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Tuesday Tales: Carrying the mail in Muskoka

January 23, 2018

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In the early 1860s there were few roads in the Muskoka area that were passable at any time of the year. Sometimes, mail delivery in Muskoka between villages, hamlets and settlements travelled by these treacherous roads and stagecoach in good weather and by horse drawn sled in winter. But as the settler population grew and the early logging industry expanded, another system of mail delivery evolved.

In the summer of 1866 AP Cockburn launched his steamship company on Lake Muskoka with its headquarters in Gravenhurst. His first ship, SS Wenonah started carrying the post that same summer. Cockburn had a contract to deliver mail once a week between Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Rosseau and Bala for $1.24 per trip. For the entire season, Cockburn was paid $12.40.

Two years later the delivery of mail in Muskoka had become much more structured and a schedule put in place. Every morning except Sunday, the steamer Ida Burton would depart Orillia at 9:30 am carrying mail for delivery to stagecoaches waiting at Washago. The stages would travel to Gravenhurst and hand the mail to the crew of SS Wenonah. The ship departed at 4:30 pm and delivered the mail to Bracebridge by 7 pm the same day.

Steamships that carried the mail were designated Royal Mail Ships or RMS. Carrying the mail on the Muskoka Lakes continued until 1954 when rural mail delivery was expanded to include the communities around the lakes.

The Muskoka region has experienced and annual influx of summer residents and tourists since the late 19th century. To accommodate these seasonal visitors, summer post offices were created at many locations across the region. These seasonal post offices operated only during the summer months and were often located at resorts served by steamships that carried the mail.

The earliest recorded summer post office was at Ferndale House on Lake Rosseau in 1887. This summer post office outlet continued to operate until 1967 with the only service interruptions during the summers of 1912 and 1916.

A complete list of summer post offices in Muskoka was compiled by Ms Susan Sheffield in her book – The Companion Guide to Muskoka Post Offices 1861-1999. This book is available through the Archives at the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society.

Today anyone wishing to commemorate the bygone era of steamships carrying the post can ‘mail’ a postcard or letter aboard RMS Segwun and the mail will be hand stamped with a special postmark depicting the service of steamers delivering the mail in Muskoka.

Authors: Jack McIrvine and Ray Windsor, Archives Volunteers