History of Lake Muskoka and Cottages

Posted On Wednesday, 07 September 2022 20:30

Lake Muskoka is among the most beautiful getaways for Canadian families and tourists. Its geography and waterfront features are second to none, and you can expect a fun-filled vacation whenever you’re there. 

But how did Lake Muskoka become the cottage country that it is today? Here, we talk about Muskoka’s geography, history, and evolution to become one of the prime destinations for everyone who wants to have a great, relaxing time. 


The District Municipality of Muskoka is located in Southern Ontario and is home to the towns of Bracebridge, Gravenhurst, and Huntsville. It has a permanent population of 60,000 residents, with an additional 100,000 seasonal property owners. Many of said properties are large summer estates and cottages.  

Most of these cottages sit along the shores of Muskoka’s three major lakes: Muskoka, Joseph, and Rosseau. In recent years, the region has seen an influx of people — including celebrities — building retreats around the lakes. Summer camps also abound to take advantage of the geography and the lakes. 

Muskoka’s geography has driven the region’s history, thanks to the abundance of opportunities for fishing, hunting, and trapping. Popular recreational activities include canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, waterskiing, and other water activities. 

Many realtors like Kelly Fallis tout Lake Muskoka and the surrounding areas to be the best place in the world for relaxation. The place has become home to the most sought-after real estate in Canada.

The Early Days of Lake Muskoka 

The first mention of Muskoka in historical records was in 1615. It was home to First Nations peoples. In fact, the name “Muskoka” is believed to come from a Chippewa chief named “Mesqua Ukee.” 

During the 19th century, Canada experienced heavy immigration from the UK. The government planned to open the Muskoka region further north to settlement. They issued logging licenses in 1866, and the lumber industry expanded quickly. Road and water transportation also boomed to facilitate town settlement. 

Then, the railroad and steamship industry flourished. During the late 19th century, the sawmill industry thrived. By 1920, agriculture peaked at 2,000 farms, supporting the growing vacation industry. The scenic forests and lakes attracted people from Southern Ontario and even the US. 

During those days, grand hotels were a common choice for travelers — complete with dance halls, fine dining, tennis courts, and croquet lawns. By 1879, around 30 establishments stood on the grounds of Muskoka. By 1950, there were 50 of them. Most of these hotels have disappeared, but a few of them remain standing. 

Becoming Cottage Country 

It was only a matter of time before Muskoka became a cottage country. In the late 19th century, the first summer cottagers bought islands on Lake Joseph. A part of Lake Muskoka had the nickname “Millionaires’ Row” and “Little Pittsburgh.” American tycoon families vacationed there.  

In 1894, the Muskoka Lakes Association was established. The group aimed to preserve the area’s natural beauty. At present, it represents the interest of thousands of property owners. 

Muskoka tourism declined in the 1930s because of the Great Depression. However, the region opened up more because of highway expansions and increased automobile use after World War II. As transportation systems improved, local farmers suffered intense competition from outside producers. 

Around the same time, the lumber industry declined as the supply of harvestable lumber dwindled. Many farmers had to leave the region, and by the late 1980s, only around 225 farms remained in the area.  

Cottagers and tourists continued to access Muskoka by car during the second half of the 20th century. As a result, the steamboat industry declined. At present, only two steamboats transporting tourists remain. 

Today, Muskoka is visited by 85,000 seasonal residents from spring to fall every year. Hotels, cottages, and summer camps remain. Lake Muskoka is considered to be the crown jewel of Ontario’s Muskoka Lakes region.

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