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The Night Prospect House Died

November 27, 2017


Prospect HouseThe famed resort called Prospect House was once the heart and soul of the tiny village of Port Sandfield. When it died, one tragic night in October 1916, it sent shock waves through the Muskoka resort community.

Port Sandfield began as a narrow, sandy isthmus just barely separating Lake Rosseau from Lake Joseph. It was remarked upon in the journals of Professor John Campbell and his friend James Bain, the founders of the celebrated Muskoka Club who found it (and Lake Joseph) after a lengthy search in a rowing skiff in 1861. The site was then christened Sandy Portage. Periodically, members of the Club would camp there and occasionally they uncovered artifacts such as arrowheads and tomahawks, which showed that native people had visited there long before them.

The site might simply have remained Sandy Portage – a short, easy trek of a few yards between the two lakes – except that tourists were arriving by the end of the decade. The Ontario Government had decided to open up Muskoka as a new haven for settlers and farmers. The Free Land Act had been passed in 1868 and the following year A.P. Cockburn, that tireless promoter of Muskoka, put a small steamboat, Waubamik, on Lake Rosseau to ply between the indigenous village of Port Carling and the Ashdown settlement, just north of Lake Rosseau. Change was in the air!

A.P. Cockburn had been calling for navigation improvements on the Muskoka Lakes as early as 1865, but it was not until 1869 that the Ontario Government, then headed by Premier John Sandfield MacDonald, finally got around to doing anything. They first decided to build a lock on the Indian River, past the Baisong Rapids, where Port Carling stands today. Early in 1870 it was resolved that Lake Joseph must also be made accessible for steamboat travel. Government engineers then studied the Joseph River, the natural link between the two lakes, and decided that it would be very expensive to remove the boulders and blast out a channel through the granite ridges there. Instead, they surveyed a short canal across Sandy Portage, which would entail no blasting and require no locks.

Work at Sandy Portage was still underway in September 1870 when Premier MacDonald and several members of his Cabinet arrived aboard the Waubamik on a tour of inspection. The gentlemen lit a bonfire, baked some potatoes, sang songs and tented down for the night. But a conviction grew that the new canal site needed a proper name and that chosen was “Port Sandfield,” in honour of Premier MacDonald. A plank was trimmed and the letters hacked out and the makeshift sign was then nailed to a tree facing the canal site. Three cheers erupted and the gentlemen sailed away on the Waubamik. Thus, Port Sandfield was born.

The canal was officially opened in September 1871, but it proved too shallow for the steamer Wenonah to pass through, so more dredging was needed. A bridge was built across the canal in 1876, but otherwise nothing much happened at the site during the next ten years, except that Enoch Cox, an English settler, took up land with his family near the canal and built a sawmill there around 1878.

By then small groups of tourists, mostly campers and sportsmen, were arriving aboard the steamers in the summertime. Even more surprising, a flamboyant Yankee named William Pratt had already opened a large resort at the head of Lake Rosseau to accommodate them. A second hotel had been opened in 1872 at Port Cockburn, at the head of Lake Joseph, and in 1879 Richard Penson had established a third one, Ferndale House, on the south shore of Lake Rosseau. A.P. Cockburn was actively encouraging local settlers to open boarding houses for the summer visitors.

So it was that Enoch Cox and his wife decided to try the resort business. They erected a barnlike, two-storey wooden building enhanced by a wide verandah across the front. It directly faced the canal on the north side and was optimistically named Prospect House. Its prospects soon proved very good. The economy was prospering in the early 1880s and word was getting out in places such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit that the Muskoka highlands were a delightful place for city-weary people to get some fresh air, go hunting and fishing, and generally “get back to nature.”

According to the memoirs of Miss Fanny Cox, who wrote under the pseudonym of Anne Hathaway, the first sportsmen at the Prospect House arrived in the spring of 1882, asking if the family could put them up. The Coxes hardly knew what to say. They pointed out that the hotel wasn’t finished, but the young men made light of the problems and proved very easy to satisfy. They kept themselves entertained by hiking and fishing or “bathing” at the little beach on the Lake Joseph side of the peninsula. Evenings were spent with singing around the campfire or card games in the hotel lounge. Starting in 1887, the hotel would sometimes arrange charter cruises on the little steamer Edith May, which was owned by Captain John Rogers, the village cartographer.

The hotel grew rapidly and was soon taking 100 guests. Next came a post office, then a telegraph office, a boathouse with skiffs and canoes to rent, tennis courts and a bowling green. A dance hall with live music was added and shady walks with steps down to the canal. Of course, this all brought Port Sandfield to life. A quaint little church, St. George’s, was built across the road. A school, a store and a boat livery were soon opened and in 1905 a second wing was added to the hotel, which was now taking 200 guests at rates of $2.00 to $2.50 a day. In 1888 Port Sandfield hosted its first boating regatta with scores of water craft – canoes, punts, rowboats, sailboats and steam yachts – holding races that attracted hundreds of spectators. In 1898 it received its first royal guests, the Earl of Aberdeen – then Governor General – and his countess, who arrived by the steamer Medora.

Port Sandfield was now one of the liveliest summer communities on the Muskoka Lakes and there were soon five other small resorts, but these were boarding houses which did not offer serious competition to Prospect House. In 1894 Elgin House was opened, just across the bay. The hotel’s owner, Mr. Love, had extensive room for expansion and he presently created a golf course. But during the glory days there was room for everybody.

The glory days, alas, did not last. A brief depression dampened the economy in 1913 and in 1914 the Great War broke out in Europe. Men became scarce in Muskoka, luxuries were curtailed and frivolous holidays were less in fashion. Rather ominously, the Summit House at Port Cockburn went up in flames in October 1915.

Then it happened. In the early morning of October 16, 1916, fire struck the highly flammable, pine-built Prospect House. Firefighters raced to the scene but the blaze was already an inferno that soon reduced the big hotel to a heap of glowing cinders. The building was insured for only $8,000 and wartime was a poor time to consider rebuilding. After 34 seasons, the majestic Prospect House was gone.

Unlike Port Cockburn, Port Sandfield survived the loss of its great hotel. The smaller resorts carried on into the 1920s and only gradually died out. The church still survives, a large marina operates there, and a grocery store, Silver Stream Farm Market, now stands at the hotel site. But Prospect House was never rebuilt and Port Sandfield has never been the same.

Richard Tatley, Archives Volunteer