The Bigwin is one of the original fleet of steam-powered boats that ferried settlers, farmers, trappers and tourists around the lakes of Ontario’s Muskoka district in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Before the roads were any good at all and everybody owned a car, these boats were critical to getting around the lakes.
When we last saw the Bigwin in 2009 she was sitting up on stilts under cover on the dock at Dorset. She had already been under renovation for seven years and she was looking pretty good. Most of the fir planking on her steel-frame hull had been replaced and her gleaming mahogany transom already presented a pleasing posterior aspect.
During its heyday the Bigwin was used to ferry vacationers and golfers to the famous Bigwin Island Resort, one of the most spectacular summer resorts in North America, and the location of choice for socialites and the well-to-do. It was the glory days of the extravagant summer holiday and her passengers included Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo, Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong, Clark Gable, the Rockefellers, Ernest Hemingway and H.G. Wells. Good times.
But economic conditions and changing vacation patterns conspired to doom the big island resort and, ultimately, the wooden water play toy that had served it so well. After years of neglect, the boat sat partially submerged on the bottom of her slip on the island at Bigwin Inn.
“But they couldn’t leave her there, you see, to crumble into scale.”
Over the past decade a coalition of Lake of Bays cottagers, residents and organizations have conducted a massive fundraising and restoration project to bring the SS Bigwin back to life. The boat was purchased in 1991 and stored in dry-dock until it was lowered into its present location (the village of Dorset) to begin restoration in August of 2002. Buoyed by the success of the Segwun, the Wanda III and the Wenonah II on Lake Muskoka, the Lake of Bays Marine Museum and Navigation Society has succeeded in its quest.
This part of Canada has a love affair with wooden boats of all kinds. The people up here spend millions restoring them and it’s not unusual to see spectacular specimens cruise by with happy occupants waving “g’day” from the water amidst acres of polished brass and mahogany. It’s fortunate that skilled craftsmen and women are available in this area for such a task. The SS Bigwin is 66′ in length with an 11′ 8″ beam and a depth of 6′ 1″. It has a registered weight of 25 tons. Being a bit of a fixer-upper, perhaps the Bigwin has simply been the biggest D.I.Y. project in these parts this century.
On Saturday, November 17, 2012, the SS Bigwin returned to the Lake of Bays for her first cruise since 1969, and passed her preliminary engine tests. She was officially launched in July, 2013, and today cruises can be booked on the ssbigwin.com website.