of Victorian resort guests were women and children, most of whom were deposited at these establishments for extended summer stays by male relatives who typically commuted between work in the south and short visits to their families. Muskoka was well situated to draw tourists for two main reasons. First, it offered the scenic wilderness, pure air, and recreational opportunities that much of the developing middle-class sought in its quest for therapeutic rest from the wearying world of the Victorian city. Second, it was conveniently located close to the population centres of southern Ontario and the neighbouring United States, especially once the railway reached Gravenhurst.9

In Windermere itself, Thomas Aitken seems to have accommodated vacationers in the 1870s, and then made a major move into serving tourists in the early 1880s when he developed the Aitken house, a hotel with room for 39 guests. The name Windermere House replaced the earlier one before or in 1886.10 In 1887, the Toronto World described the resort as “quiet and respectable” and praised its “good taste in furnishing and exquisite neatness,” as well as its “roomy halls” and “airy chambers.”11 The person who probably set much of the character of the hotel in those years was Elizabeth Boyer from Bracebridge, who Aitken married after his first wife died. Boyer did much of the work of running the establishment and forbade liquor or cards at the resort during her day. In 1887, another of Windermere’s original families, the Fifes, followed the Aitkens’ lead by opening Fife House overlooking Windermere Bay. As the years passed, Windermere House and other facilities expanded in size and in the range of amenities they offered, while new businesses appeared to meet the demand for Muskoka vacations. Of course, with growing tourism, places like Windermere and Fife houses became important purchasers of local produce as well as significant employers, although the jobs available were typically low-waged and seasonal.12

From an early date, some people chose to build summer homes and cottages in and around the Muskoka lakes rather than stay in resorts and other facilities. In 1879, Torontonian George Paton purchased the promontory northwest of Windermere House and in 1883 he and six associates formed the Windermere Club to rent and sell cabins. Other people followed, including the department store baron Timothy Eaton who built his summer estate Ravenscrag facing Windermere Bay in the 1890s after having spent earlier years enjoying the hospitality of Windermere House.13

With its success as a tourist destination, Windermere had secured its future by the end of the 19th century. Beyond the resorts and summer cottages, the village was home to a small number of permanent residents as well as two churches. This success contrasted with the neighbouring community of Dee Bank, a short distance to the east, where hope had been placed in a tannery, a gristmill, and a sawmill. The gristmill burned in the 1890s, the tannery seems to have closed sometime before 1903, and the sawmill fell victim to fire in 1906 at about the same time that the forest industry stood on its last legs. Soon afterwards, Dee Bank ceased to exist.14

In the early 20th century, new holiday facilities appeared in Windermere (such as the golf course that was founded in 1919), and older enterprises grew. The community evolved and became more complex with the founding of local organizations and services, such as a Women’s Institute in 1911 and a school in 1913. The province incorporated the village in 1924 in response to local desires to improve services and beautify the community. As time passed, the larger influences of 20th-century life were felt in the village as well. These included the decline of formality in resort life after 1918, the ascendancy of the automobile, and an increased demand for modern conveniences at hotels and other vacation properties. External events also affected Windermere’s hospitality industry. The Great Depression undermined the tourism business, and after 1945 the popularity of old-style resorts declined as people increasingly pursued the growing range of vacation opportunities that the shrinking world offered.15

Contemporary Windermere

In January 1971, the Village of Windermere amalgamated with the Townships of Watt, Cardwell, Medora and Wood, portions of Monck Township, Port Carling and the Town of Bala to form the Township of Muskoka Lakes with municipal offices in Port Carling. Windermere House, the first of the village’s major tourist facilities, went through a period of changing ownership and some decline towards the end of the 20th century. Then, in 1996, when its future seemed uncertain, it accidentally burned down.16 Despite worries that the landmark had been lost forever, and corresponding fears that the village itself would face a bleak future without it, the owners of Windermere House rebuilt the resort to open again a year later. Windermere itself is a small village of about 60 households today and recreational amenities that serve both tourists and cottagers.17 Despite its small size, Windermere is one of Ontario’s best-loved communities and boasts an interesting history that is representative of the broader transformations that occurred in Muskoka beginning in the latter 19th century.

The Ontario Heritage Foundation gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Carl Benn in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Foundation, 2004

1 The British government amalgamated Upper and Lower Canada into the “United Province of Canada” in 1841. At Confederation in 1867, the new provinces of Ontario and Quebec formed within the Dominion of Canada, divided by the pre-amalgamated 1841 border.

2 A good description and analysis of the settlement process and early forest industry is Geoffrey Wall, “19th-century land use and settlement on the Canadian Shield frontier,” in David Harry Miller and Jerome O. Steffens, eds. The frontier: comparative studies, Vol. 1 (Norman, 1977), pp. 227-41. Another strong analysis, as well as a collection of published primary documents, is to be found in Florence B. Murray, ed., Muskoka and Haliburton, 1616-1875 (Toronto, 1963).

3 Wall, “19th-century land use,” 230-32, 235; and Murray, Muskoka and Haliburton, pp. lxix-lxxi.

4 Wall, “19th-century land use,” pp. 235-39; Murray, Muskoka and Haliburton, lxxxix-xcv; and Richard Tatley, Segwun: a Muskoka tour (Erin, 1998), p. 9.

5 Richard Tatley, Windermere (Erin, 1999), pp. 9-11; Susan Pryke, Windermere House: the tradition continues (Erin, 1999), p. 16; and “Windermere” at the website of the National Archives of Canada ArchiviaNet — “Post Offices and Post Masters” (accessed March 3, 2004). Tatley, p. 10, says Thomas Aitken arrived after the Fifes, whereas Pryke, p. 16, suggests that he may have arrived earlier, but that the data is uncertain. Tatley, p. 12, says the name Windermere honoured the English Lake District town, whereas Windermere Heritage Plaque Committee, “History of Windermere,” (manuscript, 2003, on file with the Ontario Heritage Foundation), p. 1, claims the English lake itself inspired the name. The history section of the Township of Muskoka Lakes website (accessed February 29, 2004) affirms the lake as the origin of the name. Tatley, p. 12, notes that the postal history is slightly confused: “The post office was assigned to John McAlpine of Utterson, who contented himself with delivering the mailbag to Taylor’s home, but Taylor soon tired of the responsibility of distributing the mail and asked Thomas Aitken to look after it. McAlpine resigned his position in March 1869, and Aitken officially succeeded him a year later.”

6 Wall, “19th-century land use,” pp. 232-34; and Murray, Muskoka and Haliburton, pp. lxxviii-lxxxv.

7 Tatley, Windermere, pp. 12-13. Watt and Cardwell townships became a jointly incorporated township in 1871 but separated again in 1878. Windermere became an incorporated village in 1924. In 1971, the province amalgamated several municipalities, including Watt Township and Windermere, into the new Township of Muskoka Lakes (history section of the Township of Muskoka Lakes website, accessed February 29, 2004).

8 Tatley, Windermere, pp. 13-14; Tatley, Segwun, pp. 31, 41; Murray, Muskoka and Haliburton, pp. lxxi-lxxii; W.E. Hamilton, Guide book and atlas of Muskoka and Parry Sound districts, first published 1879 (Erin, 2000), p. 56; and Susan Pryke, Explore Muskoka (Erin, 1987), p. 50. The first steamboat on the Muskoka lakes was the Wenonah, built in Gravenhurst in 1866, followed by the Waubamik in 1869, the Nipissing in 1871, the Simcoe in 1875, and many others afterwards. The famous Segwun, which still calls at Windermere after retiring in 1958 and then re-entering service in 1981, dates to 1887 (Tatley, Segwun, pp. 13-15).

9 Murray, Muskoka and Haliburton, pp. cxiii-xciv; and Patricia Jenson, Wild things: nature, culture, and tourism in Ontario, 1790-1914 (Toronto, 1995), pp. 104-26. Toronto, for instance, was only 175 kilometres to the south by rail.

10 Tatley, Windermere, pp. 15-17; and Pryke, Windermere House, p. 31. Some authors date Aitken’s first formal tourist facilities (some cabins that predated Windermere House) to 1872, but Tatley believes this date is too precise to be sustained by the available evidence.

11 Quoted in Pryke, Windermere House, pp. 22-23.

12 Tatley, Windermere, pp. 18, 21-27; and Pryke, Windermere House, pp. 18-23.

13 Tatley, Windermere, pp. 18, 25-26.

14 Ibid., pp. 18-27, 30-32.

15 Ibid., pp. 29-66; and history section of the Visit Muskoka website, accessed February 29, 2004.

16 Pryke, Windermere House, pp. 11-13, 61-71.

17 Tatley, Windermere, pp. 7, 59-66.