S.S. Bigwin: The history of a legendary Muskoka ship

The S.S. Bigwin docked in front of a mountain landscape Photo by Herman Wong, courtesy of Jim Speirs

A legendary Muskoka ship with over 100 years of history finally set sail for its first full season in four years this summer.

The S.S. Bigwin is a wooden ferry on Lake of Bays, Ont., that takes passengers on a roundtrip between the Dorset Marine Museum and Bigwin Island, or between the museum and Dwight Beach. It docked indefinitely at the start of the pandemic, and in 2022, after the installation of new watertight walls to fit Transport Canada guidelines, it was able to continue sailing for the latter half of the summer. Now, in 2023, the ferry is doing a full season of regular trips from May to October.

Chuck McClelland is a Dorset resident and has been one of the ship’s captains for four years. He has always had a fascination for wooden boats: he restores canoes in his free time, he admires the aesthetic of wood on the water, and he loves how wooden canoes handle in comparison to fibreglass ones.

“Wooden boats have character and soul. They seem to know what you want,” he says.

During round trips captaining the ferry, he likes to tell passengers about the rich history of the S.S. Bigwin and its ties to the economic development of Dorset and Lake of Bays. From being a passenger in its final years on the water in the 1960s, to becoming a deckhand in the 2010s after witnessing the tail end of a two-decade restoration process, McClelland has been around for much of the boat’s history. 

“I saw it sitting there in the boathouse for many years, and I watched it go down,” he says. “It was half underwater when they went to pull it out—it turned on its side and sank.”

The S.S. Bigwin was first built in 1910 by Polson Iron Works as a private yacht for Belle Isle owner, James Kuhn. It was a 66-foot-long, 11.5-foot-wide wooden beast weighing around 35 tonnes with ballast water and equipped with a steam engine. Kuhn commissioned it as a gift for his wife and named it the S.S. Ella Mary after her. 

That same year, Michigan entrepreneur and Huntsville Tannery owner Charles Shaw started construction on a spiteful project: the Bigwin Inn. He felt scorned by the Wawa Hotel, the first major luxurious hotel in the area, which became so successful after his financial investments that they overbooked his private suite.

“He started building the inn in 1910, it took 10 years because of labour shortages during the First World War, and it opened in 1920 to huge acclaim,” McClelland says. “It quickly became the biggest summer destination in eastern North America.”

The inn featured covered walkways between buildings, a dance hall that could accommodate over 1,000 people for regular Big Band performances, and a separate dining room for nannies and infants. It was also one of the first full concrete buildings on Lake of Bays—Shaw wanted to keep it from burning down, a fate the Wawa Hotel would meet in 1923.

“Everything was top notch, and nothing was too good for Shaw’s guests. They were pampered,” McClelland says.

James Kuhn and his wife sailed the S.S. Ella Mary on their Huntsville lake for around 15 years until they went bankrupt following a banking scandal. They were forced to sell the boat. Seeing an opportunity to improve the prestige of his hotel, Shaw bought it, had a crew remove it from the water to board it on the railways he owned, transport it more than 11 km away, and put it in Lake of Bays. He renamed the vessel to the S.S. Bigwin.

The inn’s popularity skyrocketed with the new addition. The ferry went on lake tours with celebrity passengers such as H.G. Wells, Greta Garbo, Louis Armstrong, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as the heads of several big motor companies, multiple provincial premiers, and former UK prime minister Winston Churchill.

Bigwin Inn quickly became the biggest inn in the British commonwealth, but not for long; it, too, went bankrupt by the late 1960s. Many smaller resorts began competing with them, and the upkeep costs for 250 staff were not being offset by revenue from the inn’s 500 rooms. The growth of popular entertainment, such as TV shows and movies, also meant guests were pulled away from the inn’s shows and cruises.

“It was getting too big for its britches,” McClelland says. “The era of large Muskoka hotels was over.”

In the late 1960s, a local condominium corporation bought the inn to build condos and a golf course, but they didn’t know what to do with the S.S. Bigwin. They tore down its dedicated boathouse but thought the boat was beyond repair—given the last half a century of technological advancements, they didn’t think it was worth fixing. 

They let it sink half underwater and fall on its side over the next two decades. This became a liability, so they sold it to the Lake of Bays Heritage Foundation in 1991 for $1.

“The heritage foundation lifted it out of the water and realized that it was going to be a whole lot more than a coat of paint and a tank of diesel to get that thing going,” McClelland says, adding that the only salvageable piece was the steel frame. “It sat on a truck over in a construction yard in Dwight for ten years.”

A crane lifting the dilapidated S.S. Bigwin out of the water
Photo courtesy of Jim Speirs

In 1999, Jeff Gabura, who had recently moved from Kawagama to Lake of Bays, was waiting for his wife to get back from the grocery store when he decided to strike up a conversation with a boater by the nearby docks. The conversation eventually steered towards the storage-bound S.S. Bigwin. Gabura, curious, investigated the boat, and he knew at first glance he wanted to restore it as a means of contributing to the community.

“It’s a piece of Canadian heritage,” Gabura says. “All these lakes were settled by having steamboats on them. There were around 12 steamboats in commercial operation on the lake back then, and to have one of them still exist to show future generations is well worth the investment.”

Gabura played a crucial role in kick-starting the project. He partnered with the heritage foundation for two years to organize fundraising events, sell t-shirts and hats at Dorset’s annual wooden boat parades, and solicit donations through phone calls.

Reconstruction, however, was a constant struggle: “I was very naive getting into it. I thought I could wrap it up in a couple years with a few guys I knew. But everything is always more complex than it appears,” says Gabura.

Their monthly funds would net them around a dozen planks of wood and less than a day’s worth of work from a boat builder. It was also hard to show people the initial vision given the boat’s rotting remains. He says they raised more than a million dollars throughout the decade.

Gabura also tracked down the boat’s original steam engine—one of many pieces stolen from the wrecked ship before it was sold—after attending around ten steamboat shows across Ontario. He purchased it from a collector in Camp Borden for $25,000 to incorporate into the boat. After pouring another $25,000 into the overhaul, he realized operating a steamboat wasn’t feasible. Not only would they need to spend an extra $100,000 on a new boiler, but the need for a new deckhand and steam operator would increase costs and reduce their already small 30-passenger limit.

The project picked up steam when Matt Gaasenbeek stepped in as board chair, taking weight off Gabura’s shoulders. They converted the S.S. Bigwin into an electric boat with diesel backup engines, keeping the old engine for display and restoring the original wheelhouse, complete with mahogany walls. The Lake of Bays Marine Museum and Navigation Society, which took over the project from the heritage foundation in the late 2000s, also bought the old boathouse location to serve as its new permanent dock.

Its new electric engine was first tested in November 2012, and the revamped Bigwin set sail for its first full season the following July. It was a huge moment for Gabura: “The best thing was when we lifted it with a crane and put it into the water. That was very emotional—a goosebumps moment. I was so happy I finally got it to that point.”

Gabura and his team spent years working with Transport Canada to make the boat safe. It ultimately didn’t need to be grandfathered in because the museum made sure it followed all applicable regulations when it was rebuilt.

That was around the time McClelland started to take a serious interest in the boat. He started talking to Gabura about how they worked on it, and before he knew it, he was a deckhand. He then became a mate before taking the captain’s exam. 

When the pandemic hit and the boat was docked for two years, McClelland was devastated. In 2022, when they planned to sail again, they hit another obstacle: the boat was no longer considered a heritage vehicle, so it needed to conform to Transport Canada’s new modern standards, which included adding watertight bulkheads.

“We had to tear the inside of the boat apart and put in these floor-to-ceiling watertight walls with heavy wheeled doors like you see in the submarine movies,” he says. 

It took a year and cost $100,000, exhausting half the museum’s annual budget and pushing back their goal to build a permanent boathouse for the S.S. Bigwin.

Money is always tight for the museum—McClelland says the non-profit organization makes so little that they roll pennies—but the captains are all passionate about the job nonetheless.

While McClelland loves guiding people around the lake, even on days where he takes four trips in a row, it’s not something he plans to do forever. “My license is good for five more years, and I think I’ll stop when it runs out. I’m hoping by then there will be new blood. I want to play golf.”

Though Gabura no longer lives in Dorset, he returns to the lake annually to check up on the S.S. Bigwin. He says he’s proud of what he was able to accomplish, and he’s thankful for the people who continue to support it. “It’s a big commitment for people as volunteers, and the people that work there are so very into the boat. They love it and take care of it so well.”

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