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Locks and Canals Extend Navigation – An Essential Service in Muskoka

Article by J. Patrick Boyer

Everybody driving up Highway 11 enters Muskoka by crossing over a canal.

The 386-kilometre-long Trent-Severn waterway system linking Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario, like other canals in Canada and elsewhere, incorporates lakes and rivers with engineered channels and locks. Depending on time and place, such transportation corridors serve trade, commerce, tourism, and defence.

Muskoka’s canals, locks, channels, and dams although on a smaller scale, fit a similar pattern to others around the world, accommodating water-level differences, saving time, earning money and providing safety.

The first to propose a canal in Muskoka was Canada’s legendary explorer and map maker, David Thompson. In July 1837, when making a detailed study of this district’s waters, he encountered two sets of picturesque rapids on a loop of the river draining Lake Rosseau into Lake Muskoka.
Thompson also found Ojibwa villagers living here, many families in a permanent village called Obajewanung. With two dozen log cabins, domesticated dogs, and cleared land growing potatoes, corn, and beans, they also had numerous birchbark canoes to ply the lakes above and below the rapids. Their “carrying place” lay on the left bank, “N 60 E 50 yd, very good to a Bay of still water.” His measurements of the river’s loop here record “a strong Rapid abt. 2 ft descent and, about 260 yd above it, a strong shoal Rapid of large Stones of abt. 2 ft descent – in all say 5 ft descent.” His conclusion: “...easy to make a Lock...”

Thompson envisaged improving navigation by cutting a channel, with this lock, across the same neck of land used by the Ojibwa as a portage to bypass the rapids, whose drop in 1837 was five feet.

Three decades later Alexander Cockburn had become Muskoka’s largest employer (with lumbering, retail, and shipping) and wanted a proper canal between lakes Muskoka and Rosseau for his Gravenhurst-based steamships. Already, with ingenious improvisation and herculean effort, large vessels had been moved above the rapids, so steamers were operating on the upper waters. But real locks would make shipping more convenient, facilitate economic growth, and ease travel for fishermen and hunting parties deeper into the District.

Two developments facilitated his plan.

In the 1860s the Ojibwa families had been removed, despite their opposition, to a comparatively barren “reserve” on Parry Island in Georgian Bay. Only a tiny reserve, on one side of the riverbank, remained.

Second, Alexander Cockburn won election to the Ontario legislature as Muskoka’s representative. He traded votes in the House and influence with ministers for programs in his district. In 1869 construction of the lock began. That same year Obajewanung, the Indian village, was renamed Port Carling, to the abiding satisfaction of Public Works Minister John Carling.

The Public Works engineers laid out the canal exactly where David Thompson proposed, the carrying place of Indigenous peoples in Muskoka over the prior ten thousand years. 

“A hive of activity buzzed around a disorganized cluster of workers’ shanties,” recorded one of the stoneworkers, pioneer settler Harry Boyer, in his diary. The 19-year-old, dynamiting solid rock, was blasting to create a channel for the locks. The arduous work continued into 1870, then 1871.

Coffer dams created a water-free work area. Construction used timbers, but when the hewn pine logs proved unable to hold back the water, the first attempted structure was torn apart. At least one man had drowned in the effort, so far. A new construction supervisor, John L. Shea, took charge.

Men toiled down in the well to more closely fit squared timbers into stronger, water-tight walls. By opening a channel through the neck of land, they created an island in the centre of Port Carling. Today it is named James Bartleman Park, to honour Ontario’s first Indigenous lieutenant-governor, who grew up in the village, a descendent of the Ojibwa band who traditionally occupied the entire place.

Ready by 1872, the locks were put into service for central Muskoka lakes steamship traffic – a major advance for Muskoka’s settler society and Cockburn’s steamship fleet. The gates on the locks, as well as the swing bridge, were opened and closed many times a day throughout navigation season by the muscle-power of two men, usually the lock master and his assistant.
Meanwhile, a canal and lock project was also underway to link north Muskoka waterways for navigation.
With a three-metre difference in water-levels between Fairy and Mary lakes, the North Muskoka River draining the higher into the lower generated spectacular rapids, crashing down 10 feet, downstream from where the Brunel Road crossed the river. A dam was built to back up the waterfalls and harness the force of their more concentrated drop for power to drive lumber
milling operations. From 1873, a sawmill began using the water’s energy to turn logs into lumber, shingles, siding, and flooring.
To use this same watercourse for navigation, Ontario’s Public Works engineers in 1873 laid out channels to bypass the dam and mill, on its east side, and a lock to accommodate the waters’ different elevations. Constructed of timber, this canal project continued during 1874 and was completed by 1875. The benefits were immediately realized as steamers began carrying passengers and freight between Huntsville, upriver from Fairy Lake, and Port Sydney, at the foot of Mary Lake. All social and commercial life around Mary Lake became more readily part of an extended four-lake community.

Walls of the Brunel Locks’ channel had to be repaired every year, until reinforced by squared logs. Even then, they were rebuilt in 1890, 0and again in 1926. In 1947 a concrete facing was added. Between 1987 and 1989 the locks were completely reconstructed using concrete and incorporating modern operating mechanisms.

Like the Brunel Locks, Port Carling’s locks demanded continuous attention after 1872. In 1902 and 1903 the lock was enlarged to accommodate longer steamships. By1909 the lock gates needed replacement. New oak ones were built. As back-up, the old ones were sunk, on recommendation of the public works superintendent, “to have them on hand in case of accident to the new gates.”
During 1921 and 1922 major reconstruction of the Port Carling locks included a new swing bridge mounted on a round concrete base. A great deal of steel was used, delivered to Bala by train, transported over winter ice by teams and sleighs, and then, in an era before cranes, hoisted into place by a derrick pole. At this time, around the other side of Port Carling Island along the river’s original course, a new lock for small boats was also constructed.

In the 1950s Ontario Premier Leslie Frost launched his new historic site marker program by unveiling the Province’s first in Port Carling: “Water transportation, so vital to the early farmers and lumbermen, was greatly aided by the construction of these locks, 1869-71, by the provincial government.”

In 1962 and 1963 the small boat locks and accompanying control dam holding water at navigable levels were reconstructed (with a Winter Works grant from Ottawa to reduce seasonal unemployment) under a plastic canopy, the working space heated by a boiler. And so maintenance continues.

Port Carling’s swing bridge would be supplanted by a lift bridge. Motors would replace muscles to open and close lock gates, to raise and lower the bridge. The big locks helped revival of steamboat tourism, unique to Muskoka, in summer, and during winter, drained, has served as dry dock for Segwun and Wenonah II maintenance work.

Today, Muskoka District’s commissioner of engineering and public works, Fred Jahn, calls Port Carling’s navigation infrastructure an “essential service” for commercial and passenger traffic. Muskoka last year spent $2,245,900 on new gates for both sets of Port Carling’s locks – necessary upkeep for a transportation corridor that Anne Duke Judd, describing the Indian River, aptly calls “the real main street of Port Carling.”

The third set of locks, after Port Carling and Brunel, would come at north Muskoka’s well-used Indian “carrying place” between Lake of Bays and Peninsula Lake, a route so famous it even bequeathed its popular name The Portage to this locale.

In 1886, Ontario’s Department of Public Works began dredging a canal between Fairy and Peninsula lakes, following the course of a swampy creek. Working through 1887, the canal was completed in 1888, at a cost of $25,000. Where natural banks did not exist along the route, log piles and squared timbers shored up the excavations from erosion by wash, soon common as the canal was opened to shipping.

Meanwhile at The Portage homesteader William Osborne happily saw his vision coming true. The need for a canal between North Muskoka’s two major lake systems – the four lakes around Huntsville and the Lake of Bays – drew him to the remote inter-lake zone years before as a shrewd early settler. He acquired, with his sons, the strategic acreages both as free grant lands and direct purchases from others, including squatters, keen to sell their infertile patches. Osborne had always seen his future more in harvesting transit fares than raising farm crops.

Monopolizing access between the two lake systems, he saw his dream becoming reality in 1886 when the canal was being opened to create Muskoka’s longest artificial waterway. Linking Fairy and Peninsula lakes would greatly extend Huntsville’s hinterland. In 1887 William upgraded the crude track over his awkward stretch of rocky ridges and swampy mud areas, grading and gravelling his roadway, getting ready to move people and cargo across the portage.

New steamships came into service on both sides, with wharfs at North Portage for Captain Alfred Denton’s Northern and Florence Main on Peninsula Lake, and at South Portage for Captain George Marsh’s Mary Louise and Excelsior working Lake of Bays. More vacation resorts appeared. Busy Huntsville needed increasing supplies of tanning bark. Water-borne traffic for passengers and cargo grew.

Where the two lakes most closely approached each other was, of course, Osborne’s land – just five-eighths of a mile across. However, this “tantalizing proximity” was, as Muskoka authority Gary Long notes, “tempered by the geographic reality that Lake of Bays stands 103 feet higher” and the fact “a line of hill runs along the narrow isthmus.” Those cliffs and precipitous slopes had led savvy indigenous canoeists to make a longer portage, rather than attempt the shortest overland trail.

Though a canal had seemed inevitable, engineers plotting its route and the number of locks needed revealed the project’s cost to be an even higher barrier than its geographic hurdles. The place would retain its name The Portage. William Osborne now started dreaming of a railway. In the meantime, dominating the trans-shipment centre, his teams and wagons carried the full load.

Dredging that navigation channel between Fairy and Peninsula lakes was not the only place in Muskoka where water traffic could be expanded without having to build locks. Cutting a channel between lakes Rosseau and Joseph lowered both to the same level, and saved money – an engineering expedient only possible politically in a pre-development era before docks and boathouses dotted the higher lake’s shoreline. With steamships and other craft moving readily between both lakes through The Cut, over which a bridge was built to maintain the land route as well, the small village of Port Sandfield (named for Ontario Premier Sandfield Macdonald, again a nod to provincial funding) emerged. The high level stationary bridge was replaced by a more pragmatic swing bridge in 1924, which was again fully reconstructed in 1997.

Elsewhere, engineers sometimes had just to widen existing channels. Dynamiting off the rock on one side of The Narrows between Gravenhurst Bay and Lake Muskoka opened passage for larger steamships from Gravenhurst’s expanding fleet and tugs pulling wide booms of logs to Sawdust City’s bay-rimming sawmills.

Muskoka without canals would still be good, but not the jewel it has become.

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