Muskoka’s Ghost Towns
By: Andrew Hind & Maria Da Silva
Across Muskoka there are a number of communities that live on only in blurry black-and-white photos, dusty records in a forgotten municipal file or the fading memories of elderly individuals who remember communal glory days. With each passing year these ghost towns disappear further as farm lots become overgrown, buildings sag, and the last ancestors of the original settlers leave our world.
If you look hard enough, however, remnants of these vanishing villages can still be found. Here are three of Muskoka’s ghost towns begging for exploration and remembrance. Many more can be found within the pages of our book, Ghost Towns of Muskoka (Dundurn).
Germania was a farming hamlet that, as the name implies, was settled around 1870 by people of Germanic origin with dreams of transforming the forest into fields of swaying wheat. Like most ghost towns, Germania only lives on in the fading memories of those few who remember its glory days.
1900 would have seen at the height of its fortunes. It boasted a mill, a church (built in 1876) and school (built 1888), blacksmith shop and general store. Who could have known that within two or three generations the community would for all intents and purposes have disappeared? There was no one, dramatic event that spelled the doom of Germania as a community. Instead, it was just a slow sagging of fortunes that played out over half a century.
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize it as a village at all, but reminders of Germania’s proud past do remain, if you know where to look.
One of the few original buildings still standing is the Gilbert Lutheran Church. The building is still heated by an old wood stove, an original land deed for the property hangs proudly on the wall, the pews are worn by generations of faithful worshippers, and music from a century-old organ still fills the room during services held in the summer.
Surrounding the church with the souls of bygone congregations is a small cemetery, the final resting place for the families that founded the community. Hidden in the foliage along the cemetery’s edges is the simple stone of a young woman. Pregnant out of wedlock and shamed by her neighbours, she walked into Weissmuller Lake and drowned herself in its depths. Having committed suicide, she was not afforded the right or dignity of a proper headstone among the proud stones of Germania’s deceased, so she was laid to rest in a distant corner of the grounds with only a simple marker to remind us of her passing.
Directly across from the cemetery is a 19th century farmhouse. Though the farm was once prosperous, with extensive orchards, a dairy herd and acres of grain, little beyond the historic home remains today. Even the house has been greatly reduced in size over the decades, so that its current modest size does little to hint at the prosperity of its former owners.
The schoolhouse is located just a short distance west of the crossroads. Time took a terrible toll, so that in the winter of 2013 it partly collapsed under the weight of heavy snowfall. Debris of all sorts—reminders of decades past—remains inside, while rusting playground equipment sits silent in the yard.
To Get There: Germania is located at the intersection of Blackmore Road and Germania Road, south of Highway 118.
Swords: The few remaining buildings in the hamlet of Swords are like tombstones, marking the community’s passing. The old general store is weathered and abandoned and, as if caught in a time warp, product advertisements dating back to the 1940s are displayed in the windows. Further down the road, several abandoned homes hide behind a wall of foliage, leaning wearily with age. A lonely school-house sits forlornly in a clearing alongside the road. These buildings, neglected and sad though they may be, are actually the lucky ones. They have survived where many other buildings dating back to Swords’ heyday in the early 1900s are long gone. The railway station, the Maple Lake Hotel, numerous homes and farms, the mill—all vanished.
Swords—or more properly, Maple Lake, as it was then known— was born virtually overnight. When the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway (OA&PSR) passed through in 1891 the lives of local settlers were transformed. The railway allowed the area to be opened to lumber interests, and in 1894 the Long Lake Lumber Company moved in to harvest the trees. The logging company built a general store and a number of homes for mill-hands were built just south of the tracks. Within a few years a real village had emerged. There were more than a dozen homes, a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and a summer hotel, the Maple Lake Hotel, which catered to American tourists hungry for a real Canadian wilderness experience while also quenching the thirst of local loggers in its barroom.
Among the most prominent of the townsfolk were the Sword clan, who owned the inn and eventually also purchased the store from the Long Lake Lumber Company. Indeed, they were so prominent that the village would change its name to Swords to honour them.
Fortunes changed quickly, however. The timber was largely played out by 1930, which resulted in the closing of sawmill and the loss of many valuable jobs. Around the same time the Maple Lake Hotel closed due to lack of business. With the hamlet deprived of its two main sources of income, Swords stagnated and people began to move away in search of new opportunities. By the 1950s the village had all-but expired. Since then, each passing decade sees the former village merge further into the mists of time.
To Get There: Swords is found along Swords/Tally-Ho Road, which runs between Highways 141 and 518.
Lewisham is a ghost town inhabited only by wildlife and, if you listen carefully, by the echoes of the voices of people who have long since departed. These faint voices collectively tell the story of the village that developed amongst the swamps and forests here.
The first settlers entered the area in the 1870s. Eventually, there would be as many as 25 families stretched out along the primitive roads. Little more than two tire tracks veering around rocks and swamps, these roads would become all-but impassable each spring as wagon wheels would sink axle-deep in the mud. The people of Lewisham never enjoyed any real bounty from their bush farms. Most struggled at the best of times, and to make enough money to scrape by the men of the community spent winters working in logging camps. The feeble comforts that the people of Lewisham enjoyed were almost entirely dependent on the presence of lumber companies.
And yet the villagers endured, never giving up hope that better days were around the corner. The early 1890s was probably the heyday of the community: it was home to almost 100 people, boasted a handful of community buildings that served as gel binding the people together, and between logging and growing potatoes in their fields the settlers had enough to get by on.
Decline began to set around the dawn of the new century. By then, the lumber was rapidly being depleted and homesteaders were growing frustrated with farms that were marginal at best. Gradually families began to move to less remote, more forgiving locations. By 1940 it was abandoned.
Visiting the site of Lewisham today, some 50 years after the last resident abandoned his bush farm, reveals little of the community’s past. Most remnants of the settlement are now lost in the dense brush and tall grasses, or have fallen victim to time and the elements. The store and church were torn down long ago, and the sawmill was sold and moved to another location. The only remaining building is the former schoolhouse, which remains in seasonal use as a hunt camp. Just off to the side is the cemetery, which marks where the church would have stood. Most of the markers have sunk into the ground ages ago, leaving only a pair of markers of recent vintage and a commemorative stone plaque to remind anyone that this was once consecrated land and the final resting place of many hardworking pioneer settlers.
To Get There: Lewisham is found at the end of long dirt road—Lewisham Road—which runs south off Merkley Road east of Barkway.