masthead image

Muskoka Mills

History

Town site photo

Muskoka Mills or the mystery mill.

Source: Public Archives

Willam Hamilton, a merchant from Penetanguishene, purchased a 75-square mile timber limit in the mid 1850s near the mouth of the Musquash River and erected a sawmill. For Hamilton however luck would hardly be on his side. With a lumber trade waning economic circumstances quickly turned against him and he was forced to suspend operations indefinitely. Much of the lumber produced remained at the mill site, destined to sit and rot.

Eventually Hamilton was able to sell some of his timber, but payment was not always assured. In one instance, the town of Owen Sound re-planked a good portion of its sidewalks on poor Hamilton's back, thoroughly stiffing him in process. Finally he sold the mill and limits for $16,000 to Charles Kelly of Hamilton, who was backed by investors from Chicago and Buffalo.

As unbelievable as it sounds, Hamilton's streak of bad luck didn't end with the sale. Kelly defaulted on the mortgage payments and the property was repossessed. With a $12,000 loss at hand, Hamilton was financially ruined. At a later date the mill and some of the limits were sold to J. Tyson, of Collingwood, but the mill remained inoperative.

Eventually Lewis Hotchkiss and J.C. Houghson jointly purchased some of the limits. The mill, by then in a poor state of repair, was extensively refurbished and enlarged significantly. The newly revamped mill quickly proved so successful that it was expanded to add a shingle and lath mills. In 1872, Anson G.P. Dodge, better known as Alphabet Dodge within Ontario's lumber circles, replaced Hotchkiss by buying his share for $40,000. The additional piece of real estate enabled Dodge to secure a cheaper transportation rate for his own timber. This he achieved by gaining the floating rights on the Musquash and Gordon river systems and hence a quicker route to the Georgian Bay, and his chief milling interest situated in Waubaushene. After Anson Dodge became insolvent his father, William Earl Dodge, acquired his share in the interest.

The venture was finally incorporated as the Muskoka Mills Lumber Co., on the 1st of September 1875, and operations were capitalized at $300,000. The firm's leadership changed as A.H. Campbell became president, while J.C.Hughson became superintendent of operations. Within three short years the firm would change hands again as Campbell and Hughson purchased Dodge's share in the mill. In 1884 Campbell became the principal owner of the company and increased the mill's productivity. By then the mill maintained a steady workforce of 125 men.

In 1867 as the mill reopened, the town site contained less than 20 company homes. The community counted approximately 130 souls. As production gradually stepped up more homes were added along with supporting buildings. By the time Campbell took over operations in 1884, Muskoka Mills contained a two-story schoolhouse, a company store and post office which opened in 1879. The school's top half doubled as a Union Church. Reverend William Melmer, a missionary, was posted at the site to attend to the flock The Rossin house, the community's guest house was Muskoka Mills only "hotel."

The mill property contained sheds, stables, a sawdust burner, an office and the company docks, which extended 20-30 feet (10 metres). The main dock spanned 800 yards (720 metres) and docked 11 tugs, as well as numerous scows. By the 1890's, 250 residents called this isolated spot home. Steamers called daily in the summer months, while during the winter months a weekly stage connected the community with the outside world.

However a dark cloud lay on the horizon. Sawdust dumped by the mill into the surrounding lakes and streams eventually decimated the spawning beds of the local fish population. With the rapid disappearance of the fish, angry residents complained to the government. After Campbell took over complete ownership of the mill in 1884, he was charged with polluting. By 1895, with all the pine harvested, Campbell, instead of obtaining new stands to cut, wound up his affairs and closed up the operations at Muskoka Mills. The following year the village was completely deserted.

For years afterward smoke and occasional fires broke out in the old village slowly consuming the old structures, one by one. Some locals believed a fire was smouldering underground. This was not as farfetched an idea as it seemed. The sawdust, left in a humid and packed environment eventually began to decompose and generate heat that became trapped and eventually culminated into a form of spontaneous combustion. Today the overgrown site offers some rotten timber, pilings, cellar holes, dock peers and a great deal of sawdust. The site is not accessible by any roads.

Was this Muskoka Mills?

The above photo, reproduced in numerous publications, and credited to the "Public Archives," is reportedly Muskoka Mills. We have been unable to find a corresponding record in the various databases. The National Archives has no records. The Ontario Archives has one record for Muskoka Mills, however the date given (1918) is long after the mill's demise, nor is the quality of this photo comparable to overall quality of this photographer's body of work.