Queen Elizabeth's Muskoka Moment
Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka
Over her unprecedented long reign, Queen Elizabeth set many records – the person who smelled more fresh paint, was presented with more bouquets, and engaged more heads of state and their millions of people, than any other person on planet Earth. Her Majesty’s 1959 royal tour of Muskoka-Parry Sound contributed its share to this unique accomplishment.
That year, Muskokans heard the Queen might make the first-ever official visit by a reigning monarch to the district, while in Canada to officially open, with American President Eisenhower, the St. Lawrence Seaway connecting ocean-going ships with Great Lakes commerce.
But, would she really come?
“On several occasions during the planning stage it appeared the Muskoka trip would be eliminated,” reported Member of Parliament Gordon Aiken to District newspapers, “because time available will be very short.”
Even after the tour was expanded to 45 days so the Queen could not only inaugurate the Seaway but also visit the entire country, a Muskoka appearance remained doubtful. “The time available in her itinerary,” warned Aiken, “is extremely short.” Translation: People, don’t get your hopes too high.
Muskokans had good reason to doubt their prospects for a royal visit.
1939 Royal Visit to Muskoka
Just two decades before, when Bracebridge was planning for a big anniversary, Mayor Ben McBride seemed delusional. He announced his hope that “the King and Queen would visit Bracebridge during the town’s jubilee year.” No reigning monarch had ever visited Canada, let alone dropped in on a small town.
Still, ambitious plans went ahead for many special events – a fireman’s tournament, band tattoo, field-day athletics, horse racing, picnicking, boat trips, dances, a pageant, bonfires, water sports, a Great War veterans’ reunion, and a mass religious service.
Momento of 1959 Royal Tour of Canada contained Queen Elizabeth’s full itinerary, including Muskoka. Boyer Family Archives
Then, on January 4, 1939, Mayor McBride’s unbelievable wish came true. Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth would not only make the first royal visit to Canada of a reigning monarch; they would visit Bracebridge on June 6 and cruise Lake Muskoka by steamboat in the season of the town’s jubilee.
At this news, ecstasy knew no bounds.
Rhapsodizing in its next issue how the royal visit “will be for the District the greatest event in our history,” the Muskoka Herald spoke of democratic liberty symbolized in the King. It would be an honour for Muskoka citizens to “show their loyalty” when the King and Queen “pass through our streets.”
And, by “coming at one of the most beautiful times of year,” the editor explained, this Muskoka segment would be centerpiece of any royal tour: “A morning spent in the quietness and beauty of the Muskoka Lakes will be very refreshing to the young Royal couple after so many days of constant journey and public appearances.”
The pace of preparations quickened. No detail was overlooked. Bell Telephone printed its 1939 Bracebridge phone book with the Royal Coat of Arms on the cover. A dozen organizing committees addressed finance, invitations, hospitality, transportation, sports, publicity, grounds, reception, events, decorations, program, and refreshments.
Through winter the town’s whirling dervishes swirled with exciting ideas for ever more activities. Bracebridge sports teams, cultural organizations, churches, businesses, and countless individuals directed themselves with noble purpose.
This festive focus on the royal celebration was perfect antidote to the Great Depression’s decade-long economic mire and Nazi Germany’s rising warlike ire.
A Promise Shattered
Then, as the town’s moment of destiny approached, the King and Queen’s visit to Muskoka was cancelled.
People were shocked. They felt hurt, then angry. The prime minister had promised there would be no alterations!
Muskoka’s mayors went to Ottawa and protested to him directly. The district’s newspaper editors addressed the public at large. But nothing could reinstate the visit or diminish the affront of stinging disappointment.
The regal couple would merely pass down Muskoka’s west side – at night – as the royal train whisked them from Sudbury to Windsor.
Not to be denied, thousands of fervent Muskokans streamed to where they might glimpse their king, or even just his train. They lined the tracks between MacTier and Bala. MacTier’s 700 astonished residents inhaled as another 8,000 people filled their village. As daylight turned to dusk, then dusk faded to black, they waited for hours in the dark.
Clearly, Muskokans’ monarchist sentiments remained unabated. Fostered over decades by the district’s loyalist societies, they’d turned out for the mass community celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the equally large all-denomination services of communal mourning upon her death in 1901, the turn-of-the-century Boer War in South Africa, the Great War in Europe a decade and a-half later. Muskokans, colonials in the British Empire, remained fascinated by royal celebrity.
That June night in 1939, hundreds glimpsed the King directly when he came out onto his coach’s viewing platform at the end of the train, to light up and puff his pipe during the royal train’s brief stop in MacTier. While taking on Muskoka water for its steam engine, people cheered. A few words were informally shouted. Then the train continued south into the night.
A big meal was made from those few crumbs.
1959 Royal Tour
Twenty years later, to prepare his bruised constituents against another disappointment, Member of Parliament Gordon Aiken played down Queen Elizabeth’s prospective 1959 tour. He characterized the Muskoka-Parry Sound visit as “really a side trip.”
Hearing about a possible visit, one old-timer who remembered the no-show in 1939, simply stated, “I’ll believe the Queen’s coming to Muskoka when I see her here with my own eyes.”
Still, the official printed program confirmed that Queen Elizabeth II would make a Royal Visit to Muskoka on Saturday, July 4, 1959.
Queen Elizabeth’s tour would, it was true, be brief. It would, as well, be late in the day. But it could be glorious, a Saturday in high summer Muskoka, our best season.
Muskokans plunged headlong into planning a local welcome. The royal visit topped the agenda for local councils. It animated organizations from the Royal Canadian Legion, Boy Scouts, and Girl Guides, to public schools and community bands.
Muskoka’s newspapers filled pages with program details, motorcade routes, and reports on plans shaping up.
Toronto dailies circulating in Muskoka that June carried news and photos of the royal tour’s early stages unfolding in Newfoundland and Quebec, next the historic Seaway opening. Such reporting fueled excitement in Muskoka to fever pitch.
Television was coming in and many Muskokans even watched footage of the Queen’s progress on their TV set or a neighbour’s, the black-and-white coverage broadcast via the single-channel universe of a CBC-affiliate, CKVR-TV in Barrie.
Now anticipation was palpable. Few skeptics remained. This could really happen.
Shaping a Unique Muskoka Event
The plan was for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to disembark from the Royal Yacht Britannia at the port of Collingwood, travel to Orillia, then enter the district on Highway 11, crossing at Severn Bridge. They would advance north to Gravenhurst for events at Gull Lake Park, then proceed to Torrance and board the Royal Train for the short run up to Parry Sound to rejoin the waiting Royal Yacht Britannia.
The call went out, through Muskoka’s Royal Canadian Legion branches and newspaper advertisements, for veterans to line the route of the royal motorcade. Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, Brownies, and Cubs began polishing and parading. Back-stage jockeying determined whose daughter would present flowers to the Queen. Women flocked to dress and hat shops.
Mayor Wanda Miller and Queen Elizabeth seriously watch Music on the Barge performance. Prince Phillip relaxes to enjoy it. Gravenhurst Archives
Focal point for the Gravenhurst visit was . . . a barge. The town’s musical community, propelled by band leader, newspaper editor, and head of the Gravenhurst Music Association, Hugh Clairmont, had been making good use of Gull Lake Park for Sunday evening concerts, the audience ensconced at water’s edge on the sloping bank facing musicians playing immediately off-shore on a barge.
The concept was inspired, the stage less so. Sometimes entertainers fell off the floating platform in the course of their performance. Ooops – splash! There goes the tuba player.
On the admirable pretext of Her Majesty’s dignity, Gravenhurst hired Ottawa architect Stanley White, who’d grown up in Gravenhurst, to design a barge with wider floor-space, more facilities, and stylish look.
The sculpted new stage, still a running attraction as “Music on the Barge” is performed Sunday evenings all summer, was officially opened for this historic occasion in 1959 by Mayor Wanda Miller, surrounded by the smell of drying paint, less than an hour before the Queen and Prince Philip reached Gull Lake Park.
As the regal tourists entered Muskoka with the royal flag flying from their vehicle, Ontario Provincial Police halted traffic in both directions. Thousands of people lining the shoulders of Highway 11 waved and won a smiling wave in return.
Gravenhurst was primed. Besides the barge, a new 30-foot flagpole had been erected at the town hall, numerous buildings along the royal route stood refreshed in new paint, bright red and yellow banners fluttered from the main street’s light standards, and the railway station near the Park sported a new two-tone paint job.
Arriving at one of Muskoka’s finest parks, the royal couple strolled into the midst of a large picnic. The atmosphere in Gull Lake Park was high-gear festive. Thousands were on hand. Hundreds had brought picnic baskets and found places shaded by tall pines.
Gravenhurst’s splendid new performance “barge” with attentive on-shore audience in Gull Lake Park hear Barrie Collegiate Band perform Handel’s Water Music. Boyer Family Archives
The glorious Saturday afternoon heat of early summer was perfectly moderated by a light breeze off the waters of Gull Lake, where water-skiers exhibited their talents for the Queen. Small boats, crowded with spectators wearing bathing suits and binoculars, filled the bay north of the barge.
On shore, the royals were invited by Wanda Miller to join the mayor and her daughter Ann-Louise and walk to the viewing dais near the lake. They advanced through a 20-foot wide cleared column lined by Legionnaires from Huntsville, Bracebridge, and Gravenhurst, uniformed staff of the Ontario Fire College, and uniformed members of the Bracebridge Lions Air Cadet Squadron.
Special spots in the Park were reserved for Scouts, Guides, Cubs, and Brownies but, otherwise, the thousands more present crowded wherever on tip-toe they could get their best view of the Queen.
A dozen Bracebridge Cubs and one Scout got a direct personal view when a picnic table, overloaded with eager spectators, collapsed just as the royal party approached. Her Majesty, turning to see what caused the commotion, smiled right at the nearby boys.
Largest Assembly in Muskoka History Hears “Water Music” from a Barge
The district’s first-ever official visit by a reigning monarch on that Saturday afternoon of July 4, 1959 attracted the largest crowd in the history of any community in Muskoka.
Formally attired elected representatives and their spouses were presented with dignity to the Queen and Prince Phillip on a special platform with red-white-and-blue bunting and fresh paint but, otherwise, informality was the keynote in this vacation paradise. Not a speech was made in the Queen’s presence all day. Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh signed the Gravenhurst guest book, “Elizabeth R.” and, simply, “Philip.”
The Barrie Collegiate Band, fresh from winning an international award and conducted by Canada’s renowned music personality Dr. Leslie Bell, now assembled on Gravenhurst’s splendid new barge, played Handle’s “Water Music” – a piece first heard at London in 1717 by King George I, where it was performed on a Thames River barge.
Cynthia Clairmont presented the Queen with a bouquet of wild-flowers collected from Muskoka woodlands and knee-deep in swamps, which captured Her Majesty’s true interest. Prince Philip chatted at ease with the seven-year-old, saying he had a daughter about her age back in England. “Why didn’t you bring her with you?” inquired the Gravenhurst girl. The Queen saved her husband by saying something about differences between Canadian and English school holidays.
The pleasures could have been extended, but the itinerary was tight.
Quickly reaching Torrance by motorcade along Highway 69 after leaving Gravenhurst, the royal couple left their limousine at the highway and walked between columns of Union Jacks to their waiting train at the station – amidst cheering and applause from the West Muskoka throng. This delightful moment inspired a renaming of the short street to “Queen’s Walk,” although today it’s seldom seen with the highway rerouted and the old station by-passed.
Reeve Archie Pain of Medora & Wood Townships escorts Queen Elizabeth from her limousine to waiting train at Torrance. The road would be renamed “Queen’s Walk.” Henry Fry Collection
In a welcoming gesture Reeve Archie Pain’s daughter Janet presented a bouquet to Her Majesty, plucking out one flower as she did so and handing it to Prince Philip who then wore it on his lapel.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and his wife Olive were landing at Muskoka Airport from Ottawa, greeted by Gordon and Marie Aiken and a group of Muskoka residents who’d arrived from Gravenhurst where the crowds were slowly dispersing. The Diefenbakers then motored through Bracebridge and Port Carling to Parry Sound.
At the same time, the royal train pulled into Parry Sound town, where the royals were greeted by Mayor Agnes Wing, another female mayor in Parry Sound-Muskoka welcoming a queen.
Theresa Pegahmagabow, attired in traditional Indian dress, handed Queen Elizabeth yet another bouquet. The girl attracted high interest and sustained conversation from the monarch. Francis Pegahmagabow, head of Theresa’s family, was not only Chief of the Parry Island Band but Canada’s most decorated aboriginal soldier of World War I.
Into the Setting Sun
The Queen’s Muskoka visit was at its end. As the sun set, Muskokans basked in an afterglow that would last a long time, while into the red western light the Queen and Canada’s prime minister sailed aboard Britannia across the Great Lakes to Chicago.
Now that sun has set forever.