Muskoka Steamship Memories


Ruth Giles,

Trent Severn Antique and Classic Boat Association


Captain William Henry GilesMy grandfather, William Henry Giles, was one of the steamship captains on

the Muskoka lakes in the early 1900s. His daughter, my Aunt Flora (Whalen), recently passed away from cancer. Before she passed, I told her about the "Big Cruise for a Big Cause". I mentioned to her that my husband, Tim, and I would be joining the cruise in our Lakefield Richardson, and that we would be travelling the waterways in her and Grandpa's honour. What I actually told her was that we would "do the old man proud".

The Giles family consisted of William Henry, Ethel Anne (Code), T. Norman (my father), Viola, Nellie, and Flora. They lived in a little white house with a white picket fence (Grandma Giles insisted on having a white picket fence!) in the village of Rosseau, Ontario, on what is now Highway 141. Working on the steamships helped keep the Giles family afloat (no pun intended) during the summer months. The burgeoning lumber industry also helped keep food on the table. During the winter months, Grandpa Giles would deliver the mail from Rosseau to Parry Sound by horse and cutter - a long, arduous journey in those days.

Aunt Flora married Don Whalen and together they opened The Parry Sound Furniture Store, which they operated for many years. Flora was a long standing member of St. James United Church in Parry Sound and a member of the Probus Club. She was also a Past Grand Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star.

While going through some of my Aunt's photo albums, I came across some "old" (circa 1938) pictures that she had taken while on day trips on the Segwun, Sagamo and Wenonah with her friends. She had also taken pictures of Clevelands House, Juddhaven, and the Elgin House resorts. She made footnotes about how they would dance on the boats to the music of the band that was playing and how sometimes they were greeted by a band playing on the shore as the boats approached the dock of these resorts. Other than my Aunt, I am not sure who some of the people in the photographs are, but they are definitely having a good time!

Captain William Henry Giles aboard the Medora, one of the steamships of Muskoka - early 1900sFamily lore has it that my Dad, T. Norman Giles, was born on one of the steamships. His birth is registered in Port Carling because, according to my Dad, that was the first port that the ship put in to after he was born and that is where the birth would have to be registered. Interestingly enough, the family never lived in Port Carling, so there may be truth to the tale after all?!

I have heard many stories over the years of the Eaton family’s involvement in, and love for, Muskoka and the surrounding communities. Dad would tell me about how they would get the Eaton's horses onto the steamships, and how well they were treated. He also told me that the Eaton's would host summer fun days, inviting all of the community in for some "fun in the sun" and a picnic. I even have a medal that my Dad won in 1922 for coming in 2nd in the Crab Race during one of these family fun days at Camp Kawandag which is now known as Rosseau College.

My husband, Tim Jackson, and our family, daughters Rebecca and Cassondra, have restored three classic wooden boats over the years. Tim is presently working on our fourth boat, a 1956 Shepherd. Aunt Flora knew of our passion for restoring these boats and bringing them back to their former glory. We, therefore, have several reasons for having joined the Big Cruise for a Big Cause event: the family connection to the steamships, our passion for the wooden antique boats, let alone, the "Cause" itself.

The Giles family feels a strong attachment to the Segwun and the Wenonah, knowing that they represent their sister steamships and a bygone era. They represent transportation for that era, the mail ships, supply ships and pleasure crafts. They were a lifeline.

Editor’s Note: Ruth submitted the information above well in advance of the Cruise. Here are her thoughts after the fact.

How could I possibly describe the depth of emotion that welled up inside of me when I watched, and followed, the Segwun and the Wenonah ll leave the dock? The Sagamo (which I swear had nine lives) was obviously not able to re-create the voyage she gileshad taken many times, but her sister ships did her proud!

I envisioned many times along the route, the ladies standing and walking on the decks of these steamships wearing long flowing gowns, tight at the waist and sashes blowing in the breeze. Or, in the 1930s , when the ladies wore the latest in fashion and enjoyed the live bands that played on the ships or at the resorts.

Being in the flotilla was an experience in itself, but viewing the pictures brings it all into perspective. It was a privilege to be part of this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Captain (Grandpa) Giles as well as all of the Captains and crews of the Muskoka steamships, past and present , were not only making a living but were making history . The Big Cruise for a Big Cause was history in the making and we were all part of it!

I think we "did the old man proud"!"

Photo credit: Courtesy of Ruth Giles and family
Photo captions:

One of:
flora.png: Flora (Giles ) Whalen-Captain William Henry Giles' daughter (my Aunt )
giles.png, William Henry Giles, Ethel Anne (Annie ) (Code ) Giles, T.Norman Giles (Ruth’s Dad ) in 1908
One of:
Captain William Henry Giles aboard the Medora, one of the steamships of Muskoka - early 1900sfloraOR
Captain William Henry Giles - early 1900s

The Giles family gathered at the bow of the Segwun for a family birthday