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The Segwun Story

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R.M.S. Segwun

The Muskoka Lakes Navigation Company was formed in the late 1800’s to service the Muskoka area, which at the time was generally only accessible by water. Vacation time brought a mass of tourists and cottagers by train from Toronto to the Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst. It was then the responsibility of the Company to transfer these tourists and cottagers as well as cargo and mail throughout the lakes.

After the First World War Muskoka witnessed a dramatic increase in American visitors and tourists longing for a taste of the north.  The increase was so dramatic that the Company was forced to look for an immediate solution.  The company had to increase the size of the fleet to 7 steamers. Time was essentialgrand ladies of Muskoka and rather than commission a new steamer to be built they turned their focus on the old side paddler, Nippissing, that had been discarded and lay rotting at Gravenhurst since 1914.  Although in sorry shape, most of the super structure and iron hull was in good shape.  Two second hand reciprocating steam engines, a new Scotch boiler and a new stack were installed at the Muskoka Wharf through the winter of 1924. The next spring she was towed to the shipyards where the side paddles and pontoons were removed and the new screw shafts were installed.  The ship’s wheel, chime whistle and the original hand carved Phoenix which adorned the top of the Nippissing’s wheelhouse, were reinstalled on the new steamer.  Captain Bailey carved the original phoenix on the Nippissing. The refurbished Segwun was launched in June 1925 with Capt. A Peter Larson at the helm.  After her maiden Voyage she quickly gain the reputation as the fastest steamship of the line.  She held this honor until 1930 when it was rumored that the company had changed the propellers to purposely slow her down.  This was an attempt to save the reputation of the Sagamo, the Company’s flag ship, nicknamed Big Chief.

In 1925 the Sagamo was almost totally destroyed by fire. After big chief at Clevelandsher reconstruction the carved phoenix from the Segwun was moved to the Sagamo as a theme to her resurrection.  It remained on the Sagamo until the ship’s demise in the 1960’s.

After the disastrous fire on the passenger ship, the Noronic, in the Toronto harbour, the Canadian government tightened fire regulations on all passenger ships.  The cost of $127,496.00 for upgrading the Muskoka fleet proved to be too much for the company and like many others filed for bankruptcy on May 11, 1951. A public outcry followed the bankruptcy and because the ships were never more than a mile off shore, the Canadian government eased up slightly and allowed the ships to continue operating with two thirds of the renovations complete. The Muskoka Lakes Navigation Company never recovered from this ordeal and after serving Muskoka for 52 years the company was sold to the new Gravenhurst Steamships Ltd.

With new road construction at an all time high in the area and the cancellation of the mail contracts the newly formed company was headed for desperate times.  It was not unusual to see the decks of the steamers empty on their routes. Thethrough the narrows company ran into another hardship during the summer of 1958 when the Segwun ran aground on Gull Rocks Shoal smashing both propellers putting her out of commission for the rest of the summer.  After the Sagamo completed her last trip on Labour Day of 1958, the company announced that it would cease operations due to financial difficulties.  The steamboat era was at an end in Canada. 

In 1959 two Gravenhurst businessmen, George Morrison and Jack Vincent bought the assets of the company with plans to scrap the Segwun, Cherokee and turn the Sagamo into a floating restaurant.  This plan changed when the Sagamo burned at the Gravenhurst dock.  Their eyes turned to the Segwun as the floating restaurant sparing her once more.

The townspeople of Gravenhurst began to realize the historical significance of these ships to their heritage and put their hearts and soul into a last effort to save one of these ships that served them so well.  In 1962 the Segwun was donated to the town.  The Segwun remained a museum until 1972 but her true fate was sealed 3 years earlier.  A young marine stampengineer John B. Coulter, who had worked on the Segwun as a boy, had grandiose thoughts of the Segwun sailing again.  But again, time was running out as pinhole leaks were noticed in the iron hull.  A 10-year fund raising effort was launched to bring the Segwun back to standards.  On her shakedown cruise a small obsolete pressure valve was found leaking.  After a desperate search for a replacement went dry, a new valve was found by chance on the Tugboat Ned Hanlan, which was on display in Exhibition Park, Toronto.  The old valve was switched for the new.

The reconstruction of the iron hull started in 1972 and on June 1, 1974 she was launched as the Royal Mail Ship Segwun with Pierre Elliot Trudeau doing the honors.  The townspeople struggled to keep funds coming in until 1981 when she was granted her certificate of operation by the government.  The grand old lady was back in service carrying passengers though the lakes.

By John Murden

A letter from Rose Vincent

Mr. Murden, my name is Rosemarie Vincent, daughter of Jack and Marie Vincent.
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> I came across your website the other day and read with interest the article on the steamships. Many things in it interested me. Your mention of the fire on the Noronic ... my Aunt Char was the nurse on the Noronic the night it burned and my mother was visiting her ... both were on ship that night and were lucky to survive.
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> Then I saw my father's name with reference to the Sagamo, Segwun and Cherokee. Although I was quite young when Dad and George bought the Muskoka Steamship Lines, I have many fond memories of the ships along with all the discussions Dad and I had over the years. The three ships were my playground as a child, as I spent much time down at the marina with Dad. My brother and I used to come home covered in coal dust from playing hide and seek. I was on the Sagamo on its final sail across Muskoka Bay from the Steamship docks to the Marina docks and we have a picture of one of my cousins and I at helm.
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> My memories and knowledge differ somewhat from what is in your article about the three ships. When they were purchased, the Cherokee was badly vandalized. At that time, Dad also owned a sawmill in Bracebridge, and he and George stripped down the Cherokee so it could be used to bring up logs from the bottom of Muskoka Lake, then brought the other two boats over to the Marina . What a glorious day that was. The Sagamo was then turned into a restaurant and the Segwun was a museum. I do not recall the Segwun ever being a restaurant, although that may have happened in later times. In 1962, George and Dad donated the Segwun to the Town of Gravenhurst for a dollar (that dollar still exists), the only condition being that it remain docked in Gravenhurst. The Sagamo burned in 1969, and by that time, we were living in Scarborough. I was sitting at the kitchen table with Dad when he received a call from someone in Gravenhurst to ask his input on making the Segwun lakeworthy again. He got quite a chuckle out of it, and wished them the best of luck.
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> One of my last best memories with my father was in the late spring of 1981, just a weeks before he passed away. We had heard they were to take the Segwun out for a test spin and were on the dock at our cottage when we heard the whistle blow. Dad was so excited. We called mom and one of my cousins, jumped in our boat and spent the next couple of hours following the Segwun. What a glorious evening, and how happy Dad was to see the old girl operating again.
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> I was thrilled to see Dad mentioned in your article ... many do not remember the role he played. Few people also know he and my Uncle Henry (Fry) were instrumental in the Canadian government purchasing the United Church manse and giving it to the Chinese government in memory of Norman Bethune. Uncle Hank was on the Board at the Church and he told Dad the Church was selling the manse. Dad worked with Dick Jolliffe, who had grown up the son of missionaries in China. Dick had a brother who was Minister of Foreign Affairs at that time and the Canadian government was opening up relations with China. Dad went to Dick with the idea of Bethune House and the rest is history.
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> I love Gravenhurst and Muskoka dearly, and have always been proud of the contribution Dad made to the tourist draw of the town. I wanted to thank you for mentioning him on your website
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> Rose Vincent

 


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