Down at the boathouse

Just in Time local history series

By Ian McKechnie

Boathouses have a long history here in Kawartha Lakes.

Ninety-five years ago the world was introduced to The Hardy Boys, a series of juvenile detective stories ghostwritten by prolific Canadian journalist Leslie McFarlane (1902-1977) under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon. The Secret of the Old Mill, published in 1927, saw the protagonists take ownership of a sleek new motorboat they christened The Sleuth, and many of the Hardy Boys’ subsequent adventures were launched from their boathouse on the fictitious Barmet Bay.

Boathouses have a long history here in Kawartha Lakes. For many, they hold special memories associated with life on the lake. Many people learned to swim in the shadows of a boathouse, while for others the sound of waves lapping against a moored motorboat brings to mind good times spent at the cottage. But boathouses could also court controversy. Within Lindsay, at least, they were often viewed as eyesores and opposition to them was a recurring theme in local politics.

The earliest boathouses were constructed to house canoes and other human-powered watercraft. One such facility was constructed in 1884 for the Lindsay Canoe Club, and was situated on the water at the end of Kent Street East. It was two storeys high with the second floor devoted to recreational pursuits. By the early 1900s, gasoline-powered vessels appeared and these would ultimately transform recreational boating throughout North America.

New boathouses soon sprang up along the lakes and rivers throughout the region. Sir Albert Edward Kemp (1858-1929), Canada’s erstwhile Minister of Militia and Defence, built a large cottage on Pigeon Lake, not far from Bobcaygeon, in 1914. Of course, the 8,400 square foot cottage was only part of the plan. “[The] Hon. Mr. Kemp will also build a huge boathouse in which to keep a fleet of canoes, skiffs, sail boats and launches,” reported the Lindsay Post on April 3, 1914, “and the usual equipment of a large up-to-date building of this kind will be included. The piers, slips, and docks for the boats will be built on a scale equal to the demands of the owner.”

Seven years earlier, in 1907, a boathouse-building boom was taking place at Sturgeon Point. W.A. Goodwin, who often depicted boathouses in his remarkable drawings, was constructing a modest structure to house his canoes. Meanwhile, his neighbours Joseph Flavelle and G.H. Hopkins were having new boathouses built to serve their respective cottages. Swannanoah, as the Flavelle boathouse was called, reflected the opulent architecture typical of the Edwardian era and featured a railing running around the perimeter of its second storey.

“One of the features of the boathouses back then is that guests would come to swim and you had to provide change houses,” explains Flavelle Barrett, a great-grandson of Sir Joseph Flavelle. Having changed into their swimsuits, young Flavelle and his contemporaries would run along the second storey of the family boathouse and plunge into Sturgeon Lake from the railing. (The Sturgeon Point boathouses have long been popular gathering spots. “Picnics were packed at the cottage and brought down to the dock,” Barrett says of a tradition common to his grandparents’ generation.)

Sturgeon Point wasn’t the only place where boathouse docks became places of fun and frivolity — occasionally with disastrous consequences. A Victoria Day celebration in front of a Dr. McAlpine’s Lindsay-area boathouse in 1898 literally went off with a bang when a firecracker found its way into a pile of gunpowder being used to set a charge in a small cannon. Some participants sustained serious injuries, and the celebration was postponed.

Less of a cause for celebration were the ongoing boathouse controversies that flared up in Lindsay at various points throughout the 20th century.

Thomas McConnell’s boathouse aroused complaints from one Thomas Killaby in the latter part of 1904 when McConnell decided to extend it right up to the street. “Mr. Killaby claimed that Mr. McConnell was at least six feet on the street line, and had expressed his intention to put up another extension next year,” the Lindsay Weekly Post reported on Dec. 9, 1904. Town council had had its eye on contentious boathouse construction for a while, with Herb Hartley being compelled to remove a boathouse from the same site the previous winter.

It would not be the last time riverside boathouses caused a stir. In the 1940s, the town removed ramshackle-looking structures that had been housing boats for decades and the landscape around them was gradually redeveloped into today’s McDonnell Park. Farther north, on the east bank of the Scugog at Rivera Park, several boathouses remained  into the 1970s. After much debate, these boathouses came down in the fall of 1978. Today, only a tiny handful of old wooden boathouses dot the shores of the Scugog River near Lindsay.

For generations, though, boathouses — like cottages themselves — were places to get away from it all. Doreen McKerracher remembers climbing to the tar-topped roof of a boathouse belonging to her sister-in-law’s family on Cameron Lake in the 1950s and 1960s. “Once up there we would unwind with a book and a drink,” she recalls. That boathouse is long gone, but the dozens of boathouses that survive throughout Kawartha Lakes still invite vacationers and local residents alike to escape the monotony of everyday life on their roofs, their docks — and yes, in the boats themselves.

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