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C.O. Shaw Really Put Muskoka on the Map

C.O. Shaw Really Put Muskoka on the Map

Posted: 2022-06-29 13:55:53 By: jacob

Boyer's Modern History of Muskoka

By J. Patrick Boyer

One version of my MODERN HISTORY OF MUSKOKA is this monthly broadcast on Hunters Bay Radio accompanied by text and photographs on this website. But there’s a book version of my MODERN HISTORY, too, and I just launched another title in this series. It’s called Putting Muskoka on the Map / From Indigenous Wayfinding to Satellite Imaging.

            The official launch, at Gravenhurst Public Library Wednesday evening, showed deep interest in this colourful saga. From Samuel Champlain’s first map in 1615 to recent satellite images from space, our District’s exploration and mapping was neither quick nor easy. This new 317-page book, with 40 maps and a hundred pictures, presents a parade of human endurance and ingenuity, the indispensable role of First Nations, the dogged actions of military planners, treachery and betrayal, the aspirations of land developers, the evolving but essential relationship between First Nations and settlers, stellar Canadian map-maker David Thompson’s unique Muskoka role – and solving the mystery of why his invaluable maps appeared to have been “lost” just when they were needed most for orderly land settlement and the benefit of homesteaders.

Putting Muskoka on the Map is a comprehensive story, integrating global forces with local realities, including the tribulations of land surveyors trying to subdivide raw Canadian Shield landscape into a neat grid, obstacles facing road-builders on the same terrain, conflicting government land policies, and how the shift from logging and homesteading to a vacation economy put Muskoka on the continent’s social map.


Muskoka’s Place on North America’s Social Map

 And that is what this article is about – not Muskoka’s geographic map, but North America’s social map. Charles Orlando Shaw of Huntsville was not an explorer or map-maker. But when he opened the doors of Bigwin Inn on Lake of Bays in June 1920, Shaw made all those maps showing people how to reach Muskoka indispensable. People wanted to get here from everywhere.  

 Charles Orlando Shaw and wife Lavinia, with children and parrot, settling in at Huntsville.

            Let’s first put this extraordinary resort in its Muskoka context. No two lakes in our District are the same, and neither are any two resorts on those lakes. But generally speaking, there were two business models for developing a summer hotel in Muskoka. The first was essentially organic, the second, primarily corporate. The first came into existence when homesteaders began converting their log shanties into accommodation for hunting and fishing parties – the original sportsmen’s lodges – which the owner/operators gradually expanded and renovated as their hinterland standards meshed with the metropolitan expectations of wealthy guests.

            The second type were created by business interests as purpose-built, high-end resort facilities to push high-class vacationing, with examples like the The Royal Muskoka on Lake Rosseau, a deluxe venture by Muskoka Steamships Company and the Grand Trunk Railway, and the WaWa Hotel on Lake of Bays, largely funded by the Railway News Company. Bigwin Inn was the quintessential version of this second model, and became the gold standard for Muskoka summer resorts through the mid-20th Century.

Lavish fanfare accompanied Bigwin Inn’s long-awaited opening in 1920. The delays had been caused by a world war producing shortages of building material and workers, trailed in 1918 and 1919 by the Spanish Flu pandemic that claimed the lives of workers on the project, including the lead stonemason.


Bigwin Inn Exceptional in Size, Design, Style, and Culture

Exceptional in size, design, style, and culture, this new Lake of Bays resort hotel was the British Empire’s largest, accommodating over 500 guests. Top chefs, modern kitchens, and extensive staff – including an exclusive waitress at each table – could simultaneously serve meals to 750 diners in the fabulous “Indian Head” dining room, an immense, high-vaulted, 12-sided hall with crisp white linen tablecloths and chinaware embossed with the resort’s Indigenous-design logo on each of the matching tables. Elegance on a grand scale.

Bigwin Inn Dining Hall at breakfast time. Don’t be late!

Bigwin Farm in Huntsville sent garden fresh vegetables, fruit, and dairy products daily aboard Shaw’s steamships, which also picked up clean linen and towels laundered in town. This resort was an extensive, community-wide, North Muskoka operation. 

            Passengers arriving in comfort by steam-train from across the continent moved in stately fashion through Huntsville as a swing-bridge let their steamer pass. The canal dredged in 1887 between Fairy and Peninsula lakes enabled the large vessel to carry them through appealing fresh scenery. A waiting steam-train at North Portage gave them a unique adventure as “the smallest commercially operated railway in the world” climbed 103 feet over less than a mile to South Portage and the higher Lake of Bays. Here another steamship, usually the Iroquois or Mohawk Belle, continued the final leg of their journey to Bigwin Island. The resort’s spectacular structures came into view, grander and more extravagant than anything seen before in Muskoka.

The Portage Flyer delivers Bigwin guests to Mohawk Belle and Iroquois at South Portage.

            The enthralled guests then landed to well-orchestrated welcomes. Their trunks were discreetly moved by uniformed staff to their allotted spacious and well-appointed rooms in the East Lodge, West Lodge, or one of the free-standing stone cottages. Peace and privacy awaited in these rooms because guests’ quarters were separate from the Rotunda, Dancing Pavilion, and Dining Room – all of which could be reached by charmingly roofed pathways.

Guests can enjoy Romanesque views of Muskoka from this fireproof rotunda.

            Within two decades, here’s what steamboat captain and historian Levi Fraser said in the 1940s: “Bigwin Inn lends prestige to our District because it enjoys a continent-wide reputation as the largest and most attractive summer resort in America.” Captain Fraser knew first-hand about Bigwin Inn’s North America renown. He’d ferried thousands of notables across Lake of Bays to this summer paradise on an island.

Bigwin Steamboat Captain Tinkiss, with fellow-captain and historian Levi Fraser (right).

Levi Fraser’s 1940s history, republished in expanded edition by Muskoka Books in 2014.

S.S. Iroquois delivers Bigwin guests to island wharf.

           Because Bigwin Inn surpassed all expectations in high fashion, patrons of Shaw’s record-setting resort flocked north from his own native land, the United States. In 1942, Lieutenant Perry Deters and his wife arrived from Los Angeles, their first time in Canada. They’d never heard about Muskoka or its famous resort until a Chicago friend tipped them off. They were so surprised and impressed by lavish Bigwin Inn that, upon leaving, the Deters declared their first visit would not be their last. And it wasn’t.


Promoting Muskoka Vacations in a New Way

“It would seem,” concluded Fraser, “that Muskoka needs a more intensive and enthusiastic program or system for advertising its wares, to let more of the world know that this District ranks first among vacation centres of America.” The captain went on to list what made life in Muskoka enjoyable: sunshine, pure air, cool nights, pure spring water in abundance, plenty of choice food, beds in which a king or queen could relax to their heart’s content. One’s choice of sports, he added, included golf, tennis, bathing, swimming, sailing, canoeing, fishing, or hiking – the invigorations of a most leisurely vacation.

Poster for Bigwin Inn includes the resort’s First Nation logo in circle, lower third of picture.

Charles Shaw implemented Capt. Fraser’s recommendation for more intensive advertising. Promotional films shot at Bigwin were shown in American movie theatres, with flyers and newspaper adds in those cities drawing attention to them the same way Hollywood promoted new movies. By mid-century, two-thirds of Bigwin’s guests came from the United States. And if Americans liked it, Canadians did too.

            The on-island experience was so exceptional that, as Captain Fraser also observed, “guests have fallen into the habit of coming back year after year.” He named many of the era’s tycoons and celebrities as examples, a number having shown up 23 consecutive seasons!  By the same token, Shaw’s loyal and long-serving staff infused Bigwin Inn with familiar stability. The rich and famous were comfortably at home on their island paradise. Wanting to return the coming season, they knew to book well ahead.

            Of the many ways C.O. Shaw’s summer resort stood in a class of its own, four more help show the extent to which Bigwin Inn was unique.


Bigwin Inn and the Anglo-Canadian Concert Band

Many Muskoka resorts and dance halls won renown booking North America’s top musical entertainers, and several had house bands. Bigwin Inn was the only one with its own performance orchestra – The Anglo-Canadian Band of Huntsville. Shaw happily and unstintingly fostered formation of the Anglo-Canadian Concert Band from gifted musicians at his Huntsville tannery, poor immigrants from Italy with familiar but battered instruments and loads of talent. He bought them swank uniforms and expensive new instruments. An accomplished musician himself, he played first coronet. Shaw then imported more talent, including top clarinettist E.A. Wall Sr. from Chicago, and pre-eminent American band leader and composer Herbert L. Clarke. Shaw and Clark signed a five-year $75,000 contract – $2,850,000 in today’s values.  

Anglo-Canadian Band at Bigwin in 1920, with their afternoon concert program.

            Besides conducting, the renowned composer wrote many pieces while living in Huntsville, including “Lake of Bays,” “Twilight Dreams,” “Lavinia” (the name of Shaw’s wife, in her honour), and “Helen,” for Shaw’s granddaughter. Clarke’s lively march entitled simply “Bigwin” was played during the band’s acclaimed performance at 1919’s CNE grandstand show in Toronto as part of the resort’s pre-launch publicity.

Herbert L. Clarke and C.O. Shaw, proud principals of the Anglo-Canadian Concert Band.

            Huntsville’s Anglo-Canadian Band became internationally renowned, thanks to radio broadcasts across Canada and as far south as Miami – another way Charles Shaw was putting Muskoka on the social and cultural map of the continent. To everyone’s delight but nobody’s surprise, the next year, 1920, music by the Anglo-Canadian Concert Band was drifting across Lake of Bays from Bigwin Inn. A flotilla of stilled cottager canoes and motor boats joined those onshore enjoying a cultural experience in the spectacular natural setting.

Centrality of First Nations at Bigwin Inn

In addition to music, Shaw prominently featured First Nations at Bigwin Inn. His fulsome embrace of Indigenous realities began with the resort’s name honouring Chippewa Chief John Bigwind, with whom he became friends, and whose traditional Muskoka lands these were. It included Indigenous motifs worked into the resort’s woodwork, as well as in poured concrete designs. Bigwin Inn’s wigwam-canoe-and-island logo appeared on the daily printed activities newsletter for guests, on place settings, and on stationery. High end cultural activities featured live performances by internationally celebrated First Nation bass-baritone singer Os-Ke-Non-Ton.

Baritone Os-Ke-non-Ton puts on a show for guests between songs. C.O. Shaw is at right.

Stone, Concrete, and Safety from Fire

Already above, in passing, was that Bigwin Inn incorporated extensive stonework. Mention of stone is already exceptional for Muskoka resorts, because virtually all the summer hotels were built of wood. It was plentiful, served for summer-only buildings, was inexpensive in lumber-rich Muskoka District, and made for quick and easy construction.

Covered walkways make many buildings a single compound.

In a radical departure, Shaw not only had plenty of stonework on his Bigwin Island complex, but all major buildings were of poured concrete. That cost far more, and took exceptional effort transporting volumes of cement powder and tons of mainland gravel. But they were, unlike many fire-trap Muskoka resorts, virtually fire-proof. Human safety scored high in Shaw’s priorities. He’d earlier rebuilt his leather tanneries in Huntsville and Bracebridge of concrete, too.

Shaw, who’d do anything to prevent fire, had also implemented his idea to have many separate buildings for his resort, not a single big one – a full decade before a coroner recommended doing so after investigating the disastrous fire at the all-wood combined single-structure WaWa Hotel that killed a dozen people as it flash burned to the ground in less than half an hour.

And although C.O. didn’t play golf, he sure liked how the fairways of Bigwin’s 18-hole course, in addition to satisfying guests, served as firebreaks on the heavily wooded island.


Enjoying a Prohibition-Era Drink at a “Dry” Resort Hotel

Finally, Bigwin Inn opened just as Prohibition of the 1920s came in. But it was a “dry” hotel anyway because Charles Shaw’s prior experience with men staggering to work from the saloon of a large tannery he ran in Michigan made him an ardent prohibitionist. However, in keeping with the pattern of flaunting Prohibition both in Canada and the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties, Bigwin guests brought clandestine supplies of booze in their luggage and bellboys made fortunes in tips discreetly bringing ice and mix to their securely private rooms. At Bigwin Inn, one way or another, everything worked to perfection.

            Bigwin Inn deserved its stellar reputation. It was no run-of-the-mill addition to Muskoka’s existing array of holiday accommodations. The only other resort in its league was The Royal Muskoka on Lake Rosseau, a magnet to plutocrats for two decades before Shaw’s gem appeared on the Lake of Bays. Both well-publicized resorts catapulted the Muskoka vacation experience, already famous as early as the 1880s, into the stratosphere.

Charles Orlando Shaw, captain of Muskoka’s greatest summer hotel, in his Bigwin Inn office.

            This saga of Bigwin Inn will be published in an expanded version in the next book, entitled Muskokans Embrace the Roaring Twenties, of my MODERN HISTORY OF MUSKOKA series.