Image for Rising from the Ashes: The Phoenix of Muskoka’s Steamships

Rising from the Ashes: The Phoenix of Muskoka’s Steamships

October 30, 2017


phoenix with Norm RaffteryThe phoenix, a mythical bird, is destroyed by fire, but always manages to rise again from the ashes. The phoenix is the universal symbol of rebirth.

It is said that it builds a nest of cinnamon sticks, and lights them on fire — consequently, both the nest and the bird burn to ashes. A new baby phoenix rises from these ashes, and embalms and stores the ashes of the old phoenix in an egg of myrrh. The phoenix can also regenerate parts of its body when wounded; thus continues the properties of regeneration and rebirth.

Commodore George Bailey carved the original Phoenix to sit atop the reborn Nipissing [II] when she was launched in 1887. The first Nipissing had burned on August 3, 1886. When Nipissing burned, plans were immediately made to replace her. By the spring of 1887, a new Nipissing [II] was launched in Gravenhurst, practically an exact replica of the original.

The new ship, also a side wheeler, contained the original engines from Nipissing, which had been salvaged from the shipwreck. Thus a new steamboat had arisen from the ashes of the old. The Phoenix remained atop the ship’s wheel house for 27 years, until Nipissing [II] retired in the summer of 1914.

In 1924 the Muskoka Navigation Company needed a new steamer to complement the renewed success of its fleet. Instead of building a brand new ship, the company took full advantage of its resources by using the hull of Nipissing [II], creating RMS Segwun. She made her maiden voyage to Bracebridge on July 9, 1925 with the Phoenix adorning her wheel house.

On September of 1925, just two months after Segwun had made her maiden voyage, Sagamo burned at the dockside in Gravenhurst. Sagamo, the pride of the fleet, was quickly rebuilt and was ready for use again by the summer of 1926. As decoration for the resurrected ship, the Phoenix was transferred from the wheel house of Segwun to the pilot house of Sagamo.

In January of 1969, after the Phoenix had been riding the ships for 82 years, history once again repeated itself and Sagamo burned. The Phoenix was the first to go as it was located in the ship’s dinning room where the fire started.

R.M.S. Segwun was still in the water, having become a floating museum in 1962. Then on August 1, 1973, she was pulled out of the water on the marine railway for the first time in 18 years. Restoration of the ship was going to be enormous task, but by the summer of 1974, Segwun was ready to float once again. On June 1, 1974 the steamer was launched again into Lake Muskoka.

In the summer of 1982, the Antique and Classic Boat Society commissioned Bill Hunnisett of Guelph to carve a new Phoenix, modelled after Captain Baileys original. The Phoenix wasdonated to the Navigation Company in 1987 in honour of the ship’s 100th anniversary. The result was a Phoenix rising out of the flames.

In 1997 Bill Hunnisett was once again commissioned to carve another Phoenix, as the one from 1987 had begun to badly deteriorate. On June 7, 1998 the latest Phoenix was unveiled at the Gravenhurst Wharf to once again sit atop Segwun. R.M.S. Segwun has now watched over Muskoka’s Steamers for 124 years, seeing fire and rebirth.

Another -former employee on several ships

Dana Commandant, Research Assistant, MBHC