Skip to main content

Before Cars: Travel by Waterway

Black-and-white image of steamboat in lift lock with crowds of people looking on

Steamer Stoney Lake in Kirkfield Lift Lock, ca. 1907

Passenger trains and horse-drawn vehicles bearing tourists to their destinations were not the only means of pre-automotive transportation from which the cries of “are we there yet?” resounded. The question also echoed out across the waters of northwestern Kawartha Lakes from steamboats.

This part of Ontario is renowned for its beautiful lakes and rivers that together make up the world-famous Trent-Severn Waterway. Starting in the 1830s, steam-powered vessels plied these bodies of water, carrying both goods and people. The lumbering industry in particular made extensive use of steamboats and barges to bring logs from points farther north to sawmills in the south.

Efforts to link this chain of lakes and rivers by way of a canal system were frequently delayed by political inertia. Not until after the turn of the twentieth century did the Trent Canal open for traffic in northwestern Kawartha Lakes. By that point, the Toronto & Nipissing Railway and other lines had absorbed much of the commercial freight traffic previously handled by navigation companies.

Printed advertisement for steamboat company

Advertisement for Steamer Kawartha, 1907

Steamboats originally built to ship logs began to ship tourists instead. Vessels such as the Alice-Ethel, the Kawartha, and the Stoney Lake became frequent sights on the run between Fenelon Falls and Coboconk. Featuring two or three decks capable of accommodating throngs of excursionists, they quickly became instantly-recognizable symbols of the tourist industry in Kawartha Lakes.

With the enlargement of the locks at Rosedale so as to allow the larger boats to come into Balsam lake, our excursions will be greatly increased in number.

Watchman Warder August 24, 1899, Pg. 7

Colour image of lift lock with water in foreground and sunrise in background

Kirkfield Lift Locks, Trent Valley Canal, ca. 1910s

Until the Kirkfield lift lock opened for traffic in 1907, it was impossible to travel by water beyond Balsam Lake. The lift lock was a remarkable feat of engineering, and a host of excursions soon began passing through it under the watchful eye of lockmasters such as Billy Jobe and Washington Irwin.

Not too long before the lift lock opened, a newfangled vessel began appearing on the waters of northwestern Kawartha Lakes: the private pleasure yacht. Powered by gasoline engines, these slick and speedy craft gradually gained popularity among tourists and eventually spelled the end of the steamboat excursions.

Mr. T. Hogg’s fine gasoline launch was in town on Saturday. The launch hails from Mr. Hogg’s summer house at Balsam Lake and is one of the finest crafts on the Kawartha Lakes.

Lindsay Weekly Post July 13, 1906, Pg. 5

Black-and-white image of people in wooden motorboat at dock with lake in background

Charlie Faulkner and Guests, Falcon Lodge, Balsam Lake, ca. 1960s