MUSKOKAN - “I can tell the story of the Muskoka Road in about one sentence,” said author Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith, an Ottawa resident and a Three-Mile Lake cottager for 40 years. “The road was terrible. It was always terrible. The end — However, when you open the covers a little bit, there’s a lot more to it.”
Despite its evolution into a series of main streets, highway sections,
backroads and trails, author Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith calls the Muskoka Colonization Road “one of the most successful of Ontario’s colonization roads”
Apparently so. As Smith researched the development of the first road into Muskoka, which eventually laid the foundation for Highway 11, she found she had no trouble evolving that initial sentence into 200 pages for Muskoka’s Main Street, 150 years of courage and adventure along the Muskoka Colonization Road.
“What I wanted to do was tell this in a story form,” explained Smith. “I wanted some primary source material of people who had surveyed the road, who had lived on the road, who had built the road, to tell the story of it from their point of view.”
Smith’s research led to the diaries and letters of surveyors, memoirs and family histories of people who had lived and travelled on the road, as well as information on construction and reconstruction that was done on the road over its 150-year history. In the end, the book, though centred on the road, really describes the development of the whole district, said Smith.
“One of the most interesting things in terms of what I discovered in research was where the road actually went,” revealed Smith. “As it turned out, there was a lot of misinformation that had been repeated over the years.”
The 172 kilometres of road that began in Washago was believed by many to have ended in North Bay, by way of Sundridge, South River, Trout Creek and Powassan. However, Smith could find zero evidence to support the very northern portion of the route. After digging a little deeper, what she did find was that north of Burk’s Falls, instead of heading towards Sundridge, the Muskoka Colonization Road actually veered northwest to the now almost non-existent communities of Uplands, Granite Hill and Alsace, before ending in the Village of Nipissing.
This new information and some never-before-published historic pictures gives the Muskoka’s Main Street an appeal to not only those who are new to Muskoka’s history, but those who believed they already knew all there was to know. And, as it turns out, there is a lot you can learn from a road.
“I think the biggest thing we can learn is how different Muskoka was at that time,” said Smith. “We can learn about how, not so long ago, it was complete raw wilderness. We can learn how, contrary to today where there is some of the most expensive real estate in Ontario, if not Canada, in this region, land was given away for free, so a huge social contrast there in terms of how things operated, how things worked, how things were. We can learn just how hard it was to live in this district, compared to today, and we can learn a lot about the people who arrived to shape this district.”
Though much of the original Muskoka Colonization Road has fallen into disuse as the road was straightened, leveled and flattened for automobiles, sections of Highway 11 still follow it and, as expected, it continues to exist as the present-day main streets of all the communities it passed through, including Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville.
Despite this evolution into a series of main streets, highway sections, backroads and trails, Smith calls it “one of the most successful of Ontario’s colonization roads.”
“It survived so many things,” explained Smith. “It survived the logging era; it survived the steamship era; it survived even the era of the great Muskoka resorts. It survived when other colonization roads did not because it happened to have the fortune of penetrating a district that was studded with these beautiful lakes and so it continued to be viable and important to the district. It also survived because it happened to be located in the midsection of what evolved into Highway 11, so it helped to join northern Ontario with southern Ontario.”
In Smith’s final chapter, she outlines where to find the Muskoka Road today, including the portions no longer used as roadways, but often as hiking or snowmobile trails.
“It is fascinating because there are actual sections of the road where you can stand there and they have not changed in 150 years,” said Smith. “You really, really get a view of what it was like back then.”
With the book and the help of an interactive Google map available on Smith’s website, leeanneckhardtsmith.com, interested readers can actually still travel most of the original Muskoka Colonization Road, though Smith warns not in one day.
“It’s fun and it’s a great adventure to go poking around in back roads. There are a lot of people who love to do that and so I’ve laid it out from one end to the other so if you’re interested in doing that kind of thing then I can show you where it is,” she said. “It would be hard to do in one day because you have to backtrack sometimes… but you could certainly do sections of it, depending on what part of the road you might be interested in or where your ties are to the district.”
Muskoka’s Main Street is published by Muskoka Books and can be found in bookstores and online at muskokabooks.ca.